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A disaster foretold


Government Science and Technical College in Dapchi, Yobe State, where 110 girls were abducted by Boko Haram last week. PHOTO: AFP

President Muhammadu Buhari, in the absence of any stronger word, rightly described the Chibok-style abduction of about 110 students of Government Girls Science and Technical College, Dapchi in Yobe State last week by the Boko Haram insurgents as a national disaster.

Indeed it is a disaster, a national calamity many times foretold.

I had warned in recent past that Boko Haram, contrary to the optimism in official circles, had not been tamed, vanquished or even radically decapitated or degraded to the extent that we could all go home and sleep with our two eyes closed.

I had likened the successes achieved so far to a snake that had only been scorched, not killed; that while this venomous snake was in its death throes, it was still dangerous and viciously potent to the extent that it could inflict a more serious harm on its victims.

Boko Haram’s sporadic suicide attacks which had become more vicious and getting more widespread in Maiduguri and other remote villages in Borno State were only a dress rehearsal.

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The insurgents were apparently plotting and hatching a major operation - the forceful carting away of vulnerable female students for the singular purpose, it would now seem, of using them to extort more ransom in dollars and euros and pound sterling from the Buhari administration to replenish their armoury and refuel their fire-power.

When the first batch of 21 Chibok girls were freed in October 2016, the exultant President Buhari gave his word that more of the Chibok girls, if not all of them, would regain their freedom from captivity soon.

In May last year, 82 of them regained their freedom after a prolonged negotiation with a possible exchange of prisoners or payment of ransom. The President had kept his word and promised to do more.

Though the government was silent on the conditions for their release, it came to pass later that many of the Boko Haram captives in government custody were set free by the government having ascertained that those released had repented.

Foreign media like CNN speculated that the government, in addition to setting free some Boko Haram commanders, had also paid princely sum of money as ransom for the release of the Chibok girls.

Some of us had argued that there was no amount of money too much to pay to secure the release of the innocent girls in captivity.

As the negotiations continued to free the rest of the girls and other captives, the gallant soldiers in their operations, code-named Lafia Dole, had also intensified their efforts to stamp out the insurgency, but unfortunately not with an unqualified success.

Those who are versed in this kind of asymmetric warfare, the type the insurgents are engaged in, have consistently pointed out that it is not the kind of conventional war that can be declared completely won and lost but the euphoria of our troops somehow helped to lure the citizens into a false sense of security leading to many successful suicide attacks.

This is the scenario that had played out in Yobe State with dire consequences.

In a carefully choreographed operation, the Boko Haram insurgents came to Dapchi with many vehicles, as they did in Chibok, some four years ago, and carted away defenceless female students.

As in Chibok, the soldiers stationed in the town to enhance security were withdrawn one week before the invasion ostensibly because of shortage of personnel.

As in Chibok, the account of what happened was dismally incoherent and divergent. It took two federal government delegations into Dapchi to find out the true situation; Information Minister Lai Mohammed, who led the delegation, confirmed that 110 students were now known to be missing.

The governor said the figure was 84 but the parents who had volunteered information put their own figure at 105.

Whatever the case, the disputed figures should not stand in the way of what needs to be done urgently. And what the public and the traumatised parents of the girls are interested in, more than the dispute over figures, is the rapid rescue of the captives; though that too had unfortunately proved impossible on the short run after a lull of one full week, long enough time for the captors and their prey to escape the long hands of security agents.

Some tentative deductions are however in order. In my view, it is silly, naïve and grossly inhuman to play politics with the abduction of the Dapchi girls.
Those intent on creating cheap popularity for Mr President, would wish to compare the way he has so far handled the Dapchi girls’ abduction with the unfeeling and insensitive way his predecessor in office had handled the Chibok episode.

Yes, the president has loudly condemned the abduction. He has despatched fact-finding mission to Dapchi twice in four days to ascertain the true situation. And he had ordered security men to pursue the captors and free their hostages. All this comes with the territory of his office.

Others are putting the abduction squarely at the doorsteps of political adversary, coming close to next year’s elections.

Those mouthing such inanities are nothing but idle interlopers who should be brushed aside to avoid any distraction, because the president must consider the latest violent abduction of defenceless and most vulnerable students as an affront to his gallantry as a war veteran, a respected general, not to say anything about his being an officer and a gentleman.

If he inherited Chibok girls palaver, the Dapchi abduction has come under his own watch, coming at a time when the official narrative was loud and clear – that Boko Haram had been technically degraded and rendered incapacitated.

Each time I hear officials of government and even the spokesmen of the military, who are in hot pursuit of the insurgents, say with absolute certainty that the Boko Haram was a shadow of its former self, with Abubakar Shekau, its leader, fleeing in a woman’s dress, hijab and all, it brings to mind the comic relief the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf brought to information management during the Iraqi invasion.

He became so popular especially in 2003 not for his accurate information dissemination, but for the comic way he handled it. Even when it became clear that the invading American troops were indeed pounding Baghdad, the capital, the minister insisted to the end that there was no way America was going to overrun his country.

Iraqi forces, he insisted, were determined to vanquish the enemy.

A good student of Paul Joseph Goebbels, of Nazi Germany, who said that a lie, when told a number times, becomes the truth, Saeed al Sahaf, stuck to his post and his story line, laced with untruths and propaganda, until the day before the fall of Baghadad.

Then he threw in the towel but with his head unbowed.

Governor Ibrahim Geidam put the blame for the invasion on the military. He said they had withdrawn the soldiers a week before the invasion when they should be there to prevent a re-enactment of the Chibok girls’ abduction.

He claimed the same scenario played out in 2014 when 29 students of the Federal Government College Buni Yadi also in Yobe State were massacred by Boko Haram.

On that occasion, the soldiers had also withdrawn. The Force Headquarters denied this claim saying the governor was simply being mischievous. The military according to a spokesman was never in Dapchi. The closest they were to Dapchi was about 30 kilometres away.

When incidents of this magnitude happen, it naturally throws up the usual blame game and assorted conspiracy theories.

One theory is that with payment of ransom to the bargain, various factions of the Boko Haram would turn insurgency into a money-making business by taking hostages at random to extort ransom.

Even without any group making claims for the current abduction, suspicious ransom demands, according reports, are now being made.

If this theory is anything to go by, then Nigeria must indeed be preparing to summersault into the inglorious club of failed states like Somalia where various warlords live by kidnapping and ransom taking. Certainly we cannot afford to add this dimension of human tragedy to our own tales of woe.

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