Africa · Analysis · Nigeria · Politics · Terrorism · United States

Boko Haram, Poverty: Between Carson and Oritsejafor

In the last one week the controversy Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, stirred back in February when he linked the Boko Haram insurgency in the North to extreme poverty in the region, seems to have escalated into a verbal warfare of immense proportions.

The protagonists are, on the one hand, those who think the solution to Boko Haram (BH) is to simply to wield the Big Stick, and on the other, those think the solution is first, to dialogue with the Islamic sect, and then implement a Marshal Plan of sorts for the North to end the extreme poverty that is widely regarded as a source of the BH insurgency.

The immediate cause of this escalation was the call, penultimate Monday, by Mr. Jonnie Carson, the American Under Secretary for Africa, for a Ministry of Northern Affairs, “or a development commission similar to what it (Nigeria) did in response to the Niger Delta crisis.”

Carson made his call during his lecture on the security challenges facing Nigeria since our elections last year. He spoke at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

The North, he said in obvious reference to the security challenge posed by Boko Haram, was “trapped between violent extremists on the one hand and heavy handed government response on the other.” The only way out of the trap, he said, was to address the extreme poverty the region suffers from.

Predictably, Carson’s prescription for ending the BH insurgency has provoked extreme anger from Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, the militant national president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). Boko Haram, he said, is simply a terrorist group and it would do no one any good to “pamper” it.

“We,” he said, “reject the reason being peddled by the American government and some Boko Harm apologists in the North that poverty and injustice is the spark for the sect members’ action.”

In its editorial last Monday, PUNCH, said in effect, it couldn’t agree more. Carson and other leading Americans like former U.S. president, Bill Clinton and the current American Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, who share Carson’s sentiment, the newspaper said, are only pushing America towards a “catastrophic foreign policy (option)” for dealing with the BH threat to local and global security.

“The link between poverty and terror is a myth,” PUNCH said. Poverty, it argued correctly, is, after all, not restricted to the North. Boko Haram, it also argued, this time rather implausibly, is simply a product of “hate”, not poverty; implausibly, because this argument begs the question of what the root cause of the presumed hatred is.

Because it apparently believed that there is no linkage between poverty and terror, the newspaper cautioned the Federal Government against listening to Carson, et al. Instead, it said the government must concentrate on “its efforts to crush Boko Haram and to expose and disgrace its sponsors and promoters.”

PUNCH is, of course, not the only one to agree with the CAN president on how to deal with the Boko Haram scourge. In an interview in Daily Trust (April13), Major-General Sarkin Yaki Bello, the co-ordinator of the Counter-Terrorism Centre in the office of the National Security Adviser, not surprisingly, expressed consternation that anyone would ask for the removal of the interminable army check-points in our streets and on our highways in the North, ostensibly to check Boko Haram, but which check points most people see as a scourched-earth rather than a protective strategy.

“Withdrawal of the army! To be replaced by who? That’s the question!…May be those who are calling for the withdrawal of the military are the perpetrators of the crime,” said the anti-terrorist czar.

Those in support of a heavy-handed treatment of Boko Haram seem to assume that, since our elections last year, virtually all criminal violence with any hint of religious undertone have been perpetrated by Boko Haram. This is obviously fallacious, given several bombings of churches, and attempts at such, that have been traced to non-Muslims.

Then there is the equally fallacious assumption that Boko Haram has attacked only Churches and Christians. With Pastor Oritsejafor this has actually gone beyond a mere assumption. In rejecting Carson’s prescription, he claimed in effect that Boko Haram has attacked only churches and Christians. “We wonder if churches and Christians alone are the cause of the poverty Mr. Carson talked about. How have churches contributed to the injustice in the North?”

It is obviously this frame of mind which led virtually all our newspapers to report penultimate Sunday’s Easter Sunday bombing in Kaduna from the angle of how some churches and church goers escaped the bombing rather than from the more humane angle of the unintended heavy casualties that resulted when the bomb exploded away from the church it was apparently intended for.

Worse, several of the reports still claimed at least one church was hit, which was not really true.

Most of them quoted a Pastor Joshua Raji as claiming his church suffered extensive damage from the explosion. The glasses of all the windows in the building were shattered and all the ceiling fans destroyed, he reportedly said. It was a miracle, he reportedly told the newspapers, that no one in his congregation was hurt.

In my piece last week I said this was not true. Apparently this prompted the pastor to text me protesting my position. “Mohamed Haruna,” his text, unedited, read, “your coments on the back page of Daily Trust of 11th contains a lot errors, first, u mistaken ASSEMBLY OF GOD juntion road for ALL NATIONS CHRITIAN ASSEMLY GWARI ROAD,your coments is so painful to me &my congigation we decide to pray d Lord Jesus to forgive u this near unpardonable sin & we knows HE hears us.pastor Joshua Raji”.

The pastor was right that I mistook his church on Gwari Road for the much bigger Assembly of God Church near the junction of Gwari Road and Junction Road. But then this was precisely how all the newspapers reported it.

Apart from the near similarity in name, a check on the church’s location would show why it was so easy to mix it up with its more prominent cousin. My own check revealed that it was actually a residential one story building that had been converted into a church and the only sign of its existence is a small signboard on the road pointing inside a compound.

Inside the church itself only two ceiling fans out of a dozen, and only five out of no more than 100 sections of the ceiling were damaged. The windows of the unpainted building which seemed to have been newly plastered, had no panels. Either they had never been fixed in the first place, or the church did a great job of removing the debris from the glasses the pastor claimed had been   shattered by the explosion. Given the location of the church right behind an uncompleted four-story building on Junction Road, I am more inclined to believe the former.

Without doubt, Boko Haram is a threat to the integrity of the country and to the peace and security of its citizen. As such it deserves to be handled firmly and decisively. But, the few exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, History shows that the use of the Big Stick alone, especially when it is based on deliberately misrepresentation if the facts, cannot solve the predicament. And if any evidence is needed that even the government is beginning to see that this strategy has not worked, it was provided over the weekend by the army chief, no less.

Speaking through the General officer Commanding 1st Division, Major-General Garba Wahab, the army chief, Lieutenant-General Azubuike Ihejirika, himself as hawkish as they come, said in effect that the only way to see off Boko Haram is by winning the hearts and mind of the population among whom its members live.

On the occasion of the closing ceremony of a workshop on security for troops of the 1st and 3rd Divisions of the Nigerian Army in Kaduna, the army chief said the effectiveness of the army’s role in securing the peace of the country lied in getting useful information and intelligence. He lamented, however, that “The same people who want us to come out and perform magic are not ready to give us information.”

Consequently, he challenged the soldiers to do all it takes to win the hearts and minds of the populace. “You must,” he said, go out and relate to people who matter, who will provide information to help you perform your job. These you must do, no matter how low or high.”

Coming many months after many key authority figures, including the army chief himself, have said only force can end the Boko Haram insurgency, this sounds like an admission of the failure of relying only on wielding the Big Stick.

As Archbishop Williams Rowan, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Head of the Church of England said several years ago of the use of force to cure global terrorism, “It is possible to eliminate one, two, or even 1,000 terrorists but if you don’t go to the cause of terrorism you will never eradicate the terrible phenomenon. And the causes are political, economic and cultural…Not only the Unites States, but the entire West should make an examination of their conscience, of how they oppress the rest of the world.”

PUNCH may be right to say poverty is not be restricted only to the North. It may even be argued, as the newspaper did, that the region’s extreme poverty may be largely the fault of its leaders. But that cannot absolve the rest of country from helping it to remove poverty as a source of the anger that breeds terrorism.

Written by Mohammed Haruna on Daily Trust

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