Buhari’s health, 2019 and release of the Chibok girls
Last Saturday, Boko Haram unexpectedly released 82 Chibok girls, after a gruesome three years in captivity. Indeed, the entire world seemed to have moved on and forgotten these innocent girls. While the world was outraged by the use of chemical weapons against children in Syria, no one seemed to care about the fate of the Chibok girls. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo even speculated that the girls may never be seen again.
What prompted their sudden and unexpected release? The official spiel is that the girls had been swapped with some Boko Haram prisoners, in a deal brokered by Switzerland and some international NGOs. I believe, however, there are more complex reasons for their sudden release, and that the timing is very intriguing.
First, why would Boko Haram release the girls to an ailing President Muhammadu Buhari, who many believe has been so incapacitated that he could no longer prosecute the war against Boko Haram? Why would Boko Haram now be afraid and willing to negotiate with a Commander-in-Chief who has not met with his frontline officers for a long time? In military parlance, Boko Haram would expect the Nigerian army to be disorganised and in retreat. Boko Haram might, therefore, assume that Nigerian Army Chief-of-Staff, General Buratai’s recent visit to Brazil, instead of focusing on intensifying the onslaught against Boko Haram, reflects the army’s disorganisation and lack of command and control by the Commander-in-Chief.
Could the release of the girls be attributed to the fact that Boko Haram and its sponsors would want Buhari to claim credit for the girls’ release, rather than “President” Yemi Osinbajo? Could it have anything to do with the permutations for 2019? Perhaps to ensure northern unity and stability, Boko Haram and its benefactors may have come to the conclusion that it’s better to release the girls under Buhari than under Osinbajo. Maybe they do not want to see a situation whereby southerners would say: “see, your northern president did not succeed in releasing the Chibok girls, as he promised during the 2015 presidential election. Why, then, did you people castigate and voted against former president Jonathan for his failure to secure the release of the girls?”
Could it be that the sponsors of Boko Haram want to create a basis for power to be retained in the north in 2019? For one thing, the economy under Buhari is still fledgling and recessionary. Inflation and unemployment are very high, while the country continues to suffer infrastructural decay. Although the foreign exchange market has experienced a temporary respite, huge uncertainty still remains. It’s unclear whether the Central Bank of Nigeria’s strategy of intervening in the market with massive infusion of foreign exchange is sustainable in the long-run. Buhari’s health and his lack of effective control of economic policies have cast doubt over his ability to turn the economy around in a significant way. Thus, many observers expect the economy to be in limbo for as long as the president recuperates from his illness. With all these worrisome economic scenarios, there needs to be some positive news for the north to cling to power in 2019, especially if Buhari decides not to run, as is widely expected —-considering his frailty. Could the release of the Chibok girls be that positive news for the northern political elite, who are beginning to jockey for power ahead of 2019?
There is also the “Trump Factor” that cannot be easily jettisoned. It is possible that the release of the girls may be a ploy by Boko Haram to shift President Trump’s focus away from the terroristic group. Trump is known for his disdain for terrorist groups such as ISIS and its affiliates. During the U.S. presidential campaigns he often referred to the threats posed by Boko Haram, and criticised former president Barak Obama’s ineffectiveness in taming Boko Haram. Trump is always looking for the slightest opportunity to demonstrate his hawkish disposition. As Hilary Clinton always reminds us, Trump can be provoked by a mere tweet. Boko Haram is savvy enough to know that Trump is unpredictable, and would not hesitate to mobilise U.S. forces to decimate the terroristic group. In his telephone conversations with President Buhari last February, Trump promised to assist the president in the fight against Boko Haram. I’m sure Boko Haram’s de facto leader, Abubakar Shekau, heard that promise loud and clear. It is interesting that the girls were released just a few weeks after Trump launched tomahawk missiles against Assad, and a few days after he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to coordinate their attacks against terrorist groups worldwide.
In the euphoria that accompanied the girls’ release, it is easy to forget what led to their kidnap in the first place. While there are speculations about the motives for their abduction, what is indisputable are the underlying economic conditions that have fostered the emergence of groups such as Boko Haram, Indigenous Peoples Organisation of Biafra (IPOB), Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Niger Delta Avengers, etc. These groups emerged during a period of unprecedented economic deprivation in the country. The groups are populated by youths with no economic opportunities and a very bleak future. These youths grew up in a very inequitable and non-inclusive country, where stupendous affluence is juxtaposed with chronic poverty. They grew up in a country where monumental corruption is not only institutionalised, but also where proceeds from graft are often flaunted and celebrated. While Boko Haram may well be defeated someday, or some say have already been defeated, other violent forms of protest may emerge in the future, unless Nigeria’s rapacious economic deprivations are urgently addressed.
The release of the girls has also dispelled two misconceptions. Contrary to the baloney peddled by ardent supporters of former President Goodluck Jonathan, that the girls were not kidnapped to “harass” him out of the 2015 presidential race. If the motive was to harass him out of the race, the girls would have been released shortly after he lost the election. The fact that Boko Haram kept the girls for two years after the election suggests that their disappearance had nothing to do with Jonathan. Second, the release of the girls after three years in captivity is a clear testimony that Boko Haram is not some rag-tag terrorist group, as some have insinuated. It is a meticulously organised entity, with a very disciplined chain of command. Holding over 200 girls against their will for over three years is not a cake-walk! And keeping those girls from the prying eyes of sophisticated international security agents suggests that this is a seasoned and professional terroristic group. Be that as it may, we celebrate the girls’ return, and hope that the remaining girls will soon be released to their beleaguered families.
Onyeiwu is professor and chair, Department of Economics, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, USA.