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Letter 3 from Rome: May 19th 2014

By +John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja.


The world renowned Catholic prelate, His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, once defined dialogue as “You talk I listen; I talk and you listen.” He certainly knew what he was talking about, because he was for many years the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the agency of the Holy See for dialogue with people of other faiths. There has been much talk about dialogue not only in the past few weeks with the abduction of over 250 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, but since more than three years ago. Unfortunately, there has been quite a lot of ambiguity and confusion in what we mean by dialogue, leading to inconsistency in the practical steps that have been taken. It is no wonder that little or no progress has been made in this line. It seems to me that the major short coming is that there is too much talking and not enough listening, on all sides of the discussion.


Dialogue means talking and listening across lines of differences, seeking common grounds on which to build some measure of agreement. It does not ignore nor deny differences, but rather seeks to honestly identify the point of difference and how to live with such differences in order to avoid conflict, especially violent conflict.


We have been following with grave concern the deep dilemma of government as regards whether and to what extent it can engage the Boko Haram in dialogue over the release of the abducted girls. But would like to say that what looks now to be confusion and contradiction is in the nature of dialogue. On the one hand, the government is right to reject the demand of Boko Haram to swap the girls for their imprisoned comrades. There is no parallel between innocent schoolgirls and terrorists detained for violent and heinous crimes. Besides, no government can ignore the unspeakable consequence of setting such a precedent.


But on the other hand, government cannot abandon our girls in the forest or wherever at the hands of their abductors. There must be a way of bringing them back home to their families, safe and as sound as possible. At this moment of writing, we have no news yet of their whereabouts. And even if and when we find where they are, rescuing them by force of arms would entail the kind of danger and risk that even the parents of the girls would be unlikely to sanction. The only option left therefore is some form of dialogue and hard bargain that would bring the girls back without setting a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.   


It is here that we might evoke the wisdom of Cardinal Arinze’s definition of dialogue. Boko Haram has spoken and government has listened. The government has spoken. Let us hope that Boko Haram is listening. In this game of haggling, it is possible that the last word has not yet been said by either party. Are there no other less obnoxious demands that Boko Haram can make? They may well be ruthless and wicked, but they are certainly not foolish. Are there no other options which government can offer? The dialogue has started. I would like to hope that neither side has considered the dialogue closed.


Whatever the case, to make any progress calls for great wisdom and patience. There is also need for effective and mutually trusted intermediaries, people who can listen to both sides and talk to both sides. This is obviously not a matter for publicity, least of all for scoring political points. The scarce success of the famous “dialogue committee” formally inaugurated with pomp and pageantry some time ago should teach us that this is not the best way to go. Perhaps a small group of carefully chosen wise men and women, including religious figures, especially of the Muslim faith, working quietly in the background, with deep sense of patriotism and honesty, devoid of all sectional political agenda, might be in a better position to achieve some success.  


Some days ago, the French President, Mr. Francois Hollande, called a summit of the heads of state of Nigeria and its neighbours. Also in attendance were high level representatives of the European Union, the USA and UK governments. The purpose we are told was to improve cooperation in dealing with the Boko Haram which has become a regional and even global menace. For as long as they continue killing, raping and abducting innocent people, destroying property and causing general insecurity, they should expect more intensive and coordinated military action against them by Nigeria, her neighbours, and the international community. But the loud noise of guns and bombs on and from both sides need not smolder the necessary quiet and salutary whispers of dialogue and background negotiation, which in the long run would be in the best interest of all concerned. Is there any head of state able and willing to call a summit that would provide an effective forum for serious dialogue that would include also elements of the Boko Haram? That line of action, no matter how unlikely, should not be rejected outright.


President Jonathan said in Paris that “the abduction of young innocent school girls in Chibok represents a watershed and a turning point”. The unknown plight of these girls and the anguish of their parents touch the heart of everyone. We pray for their safe return. The dialogue for their release would be only a starting point for the larger objective of convincing the terrorists, with both “stick and carrot”, in their own interest, to cease fire and embrace negotiation, for the peace and progress of our great nation. For this we should pray, even if it requires a miracle.

God bless Nigeria – and bring back our daughters.

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Boko Haram, Chibok and our responses



Regardless of their divergent views on several socio-political issues in the country and irrespective of their religious affiliations, most Nigerians now wish the Boko Haram saga is a bad dream which they long waking up from. It is a plague that has bedeviled them, the blame game era is obviously over and they now demand nothing but focused efforts that will lead to instantaneous demise of the group. Reechoing President Goodluck Jonathan’s Democracy Day speech, all the gains of the past 15 years of democratic governance in our country are threatened by the presence of international terrorism on our shores. It is time for all Nigerians to emulate the Americans after 9/11 and rally round the national flag, bring patriotism to the fore and ensure good prevails over evil.


The US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) recorded Boko Haram as the third most lethal terrorist group in the world between 2009 and 2013 with over 801 attacks and 3666 fatalities. Taliban in Afghanistan and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were the only two groups ahead of Boko Haram out of over 480 terrorists groups studied. On Nov 13, 2013, the US Department of State announced the designation of Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and placed a $7m bounty on its leader Abubakar Shekau. On 22 May 2014, the UN added Boko Haram to the al Qaeda sanction list—in effect confirmed it as an al Qaeda affiliate.


Regardless of the beliefs of Shekau and his infamous cohorts, their callous acts of terror contravene national and international laws and they are solely liable and will be brought to justice for every single life lost in their attacks. Similarly, the Nigerian government has the responsibility for securing the lives and properties of the entire citizenry and if they fail in that role, no doubt about it, Mr. President and everyone else in government are answerable to the populace that elected them into office. But their failures and inactions in no way exonerate the perpetrators of the act.


Nigerian security agencies are receiving a lot of criticism from within and outside the country, especially since the kidnapping of over 200 innocent school girls in Chibok by Boko Haram. In as much as one would like to sympathize with them for facing the wrath of public opinion, I think their public relations strategy is way off the mark! Every young officer in the military is taught that one of the principles of Internal Security operation is winning the heart and mind of the populace: I think the Generals may have forgotten their basic tactics and allowed the terrorists to achieve their ultimate objective of instilling fear in the population. I am convinced Shekau and his troops do not in their wildest dream believe the Nigerian government will succumb to their demands of implementing sharia law in the country, especially when a notable Islamic cleric like the Sultan of Sokoto and the Organization of Islamic Countries have termed their actions unIslamic. They have however, through their carnage succeeded in causing anger, frustration and dissention which can create chaos in the country if not properly managed. In fact, I think Nigerians have been very civil in their approach to the whole issue because there haven’t really been violent anti-government demonstrations which would have been the case in several countries in the world.


My intention is not to query the capabilities of the Nigerian security forces because terrorism is a global phenomenon that has challenged even the best militaries in the world, including the United States and their allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having also personally experienced the complexities of the war on terror in Afghanistan and Somalia, it will be unreasonable to belittle their efforts. Nigerian military officers are battle-tested and highly regarded for their peacekeeping roles all over the world. Nobody is expecting them to perform miracles overnight when it comes to fighting terrorism which is a global bane that requires concerted international efforts. Thanks to the fact that the government finally agreed to accept international assistance which I must confess I initially felt was not immediately necessary, but with the recent developments, I now agree it’s was a good call by Mr. President.


What is obvious however, and must be said is that Nigerian security agencies are losing the battle of words. Propaganda is a key instrument of warfare and every military outfit in this present Information Age should strive to influence and swing public opinion in their favor, but need to do it the right way, no need to lie because you will surely be exposed!. Not all Nigerians are soldiers that obey the last command— Am not even sure that still applies!. They have the constitutional right to ask questions and query the performance of every public servant paid with their taxes. Come to think of it, who says the military cannot have a civilian spokesperson? Nigeria is a country awash with seasoned public relations practitioners who see things from the point of view of the streets and not the barracks— is there a law that prohibits civilians from heading military public relations outfits? Why can’t they just fight and let the experts do the talking?


Not recounting all the previous blunders, I think it is inexcusable for the military spokesman to give a wrong figure of the number of girls that are missing and even reporting them released when that wasn’t the case. Worst of all,  I think it is a very poor tactical appreciation for a Chief of Defense Staff to address the public and say they know where the girls are because of criticism that the security agencies are not doing enough. That announcement whether true or false is a grave mistake that can cost the girls their lives, or at best retard all progress so far made in freeing them. Ok, let’s even assume it was intended to push the terrorists into a hasty decision of moving the girls, thereby exposing their position, is it a risk worth taking knowing how irrational terrorists are?  The main objective of every hostage negotiation is to buy time and gather intelligence for tactical operations. And if the hostage takers succumb to the psychological strain they are subjected to by a seasoned negotiator and decide to release the hostages in the process, all well and good. I am sorry but I think it’s either the Chief of Defense Staff was ill-advised by his public relations officers or he became too emotional and took his eyes off the ball by his statements. Criticisms will definitely come and you must learn to accept it and make corrections where necessary. Actions speak louder than words; capture or kill Shekau today and you will become a hero, before then, your statements don’t count much so save them, except when necessary and well thought through.  Essential norm in hostage incident management discourages top managers from having direct involvement in tactical negotiation strategies or making public statements. Everything should be left in the hands of the experts, especially the press releases which are supposed to be carefully crafted to reflect what you want the hostage takers to hear.  I think the ball has definitely been fumbled severally, …..but still in play. What is required now is for the military big wigs to remain focused until results are achieved.


On a bigger picture, one question that should also be asked is why Nigeria’s borders cannot be fenced. Even if it’s just the Northeastern borders so as to deny Boko Haram the freedom of movement and access to supplies in that area, why can’t we just do it? Border control is one of the most effective security mitigating measures that has been tested in countries like Israel and America that we should copy. Recognizing possible opposition from selfish individuals, since a state of emergency has been declared in the Northeastern states, is fencing the borders not akin to a tactical security measure that the Commander-in- Chief can task Nigerian Army Engineers to directly implement without any further legislative reviews? That way, we will avoid squabbles and over-inflated billions of dollars contracts by corrupt government officials. In January 2013, Israel finished building the main portion of its borders with Egypt. The 16-foot high fence, which is made of razor wire and reinforced by military surveillance, including motion sensors and cameras, aimed at keeping out both illegal African migrants and terrorists operating in the Sinai. According to the most recent quarterly figures published by the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, only 36 people have been caught trying to enter the southern border since January as against 10,440 that were caught in 2012(Reuters, Jan 2013). This shows that insurgents and illegal migrants completely avoided the borders knowing they would not be able to penetrate the new barriers.


Military might is not enough to defeat terrorism recognizing that most terrorists long for martyrdom. I want to believe the government is still in dialogue with the right parties that have access to Boko Haram high command and can exert influence.  Concessions are sometimes inevitable in negotiations but I think it is the prerogative of Mr. President as the Commander-in-Chief to deal or not to deal.


I see the willpower in our government and security forces to free the Chibok girls and end this Boko Haram menace. What is now critical is how the situation is handled until when that happens. It took the US about a decade to track down Osama bin Laden but focus was maintained and successes and failure along the way were well communicated to rally support of the citizens. And of course there were several disparate voices along the way.  That is what every Nigerian wants from the government in general and security forces in particular. Not someone whose judgment will be beclouded by the need to defend every criticism….Keep your eyes on the ball Generals, we shall overcome!