President Goodluck Jonathan pleasantly surprised many Nigerians last week when he declared a state of emergency in three North-Eastern states, namely, Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.
That announcement was surprising for some reasons: One, Jonathan had refrained from taking that same action for over two years. This had attracted strong criticism to him from his supporters and opponents, who saw it as sign of weakness. Two, a few days before, the Presidency had denied a news story published by a sister publication, Saturday PUNCH, that there was a plan to declare a state of emergency in any part of Nigeria. Three, a few weeks before, the President had inaugurated the Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution on Security Challenges in the North. Four, many people had never seen Jonathan speak with such force and in such a voice before. Five, for the first time, Jonathan called members of the Boko Haram sect “terrorists”.
Even before the National Assembly had given the required approval, soldiers had moved into the three states. A Reuters report quoted a Maiduguri, Borno resident as saying that he had never seen such a number of soldiers in his life before.
Immediately after that the President’s broadcast on Tuesday, May 13, 2013, both the social media and the traditional media platforms were awash with comments in praise of Jonathan’s action, with many people saying that it was long overdue.
Predictably, a few groups like the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria and the Northern Elders Forum condemned it. While the ACN said it was “lacking in original thinking,” the NEF said it was a declaration of war on the North and a derailment of the amnesty programme.
But one aspect of the declaration of the state of emergency that many members of society did not initially agree with – even though that position was based on ignorance of the provision of the Constitution – was that the President did not dismiss the governors of the affected states as well as their respective Houses of Assembly as was the case in the past. Lawyers like Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) promptly published comments that confirmed that the President was right in not sacking the governors and Houses of Assembly, as no part of the Constitution gave such a provision. That further boosted the image of Jonathan as a respecter of the Constitution to which he swore to protect.
Before now, many saw President Jonathan as timorous and irresolute. Most Nigerians had expected that a state of emergency should have been declared in some states since 2011 when the Boko Haram insurgency went out of hand. Even though more than 3,000 people are reported to have been killed over the Boko Haram insurgency, the President had looked on as if he expected the appeals and cries of the people to touch the Boko Haram sect.
Rather, when Jonathan decided to declare a state of emergency on December 31, 2011, following the Christmas Day bombing of St Theresa’s Church, Madalla, Niger State a week earlier, he did so in some 16 local governments of some states in the North: Borno, Yobe, Niger and Plateau. That was seen as a half-hearted declaration. Nigerians did not notice any decrease in the bloodletting after that declaration. On the contrary, that partial measure seemed to have emboldened Boko Haram to increase the scope and intensity of its attacks.
The insurgency cast the Nigerian state as helpless, spineless and dazed. The nation watched as Boko Haram wreaked havoc almost on a daily basis at one location after another in the North, hoisting its flag in its conquered territories and threatening more attacks. Military barracks, police stations, prisons, churches, mosques, markets, schools, media houses, motor parks, the United Nations’ building and others were not spared. It was a clear declaration of war on Nigeria.
The frequent response Nigerians got after each bloody attack from an evidently bamboozled security architecture was: “We are on top of the situation.” Many Nigerians turned the expression into a joke.
When the Federal Government was pressurised and blackmailed into accepting to offer the sect amnesty early this year, the fears of most Nigerians seemed to be confirmed that the government had no answer to the insurgents’ threat. But Boko Haram put the Federal Government to more ridicule by saying that it should be the one to offer Nigeria amnesty, and not the other way round.
As if to register its anger at the “effrontery” of the Federal Government to ever think of an offer of amnesty, the Boko Haram sect bombed Bama in Borno State and sacked a police station with dozens killed. Its leader Abubakar Shekau boasted in a video clip that the sect was responsible for the earlier attack on Baga, a border town in Borno State, where the response of the soldiers had elicited an outcry for being like killing an ant with a sledgehammer. On the same Tuesday night that the President announced the state of emergency, Boko Haram visited the home of the Borno State’s secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria and shot him dead in spite of all the pleas of his family members. Two days after the declaration of the state of emergency, the sect attacked Daura, the hometown of Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari in Katsina State, burning a police station and four banks and killing some people.
So, Boko Haram has not shown any sign that it wants amnesty. If the sect wanted amnesty, it would have suspended all hostilities and waited to see the seriousness or otherwise of government.
It is even doubtful if the original Boko Haram, led by Shekau, will ever accept amnesty. Before one can choose to commit suicide for any cause, one must be propelled by a force higher than money or a desire for “settlement”. My mind tells me that the political Boko Haram will accept amnesty, because it is fighting against perceived injustice, but the original, religious Boko Haram will not accept amnesty because it perceives its cause as “divine”.
In retrospect, it was good that the government acceded to the demand to grant amnesty to Boko Haram, which helped to prove that the sect does not want any amnesty. If the Federal Government had continued to insist on no amnesty, many would have said that its recalcitrance was the cause of the continued unrest in some parts of Northern Nigeria.
I believe that the amnesty programme, as controversial as it is, should go on, while the military continues its war against the Boko Haram elements that continue to wage war against Nigeria. Only the government of a Banana Republic will fold its arms while a group kills its citizens in droves and burns its cities with glee. If Boko Haram is interested in amnesty and peace, it should be the party asking for a ceasefire, not the government. Even if government will negotiate with Boko Haram, it should not be from the point of weakness, but of strength.
But government must not concentrate all its efforts in the three states where a state of emergency was declared. Boko Haram’s first-ever attack in Katsina State last week shows that if the three states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa become too hot, members of the sect will naturally relocate to other Northern states and continue their campaign of terror.
Beyond the approval that followed the declaration of state of emergency in the three states and the prompt action of the soldiers, one prays that President Jonathan will not shoot himself in the foot in a matter of days with a comment or action that will attract an avalanche of criticism.