By Uchenna Ekwo
For many years now, Nigeria has been at war in peace time. But it is time for the country to face the reality: Nigeria is at war and indeed her second war since its independence in 1960. The first civil war from 1967- 1970 was between Nigeria and Biafra. The Nigerian military led by General Yakubu Gowon defeated the inferior military force of the defunct Republic of Biafra under the command of General Emeka Ojukwu.
The ongoing war in Nigeria is remarkably different in a number of ways.
First, the authorities pretend that the ongoing struggle with Boko Haram for the soul of Nigeria is not a war. Consequently, the government has no clear strategy to fight the war. The one strategy that I can see so far is President Jonathan’s desire to win the hearts and minds of Americans and the international community about how Boko Haram is victimizing his administration. When the government hired a Washington, DC public relations firm Levick for a whopping $1.2 million to promote its image abroad, I could not think of a more misguided strategy.
In its first assignment, the firm placed an op-ed in The Washington Post on behalf of President Goodluck Jonathan in which he wrote in part that… “I have had to remain quiet about the continuing efforts by Nigeria’s military, police and investigators to find the girls kidnapped in April from the town of Chibok by the terrorist group Boko Haram. I am deeply concerned, however, that my silence as we work to accomplish the task at hand is being misused by partisan critics to suggest inaction or even weakness”.
Unfortunately, President Jonathan projects weakness and that perception is widespread within the Nigerian polity. Perception may be reality in some cases. With a Ph.D., Jonathan is the most educated head of state Nigeria has ever had, but he may go down in history as the weakest president. Some analysts have not considered the roots of Jonathan’s perceived weakness as president. It has everything to do with his non-military background. Being the first truly civilian head of state without a military background in a country that was dominated by military administrations, some observers believe that President Jonathan may just be Nigeria’s commander –in-chief of disloyal armed forces. He is the elected president but unaccepted commander of the armed forces.
It is estimated that about 80 per cent of the current political leaders in Nigeria had roots in the military ranging from former President Olusegun Obasanjo to Nigerian Senate President, David Mark – all retired military generals. Several state governors were retired military officers. As those familiar with the military can confirm, it is a hierarchical organization that respects seniority for life. You may have heard of what they call esprit de corps in the military. It guarantees respect based on rank and seniority. President Obasanjo commanded respect from the military brass including inimitable General Babangida who was his junior in the army. Jonathan, on the other hand, lacks such privilege to the extent that military commanders allegedly defy his orders to fight the terrorist group – Boko Haram.
It is against this backdrop that one could understand President Jonathan’s dithering and reluctance to face the reality and accept that his country is in war and confront the challenge of Boko Haram head on. It is not a war you fight on the pages of American newspapers or a war you recruit American public relations firms to fight thousands of miles away from Nigeria. The fight should be to win the hearts and minds of Nigerians and recruit fellow Nigerians to fight along to defeat Boko Haram and their sponsors. The government risks the alienation of Nigerians with awarding contracts to foreign image makers and spending as much as $1.2 million, an amount enough to grant loans to unemployed young school leavers interested in starting businesses of their own. Better still; the money spent on hiring the Washington PR firm would be better spent equipping the forces in northern Nigeria to combat Boko Haram. Obviously, $1.2 million would make a lot of difference for the Nigerian police in the combined effort to locate the kidnapped young girls three months ago in the face of the much better armed fighters in Boko Haram.
Another difference between the ongoing war in Nigeria and the civil war of late 60’s is that while the civil war had two clearly opposing groups fighting one another, the current war is between Nigerian forces and invisible fighters of Boko Haram. Such an unconventional war is new in Nigeria. The only unconventional war that had raged over the years that the country is familiar with has been that between haves and have-nots.
The unconventional war introduced in Nigeria by Boko Haram resembles the Al Qaeda war against United States in which US has declared war on terrorism. The sophistication of the US military notwithstanding, the country is yet able to win the war on terror and may never win. So how can Nigeria with a comparatively inferior military capability expect to win the war against terrorism? Terrorist activities will never end but governments could address issues that breed terrorism. United States understands this, hence its promotion of cultural diplomacy anchored on diplomacy, development, and defense.
In the case of Nigeria with a robust youth population, government could design effective programs to engage restive youths who embrace terrorism as a means of survival in the face of the failure of the state to address their needs. But for the arbitrary killing of unsuspecting citizens, it is likely that Nigerians would support Boko Haram because citizens had long desired for a channel to convey the people’s frustration with perennial misrule and corruption at all levels of Nigerian society. Should Boko Haram avoid spilling innocent blood, it is certain that Nigerians will embrace them as a force to challenge government’s detachment from the masses.
In his op-ed in The Washington Post, President Jonathan writes that “something positive can come out of [this situation] in Nigeria” and I agree. Of course, conflicts have benefits. Although we often focus on the costs of conflict, there are benefits to conflicts. Conflict is often driven by a sense of grievance, be it scarcity, inequality, cultural or moral differences, or the distribution of power. Without conflict, attitudes, behavior, and relationships stay the same, regardless of how parties to a conflict perceive them. In other words, conflict reveals problems and encourages those problems to be dealt with either constructively or destructively.
So if the Boko Haram conflict could make Nigeria to have a serious conversation about its future, then Boko Haram would have helped Nigeria right the wrongs of the past. One of those wrongs has been government’s inability to be straight with the Nigerian people. President Jonathan should be straight with his country and declare war and deploy all military resources of the country to regions that harbor Boko Haram. Former President Obasanjo’s action in the Niger Delta when he sent military forces to quell the uprising in Odi village in November 1999 should be instructive.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo, a public affairs analyst wrote from New York; firstname.lastname@example.org