The Nigerian government has opted for a military solution to the threat posed by the Boko Haram militia. General Azazi talks to The Africa Report about the threat of civil war and President Jonathan’s overall strategy.
For the man at the centre of Nigeria’s worst security crisis since the civil war in the 1960s, General Owoye Azazi exudes an almost eerie calm. He now sits atop the intelligence hierarchy as national security advisor to President Goodluck Jonathan and is in overall charge of the ballooning State Security Service.
This year, the government allocated the security services and armed forces N921bn ($5.5bn), about one-fifth of the national budget. A staggering sum, it reflects the challenges facing Jonathan but raises questions about the wisdom of his “security first” policy.
After the government announced on 1 January that it was ending fuel subsidies, which doubled petrol prices, activists and trade unionists quickly converted spontaneous opposition into a national protest and strike campaign. This is on top of a well-armed insurgency in the north that seems set on trying to tear Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians apart.
National unity and regional stability are on the line, according to Nigeria’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. He called the recent spate of attacks on churches in the north a “dismal watershed” in the life of the country, drawing parallels with the ethnic pogroms that preceded the 1967-1970 civil war. Soyinka fears that without a political initiative the north and the south could head inexorably towards conflict.
A former chief of army staff, Gen. Azazi insists the government will stop that from happening: “We can’t go back to the level of 1966,” he told The Africa Report. Despite the insurgents’ efforts, Nigeria is not an easy country to break asunder, he argues. “We have seen Christians protect Muslims in Gombe State, and Muslims announce they will protect churches in Minna [the capital of Niger State]. We have to seize on these examples.”
Part of the problem is a failure of communication, says Azazi. The government is trying to address the wider problems of poverty and unemployment in the north, but has not got the message across. He flatly rejects calls to withdraw the army from the north as unrealistic. “People are looking for protection. The state governors will tell you that,” he concludes.
On Azazi’s advice, Jonathan announced a state of emergency in four northern states and closed the borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon following attacks on churches that killed more than 40 people on Christmas Day. The group claiming responsibility – Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad, otherwise known as Boko Haram (meaning Western culture is forbidden) – has been at war with the government for several years.
Boko Haram intensified its attacks after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was arrested and killed in police custody in July 2009 when Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, occupied the presidency at Aso Rock.
Yusuf died as Boko Haram launched a terror campaign in the northeast city of Maiduguri that targeted mainstream Muslim clerics, wealthy politicians and Christians: more than 700 people were killed in the ensuing violence.
Since then, the government’s response has been an overwhelmingly military one. Boko Haram has ratcheted up the violence with drive-by shootings at police stations and churches, and bombings of army barracks, the national police headquarters and the UN office in Abuja. The August 2011 attack on the UN by a suicide bomber who killed more than 20 people led Nigerian officers to conclude that the group was getting foreign help.
”We know they have some local political roots,” says Azazi. “We also know that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has…
Read the full story and more in the February edition of The Africa Report.