Nigeria’s Absent Commander-in-chief

With the country descending into chaos, President Goodluck Jonathan is running out of excuses and places to hide.

Regardless of what President Goodluck Jonathan’s government would have us believe, Nigeria is losing the war against Boko Haram.

Days after the chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, took over in January 2014, he vowed to end the Boko Haram onslaught by April. He had barely finished speaking when gunmen struck, killing over 70 people in separate attacks in the northeastern states of Borno and Adamawa — two of the three states that have become the hotbed of recent violence. The defense chief ate the humble pie and promptly disavowed setting any deadline to end the killings.


Since then, Boko Haram has carried out a slew of other attacks, including two high-profile ones in the country’s capital, Abuja. The most outrageous attack yet, however, was the mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls who were taking their final high school exams in Chibok, Borno state, on April 14, hours after a bus station was attacked in Abuja, killing 75 people. At least 200 of those girls are still missing, and eight more were abducted in the same town on May 6. A day after that, Boko Haram insurgents attacked another Borno town, killing hundreds and displacing even more. Full-scale war doesn’t get much worse.

It’s no use asking what Jonathan is doing about it. It took him three weeks simply to speak up about the abducted girls. Jonathan has blamed everyone and everything for the escalating violence in the northeast, except his own government. At a political rally in one of the northeastern states in March, he said governors in the region who were investing poorly in education were feeding the monster. His aides have accused influential northern politicians of stoking the violence to get even with Jonathan for betraying “a gentleman’s agreement” that would have permitted him only one term in office after the sudden 2010 death of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the immediate past president from the north.

But it’s nonsense to suggest that these politicians, whoever they are, would kill their kith and kin — and abduct their daughters on a mass scale — to prevent Jonathan from returning to power. The country is yet to recover from the shock that, while a distraught public was still trying to figure out the whereabouts of the abducted girls, the president was on the hustings, crowing for a second term.

However you slice it, the truth is that Boko Haram and its franchises have exploited the president’s failure to lead, turning what started as a skirmish into raging warfare.

Boko Haram predates Jonathan, but, in his four years of being in charge, the insurgency has escalated, defying two perfunctory purges of the military high command after a series of high-profile bombings — including an August 2011 attack on the U.N. building in Abuja and another on a church on the outskirts of the capital onChristmas Day of that year, claiming dozens of lives. In the aftermath, many government buildings in the capital, including the police headquarters — also the target of an earlier attack — were barricaded, and checkpoints mushroomed.

If the capital had any respite at all, it is unclear whether it was because of these measures. What is clear, however, is that the northeastern states, which make up roughly one-sixth of the country, have been in a virtual state of unrelenting war.

The federal government declared a six-month state of emergency in three states in April 2013 and renewed it later in the year when conditions did not improve. It created a joint military task force and encouraged civilians in the area to form vigilante groups. These steps appeared promising. But turf war within the ranks of the task force, coupled with charges of extrajudicial killings by residents, soon damaged confidence in the counterinsurgency measures at the federal and local levels.

Jonathan has not helped matters. He has been anything but a commander in chief, creating the impression that as long as Abuja is relatively secure, the rest of the country can burn. And any illusions about the security of Abuja have been shattered by the two recent deadly attacks at a bus station only 15 minutes from Aso Rock, the presidential residence. The attacks raised fresh questions about the closed-circuit television cameras installed in Abuja two years ago to fight crime. If the cameras, installed by the government at a reported cost of $470 million to help secure the capital, have been vandalized and left unattended, it’s easy to understand why so much of the country is vulnerable.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (C) and Nigerian Senate President David Mark (R) look at an injured victim of a bomb attack receiving medical treatment at a hospital in Abuja on April 14, 2014. A bombing at a bus station packed with morning commuters on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital killed 71 people and wounded 124 on April 14, with the president blaming the attack on Boko Haram Islamists. The explosion rocked the Nyanya station south of Abuja at 6:45 am (0545 GMT), leaving body parts scattered across the terminal and destroying dozens of vehicles. AFP PHOTO/STRINGERSTRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The escalating terror attacks have also raised questions about police funding and the capacity of other state institutions, including the judiciary, to deal with what is obviously a new monstrosity. Despite protests by Inspector General of Police Mohammed Abubakar that the force may be unable to pay salaries, President Jonathan went ahead and slashed the police budget for 2014, further expanding the room for endemic corruption and surely damaging the capacity of the police to deal with even basic crimes.

Jonathan has often said Boko Haram did not begin on his watch. He is right. Yet, had his administration confronted the demon head-on — instead of appeasing or ignoring it — things might have been very different today. Only a few of the dozens of Boko Haram suspects paraded by the security agencies — often small-fry criminals — have been prosecuted, emboldening their sponsors. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has transformed significantly from the small, angry mob of machete-wielding youths assembled by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002 with the aim of Islamizing Nigeria. Yusuf’s extrajudicial killing in 2009 radicalized the group under Abubakar Shekau, forcing it underground. By the time it re-emerged a few years later, it had mutated into a murderous group with an agenda beyond creed or religion.

The most dramatic turning point, however, was the ousting of Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. His downfall left the entire Sahel region awash with deadly arms and vermin from his shattered regime looking for new hosts. Many have found new havens in Mali, Chad, and Cameroon, creating what is clearly the most dangerous Boko Haram franchise along Nigeria’s border towns in the northeast. And it is across Nigeria’s porous borders that many now worry the abducted girls may have been trafficked. What is entirely clear, however, is that these borders have for years seen the trafficking of radicals and their weapons from regions far removed from the reach of government.

Surely, securing the country’s borders is not rocket science. But in a country where $20 billion is lost in a minister’s headgear, corruption prevents the government from investing both in physical infrastructure and intelligence-gathering, which are at the heart of modern conflict management.

In a moment of exasperation two years ago, Jonathan said he suspected that his government might have been infiltrated by Boko Haram. Whether the country has been brought to its knees by the enemies within, or whether corruption and poor leadership have enfeebled the government’s response, it is frighteningly clear that this is now a war for the country’s very life.

The major fault lines — religion and ethnicity — have rebounded in their most vicious forms, blurring the government’s ineptitude, corruption, and worsening poverty, which remain the underlying problems across much of the country. It’s an unmistakable irony that the United States, which has been widely — though wrongly — criticized in official circles for predicting that Nigeria will break up in 2015, is the country now leading an international effort to rescue the abducted girls. But clearly it cannot save Nigeria from the potentially catastrophic threat of its own making. That lies squarely on the shoulders of one man.

But with general elections less than one year away, it remains to be seen how Jonathan will surmount his lame-duck phase and rally the country back from the brink.

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