The Boko Haram Menace

The scene of an attack by two female suicide bombers on a mobile phone market in Potiskum earlier this month. Credit Adamu Adamu/Associated Press
The scene of an attack by two female suicide bombers on a mobile phone market in Potiskum earlier this month. Credit Adamu Adamu/Associated Press

Here in Nigeria’s commercial hub, it is tempting to regard Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group that for more than five years has waged war in the country’s far northeast, as a distant tragedy. We are, of course, aware of the fallout: the thousands of deaths, the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, the destroyed infrastructure — schools, churches, mosques, homes, police stations — that will take years, and millions of dollars, to rebuild. But in southern Nigeria, it is easy to feel removed from the crisis.

The reality, though, is that the insurgency’s impact ripples out across the country. A visit last year to a popular fabric market in Abeokuta, a city 100 kilometers north of Lagos, brought this home to me.

I was there to interview the merchants about their work. When we talked about the challenges they faced, I expected the usual: electricity, taxation, access to credit. So I was surprised when one woman mentioned Boko Haram. A number of her customers lived in northern Nigeria and had stopped placing orders since the insurgency began.

The trade links between north and south are even more apparent in agriculture. Much of Nigeria’s food comes from the troubled region. Potiskum, a city that the jihadist militants have attacked on several occasions in recent years, killing dozens, is one of the largest cattle markets in West Africa. Chibok, the village from which hundreds of girls were abducted last April, is a village of farmers, growing grain that goes to market across the country.

I spoke with a father of one of the missing girls last year, a few months after the abductions. Besides worrying about his missing daughter, he hadn’t been able to plant anything, and the season was almost over. Not only would he be unable to feed his remaining family, but there would also be nothing to sell.

For Nigerians, the economy is an ever-present concern: The country often seems at the mercy of cyclical oil prices, currency devaluations and budget deficits. But Boko Haram’s campaign of terror has emerged as the single most important issue facing Nigeria.

What is unfamiliar and hard to adjust to is the sort of threat to the nation that Boko Haram represents. Nigeria is no stranger to instability: Our history is rife with communal clashes and civil unrest, with casualty figures unimaginable in America. In the late 1960s, the country was torn apart by a civil war over the secession of the Biafra region that resulted in the deaths of more than a million people.

But no crisis in recent history has matched that created by the insurgency in the north. The cumulative death toll now exceeds 11,000. Its stated aim is to create an Islamic caliphate, but Boko Haram shows little impulse toward establishing its legitimacy as an alternative government. The reports of a massacre this month in Baga, and satellite images of wholesale destruction in nearby Doro Gowon, affirm the fact that Nigeria is facing an army of psychopaths masquerading as Islamic proselytizers — and the only reasonable response should be military force.

Instead, the government keeps stumbling from one disaster to another, leaving most of us mystified about why the insurgency has been so horribly mishandled. After the Chibok girls were kidnapped, it took President Goodluck Jonathan three weeks to address the nation, and months went by before he met with their families.

The international community, too, has grown impatient. The United States government has refused to sell arms to Nigeria, not trusting either the competence or human rights record of the military. When a Nigerian plane, laden with $9.3 million in cash, was detained in South Africa last September, the government was forced to admit that it was trying to purchase weapons on the black market. Soon after, a triumphant declaration of a cease-fire with Boko Haram turned out to be a hoax; senior government officials had been hoodwinked.

The fiascos continue. The Baga massacre was greeted with silence from the president, while the military played down the number of casualties. Instead, Mr. Jonathan condemned the terrorist attacks in Paris, and we were treated to media photos of the president’s niece’s wedding, which took place on the weekend the news about Baga broke.

Such missteps have, not surprisingly, come to define Mr. Jonathan’s government, and caused whatever achievements he might boast of to pale. When the opposition, campaigning ahead of next month’s general election, accuses him of corruption, the country’s ballooning security budget — from which there seems so little benefit — is one of the issues they highlight.

At an election rally in southwestern Nigeria earlier this month, I heard an opposition politician tell the crowd that the only way to ensure the safety of their children was to vote for Muhammadu Buhari. General Buhari, a 72-year-old retired army officer who ruled Nigeria 30 years ago, is the best placed to win of the candidates challenging Mr. Jonathan.

His All Progressives Congress party promotes an ambitious program to create jobs, tackle corruption, provide free education and health care, and invest in infrastructure, but its plans have been short on detail. Yet the clamor for change from what we’ve seen over the last four years has come to trump, for many, whatever uncertainty might surround the prospect of a civilian Buhari presidency.

In his campaigning, Mr. Jonathan vigorously rebuts the idea that he has underperformed or is too tolerant of corruption. But he has mostly avoided mentioning Boko Haram. Perhaps he has realized that by now his cache of platitudes — “Terrorism is a global problem,” “Nigeria is not alone in dealing with it,” “Nigeria will triumph” — sound hollow in a stump speech.

Nigerians need to take the decisive action that their president has failed to offer. My hope is that on Valentine’s Day, when the election takes place, Nigerians will remember the missing girls of Chibok, and the dead residents of Baga and the refugees of the north, and vote out a man who has demonstrated, beyond doubt, that he cannot inspire confidence as a commander in chief.

Tolu Ogunlesi is a journalist, poet and photographer, and the author of, most recently, the novella Conquest and Conviviality.

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