The Federal Government, controlled by the People’s Democratic Party since 1999, has always responded to terror attacks with a display of strength – using the police and the army – to no noticeable result so far. President Goodluck Jonathan is no different from his predecessors. He clearly says there is no space for dialogue and negotiation with Boko Haram. Other politicians hope for a change of tactics and propose an amnesty like the one offered to the Mend, in the south. Among these we find former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Sultan of Sokoto, and the governor of Borno State. However, Boko Haram leaders are the first to declare they do not want dialogue.
Responding to the crisis, on January 1st the President has imposed the state of emergency to some areas (5 in Borno, 5 in Yobe, 4 in Plateau and 1 in Niger States). After the terror attacks of January 9th, he expressed the opinion that Boko Haram had infiltrated the government, the army, the police force and other security agencies. “The situation – said Jonathan – is worse today than it was during the civil war in 1967-70, when a million people died. During that conflict we knew where the attack would come from, we knew the enemy. Today the challenge is far more complicated”.
The president is from the south and seems to have a poor grasp of the situation in the north. His deputy, northerner Mohammed Namadi Sambo, is not vocal and might not help Jonathan. The president knows well he is not welcomed by many northerners, who see in him a usurper since he took power from Umaru Yar’adua who died in office during his first term. Jonathan has won the election democratically, but in doing so he did not respect the silent pact that sees southerner presidents alternate with northern presidents every two terms.
However, it must be noted that even Yar’adua was accused of not understanding the challenged posed by Boko Haram. When Boko Haram’s activities started to intensify in 2008, Yar’adua did not worry too much. He went on with a planned visit to Brazil, letting the army deal with the crisis. Once back, he had to face the embarrassment of the violence committed by the security forces and accept a commission of inquiry to investigate the events. The commission, led by former general Abdul Sarki Muktar, focused on the capture and death of Yusuf and other leaders of Boko Haram. Yar’adua remained convinced that the real issue to face was the amnesty to the Mend in the Niger Delta.
The choice of violent confrontation is a sour refrain sang often by the Federal Government. When ethnic tensions surfaced in 1962 in occasion of a controversial census, the coalition government of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa sent the army, the victims were counted in the thousands. The Junta led by General Yakubu Gowon decided to use the army to face the rebellion of the Biafra region, causing more than one million deaths.
Civilian administration did not fare better. President Shenu Shagari sent the army to fight against the Islamic movement Maitaitsine, and causing more than 10,000 deaths in a few years. Violent was the response to the Ogoni people, who were protesting against the abuse of oil companies in the Delta. The arrest, rigged trial and execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 became the icon of the injustice prevalent in Nigeria at that time.
History tells us that Nigeria has always preferred militarization to democratization and the rule of law. In 1999 the army quenched a rebellion of the Odi, a small ethnic group, amidst massacres, rapes and arsons. In 2001, tensions in Zaki-Biam resulted in the army killing at least 200 civilians to revenge the death of 19 soldiers. The man behind these two last cases is the same Obasanjo who know preaches the search for a compromise.