By Ameto Akpe
Although no official claim of responsibility has been made, authorities suspect Boko Haram, the homegrown Islamist insurgents that have relentlessly terrorised the northern part of Nigeria for years. Since launching its military campaign in 2009, the group (whose name roughly translates as “western education is forbidden”) has killed thousands.
This week’s fresh attacks cemented a growing realisation that the ceasefire announced in October by the Nigerian government has been shattered – if indeed Boko Haram ever agreed to one. The accompanying claim that a deal had been reached to release more than 200 schoolgirls taken from the town of Chibok in April has also proved false. On Thursday, in a move seemingly designed for maximum publicity, Boko Haram seized Chibok and declared the town part of their caliphate.
The Nigerian army has since retaken the town, but the boldness with which the insurgents are killing, kidnapping and occupying territory reflects the government’s chaotic and mismanaged response over many years. The truth is that many of the kidnapped girls who became the focus of international attention through the “BringBackOurGirls” Twitter campaign were all but lost in the first weeks of their abduction, and have probably been married off to, or by their captors. The government failed to intervene promptly to find them and only did so after global condemnation mounted against President Goodluck Jonathan in the weeks following their disappearance.
In the months since then, confusing narratives have been served up by the government, peppered with accusations against a variety of groups, leaving many Nigerians puzzled about the true status of its negotiations with Boko Haram. On November 11, the government accused the US of insufficient support in its war against the group. This tendency to play blame games has become a signature move. As the militants escalated their threats in 2011, Mr Jonathan’s administration described their attacks as the machinations of political opponents, then blamed regional elites for a lack of support, and later claimed the sect had infiltrated the government.
Reports of desertion and mutiny in the military are rife. Soldiers complain their allowances have not been paid and that money meant to buy weapons has been stuffed into private pockets. Where security forces have acted against Boko Haram, they have too often done so with insufficient care for the rule of law – as Human Rights Watch reported this year, troops have “engaged in the indiscriminate arrest, detention, torture, and extra-judicial killing of those suspected to be supporters or members of the Islamist group”.
Like many things in Nigeria, what might seem like simple ineptitude on the government’s part is actually the absence of political will. Other ambitions appear to distract from a response that would value the lives of citizens. While Mr Jonathan’s government can be blamed for many lapses, we should also ask whether Nigerian society is partly at fault for not holding its elected officials to account. In a nation where sustained public demand for responsible governance is sorely lacking, media outrage wanes too easily. Where are the long-term organisers that could harvest public anger and channel it towards social change? Token protests will not suffice; neither will the nation’s clichéd maxim of “God will help us”.
Barely 24 hours after the Potiskum bomb blast, the president formally launched his bid to run for a second term in office at a carnival-style rally. Ahead of the election in just three months’ time, Nigeria must put aside its religious differences, co-ordinate efforts between the state and federal government, and develop a serious, long-term strategy to defeat Boko Haram. Firefighting is no longer enough.
The writer is a former senior reporter for BusinessDay and an Erasmus Mundus Scholar at Aarhus University