The Case For a Near Mandatory Alternative: The Nigerian Experience
In his 2015 State of The Union speech, President Barack Obama quipped “when what you’re doing for fifty years doesn’t work, it’s time to try something new”. It is this level of progressive-mindedness that endears the objective onlooker to American politics. It is shaped by the ever-changing times and the varied mentality of the people whose lives it governs. Their policy shifts- on homosexuality, marijuana use, military involvement, civil liberties, religion, free speech and even foreign policy- they are informed by the times. They are not informed by political bickering only, by disorganised sentiments or even by a rigid sense of right and wrong. Their stances on these issues are not always right or morally defensible- but they are informed by the dynamics of change.
In our Nigerian reality however, we see a different trend. We see a pattern of rigidity and inflexibility. Office holders are unrepentantly insistent on the propriety of their actions regardless of the public opprobrium that they attract. A bad bill with little prospects of enforcement will be passed anyway because its backers want it so. A tactic that is glaringly unproductive will remain unchanged because its proponents lack the decency to admit its failure. This pattern is bad for the image of the government. But if the image of government is all that were at stake in the face of stubborn adherence to obsolete ideas, we would simply pour venom on the government and move on. Sadly, there is a lot more that we lose when we anchor mediocrity in rigidity. It is for this reason that I say that when what you are doing for six years does not work, it is time to try something new.
This government has battled with insurgency for the past 6 years. Nigeria has battled with organised crime for decades more. It battled with and seemingly conquered militancy in the Niger Delta. One therefore wonders why its performance against insurgency looks more like a feeble appeal than a fight. The reason is not far-fetched- whatever tactic the government has hitherto employed just does not work. The President has touted a carrot-and-stick approach.
It was in dangling the carrot that the government negotiated with certain people parading themselves as insurgents in possession of the kidnapped girls. Mr Doyin Okupe was on CNN to tell the world that the government had gotten a firm undertaking from the insurgents and that the kidnapped girls would be returned in no time. Unless no time means eternity, Mr Okupe was clearly wrong- the girls remain abducted and the government stands shamed. The carrot as a tactic has not worked and shows limited potential of working (after all, by the President’s own admission and the government’s hostage-negotiation gaffe, the recipients of the carrot are unknown). This tactic must give way to something new.
Then comes the stick. The failure of the stick is even worse than the decomposition of the carrots. Large portions of North-Eastern Nigeria are under the direct control of insurgents despite the fact that there was an extended State of Emergency in certain states of that region. We have seen and heard reports of soldiers fleeing from battle, begging for their lives before assassination, refusing to fight, being handed old weapons with limited magazines, being made to pay from their purses for the treatment of injuries sustained in battle and being told (in effect) to each do the work expected of 6 soldiers. This tactic (if ever it could be called one) is clearly not working. We need it changed.
The war against terrorists who fight by guerrilla means cannot be always calculated. Sometimes, response must be sporadic, instant and decisive. Hit-and-run is a basic tactic of guerrilla warfare and the period of retreat is a vulnerable period for the guerrillas. Certainly, we need to have well equipped and alert forces whose mandate will not be to prevent attacks but to mobilise in very little time, give chase to retreating guerrillas, and apprehend or eliminate insurgents. This tactic fits the Nigerian scenario well because the insurgents have operated by guerrilla tactic. Indeed, after razing Baga to the ground, the insurgents did not occupy the city, they retreated to some other base- classic hit-and-run. Of course, this will not mean giving up on the prevention of attacks- it will only operate as a supplement.
How about terror-prevention? Our government shows itself as either unwilling or unable to prevent terror attacks. Terror is prevented by a variety of ways. Metal detectors, road blocks, vehicular checks and speed bumps are not enough- and they are all our government appears to be doing. One wonders, what will happen if while searching a vehicle, a Nigerian Policeman encounters an IED? Will he flee or defuse it? It is beyond question now that crime prevention also includes intelligence gathering and forensic investigation. When the Nation of Islam was founded, the government of the United States kept tabs on the movement and eventually one John Ali, a personal aide to the Honourable Elijah Mohammed, leader of the Nation was an FBI plant. The Nation would go on to show itself as a non-violent group. However, had that group been violent, John Ali would have proved effective. Nigeria definitely needs its own John Alis.
The world over, the responsible government does not wait till an attack before acting. Intelligence agencies all around the world plant people in criminal circles and weapon black-markets to prevent attacks and monitor movement of arms. They install eyes in the skies, on the streets and in storefronts to help replay events that they missed but need to see to get justice and apprehend criminals. They risk Human Rights suits by listening in on conversations and monitoring private messages to pick up chatter about extremist activities. They proactively purchase weaponry of the future as an investment and not as a reaction. This we have not been doing- because we are too busy insisting on the previous tactic, blinded by arrogance and incited by overconfidence.
Now I know that if we have informants in terror groups, it is not something that would make the news. But then, if we have working informants who are neither dead nor turned, their results should show. When, if ever, did we have a terror plot stopped? When, if ever did we have insurgents arrested at a strategy meeting? When, if ever, did government forces breakup an insurgent meet? We can take a cue from Belgium who made 10 raids and multiple arrests within two weeks of the Paris attacks under circumstances that suggest that they had solid intel- how else does one explain the release of automatic gunfire by men who otherwise paraded themselves as law-abiding citizens? How about Paris? In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Prime Minister has proposed the employment of 1100 more intelligence officers!
Our President has a history of ambivalence and not just on national security. His response is usually slow and belaboured. Most times, it comes too little too late appearing to be more political than empathetic. Of course, he has said that he likes to deliberate and consider all options before taking steps. However, we do not need a President who requires all the time in the world before he makes up his mind. We do not need a President who cannot anticipate problems, draw up possible responses and fit them into real occurrences. We do not need a President whose first response to every domestic threat and attack is denial but is quick to commiserate with other nations upon the occurrence of foreign attacks. We do not need this kind of leadership and we do not deserve it-no, not in these explosive times. Tactics must change.
But this government has shown itself unable or unwilling to change. Its actors are the same, its tactics are unchanged and its emphases are permanently misplaced. We have a government that is more interested in roads and rails than in the riders of these infrastructures. We have a government that touts increased economic indices and more food when there are less and less people available to exploit the growth or eat the food. We have a government that has refused to openly acknowledge that its primary duty is our security because such acknowledgement will expose its lapses. Such a government must change tactic or go.
In his 2015 SOTU speech, President Obama said “My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America”. Our President has not come to a counterpart acknowledgement. For six years, he has pursued a tactic that is either non-existent or futile. We must not make the same mistake. Our experiment under this government has failed. And when what we’re doing for six years doesn’t work, it’s time to try something new. The trial of something new is the mandatory alternative. Since our government has refused to change, we must change. We must adopt a new option because our old, six-year old option does not work. Sanity, decency and posterity are counting on us to “try something new”.