Treating National Security Issues With Parochial, Selfish Passion

Opinion

By Mac Durugbo

Recently, the national dailies carried on their front pages the arrest of 486 suspected Boko Haram members moving in a convoy of 33 buses from the northern part of the country to somewhere in the Southeast. They were arrested at about 2:00 am at a place called Asa in Ukwa West Local Government Council of Abia State by soldiers of the 144 Battalion of the Nigerian Army. The report has it that while trying to effect the arrest, two of the buses fled and averted arrest. The report also said during preliminary investigations, a Boko Haram kingpin on the wanted list of security agencies was found among the men. Also, when interrogated, according to the report, the men said they were heading for Port Harcourt in Rivers State to look for job.  The report also disclosed that when they were searched, it was discovered that none  of them had up to N1,000 in their pockets. All these facts were made known in the report and are still in the public domain.

 That is why it is baffling to hear some groups in parts of the country raising queries over why the people were arrested. The Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), a Northern political pressure group, condemned the arrest outright as an attempt to deprive Nigerians of the right of freedom of movement in their own country. The Ja’matu Nasri Islam (JNI), a religious pressure group from that region, described the arrested suspects as “innocent Muslims going about their businesses”. The Jigawa House of Assembly passed a resolution calling for the immediate release of the suspects while the issue was said to have polarized the just concluded National Conference on religious and ethnic lines. The only sane voice heard from that assemblage of seeming privileged elders is that of a woman, Mrs. Salome Jankade from Wukari in southern Taraba State. She alone called for caution telling her colleagues that the matter is a security issue and must be treated as such. She lamented: “It breaks my heart as privileged elders in this Conference each time we discuss national issues with parochial, selfish passion. We are expected to be nationalists by the President that chose us so that as we tackle the issues that brought us here we don’t discuss and decide issues along regional and sectional lines”.

 It is, indeed, unfortunate that each time issues bordering on national consciousness  and security come to the fore, sections of Nigerians begin to make comments and insinuations that tend to  trivialize such issues by giving it either a religious or ethnic colouration. When the issue of the fundamentalist Islamic sect, Boko Haram, first came to the fore, some groups rose in arms against the Federal Government when attempts were made to checkmate their activities in Maiduguri, Borno State. The sect was in its budding stage then. Some “Northern Elders” came together and called for the withdrawal of security agencies deployed in the State capital to provide security.

Their protests led to the Federal Government directing the Joint Task Force (JTF)  not to use force and to scale down their activities in the city. That directive came with dire consequences. Members of the Joint Task Force were ambushed and killed in their scores while some were abducted. Suspected Boko Haram members, who were arrested and were undergoing investigation, were released on the request of these elders. But perhaps the most humiliating was the fact that policemen who were accused of killing the head of the sect in police custody sometime in 2001 were arraigned in court and charged with murder. As if that was not enough, the sum of N100 million was paid to the family as compensation. All these measures were aimed at placating the sect to stop their insurgency.

Of course, we are all living witnesses today that instead of deterring the sect it emboldened them. They are today on the rampage in most parts of the North with occasional forays into other parts of the country. They have become so emboldened that they are now hoisting their flag on “captured” villages around the infamous Sambisa Forest, their alleged operational headquarters. Most of the so-called Northern Elders are now either singing different songs or not talking at all. Some of them have turned round to blame the Federal Government for not doing enough to contain the insurgency. Mind you, I am not an advocate of the Federal Government’s approach to this whole Boko Haram debacle. In my opinion the approach has been very lacklustre and quite unbecoming of a Government that has a President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria. If government had acted when it should, there would have been no Boko Haram to be so impetuous as to enter a Nigerian village and march off over 200 girl students and, as a result, hold the whole nation to ransom today. But that is a story for another day.

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Today, the issue is that the Arewa Consultative Forum, a Northern political pressure group, the Ja’matu Nasri Islam (JNI), a religious pressure group from that region and the Jigawa State House of Assembly are raising their hackles over the arrest of 486 men suspected to be members of the deadly Islamist fundamentalist sect, insinuating that the Abia State Government arrested some Northern “innocent Muslims” who were, according to them, “going about their normal businesses”. What, probably the ACF and JNI did not tell Nigerians is what these “innocent Muslims” were doing in a convoy of 33 Hummer buses at the hour of 2.00 a.m. along the road where they were arrested. They should also tell Nigerians what kind of “normal businesses’ were taking them to Port Harcourt; and what a wanted top commander of the Boko Haram sect was doing among these “innocent Muslims”.

But first, it is important to correct some impressions. The suspects were arrested, not by the Abia State Government but, by soldiers from the 144 Battalion of the Nigerian Army, a Federal institution based at Asa in Ukwa West Local Government Council of Abia State.  Secondly, contrary to the claim by the ACF and JNI that those suspects were going about their “normal businesses”, the report quoted the suspects as saying they were going to Port Harcourt “to look for job”. But even if, according to ACF, these people were, indeed, going to Port Harcourt for “legitimate business” say to trade for example, why would they be travelling in a convoy of as many as 33 buses. Which market in Port Harcourt will accommodate 486 traders and meet their demands? But their claim even fails on another score; the reports said when they were searched none of them had up to N1,000. Then when we consider the suspects’ claim that they were going to look for job, one begins to wonder what type of job the whole 486 youths would get in a place like Port Harcourt. Even if all the oil companies in the state decide to open new rigs, they would not be able to absorb that number. And if some companies went to recruit them and convey them to Port Harcourt, such company or companies would have presented a legitimate authority to the soldiers to cover them. So, the claim that they were merely going “to look for job” makes their movement even more suspect. Two other happenings at the point of arrest also make the movement suspect. First is that when they were confronted by the soldiers, two of the vehicles managed to escape and secondly a wanted Boko Haram kingpin was found among them. There is no doubt that investigations will still reveal more facts that will eventually lead to the real motive behind that mass movement.

Meanwhile, please shall we stop this behaviour of always treating every issue with parochial and selfish passion? If a group of Nigerians from one part of the country decide to undertake such mass movement, even in the day time, to another part of the country, would it not be incumbent on security agencies in that part to at least know their mission? We are talking of 486 young men crossing from a highly volatile region to a comparatively less volatile region in a convoy of 33 busses in the wee hours of the morning in these days of insurgency. Thank God for some Nigerians like Mrs. Salome Jankada, a former Minister of the Federal Republic and member of the National Conference who, in the midst of the all the passion and sentiments invoked by the recent arrest, sounded a note of caution. Mrs. Jankada, a Northerner herself from Wukari in Southern Taraba, told her colleagues: “I commend the soldiers for the action they took. It is important that Nigerians know exactly why those ‘innocent Muslims’ left their location to empty themselves in the South-east. I am not a security man but I have a feeling that those “innocent Muslims” may be forerunners of the deadly Boko Haram sect sent to prepare grounds for the armed squad. If they were not arrested, they would, probably have simply melted into parts of the region to wait for their operational arms. That again is a story for another day, probably after the investigations.

But, meanwhile, I suggest that the 486 suspects be divided into smaller units and shared among the army locations across the South-east zone during the investigations. While this will facilitate a more thorough investigation, the 144 Battalion personnel would have more time for vigilance and surveillance of the area. It may be just suspicion and I pray that it remains just that, but that movement may be the first attempt by the Boko Haram sect to penetrate the Southeast. The 486 men, said to be between 16 and 35 years of age, could as well have been dispatched by the deadly sect to a location where they would receive weapons of destruction with which to begin operations in the zone. So let this arrest be a clarion call to governors and security operatives in the Southeast states to begin a search for arms. It is not unlikely that the sect may have infiltrated the Southeast zone with arms and ammunition and just dispatched those “innocent Muslims” to go to the locations and pick up the arms and begin operation. Let it not be assumed that the arms have not yet arrived any part of the Southeast. Every measure must be put in place to ensure that if they are already there, they are fished out and seized and if they have not yet arrived, that they do not.

It is assuring that the governors have already come together and resolved to work in concert to ensure the protection of the Zone from any insurgency. But resolution must be backed by action. Security must be beefed up across the length and breadth of the zone to forestall any infiltration by the sect.

•Mac Durugbo writes from Kaduna