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Revisiting President Buhari’s ‘warm reception’ by ISWAP in Maiduguri

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
28 December 2021   |   4:20 am
President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent working visit to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, was eventful and richly rewarding in many ways.

Buhari

President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent working visit to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, was eventful and richly rewarding in many ways. Apart from the many impactful projects that he was invited to commission, the ‘warm reception’ by the Boko Haram/Islamic State of West African Providence (ISWAP) achieved prominence.

In his Christmas homily, Bishop of Sokoto Catholic Diocese, Reverend Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, tasked state and federal governments “to develop a more honest, open, and robust strategy for ending the humiliation of our people and restoring social order.”

The ISWAP terrorists saw the President’s visit, not only as a good opportunity to make a strong statement about their murderous insurgency, but also to open his eyes to the naked realities of the prolonged war on terror in the region.

Although five persons lost their life on account of the grenades and improvised explosive devices, including rocket fired by the insurgents, the casualty figure did not diminish the huge psychological impact of the attack. ISWAP succeeded in handing to the President a surprise Christmas package that changed his rating of the crisis.

May be the criminals meant the forays as warning shots, but simply put, it could be said that the terrorists gave President Buhari what could be regarded as a true verdict on the state of the warfare in the troubled region.

True to type and in the character of a battle-tested soldier, the President rebuffed the assaults on soft targets and completed his assignment in the city. However, it is as if the terrorists needed to put the record straight, since the Federal Government through the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed insisted the insurgents had been technically defeated, downgraded, Boko Haram and its ISWAP partners.

Therefore, targeting the Commander-in-Chief seems to have become their new strategic communication means. For instance, prior to the Maiduguri rocket attack, exactly one year ago, bandits swooped on Government Boys Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State around the same time President Buhari arrived the state for a weeklong visit to his country home, Daura.

The terrorists, which operated with the psychedelic name of bandits abducted 54 students just as the Katsina State Police Command announced that a total number of 200 students had earlier escaped from the abductors.

Also seven months after the attack on GBSS Kankara, the bandits brazenly ‘rustled’ about nine students alongside one teacher from an Islamiyya School in Sakkai community of FAskari Local Government Area of the state. The Police Public Relations Officer, Katsina State Command, Isa Gambo, who confirmed the incident disclosed that the school children were on their way back from their evening lesson when the criminals stole them.

Although Isa denied that the abduction took place in the school premises, he explained, “The students met the hoodlums coming into the village to perpetrate their crime. The hoodlums took the opportunity to grab the students and took them away on their motorbikes.”

If the abductions in the President’s home state were close, the rocket attack during his Maiduguri visit was closer home. The President heard ISWAP loud and clear. The government confirmed its worry over ISWAP’s strike capabilities.

That must have informed another hurried security meeting convened by the President after his trip to the theatre of war. By his admission, the Inspector General of Police, Usman Baba told State House Correspondents after the meeting that although the multiple rocket attacks, which left five persons dead and houses destroyed did not achieve the aim of the terrorists, it was of concern to government.

The IGP said the emergency National Security Council (NSC) meeting reviewed the incidents, adding that the ISWAP rockets landed in different areas, including Ngomari, Bulumkutu, Ajilari, and Ayafe communities and left destruction on their wake.

While expressing worry over ISWAP’s ability to launch rockets, the IG lamented that “they are launching it in major towns, they are launching it in Maiduguri. It is a concern, and it has been seriously checkmated. There are efforts to continuously checkmate it.”

Baba, however disclosed that President Buhari gave marching orders to the security and intelligence chiefs, saying, “The government and security forces were particularly concerned about the rocket attacks. President Buhari, during the meeting, tasked all security and intelligence chiefs in attendance to increase the heat against the terrorists and all other criminals.

“There is no sparing of any terrorist and there must be an intelligence gathering, there must be proactive prevention of crime and there must be checkmating of all those that are involved in criminal activities, whether it is terrorism, banditry or armed robbery or whatever. That is what we are trying to do to the best of our knowledge and ability.”

The Presidency, nay government’s stance after the Maiduguri outing contrasted with previous bland statements, particularly after the Kankara abduction. Back then, in a statement by Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media, Garba Shehu, President Buhari “urged the school authorities to carry out an audit of the population of the students following shootings in and around the school that sent hundreds of them fleeing and scrambling over perimeter walls.

“I strongly condemn the cowardly bandits’ attack on innocent children at the Science School, Kankara. Our prayers are with the families of the students, the school authorities and the injured.”

Zulum

Without displaying his concerns at the sporadic rocket attacks barely one hour to his arrival to Maiduguri, President Buhari assured troops in the state capital that the attacks by the insurgents should be equated to the last kicks of a dying horse.

The multiple explosions that detonated in surrounding communities to Maiduguri around 10.46 a.m., that is about one hour before the Presidential jet touched the tarmac at 11.40 a.m., were later found to have been facilitated by grenades and locally improvised explosive devices.

It could not be ascertained if the President would have undertaken the trip had the attacks happened the night before. Yet, without betraying any emotions, President Buhari, who was received on arrival by Borno State governor, Prof. Babagana Umara Zulum, his deputy, Usman Kadafur, the army chief and other securities officers, visited the Airforce Base.

Addressing members of Operation Hadin Kai’ that are on the vanguard of the assault on the terrorists, the President urged them to remain steadfast “as you go into the final phase of the campaign against insurgency and other criminalities.”

In a statement, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina said President Buhari enjoined “the troops to also stay focused to achieve our strategic end-state which is the defeat of all adversaries and restoration of an economically viable Northeast geo-political Zone and other parts of the country where Nigerians are free to go about their activities without fear or harassment.”

Muffled stratagems
PRESIDENT Buhari got elected into office in 2015 after three failed attempts on the tripartite promise of defeating insurgency, fighting corruption and reengineering the nation’s economy in a way to cater for the less privileged, particularly economic empowerment of the young.

Of the three planks on which Nigerians accepted the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), the issue of securing the country, particularly exterminating the Boko haram insurgency in the Northeast was topmost. And being a former military General with theatre experience, Nigerians looked up to Buhari to bring his wealth of military experience to bear in routing the insurgents, restoring and preserving national security and sovereignty.

But, six years on, reports from the troubled region show that the President’s body language has failed to titillate the insurgents into stupor or permanent extermination. To make matters worse, the Boko haram insurgents, which stoked the attempt to create an Islamic caliphate went into strategic alliance with the Islamic State.

It could be recalled that shortly after he mounted the saddle as President and Commander-in-Chief, Buhari ordered the military high command to move its directorate to the theatre of the war, namely Maiduguri, so as to operationalise its tactics and speed up command communication and control.

The President followed that up with shuttle visits to Nigeria’s next-door neighbours, including Niger and Cameroun and Chad. Many citizens heaved a sigh of relief in the quiet confidence that at last a General has come to win the war against Boko Haram insurgency.

But, while the air of optimism permeated the land, the major opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which was defeated in 2015 expressed reservations at the steps being taken to address the issue. PDP through its former National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh, claimed that Buhari’s strategies and tactics had become antiquated and therefore, incapable of achieving total elimination of insecurity in the country.

As if to prove PDP right, the push to excise the insurgents out of Sambisa forest and its precincts by the military seemed not to have anticipated that the fighters would distribute themselves into pockets of rampaging criminal bands.

Some commentators have raised serious issues about the intelligence gathering proficiency of the nation’s security architecture even as others complained of obvious lack of synergy among the various arms of the Army. They argue that the profusion of bandits in the otherwise safe zones in Northwest and North Central points to the possible dispersal of insurgents from the Northeast following the sustained heat from Operation Hadin Kai.

Taraba State Governor, Architect Darius Ishaku recently alerted the Federal Government to the existence of terrorist camps in his state. Not long ago, it was also reported that some armed men invaded Taraba communities and killed some villagers. Although the criminal elements were alleged to be secessionist Ambazonia militants seeking a separation from Cameroun, there has not been any official communication about the colour or identities of most armed gangs operating in the northern part of the country.

That lack of precise information apart from underscoring the low-level intelligence gathering efforts go a long way to throw up concerns about the existence of criminal franchises after the demise of the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau.

But, despite the dire security situation in the north, some Nigerians express worry that the military was being overstretched by involving troops in otherwise civil duties of protecting life and property. When State House correspondents posed the question of why the military has failed to conduct python dance or crocodile smile in the Northwest to stem banditry and profusion of small and assault weapons, the IG pointed at economic reasons.

Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lieutenant General Faruk Yahaya (Front).

While reacting to queries of the preponderance of more policemen in Southeast for instance, more than in areas prone to violent crimes, Usman explained that population, economic activities and other factors determine deployment.

“You see; it is an allegation that has not been proven. It has always been an allegation; the spaces are different, the whole of the Southeast, in terms of landmass, might not be as large as Niger State. So, certainly you may see a number of policemen within a very small space, trying to do policing work and you may see another number, not equal, doing much more than that.

“But, when we talk about policing a population or policing a place, where there is economic activity or policing in a place where there are more threats, then certainly you have to put more men to govern that small space and that is what you are seeing.”

The escalating pockets of criminal battalions in many states, especially within the North Central further raises a silent question about what state governments are doing with funds accruing to their states from the Federal Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) due to landmass. It should be noted that landmass is among the criteria guiding the distribution of federal revenue among the country’s federating units.

Complicit or destitute silence
THREE years into the Buhari administration, the government moved against openness about the insurgency, such that even the Bring BackOur Girls advocacy group was technically hushed to stifle information about the promise of recovering the missing Chibok girls.

At the height of that policy of hush and secrecy, more schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in Dapchi, Yobe State. Although the abductors returned 115 of the victims, Leah Sharibu was held back because according to testimonies of the released girls, she refused to renounce her Christian belief.

Following the failure to ensure the release of Sharibu and inability of the authorities to give account of the remaining Chibok girls in captivity, rights groups raised doubts over the government’s sincerity. At the height of allegations of connivance of certain high placed security personnel with the insurgents, the late military head of state, General Sani Abacha’s declaration that if insurgency lasts more than four months the government is responsible became a popular quote.

Did Boko Haram morph into a political instrument to choral the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan? That sentiment was held against Jonathan as basis of his administration’s failure to go after the abductors of the Chibok girls. Former Borno State governor, Senator Kashim Shettima, lamented that the Jonathan administration acted in denial on the speculation that the schoolgirls were merely shepherded to a hideout to make the government look bad.

Even at that, the Jonathan administration accused the opposition of orchestrating the abduction as part of its promise to make the country ungovernable for his administration.

But, in spite of the defeat of President Jonathan in 2015, the Buhari administration, which claimed during electioneering that it would rescue the children in six months and secure the nation, has found it inconvenient to talk about why the insurgents continue to wreak havoc.

There was thus an ominous silence on the state of the war against terror, such that Bishop Kukah, in his last year Christmas homily challenged the government to be forthcoming on the issues surrounding insecurity in the country.

On the Chibok girls, the Catholic prelate stated: “Although we seem to have moved on ignoring the fate of our children in the custody of evil men, this moral scar of shame on our face cannot be wished way. Tales and promises about planned rescues have since deteriorated into mere whispers.

“Nothing expresses the powerlessness of the families like the silence of State at the federal level. Today, after over seven years, our over one hundred Chibok girls are still marooned in the ocean of uncertainty. Over three years after, Leah Sharibu is still unaccounted for.

“Students of Federal Government College, Yauri, and children from Islamiyya School, Katsina, are still in captivity. This does not include hundreds of other children whose captures were less dramatic.

“We also have lost count of hundreds of individuals and families who have been kidnapped and live below the radar of publicity. We have before us a government totally oblivious to the cherished values of the sacredness of life.”

Bishop contended that the “silence of the federal government only feeds the ugly beast of complicity in the deeds of these evil people, who have suspended the future of entire generations of our children.

“Every day, we hear of failure of intelligence, yet those experts who provide intelligence claim that they have always done their duty diligently and efficiently. Does the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria not believe that he owes parents and citizens answers as to where our children are and when they are coming home?

“Does the President of Nigeria not owe us an explanation and answers as to when the abductions, kidnappings, brutal, senseless, and endless massacres of our citizens will end? When will our refugees from Cameroon, Chad or Niger return home? We need urgent answers to these questions.”

While commending the efforts of the security men and women, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto called on President Buhari to, “in collaboration with the governors who are doing their best to preserve and protect their people, develop a more honest, open, and robust strategy for ending the humiliation of our people.”

He said Nigerians have borne enough humiliation as communities and as a country, adding that the leaders should know that they exist to serve the led.

States/FG partnership
DURING his visit, President Buhari broached the aspect of state and federal government collaboration in fighting security concerns. Although state governors often claim that they support in equipping the Police, yet doubts are often raised as to how and to what the governors deploy the huge monthly security votes accruing to their offices.

A Senior Lawyer, Mr. Abiodun Layonu, told The Guardian in an interview that ordinarily, security should be accounted for, stressing that by making it into a blind account, state governor hide under the claim that security is not an issue to be openly discussed to misappropriate the funds.

But, praising Governor Zulum for partnering the Federal Government, President Buhari noted that his (Zulum’s) “continuous cooperation with the Federal Government in multiple spheres has been critical to the furtherance of our mutual efforts at restoring peace to the state.

“I particularly commend Your Excellency, Governor Babagana Umara Zulum, for your untiring commitment and cherished collaboration with my administration for the overall good of the people of Borno. Yours is a good example of the inherent benefits that are accruable from conscious positive interaction between the Federal Government and states,” Buhari stated.

The President also talked about manpower challenges, stressing that although it has limited the rotation of some units from the Theatre, it would be addressed through concerted efforts to increase recruitment and ensure that the remaining units due for rotation were relieved as soon as practicable.

Even as he commended the Minister of Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff, Service Chiefs and heads of all other security agencies “for forging a common front of collaboration and cooperation,” Buhari said it (collaboration) continues to enhance operations.

His words: “It was gratifying to observe some of these examples of collaboration during the Research and Development Exhibition at the recently concluded Chief of Army Staff’s Annual Conference and the launch of locally constructed Seaward Defence Ship at the Naval Dockyard. I urge you all to stay the course towards ensuring that we become self-sufficient in the production of our defence equipment in no distant future.

Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Lucky Irabor PHOTO: Twitter

“‘To my dear troops, as your Commander-in-Chief, I am mindful of your selfless sacrifices which in some cases have entailed paying the supreme price. The nation owes you a debt of gratitude for your commitment, dedication and unalloyed loyalty to the Constitution of the Federal Government of Nigeria.”

The President assured them that his administration “will continue to work with your respective heads to ensure that your welfare receives priority attention and that our wounded comrades are given the best medical care possible.”

“Your career is like no other because it is a conscious commitment and preparedness to give your best for the sake of others. I am therefore here on behalf of a grateful nation to thank and commend you for your service and sacrifices.

“I am delighted to be with you today and to convey my gratitude and that of the entire nation to you all, as you continuously strive to secure our dear country. The government would continue to ensure that the widows and children of fallen heroes were well catered for, to help them fully realize their potentials,” he stated.

The President disclosed that as his administration steps up military efforts, it remains “conscious of the efficacy of the employments of other lines of effort in our drive to ensuring the return of lasting peace to the Northeast Region.” He added that the Northeast Development Commission continues to make giant strides at improving the economic and social welfare of Nigerians in the region.

On the threats posed by criminals through the deployment of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Buhari noted that substantial resources have also been directed at procuring equipment for explosive ordnance disposal.

He said similar attention is being given to Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance Assets (ISTRA), adding, “These measures and the platforms being received would accord you the necessary reach, firepower and protection to project force across the Theatre and bring the fight to a logical and successful end.”

The President reminded the troops how at the onset of his administration, he emphasised the need to rejuvenate the Multinational Joint Task Force, saying “it was in realisation of the fluid and transnational nature of current threats and their propensity to hibernate in neighbouring countries.”

“I, therefore, urge you to continue to further strengthen your cooperation with the militaries of the other countries under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force in order to further optimize the mutual gains for our respective national security…

“The response exhibited across the theatre had shown extraordinary resilience and steadfastness in the face of adversity. That is the spirit, tenacity and resolve that the Nigerian Armed Forces is known for.

“Our country, just like all the others in the Sahel region, is faced with several security challenges that are largely characterized by the violent activities of non-state actors. This has necessitated several interventions aimed at ensuring the security of persons and property across the numerous hot spots,” he added.