By Bola Olajuwon*
IN the past few weeks, what was seen as a Nigerian local phenomenon took an international dimension with successive action and declarations by the United States (U.S.) government and the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mrs. Fatou Bensounda, against the radical fundamentalist sect, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, loosely translated as Boko haram, and its leaders.
Firstly, it started with the U.S. on June 21, labelling Abubakar Shekau, the most visible leader of Boko haram and two other chieftains, Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi as Specially Designated Global Terrorists with the aim of weakening the capacity of the sect members to execute violent attacks. According to a statement by the State Department, the designation under Executive Order 13224, “blocks all of Shekau’s, Kambar’s and al-Barnawi’s property interests subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with or for the benefit of these individuals.” Before the designation of the sect’s leaders, Shekau’s name was well known to the Nigerian public, as other operatives of the sect had used false names to hide their real identities.
The statement described Shekau as the most visible leader of the sect under whose leadership Boko haram has claimed responsibility for many attacks in northern Nigeria. More so, the designations of al-Barnawi and Kambar were based on their ties to Boko haram and close links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – a designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO).
However, the action fell short of the clamours in U.S. government circles that the sect members should be designated FTO. Some U.S. top security chiefs had reasoned that the sect members should be given the tag of FTO for the United Nations building bombing in Abuja that killed no fewer than 23 people and injured scores of others. It was also argued that many Nigerians – both Muslims and Christians and others – have been killed by Boko haram since 2009 when it began its bloody campaign against Western civilisation in Nigeria and campaigns for substitution of Sharia code for civil laws. “Who knows whether American citizens and those of its western allies would be the next,” they argued.
Also, while Nigeria’s political parties and religious leaders were reacting to the U.S. action, the Commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Gen. Carter Ham, came out a few days later, warning that three of Africa’s largest militant Islamist groups are trying to co-ordinate their efforts. He called the three – North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko haram and al-Shabab, as the “most dangerous” groups. Ham, who spoke in Washington, said the AQIM was probably sharing explosives and funds with Boko haram. He also asserted that the separatist movement in northern Mali had provided AQIM with a “safe haven”.
AFRICOM has its headquarters in Germany from where it co-ordinates U.S. military operations, which include the use of drones against al-Shabab Islamists in Somalia to the training of African armies in various countries.
Though Ham highlighted that these groups were not monolithic, and that not all followed an international jihadist agenda, he, however noted that what was most worrying was that the most radical elements among them were co-ordinating and synchronising their efforts.
Nevertheless, Bensounda came calling at the State House, Abuja recently as part of her maiden visit to Nigeria. The ICC top official revealed that the court was monitoring the Boko haram insurgence in the country and the effort by the Federal Government to tackle the menace.
After conferring with President Goodluck Jonathan, she told State House correspondents that she had briefed the president on the preliminary examinations that had been done by her office concerning Boko haram and what she described as the trouble in the Middle Belt area of the country in the past four to five years. Bensounda noted that though the sect’s activities might be regarded as terrorism, they also qualify as crimes against humanity.
Bensounda however stressed that the ICC did not intend to intervene in the crisis since the Federal Government was already handling it.
Before the designation of the three sect members, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Alhaji Lateef Adegbite, had pleaded with the U.S. not to label the Islamic sect members, a terrorist group. But this was too late, as the American government announced the executive order same day. Adegbite, while speaking with reporters at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, said since Nigerians are doing everything possible to address the matter through dialogue, America should move with caution. He also alluded to the fact that it would be difficult for the American government to know the members of the sect, adding that any action precipitously carried out, could have serious repercussions.
Meanwhile, while Nigerians were yet to internalise the import of the designation of sect leaders, the Nigerian Mission in Washington DC appealed to the U.S. government that in the eventuality of whatever action that would be taken against the sect’s hierarchy, it should not affect their immediate neighbours who had not only been the hardest hit, but had vehemently opposed the activities of the Islamic sect.
But this appeal infuriated the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and in its reaction, blamed Nigeria’s leadership for the designation of Shekau, Kambar and al-Barnawi. It explained the implications of the letter written by the Nigerian mission for Nigeria’s sovereignty.
The party’s National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in a statement, said the Jonathan administration had virtually surrendered the nation’s sovereignty to the U.S. through the letter from the Nigerian embassy in Washington begging Americans not to kill innocent Nigerians.
The party’s position is understandable. While America’s current target is officially on three key leaders of the group, it may be forced to widen the designation of more leaders of the group. It may also go ahead to designate the group as FTO. As the U.S. and its NATO allies did in such countries as Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, suspected Boko haram’s camps, havens and vehicles conveying its leaders and operatives may be hit by American drones if President Barack Obama so desires and provided the Federal Government agrees and sanctions such action. The U.S. may also take a unilateral action like it did when Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan if it is established that Nigerian government officials could not be trusted.
But a research fellow with Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Prof. Osita Agbu, told The Guardian that despite the positions of Nigerians on the matter, the international community disapproved terrorism in whichever guise. According to him, no nation will stand by and watch a group killing and destroying lives and property. Also, Agbu contended that if in deed it was true that Nigeria is seeking American help in tackling the Boko haram’s menace, “there is nothing wrong. It is the usual practice for any nation to seek and accept the help of other country or countries if confronted with a problem like that of Boko haram.”
He also said that with the cooperation and partnership between Boko haram and AQIM and al-Shabab, America and its allies would not wait until they are hit like al-Qaeda before taking actions. On the issue of drone attacks, he said that its “marginal collateral damages are always inevitable.” He stressed that drone attacks are always well-considered before such actions are taken, but when it strikes, the environment is not immune to “marginal collateral damages.”
Also, a foreign diplomat who craved anonymity told The Guardian that the window of opportunity is now open to the Federal Government to tackle the Boko haram violence finally before the nation and innocence people start facing the consequence of interventions of foreign actors like the U.S. and its allies.
According to the diplomat, the Federal Government can go after the three designated leaders of Boko haram, arrest them and jail them. Else, the group and its other leaders may as well be designated as explained by U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, Victoria Nuland. Nuland, answering a question at a briefing at the State Department, said: “There is always this question of whether designating individuals within an organisation is the most effective strategy or whether the designating (of) the whole organisation is the most effective strategy. So, we’re continuing to look at the question of a broader designation.”
However, despite the call for dialogue with Boko haram, the Director-General of NIIA, Prof. Bola Akinterinwa, believes that religious bigotry has created one of the most serious national security problems that Nigeria is dealing with at the moment. He said the series of suicide bombings that the Boko haram has inflicted on the country since the beginning of its insurgency have continued to sow the seed of ethnic disharmony and divisive, rather than integrative nationalism.
To Dr. Onu Ekhomu of Trans-World Security Systems Ltd., the designation of three militant leaders as terrorists is a welcome but overdue development that should be extended to the entire sect for maximum effect.
“Boko haram is a terrorist group killing Nigerians and attempting to set Nigeria on fire through a contrived sectarian conflict. I must say that Boko haram terrorism is not about Islam. It is about extremism and terrorism…No right thinking Nigerian will agree that it is okay to spill innocent Nigerian blood…We should not hope that Boko Haram will quietly go away without vigorous intervention from our government and our allies…”