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BOKO HARAM: A war caught in ambiguity – Alkasim Abdulkadir

Alkasim Abdulkadir an experienced international freelance journalist blogs about his first encounter with the Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa;

I remember when news filtered in that Nigeria’s former President –Olusegun Obasanjo had visited the family of Yusuf Mohammed, Boko Haram’s ideological leader killed under extrajudicial circumstances by the State. Obasanjo was not the President his successor Umaru Yaradua was. As the piece of news settled in I wonder what was going through the minds of the upper echelon of the group. During the telephone interview I had with the spokesperson of the group Abul Qaqa for CNN I had asked him if the group was willing to negotiate. He had remarked that even the Prophet had laid down guidelines before negotiating with his adversaries; in their case he said only the Federal Government’s unconditional release of all their members held captive can guarantee a step to the process of negotiations.

The twelve minutes interview was the most courageous act I had ever done in my entire life, as I asked shakily –choosing my words carefully I tried to reconcile the carnage I had seen at the UN building bomb site. I struggled to reconcile the voice on the phone sounding almost serenely and courteous as he gave me the details of Mohammed Abul Bara  the 27 years old man from Yobe who had driven the Honda Accord car loaded with explosives. The detail shocked me to no end. Aside the shock it also meant outside the group this was the first time they were revealing the identity of the UN House bombing to any one! It was  I scribbled fast and hard –my hand trembling. I asked some more questions forgetting others that had formed in my mind. When I asked what was the rationale of their acts he quoted in Arabic Surah Tauba Verse 14 which states: Fight them; Allah will pinish them by your hands and bring them to disgrace, and assist you against them and heal the hearts of a believing people.

This is the rallying point of all the attacks they had carried out all year long. It is the thinking and motivation of Mohammed Manga as he attempted to ram his car into the police headquarters that resulted in his death and the injuries of several policemen. It is sadly also the motivation of several hundreds of members of Boko Haram. In the words of Abul Qaqa, they are mere mortals being used by God to fight the injustice and inequality in the land; an injustice in which the UN known for its global oppression was partnering with the Nigerian government.  Before he dropped the phone he had a word for journalists and radio stations –they most stick to facts of the matter. They should get in touch with them to verify issues before going to the Press. Boko Haram didn’t want to be on a collision course with media he added. I closed my note pad and breathed in and out. The phone call sounded surreal as the images of the UN House flashed again before me. After cross-checking editorial ethics CNN released the news and the global media retold the narrative. The Security agencies released the pictures of two people that had been arrested and a man hunt for a called Mamman Nur ensued.

A typical scenario to the pointer of a city under siege is Fridays at the Abuja Central Mosque, if one was ever in doubt of the clear and present danger the scene painted here brings it closer home. That of semi-automatic gun wielding SS operative asking motorists not to park beside the mosque aided by a member of the Anti-Terrorist Squad  (ATS) checking those with bags while operatives others sit at alert in a van with the lettering ‘Anti-bomb squad’.

It’s a simple fact that ours is a case of a reactive intelligence, when those the security agents are up against are always ahead of the curve and are left to always play catch up. Our intelligence needs to move to more covert style operation, not the obvious I-am-an-S-S-guy type that we have around. This coupled with a proactive community intelligence gathering technique can change the tide of things. This should not only be applicable to militancy or terrorism alone but it should be applicable to the unsolved assassinations and even armed robberies that have bedevilled the country.

Our total lack of preparedness to tackle disasters came to fore in the wake of the UN bombing, the underbelly of our emergency response was exposed to highlight our ineffectual state.  This is despite the fact we don’t suffer from raging bush fires, tsunami, hurricanes, mudslides, volcanic eruption and earth quakes. The mere meaning of the word ‘emergency’ points to the fact that it is unexpected, but it is as if the denotation is lost on our security agencies and health care system. One of the biggest problems is not that we don’t know what to do, but how to do it. I remember begging and shouting at two policemen to allow some Red Cross officials enter the UN premises after they had begged on end. Another instance was when an Army General accosted a Civil Defence man walking with Sniffer dogs and barked at him ‘who authorized him to bring the dogs to the scene’.   The entire FCT health system which is a model to the rest of the country wasn’t prepared for an emergency of this magnitude. It didn’t expect 8 intensive care patients and more the 70 people with various degrees of injuries from the blasts as such the blood bank soon started calling for donations to augment their supply. As residents heeded the call to donate blood this in turn angered the crowd of sympathisers that had already gathered at the National Hospital.

At the UN House blast site near the epicentre rescue operation was in full uncoordinated swing with members of the FRSC disagreeing with the fire service and the  Anti-Terrorist Squad watching in disbelief, the Army and Police all trying to do  their to secure the perimeter of the building. The bottom line remained that their efforts weren’t coordinated as a team on rescue and evacuation. There were too many weak links. I remember a NEMA top official complaining that people were tampering with the evidence; I had to tell him as the NEMA official in charge of the operation he should ask them to leave and come behind the accident tape barrier. However, it was a lot of courage for the men who did the rescue and evacuation, ferrying so many injured and dead people, gathering mangled flesh in body bags required more than a requisite training but also deep humanity.

The hospitals on the other hand were and still ill equipped and under staffed by an ill motivated work force. The latter coupled with an inept and sluggish bureaucracy is the distressing quartet that is Nigeria’s red tape to a viable health sector.

The sad aspect of the aforementioned is how doctors in Nigeria get paid pittance and end up working twice as hard as they should. It is this scenario that makes doctors join the brain drain wagon to practice in other climes where their trade is highly appreciated and well remunerated.   This singular absence of inspiration is the reason for the impersonal and near loathsome nature of nurses, midwives and other paramedics towards patients.

Information management during emergencies is one area that needs tightening NEMA and the security agencies should set up a Joint Communication and Data Centre that will be authorised to give out reliable information to news agencies, relatives and the general public. Not until FCT PRO Jimoh Moshood rallied the journalists present for an on the spot briefing by Police Commissioner Micheal Zoukomor -the first official statement almost 4 hours after the explosion; before then we had gathered the bits of evidence and at some point journalists had more information than the officials. Even though Channels, AIT, ITV and even NTA were on ground and had started covering the blast.  The Nigerian Television Authority, Africa’s largest TV network located about 20 minutes from the blast site was showing the Osogbo Festival while I had already gone live on CNN. I received a call from Kristoffer Rønneberg of Aftenposten, a Norwegian Newspaper. They called after seeing my tweet on the death of a Norwegian lady later identified as Ingrid Midtgaard. They calls kept coming from BBC Wales, BBC TV, CNN Wires and later at about 8 pm I was a guest on the BBC Have Your Say Program. The last interview came at 10 PM on France 24. It is inexcusable that we wait for others to tell our people the narratives of our tragedy. The days of NTA’s editorial guidelines asking it to be pro-government should have ended in 1999.

I have always advocated for dialogue in this on going war in which we are not ready for. Military action as exemplified by similar examples in other parts of the world has the tenacity to breed more foot soldiers. Each deadlier than the last; pacifism is also a strategy.

The army of unskilled, uneducated, unemployable disenchanted young men growing in Nigeria –especially in Northern Nigeria must be giving hope beyond measure. The only war we can fight against future insurrection and the only fruitful engagement we can with future armies that may rise in this nation is to deliver continuously on the mandate of good governance and accountability. We must pray hard in order to get it right. Afterwards we must get it right.

This article first appeared in Ynaija magazine in 2011.

Alkasim Abdulkadir: has worked as a Producer for the BBC-WST he has also contributed stories to CNN, BBC and France24. He also contributes regularly to the Nigerian Dialogue online platform.

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