Terror alert and doubting Thomases
The United States and United Kingdom embassies in Nigeria have raised an alarm over a possible terror attack on facilities in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. Other countries have followed suit. These include Denmark, Bulgaria, Germany, Ireland and Canada.
Although these countries are addressing their message to their citizens living in or visiting Nigeria, it is obvious that the message is also for the benefit of Nigerians and the Federal Government.
The United States advisory says that the terrorists might target such places as government buildings, places of worship, schools, markets, shopping malls, hotels, bars, restaurants, athletic gatherings and transport terminals, and facilities belonging to law enforcement agencies and international organisations.
The American embassy, therefore, directed its non-essential staff and their family members to either leave the FCT or avoid public places. Many of the places mentioned by the embassy have been attacked by terrorists either in Abuja or elsewhere in the country so they are all potentially vulnerable. Terrorists always go for the big numbers and big names that can dominate the headlines and draw attention to their cause, whatever that is.
Several churches and mosques have been attacked in the past to make a maximum impact because of the large number of people gathered in those places. Facilities belonging to the police and the Armed Forces have also been attacked. Therefore the list of possible targets named by the United States embassy is not surprising.
On July 5, this year the Kuje Correctional Centre, a medium security facility on the outskirts of Abuja, was attacked by ISWAP fighters and hordes of inmates escaped. Some of them have been re-arrested while others are still unaccounted for.
It was stated at the time that no fewer than 546 inmates of that facility had escaped. Specifically, ISWAP fighters freed 64 of their members. So even if the advisory by the American and other embassies is regarded as mere speculation it is better to accept it as a valid speculation based on the fact that some of the terrorists and hardened criminals have not been recaptured.
Based on our experience in the past few years whereby even security outfits such as the Army cantonment and police headquarters were infiltrated by the terrorists, it is best for Nigeria to adopt the worst-case scenario.
We are informed that there is a massive deployment of special forces, soldiers and the elite Presidential Guards Brigade as well as regular police personnel for overt and covert counter-terrorism operations. That is as it should be.
The police hierarchy has directed police commands to conduct stop and search operations. That, too, is as it should be. The Federal Government has assured the public that the security agencies are on top of the situation. It has also asked Nigerians not to panic.
In matters of security, there can never be any foolproof guarantee that nothing can go wrong. Even countries with the most up-to-date technology for intelligence gathering sometimes fall short because terrorists only need to strike at one target successfully for the needed impact to be made in the minds of the people. And no government, no matter how efficient, is ever able to police efficiently all vulnerable targets. The 9/11 episode in the United States took America by surprise and thousands of people lost their lives.
The calamity was traced to Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and it took America ten years to track down the most notorious terrorist at a residence in Abbottabad in Pakistan. The Barrack Obama government got full marks for being able to track down and eliminate Bin Laden. That was the triumph of high achievement.
When Boko Haram started its operations in 2009 many people did not believe that it had the firepower, the resolve and the efficiency to torment Nigeria.
As we seemed to be dozing off in our unbelief those terrorists started making serious impacts in Borno State, taking territories and planting their flags in them. That was when we knew that we were in for a serious endeavour.
Now, thanks to the courage and determination of our security forces, large portions of Borno State have now been reclaimed and a rehabilitation process is being efficiently handled by the government. But the Boko Haram exploits must tell us something namely that if the citizens are uneducated and unemployed they remain vulnerable and easy targets for recruitment by terrorists.
By targeting schools, especially girls’ schools, Boko Haram has damaged education in the north. Of the 20 million out-of-school children announced by UNESCO most of them are based in northern Nigeria. That is a major disaster waiting for Nigeria at the corner.
In countering terrorism no policy is absolutely perfect. The Zamfara State government thought it could use the policy of appeasement in resolving the banditry problem in its state. It asked the bandits to surrender their arms and get rewarded with amnesty. A few of them brought low-quality arms but retained the sophisticated ones. They got amnesty but the problem persisted because there was no honest intention on the part of the bandits to stop their dirty but profitable business.
Now the government has said there is no more amnesty. A policy of amnesty is a double-edged sword. If there is honesty on both sides things can go swimmingly but the chances are high that hardened criminals will remain that way because that is the life they know. That is why the Zamfara and Katsina states have now told their citizens to arm themselves for their self-defence. That may seem an attractive option but there are problems.
One, most ordinary citizens cannot afford to buy expensive, sophisticated arms. Even if they can afford they may not be able to get the licence to use it legally because licences are not issued to ordinary people for such quality of arms.
Two, if they are caught using such sophisticated arms, even the state government that said they should defend themselves cannot save them from the wrath of the law. So any government that simply tells its people to defend itself is simply betraying its helplessness. The only weapons that such citizens can lawfully use are matchets and bows and arrows. Those ancient tools can stand no chance in a confrontation with AK-47s.
The Borno State government has tried the policy of appeasement by rehabilitating repentant terrorists and trying to return them to their various communities. But the problem that the government is confronted with is how to convince the people in those communities to forgive them and forget the trauma to which they were subjected by these people.
The people find it difficult to believe that they will not return to their bad ways. Also, in law and order terms how do you appease someone who has committed serious criminal offences and still feel justified to send to jail, people who have committed far milder offences? That is inequity. That is injustice. So for most people, a carrot policy towards so-called repentant terrorists is unworkable, unimplementable and unjust.
The Nigeria Police is taking appropriate measures by directing its personnel in all jurisdictions to beef up security in their territories. At the same time, it is saying that the terror alert is designed to destabilise Nigeria. I do not think so. The alert is basically for the benefit of their citizens and it is based on the experience of what has happened in various parts of Nigeria in the recent and not-so-recent past.
Besides, I don’t think that any of these countries has any special reason to seek to destabilise Nigeria with whom they all seem to have excellent relations. The point that must be emphasised is that terrorism is real from our past experience and has remained a global phenomenon, Nigeria did not except it. For me, the best approach is to adopt the worst-case scenario and do everything as if an attack is imminent. This is not the time to believe in doubting Thomases. It is a time to be realistic based on our past encounters with the menace.
Secondly, there must be more impactful communication to Nigerians on various platforms so that a high level of awareness can be created. Taking care of our security may be the major mandate of the security agencies but it must also be the major concern of all Nigerians. Every Nigerian must be on high alert and be in a position to report strange faces and strange movements to the authorities. Intelligence is highly important in counter-terrorism.
Thirdly, even though the terror alert is basically on Abuja it is necessary that we think the same way about all the major cities and towns in Nigeria. If Abuja is efficiently covered by the security agencies the terrorists might decide to look for soft, unpoliced targets elsewhere to achieve the same result. So the focus must be on all major cities, not just Abuja.
In all major cities access numbers must be provided so that citizens can report any untoward happenings within their territories to appropriate authorities. This is no time to allow naysayers and doubting Thomases to thrive. We must believe that the terror alerts are true and act appropriately. If nothing goes wrong we lose nothing. But if we doubt it and something goes wrong then we have ourselves to blame.