/ 16 January 2015

Continent slow to damn terror attack

Hat in the ring: President Goodluck Jonathan has embarked on his re-election campaign
Hat in the ring: President Goodluck Jonathan has embarked on his re-election campaign

Escalating violence by Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, said to be responsible for a third of all civilian deaths in conflicts on the continent, was this week finally condemned by African governments, civil society organisations and the African Union (AU).

There are fears the violence will disturb Nigeria’s election next month.

The reaction in Africa to last week’s massacre of civilians in the northeast of Nigeria – particularly in the town of Baga, near the border with Chad – has been described as long overdue.

It is still not clear how many people died in the attack on Baga, the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force set up by the Lake Chad countries: Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. The military base was attacked during an earlier assault by Boko Haram on January 3.

A spokesperson for the Nigerian military, Major General Chris Olukolade, told the Nigerian media this week that an estimated 150 civilians had died in Baga, refuting claims of more than 2?000 deaths at the hands of Boko Haram.

Amnesty International initially raised the alarm over the high death toll. Daniel Eyre, a researcher for the organisation, told the Mail & Guardian from London that the organisation has been working in the area for a number of years and it obtained its information from local officials and human rights defenders.

Eyre said reports from those fleeing to the Borno state capital of Maiduguri indicate that scores of people were shot at in a spate of random killings. Because Boko Haram still occupies the area, it is impossible to verify the number of deaths, but “hundreds” of people could have been killed. “It is obviously difficult to come to an exact figure,” he said.

African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma waited until Monday to release a statement condemning the “despicable acts” of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Nigeria elections
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, meanwhile, is on the campaign trail to convince voters to give him a second mandate, despite the escalating threat from the insurgency and the perceived weak performance of the Nigerian army.

Jonathan and his ruling People’s Democratic Party are up against stiff opposition from former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, who leads the All Progressives Congress. Both candidates have vowed to win the fight against terror if elected.

Speaking from Enugu, political analyst Emmanuel Okoronta said, despite their claims, neither candidate has provided any convincing solutions to the Boko Haram threat.

“The opposition says it will rid the country of Boko Haram within two months, but they’re not telling us how they will do it. Where will they get the funds? Where will they get the equipment for the army?”

Okoronta, who chairs the Abuja-based Institute of Public Analysts and Political Scientists of Nigeria, said there has been no real public debate between the candidates so that the public can confront them about this issue.

He said the outcome of the poll will make no difference to Boko Haram, which is clearly “anti-state and anti-Nigeria” and refuses to negotiate with any Nigerian government, regardless of who wins the polls.

If fewer people than usual turn up to vote, it might be a tactical win for Boko Haram because it will easily label Nigeria as a weak and failing state, he said.

Next month’s election will be a close contest and doubts remain about the fairness of the poll.

“The incumbent still has a huge advantage because there is no equal access to the media and to military and police power,” said Okoronta.

Questions have also been raised about the logistical readiness of the Independent National Electoral Commission to run voting in this country of 170-million inhabitants.

Analyst Samuel Obadiah, from the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos, said it is clear from the latest events that Boko Haram is strategically “far ahead” of the Nigerian government.

“My problem is the lack of proactiveness and lack of credibility of the security agencies. There is a huge problem with gathering intelligence on the modus operandi of this deadly group.”

Obadiah says the government has only recently woken up to the lack of sufficient funding and equipment to fight Boko Haram.

Arms embargo
The government has been complained about the arms embargo against the country, put in place by the United States government following reports of human rights abuses by the Nigerian military.

Obadiah says the government can, however, turn to countries such as China, Russia or South Africa. “South Africa has important business interests to protect in Nigeria.” Nigeria has tried to buy arms from South Africa in the past, but these deals reportedly fell through.

South African media reported in October last year that South Africa had blocked two multimillion-dollar arms purchases from Nigeria, which included helicopters, unmanned aircraft, rockets and ammunition. The deals are now said to be part of a criminal investigation.

Clayson Monyela, the spokesperson for the department of international relations and co-operation, told the M&G he cannot comment on the issue of arms sales, but that South Africa has strongly condemned the Baga attacks and offered its support to Nigeria.

“There is nothing South Africa as a country can do, but we have made a call for the international community to rally behind Nigeria,” he said.

“In addition, our high commissioner in Nigeria is working closely with the Nigerian authorities in terms of sharing information about the situation.”

The AU’s Peace and Security Council was scheduled to discuss Boko Haram in Addis Ababa this Friday.

The terror threat in Nigeria is also likely to be high on the agenda of the 24th AU summit later this month.

So far, the AU and regional efforts such as the Lake Chad joint task force have had little impact.

The destruction of the task force’s base in Baga could further compromise their work in the area.

Insurgents put polls at risk

If the ferocious attacks by Boko Haram insurgents continue, the February 14 general elections in three of Nigeria’s six troubled northeast states may be abandoned, disenfranchising about 5.6-million voters.

The three states – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – provide the biggest support for the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) and had, until November, been under a state of emergency following the attacks by the Islamist insurgents.

Amnesty International says more than 850?000 displaced persons in the three states will be unable to cast their votes in the polls.

The chairperson of the country’s Independent Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega, has expressed fears that elections may not take place in certain areas if the attacks continue.

But the APC insists that elections must be held. “The ruling party is afraid of the contest, knowing well that we would win the general elections,” one candidate said.

At a forum organised by the African Policy Research Institute, Jega warned that, unless there is a significant improvement in the security situation in the northeast, voters there will not be able to cast their ballots.

About 16 strategic towns and villages in the three embattled states have fallen to Boko Haram, including Baga, Bama, Gwoza and Askira.

Government sources say the military is planning a major offensive and intends to increase the number of soldiers from 8?000 to 20?000 before the end of the month, and to boost the capacity of the air force.

Boko Haram uses the Sambisa forest in Borno state as its major base. Sources say it pays up to $1?500 to new recruits. – Moh Uwagbale Momoh