The Observer of London: Perilous polls amid Boko Haram
GOODLUCK Jonathan, Nigeria’s president, finally made it to Borno State last week, almost two weeks after the Islamist terrorist group known as Boko Haram seized the town of Baga and killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians. Jonathan, making a brief tour of the state capital, Maiduguri, congratulated the army on its work, notwithstanding its abject failure to prevent the massacre. “We thank you as a nation. Terrorism is a global phenomenon. We’re working day and night, trying to curtail this madness,” he said.
What Jonathan did not say was how he plans to break Boko Haram’s grip on 20,000sq km of territory spanning three north-eastern states or bring an end to the plague of murderous atrocities, suicide bombings, schoolgirl kidnappings and rapes it has unleashed.
The president is frequently criticised for inaction as the violence worsens. It sometimes seems he is trying to ignore a problem for which he has no answers. On average, an estimated 27 Nigerians were killed every day in terror-related attacks in 2014. Around 16,000 have died since 2009. Jonathan remained silent for many days after Baga, but immediately sent his condolences to France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Boko Haram’s loathsome leader, Abubakar Shekau, meanwhile expressed “joy” at the Paris killings.
Many reasons are given for Nigeria’s evident inability to defeat, or even contain, an insurgency whose ostensible aim is to create an Islamic caliphate under Sharia law. As Africa’s biggest economy, commanding Africa’s largest standing army, the country does not lack means. What it does plainly lack is effective political and military leadership. The 130,000-strong army is poorly equipped, trained and led and, say reports, outgunned by Boko Haram. Funding to fight the insurgency is allegedly lost to corruption. Jonathan, it is claimed, has neither the clout nor the inclination to confront incompetent or venal commanding officers in a country with a history of military dictatorship. So he peddles the idea that since terrorism is global, there is not much one government alone can do.
What Nigerians think about this deadly, do-little dilly-dallying may soon become clear, as the country prepares for presidential, parliamentary, gubernatorial and local elections on February 14. In what is predicted to be the closest contest since democracy was restored, Jonathan, strong in the largely Christian south and seeking a second term, faces a stiff challenge from opposition parties united behind the candidacy of Muhammadu Buhari, from the Muslim-majority north. A former military coup leader, Buhari earned a reputation for strong leadership and intolerance of corruption during his brief period in power in 1983-85. Analysts suggest that intense public yearning for an end to Boko Haram’s nihilism and to instability caused by rising communal, criminal and political violence may help the challenger, by overriding traditional voting patterns based on religious and ethnic affiliations.
This possibility helps explain Jonathan’s surprise visit to Borno, his first since declaring a state of emergency there in 2013. The prospect that continuing Boko Haram attacks may disrupt the polls in the north-east, or even lead to their cancellation, is another concern. If election returns are incomplete, the loser may reject the national result. To win the presidency, a candidate must obtain at least 25% of the vote in at least 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states. Concerned by spillover into Chad, Niger and Cameroon and by Nigeria’s political and military weakness, West African leaders will meet this week to discuss creation of a multinational force to fight Boko Haram.
Terrorism is far from being the only shadow hanging over the elections. Bad blood between the two main political alliances, inadequate preparations by the electoral commission and apparent pro-government bias by state agencies and the security forces may compound north-south friction and provoke factional violence. All the signs “suggest the country is heading toward a very volatile and vicious electoral contest”, said a recent report by the International Crisis Group.
All Nigeria’s political leaders bear a heavy responsibility to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the divisive 2011 polls, when more than 800 people died in post-election mayhem. But partisan name-calling and inflammatory rhetoric has already begun. As one analyst noted: “Events suggest it may not be Boko Haram and a deteriorated security situation that is the greatest threat to the Nigerian elections, but the behaviour of the Nigerian political elite.”
The Observer wrote this Observer editorial entitled “As perilous polls loom, Boko Haram still goes unchecked” on Sunday January 18, 2015.