Until a few months back, the thought that kidnapping, banditry and Boko Haram, on the other hand, had become intractable was believed to be an exaggeration. Banditry, mostly limited to northern states, is a fairly recent menace, perhaps dating back to four or five years. The increasingly virulent Boko Haram, mostly limited to the Northeast, dates back more than 10 years while kidnapping that is limited to no particular section of the country, dates back to over five years. Now, the menaces reinforce each other, presenting themselves as the hammer and anvil between which Nigerians in those blighted regions are being pulverized.
Some four or five years back when there was the exaggerated opinion that Boko Haram had been technically defeated, few thought that in 2020, Nigerians would still be grappling with the cancer, let alone having to endure the equally menacing and vicious problem of banditry and kidnappings. Everyone had thought that in a matter of months, or perhaps just a few years, the three menaces would have been reduced to insignificance. Sadly, the problems have not only withstood the best countermeasures the government gives, but they also seem alarming to thrive.
Some days ago, in multiple attacks that did not seem coordinated, bandits and Boko Haram insurgents in Katsina and Borno states respectively seemed to have orchestrated a crushing blow on certain communities in Faskari and Gubio local government areas. By some accounts, insurgents killed more than 100 innocent souls. It was a brutal and daring attack by a group of insurgents who neither fears man nor respect government. They pillaged, abducted, killed and maimed. Above all, for hours while the attacks lasted, they were hardly challenged. They will, of course, be back, regardless of the usual orders given to the military to crush them, for they have appeared to understand how the Nigerian security services operate, how impotent they seem and how attractive the results of a life of crime are.
From 2009 to date, Boko Haram menace in Borno, Yobe and other states within the northeast has metamorphosed into a full-blown insurgency. If the government and the security agencies recognize this impending transformation from one level of criminality to another higher and more complex one, they have not shown matching urgency and preparedness in aborting the sanguinary change despite the support and encouragement of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The states are of course helpless. They neither control the military nor the police, and they have limited influence on how and when the government responds to the breakdown of law and order. But they are not entirely innocent of the criminality overtaking their part of Nigeria.
Decades and years of criminal neglect of the masses by the states have bred a veritable army of disaffected citizens. Investment in education, healthcare, economy/jobs and other social services has been hopelessly inadequate. Corruption was and in most cases is still rife, and social safety nets were and are still totally absent. The result is that the states, if not the entire country, are faced with discontent, that is fast morphing into unmanageable revolt.
Neither the states nor the federal government was sure how to deal with the crises of Boko Haram and banditry including kidnapping with the Boko Haram incorporating many other criminal features such as abduction for ransom and cattle rustling. During its founding, Boko Haram itself indicated their reaction to injustice, as militants complained of unfair treatment meted out to their comrades. Had the governments reached a deeper understanding of the crisis, they would probably have developed the right panacea. But they didn’t. Boko Haram was seen and ridiculed as a poorly led religious movement reacting to a combination of religious, cultural and socio-economic grievances. Banditry has also been dismissed as the criminal activities of robbers, kidnappers and cut-throat thieves. In other words, both the federal and state governments have adjudged rather than understood these grievances and dismissed rather than examined the factors responsible for the revolts.
While the federal government has oscillated between strong-arm tactics and peaceful resolution of the Boko Haram crisis, the states have also advocated amnesty one day and military operations the following day. This is a clear manifestation of a lack of understanding of the issues involved in the Northeast insurgency and Northwest banditry.
The problems call for a diligent connection of the dots, to decipher the puzzle as it were. Northeast waste for years, but banditry is now also laying the Northwest waste, and there is no indication so far of any abatement in the immediate future. So what connects the dots? Religion? Hardly. Culture? Very unlikely. A few leitmotifs can, however, be observed. One is the uncontrollable population growth rate, and closely leashed with that is joblessness intertwined with hopelessness occasioned by lack of education and skills. These two factors are in turn the product of bad leadership of the past and corruption in which the commonwealth of the people is frittered away on either pigheaded projects or embezzled outright. The situation is getting more desperate as the population growth rate is outstripping productivity at a time when even the little revenue generated is not wisely and frugally deployed for the public good.
Reacting to the crises spawned by kidnapping, Boko Haram and banditry, a retired military general, Jeremiah Useni had advised that federal government would be tilting at windmills to think that only the use of force can extirpate the problem. To buttress his point, he cited Katsina as an example: “Katsina’s newfound optimism may be infectious, considering how the northern states, which are reeling from banditry, take their cues from the president’s home state. However, it is not altogether clear how leaving the issues of injustice and poverty unresolved would make the states amenable to peace and development. This hope is exaggerated. For about 10 years, the Nigerian military has been battling Boko Haram insurgents, a group of terrorists spawned mainly by socio-economic dislocations in the north-eastern part of the country. Though the military is recording some successes, the crisis has defied applied solutions. The reason is that the problems that gave birth to the insurgency are still not resolved. So too is kidnapping and banditry. Until the factors that render many northern states unstable and vulnerable are dealt with, neither appeasement nor military action will restore peace in those troubled areas”.
Let’s look at it this way. Just a few days after the presidential warning to Boko Haram insurgents and bandits, over 100 innocent souls were gruesomely murdered in two states. Yet, massive military campaigns are still underway, initiated by a government that is given half-truth security reports on the exact situation at hand. A Presidential Security Committee is required to keep the problems from worsening, and indeed the government cannot be dissuaded from sheathing its swords, but ultimately, the government must read the crises adroitly and sensibly apply the right panaceas. For now, the government has little incentive to find the root causes of the crises, preferring instead to talk tough, mobilize the instruments of coercion, and threaten to bring the full weight of the law upon those who have taken to a life of crime. But more and more, the bandits, kidnappers and insurgents are proving the government’s threats to be nothing more than empty threats. Against this backdrop, the need for a Presidential Security Committee becomes urgent and desirable.
The committee shall take charge of proffering solutions to the lingering challenges with less active participation in the execution of the war. Part of its responsibility is to initiate, procure and supervise the disbursement of military hardware including settlement of the allowances and welfare of soldiers at the battlefront as well as liaising with other relevant organizations to achieve the desired success.
It could be recalled that not too long, state governments in the north organized a talkfest to interrogate the undercurrents of the revolt simmering in their region. They identified socio-economic issues among the factors, and resolved to find amelioration for the problem. But talk is cheap. The reality, alarmingly, is that the states, using their current paradigms, are simply incapable of reversing the problem on a scale that should lead to a reversal of the factors fueling discontent. What, for example, are their initiatives for reversing their runaway population growth? Little or nothing is there on the records on the ground. What are their initiatives for reducing unemployment on a scale that would keep the youths of the region busy producing and contributing to wealth creation? Little or nothing from available records because regional officials are unwilling to change their mindset or even abridge their lives of opulence and privilege.
Before the situation gets out of hand, as it seems set to do, the federal government as a matter of urgent concern must meet minds with the concerned state governors to let them know that they are imperilling the unity and stability of the country by their ineptitude and profligacy. They must find new paradigms for governing their states, re-engineering their finances, grappling effectively with population growth, and recognizing that nobody owes them a living. They must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and inspire and cater to the needs of their people. Of course, the other states in the federation cannot absolve themselves of the greed and incompetence that have snatched the bottom off the country, but they are a little better. If the southern states do not remedy their appalling default settings quickly, it is only a question of time before the ferment unnerving the North creeps upon them.
Banditry, kidnapping and Boko Haram are becoming intractable, opening up almost the entire North to the possibility of massive revolt. The country should not fool itself to think otherwise. The question is how to defeat a group of disaffected people who are down and out and are determined to wreak vengeance on a country that has mistreated and shut them out? If Nigeria now under a seasoned and disciplined retired military general cannot find the means to bring the bandits and insurgents in from the cold, these alienated and intransigent anarchists will have no choice but to fuel the fire which they have lit to incinerate everyone, including themselves.
The setting up of a Presidential Security Committee to partner with security agencies and the civil population to overcome the threatening challenges bedevilling Nigeria is overdue.
Muhammad is a commentator on national issues