On November 28, the people of Borno State were bracing up for historic local council elections, a defiant demonstration of Borno’s return to normalcy by its active governor Babagana Umara Zulum. Instead, Nigerians woke up to gory accounts of slaughter of Zabarmari farmers in the marshlands of Koshebe, some 20 kilometers from Maiduguri.
The massacre was a scandalous repudiation of the military’s claim of victory over Boko Haram. As Boko Haram’s campaign of terror runs uncontrollably under the leadership of President Buhari, it is obvious that Nigeria’s approach to fighting the insurgency in the past 5 years is not strategically well-grounded.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s strategy, if there’s any, is like that of his predecessor which relies on containing the Boko Haram threat within its Northeastern operational area. The problem with this strategy is that it benefits Boko Haram and tilts the balance of terror in its favor. That’s because allowing it to roam freely in ungoverned corners of the Northeast provides it with the operational safe haven to hide, rest and recover.
Gradually, the local community is losing confidence in the ability of the government to protect them, forcing them to seek new ways of survival either by fleeing, cooperating with Boko Haram or joining them altogether. While Nigerian authorities are wasting efforts on rehabilitating repentant Boko Haram members, thousands more are being pushed into the arms of the terror group by our own failure to protect local communities.
Worse still, the Nigerian military is today on a default defensive position. Instead of taking the war to the terrorists by flushing them out of their safe havens and denying them any operational breathing space, our troops resort to hiding behind trenches in so called super camps to be repelling one Boko Haram assault after another, with its devastating effects on troops morale and fighting spirit.
It is sad that Boko Haram’s campaign of terror continues unabatedly under 3 successive Nigerian presidents, but the fact that this is happening under president Buhari is even more blundering. Buhari was elected on the promise to end Boko Haram and secure the country, combat corruption and fix the economy. Today, other security threats like banditry and kidnapping have acquired national prominence, adding another layer to our security predicaments and further stretching our already over-stretched security resources.
The solution to all this is for government to first accept that its approach has failed. As the adage goes, ‘admitting to a problem is the first step towards finding a solution.’ By accepting its own failure, government can now commit to a new approach that is strategically sound and tactically effective, one that is built on responsibility, accountability and transparency.
While sacking the service chiefs may not bring an end to the conflict, it will no doubt send a clear message that security lapses and failures such as the one in Zabarmari are unacceptable. Also, our military needs to be well-equipped, well trained and well-funded. Stories of corruption are too strong to be denied. We have to stamp out corruption in the military and dismantle the rapidly rising network of a military-political-NGO complex that’s fueling the conflict and preventing any chance of genuine stability.
Nigeria also needs to reexamine its relationship with its neighbors. While it is good to pursue mutually beneficial security objectives with our neighbors, we should never live in the illusion that they will help us solve our own problems on our own terms. We must build the capacity to pursue and eliminate terror threats beyond our borders, wherever they emerge.
Global geopolitics is all about projecting strength, both real and perceived. Weakness at the global security stage is not a virtue. Nigeria must look inward to develop indigenous surveillance, military hardware and intelligence capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations. It is only when Nigeria learns to talk from a position of strength and self-courage that our enemies will fear us.
President Buhari still has the chance to redirect the sail of this country away from disaster, but that window of opportunity is fast closing. As studies have shown, insurgencies that manage to exist for 10 years may likely remain active for another two decades. With deteriorating security situation around the country, economic collapse and youth restiveness, the future of Nigeria depends on the decision that President Buhari takes today.