LAGOS (AFP) – Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s bid to extend an ineffective year-long state of emergency in the northeast has exposed him as an out-of-touch leader with no credible plan to end a brutal Islamist conflict, experts said.
Few dispute the severity of the crisis in the remote region, where Boko Haram has killed thousands in a five-year uprising and more than 2,000 already this year.
Violence has escalated, with the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls receiving unprecedented global attention.
Jonathan’s request for a six-month extension to special measures for Yobe, Borno and Adamawa states, which is awaiting approval from lawmakers, was widely expected.
But experts and those on the ground said that rather than extend a failing and superficial emergency rule, the president should instead boost support to the security forces in the region.
“It is difficult to say what the positives have been,” Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria researcher at the International Crisis Group, said of the state of emergency.
“It was more about politics — to give an indication that actions were being stepped up — but it really has no military value.”
The day after Jonathan announced the measures on May 14 last year, the military launched a major offensive against Boko Haram.
That campaign has been widely criticised. Few believe Nigeria can defeat Boko Haram through force alone without curbing the northeast’s devastating poverty.
Many also question the president’s commitment to the military operation.
“The federal government has not provided the advanced weaponry and communications gear needed to defeat Boko Haram,” Yobe’s Governor Ibrahim Geidam, an opposition party member, said in a statement condemning the extension of emergency rule.
His counterpart in Borno, Kashim Shettima, whose constituents have borne the brunt of Boko Haram’s violence, said “when properly fitted, when motivated, officers of the Nigerian army… are more than capable to meet the challenges of our time.
“But now, frankly speaking, we are not in the best of positions.”
– Unprecedented attacks –
Military brass claimed key gains in the weeks after emergency rule was declared and there were signs that insurgents had been contained in remote villages, lacking the capacity to strike major urban centres.
The mobile phone network was switched off — a huge inconvenience in an area with no functioning landlines.
But the military said the move had reduced the violence by blocking Islamists from communicating and locals said they could endure the blackout if it helped end the conflict.
The security services also boasted about their cooperation with local vigilantes who were being trained to help fight Boko Haram.
But major attacks resumed, sometimes daily, and civilians in the northeast were being targeted with previously unseen ruthlessness.
Entire villages in Borno were razed, killing hundreds, and scores of students were slaughtered in their sleep, including most recently in February in Buni Yadi, Yobe.
For Marc Antoine Perouse de Montclos, of the Institute for Research and Development, the state of emergency was “the turning point”.
Local cooperation with the military has led to Boko Haram’s unprecedented attacks on civilians, the Paris-based Nigeria expert said.
– A distant region –
The failure to stem the bloodshed in the northeast is partly due to “lack of political will,” Obasi said.
The northeast is one of Nigeria’s poorest regions and seen as having less political muscle than other parts of the country.
“I am not sure that the president gets a very clear picture of what is happening,” he added. “He is surrounded by people who don’t give him a clear picture.”
Leaders in Borno have long complained about the endemic political neglect of their region, drawing a contrast with the handling of a rebellion in the oil-producing southern Niger Delta region, where militants were paid huge sums of money to stand down.
Jonathan’s national security advisor has announced a new “soft power” approach to address the violence in the northeast but it is not clear if the plan will be implemented.
Northeastern leaders are dismayed to see Jonathan continuing the state of emergency.
“It is time to ask whether any lessons have been learnt over the previous 12 months,” Yobe’s governor said.
“The issue therefore is not another extension of emergency rule. The issue is whether the federal government can summon the courage… to explore new ways to bring the insurgency to an end.”