North East: How Can the Killings Be Stopped?

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“At least 110 civilians were ruthlessly killed, and many others were wounded” by Boko Haram fighters in the Jere Local Government Area of Borno state, on Saturday 28 November. These were farm workers, many of whom were internal migrants from Sokoto state, some 1,000km away in the north west. This is the latest in the series of continued killings of poor civilians with 373 people killed between January and September.

The regime’s response to this recent gruesome massacre further reflects how little it cares for the lives of poor people. In an interview with the BBC, Mr Garba Shehu, the lead presidential spokesperson said the farmers “did not get military clearance to be on the rice farms”. He quickly forgets that his commander-in-chief, Maj. Gen Muhammadu Buhari claimed to have “technically won the war” against Boko Haram in 2015.

On his own part, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tuku Buratai has declared that the Nigerian state might not be able to stamp out the insurgency until 2040.  In his efforts to shield the irresponsibility and self-serving character of the ruling class, he now calls for “citizens’ responsibility”, insisting that “all must cooperate to contain the lingering insecurity.”

Mr Lai Mohammed, the rather garrulous Minister of Information who is never ashamed to make statements which often contradict positions he took on similar situations when the ruling party was in opposition has described calls for Maj. Gen Muhammudu Buhar (rtd.) to resign as president of the federation as “cheap and irresponsible” politics.

He did not stop at this statement made when meeting with the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN). In the closed session of the meeting, he urged the newspaper bosses to exercise self-censorship in reportage of the insurgency.

Speaking for APC just a few months before it came to power in 2015, Lai Mohammed demanded the resignation of Goodluck Jonathan. In his words at the time, “President Jonathan, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, must take responsibility for the monumental cost, whether of his incompetence or his political strategy-gone-awry or both”.

According to him 15,000 lives had been lost to the insurgency by February 2015. Current estimates put the figures at 36,000. This means that 6,000 more people have been killed under the watch of the APC as were killed during the same span of time under PDP governments.

This is not to say PDP is any better than APC on the insurgency, insecurity in general or any issue of concern to the poor masses. The two parties represent and defend the interests and lives of the rich few, in and out of government. The bulk of people killed by Boko Haram and the military (which has killed about as many people as the insurgents) in the 11-year war are poor people: farmers, workers, artisans, women, and youth.

We must also not forget the roots of Boko Haram’s growth and development. As anti-poor policies of governments led to increasing poverty and disillusionment of millions of people in the region, the group offered hope with its radical Islamist ideology, and provided material succour – including food and paying off of their debts – for scores of thousands of families. As it grew in numbers to over two hundred thousand members, some sections of the ruling class provided it with resources and arms to help them get into power in the 2003 elections. And the seemingly tame monster created by the bosses was turned onto violent ends by the state, with the extra-judicial killing of its leader in November 2009, marking the beginning of the war in the region.

Highlighting the dynamics of how we got to where we are now with Boko Haram is important for understanding the tasks at hand. It is also important for exposing the lies of politicians like Babangana Umaru Zulum, the Borno state government who try to invoke the violence of Boko Haram to suppress legitimate mass protests. In the aftermath of the EndSARS protests, he had called “on all Nigerians, especially the youths to be very careful” about taking to the streets again for any reason whatsoever. This, according to him was because “the whole Boko Haram saga started as a result of the protests by some youths in Maiduguri”.

Mr Zulum has also been quick to present his recommendations on what the regime has to do to defeat the insurgents. And these were adopted by governors of the north-eastern region states at the beginning of December. At the heart of these recommendations is his call on the regime to hire mercenaries, just as the preceding PDP administration did.

This came on the heels of a South African mercenary’s assertion that the regime had squandered gains won by these  soldiers of fortune, in reclaiming territory from Boko Haram. But the fact of the matter is that it was not only the PDP administration that hired them. The APC regime also used this band of 250 former soldiers of the apartheid regime in South Africa, now organised as  the mercenary Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP).

And much more importantly, those calling for mercenaries fail to see the wood for the trees, just like those simply calling for the removal of service chiefs. Both perspectives treat a multidimensional social, economic, and military problem in a simplistic manner. Indeed, we support the call for the resignation of the service chiefs and head of state. But much more is needed. We must expose the false claims of the politicians for the lies they are and foster a clear understanding of how we got to where we are now.

The so-called success of the “ageing white mercenaries” in turning the tide on Boko Haram in 2015 had more to do with the dynamics of development of Boko Haram within the broader global context which includes the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In seizing territories in 2014, the sect had gone beyond its more traditional tactics. Inspired by the success of ISIS at the time, Boko Haram over-extended itself, becoming the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The decline and eventual collapse of ISIS also impacted on Boko Haram, not only in returning to asymmetrical warfare but also in terms of splits which rather than merely weaken it have equally made it hydra headed. ISWAP is now just one of four factions emerging from the earlier Boko Haram.

Assuming that one or the other of its factions were defeated militarily today, it is likely to be replaced with two more such armed groups, like the hydra head it has become. And the reasons for these are not far-fetched. Poverty and anger are palpable realities of life for teeming numbers of young persons in the region, which remains the most impoverished part of the country.  These are the “young guys” whom Maj. Gen Buhari accepted are being indoctrinated, while a good chunk of monies meant to develop the area end up in the pockets of supporters of the regime. It is also an incontrovertible fact that sections of the ruling class, including in the military provide subterranean support for the different Boko Haram sects.

Meanwhile, the state of insecurity has mutated from the strictly, or at least mainly, Boko Haram insurgency as was the case a decade back. Banditry in the north west, not to talk of across other regions, feed into the intractable nature of the problem at hand. There are now more arms and ammunitions, with a broad spread of able-bodied persons ready and able to bear them, than the regime can contain, with or without mercenaries. And, while an ideology -albeit quite flawed – inspired the earlier phase of the insurgency, it is now a profitable business in several ways. These include taxing the poor in the places under the sects’ control and raiding the poor in those places on the fringes of such control. This helps foster bridges with bandits who were never committed to any seemingly pious ideology in the first place.

It will take social-economic and political system change in Nigeria to make Boko Haram and its likes history. The army of would-be recruits of the Boko Haram sects can be won away from filling the ranks of different factions of Boko Haram only when these youths can be guaranteed the decent lives they deserve and hope that their tomorrow could be better than today here on earth. The abysmal state of deprivation that has been their lot is because a handful of millionaires and billionaires have pocketed the immense wealth in the country that could be used to provide health, education, housing, shelter etc for the masses.

The military has also committed war crimes over the years “including torture, rape and killing civilians during its fight against the Islamist insurgency”. This has helped fuel the insurgency. Matters are not helped by the regime’s denials and attacks against human rights bodies that raise such concerns. The over two million internally displaced persons from the war are also left to live in the most dreadful of conditions.

Repression of civilians is only marched by the incapacity of the under-resourced military to fight the insurgents. Rank and file soldiers as well as military top brass who have complained have been summarily dealt with. The army is more at home with killing unarmed EndSARS protesters than fighting Boko Haram. Working-class people cannot afford to place their fate in the hands of the military.

The emancipation of the poor masses can be won only by the poor working masses themselves. This has contributed to the calls for self-defence militias in the region. And indeed, revolutionaries must call for independent armed bodies of the downtrodden to defend themselves. An important fact that is left out in such calls and which the revolutionary left must wake up to is the task of building the influence of revolutionary ideas on the ground, as difficult as this obviously is. Otherwise, as we have seen with the “contradictory manner” of the development of the Civilian JTF, such initially independent efforts are more likely to become incorporated by the state.

The state as much as Boko Haram and bandits must be held liable for the continued slaughter of poor people in the north-east and across the country. The regime cannot stop this killing frenzy. Building a revolutionary movement rooted in working-class people and youth within the region and across the country is necessary to stop this carnage and build a better society where the social, economic, and physical security of working-class people can be established.

At moments of mass mobilisation and revolts in 2012 and more recently in October, we have seen Boko Haram fade into significance. But the vagabonds in power are more afraid of the power of our collective action as working-class people and youth than any danger Boko Haram poses to the poor people. That is why Governor Zulum tried to demonize the #EndSARS protests. But now, more than ever, we have to make the connections between increasing poverty of the majority while a few people are getting richer and continued insecurity which costs the lives of thousands of poor people.

Activists in the trade unions, social movements and communities must urgently and vigorously fight to kick out the corrupt and inept ruling class who benefit from this situation, and establish a government of the working people. That is how we can ultimately break this cycle of massacres and build a better society.

by Baba AYE

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