As far as atrocities by the terrorist Boko Haram sect go, there’s little that’s shocking any more. From strapping explosives to hapless teenagers to exploding bombs in mosques full of worshippers, we all thought they had plumbed the depths.
That was until the mindless massacre of 43 unarmed rice farmers in Zabarmari village, 25 kilometres from the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on Saturday.
It wasn’t just the numbers, it was the barbaric manner of their execution that provoked global outrage. First, they were tied up by their captors who then proceeded to slit their throats.
As the nation reeled from the latest assault on unarmed civilians by the Islamists, the recurring clamour for the sacking of security chiefs quickly followed.
We are told in regular bulletins by the Nigerian Army and Air Force how scores of terrorists have been neutralised, or their logistics facilities destroyed, in bombing raids. But the best of these efforts don’t appear to be weakening them.
For a group the authorities repeatedly claim to have degraded or technically defeated, Boko Haram or ISWAP, retains a remarkable capacity to carry out attacks that embarrass the authorities.
The latest atrocity has been met not with the usual defensiveness or finger-pointing on the part of government, but a collective resort to handwringing.
While Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai, boasts about not allowing terrorists hold an inch of Nigerian territory, maniacal insurgents seem content to not hold ground – preferring instead the sort of headline-grabbing bloodbath that can demoralise the military, government and people.
Before our very eyes, whatever gains the President Muhammadu Buhari administration made over the last four years in the war in the Northeast, is being rolled back as Boko Haram roams freely through ungoverned spaces and terrorises isolated rural communities.
Now, the confused populace are demanding answers.
It’s not as if many have better ideas how the insurgents can be defeated. What has been promoted over the last year and a half as a sure fire fix is the sacking of security chiefs. The National Assembly just reiterated its position that they be kicked out.
Buhari who has the power to fire them is in no hurry to do so. The Presidency argues he’s keeping them because he’s satisfied with their application. Unfortunately, war like many professional sports is a results business. You are rewarded for results, sanctioned for failure.
Throughout history commanders have been sacked when they were not delivering victories. During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln fired a succession of underperforming commanding generals, as Confederate forces inched ever closer to Washington D. C. He kept stripping them of command until he found Ulysses S. Grant under whose leadership the tide of the war began to turn.
Many are at a loss why the president is resistant to trying new hands and a fresh approach when everything the current crop of commanders have thrown at the conflict doesn’t appear to be working.
It’s Buhari’s choice to cling to the current commanders. But in doing so he alone bears responsibility if they are unable to rein in the insurgents or contain the myriad security threats across Nigeria. The pressure is on him to deliver on an electoral promise to end insecurity in the land – using the ideas and methods of this same underwhelming team.
But a word of caution here. A mere change of faces may not necessarily alter the course of the war if fundamental problems hobbling the government’s efforts are not addressed.
That the situation is dire is driven home by the fact Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum, is calling on the Federal Government to hire mercenaries to prosecute the war! His call has been backed other governors from the geopolitical zone.
The very suggestion is an unflattering assessment of the ability of the Nigerian military to defeat the insurgency.
Zulum’s proposal isn’t exactly strange or novel. From the Nigerian Civil War to similar conflicts across Africa, such contractors have fought side by side with the local military – albeit with a patchy record of success.
It’s an open secret that the Goodluck Jonathan administration patronised these dogs of war – especially during the six-week window the then Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government procured ostensibly to drive back insurgents so the 2015 general elections could hold in relative peace across the Northeast.
So much for progress if five years after dispensing with the likes of South Africa’s Executive Outcomes we are again dreaming of hiring mercenaries.
Mercenaries are a quick, but not-so-sure fix given that their motivation is mainly pecuniary, whereas our own troops would be driven by patriotism to defend and die for their country.
I doubt whether Buhari, a proud product of the Nigerian military establishment, would buy into such a dicey scheme – given its potential to damage the image and morale of the armed forces.
What Zulum and his colleagues should be doing is pushing the government to address those issues that are sapping the will of our forces to conclusively defeat the insurgents.
These issues are not hidden. They include welfare and properly equipping troops with what is needed to prevail in the war. In the aftermath of the Zabarmari killings, Minister of Information and Culture, moaned about the unwillingness of certain world powers to sell Nigeria the arms needed to defeat the terrorists.
This, again, isn’t a new. Back in October 2014, a private jet carry two Nigerians and an Israeli was arrested in South Africa with $9.3 million cash meant to procure arms in a shadowy deal.
In the past the United States and other Western countries have been reluctant to sell arms to Nigeria because government soldiers were accused by human rights groups of torture and extrajudicial execution of suspects. US laws ban sale of lethal weapons to countries whose military are accused of such abuses.
It is for our government to engage these countries and clear any misunderstanding. Alternatively, we can buy weapons from Eastern European and Asian countries who are too finicky about such issues.
But Boko Haram will never the defeated without collaboration with neighbours like Chad and Cameroun. For as long as these fighters can flit in and out of surrounding countries our own efforts will never be enough to destroy them.