Last Sunday in Abuja, President Jonathan made an admission: Boko Haram has infiltrated several strata of government. During a critical time in his tenure, his speech at the 2012 Armed Forces Remembrance Day ceremony marked a change in rhetoric – for the first time, he has emphasised the gravity of the threat. How will this be met with a change in strategy?
Not just the intensification, but the portrayal of the intensification of the threat is revealing. And in this speech, it was augmented in two clear ways. First, Jonathan employed a worrying historical comparison as a point of reference:
“During the civil war, we knew and we could predict where the enemy was coming from…[their] calibre of weapon…but the challenge we have today is more complicated.”
Second, this lack of identity was compounded as he continued:
“Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won’t even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house.”
The horizontal and vertical dimensions at play show that, although anxiety has been heightened, the danger posed has evolved into something more vague and unrecognisable. Such representation has led many to believe members of Boko Haram are beyond human consideration – faceless, reified terrorists, worthy of violence.
To offer short-term solutions to a problem is to perpetuate its existence. Beneath Jonathan’s optimism in Nigeria’s ability to collectively overcome this challenge runs a logic more consistent with his previous speeches and heavy investment in security in this year’s budget. Following Boko Haram’s attack on the UN building in August, Jonathan largely outsourced the predicament as a common global problem and a “temporary setback”. On Sunday, he once again stressed “immediate challenges” faced by the country. But for a man with a doctorate in zoology, he must realise he is dealing with an entirely different kettle of fish.
Last week, Think Africa Press published a forecast that warned of Boko Haram’s potential to lead to increases in sectarian violence. In the states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno, this has sadly already materialised and the risk of escalation looms large.
Against this backdrop, it is important to realise terrorism is not a straightforwardly descriptive label – rather fittingly, it is a linguistic Trojan horse, and its application is extremely dangerous. It is riddled with reductive reasoning that encourages violence and exposes as much about those applying the label as it does about its intended subjects.
For the subjects of the term, it is instantly pejorative and excludes the possibility of any legitimate political, social, or economic grievance a group may have in favour of a narrow focus on security concerns.
For those applying the term, usually governments, it is a justificatory concept, one that plays on popular fears and ushers in measures that would otherwise have been objectionable. To be clear, the attacks occasioned by Boko Haram are unacceptable and deplorable. However, for governments, the idea of terrorism employs many outwardly-anaesthetised presuppositions, particularly with counter-terrorism policies. Already in the local government areas of Borno, Yobe, Niger and Plateau, a state of emergency has been declared. In these states, heavy-handed treatment risks alienating inhabitants.
And herein lies another problem with the concept. Terrorism brings with it theoretical obstructions. It largely puts security attacks beyond debate. Particularly in states of emergency, “balancing” welfare considerations – the suppression of a minority for the benefit of a majority - confuses the idea that equality, one of the foundation stones of democracy, is distributive and not aggregative. What is masked is essentially a process of exclusion.
Perceived or real, there is rising resentment in the north at a cycle of exploitation at the hands of the south. The existence of groups similar to Boko Haram ought not to be underplayed - the Maitatsine, Izalla, Quaddiriya, Tijjaniya, Derika and the Kablu have all broadened their support bases.
These membership levels should not be taken as a starting point. For those living in static societies in the north, who lack the hope and employment, the feeling of association may be more important than the message of the group itself.
Terrorism underpins many different avenues of hardships – from socio-economic to political – and Bauchi State serves as a good microcosm in this respect. A recent interview with Yusuf Tuggar, a former member of the House of Representatives, provides an example of northern grievances. After the presidential elections last year, he ran as a CPC candidate for governorship of Bauchi State, a post he was widely tipped to win. In the interview, he alleges that following the government-imposed curfew on Bauchi and Kaduna, troops disrupted polling, produced a fraudulent result, and robbed inhabitants of their right to vote.
In the aftermath of this speech, it is clear Jonathan needs to refocus his leadership away from military conceptions of control to ideological ones. The 2009 attempt to defeat Boko Haram in their Maiduguri stronghold left the group more determined than ever. Marred by the excessive use of force – Mohamed Yusuf was afforded martyrdom, while 700 were slaughtered. Jonathan can significantly weaken Boko Haram’s appeal by invoking a unifying ideology. This can be done by bringing jaded youth back from the social peripheries and appointing more northerners to senior government positions. Civil obedience will never flow from might, only from legitimacy. Now more than ever, Jonathan needs to engage with the whole electorate.
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