Africa’s security challenges have no doubt taken on new and interesting dimensions in recent years, demanding bold and urgent and innovative responses. Where once coups and civil wars were the league leaders, we now have to contend with the spectre of extremist Islam, manifesting everywhere from the East (Kenya; Al-Shabaab) to the North (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) to the West (Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon).
And then there are the transnational criminal groups which command economic powers on a scale that would make the rebel warlords of the 1990s look like child soldiers. Cocaine has become the New Improved diamond. Writing recently in Newsweek, Journalist Alex Perry tells the disheartening story of how African countries have become, in recent years, hubs on the global cocaine trade route (from Latin America to Western Europe).
Perry writes that when the North American market for cocaine became saturated, cocaine dealers (based in Latin America) started to look towards the virgin markets of Europe. And then they realized that “half-way to Europe, within range of small planes and fishing boats, were a series of eminently corruptible African countries with little in the way of law, government, airforces or navies.” African countries therefore found starring role as conduits for cocaine making its way to Europe. Perry says unofficial estimates put the quantity of cocaine moving through Guinea Bissau at 60 tonnes, accounting for a lot more than the country’s official economic output.
All of these various manifestations of insecurity end up being linked to one another. Perry’s argument in his piece, titled ‘Blood Lines: How cocaine nights fund beheadings’ is that the cocaine trade (in which Africa features prominently) helps fund terrorism around the world. Extremist groups raise significant amounts of funds from criminal enterprises: cocaine, oil theft, kidnapping, etc. By fighting crime wholeheartedly we are therefore helping check the rise of terrorists.
Unchecked, however, these challenges will definitely grow in size and strength. We thought the Al-Qaeda of yesterday was brutal; today we have ISIS and Boko Haram, groups so violent that even Al-Qaeda has openly condemned and dissociated itself from them.
This is where I will bring the issue home to Nigeria. Because all security, like all politics, is local. It is not possible to overemphasize the role of Nigeria as regional and continental giant, in matters relating to security and peace. Nigeria accounts for half of the population of West Africa, a sixth of the continent’s entire population, and roughly a fifth of the continent’s economic output. It is also now home to one of the most virulent expressions of instability the world is currently seeing.
Yet, for some tragic reason, we are permanently a footnote to the news in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When US Senator John McCain announces that, left to him, he “wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan” before sending in troops to rescue the Chibok girls, apart from the fact that McCain is an oft-grumpy dude with a penchant for controversial pronouncements, it is also in my view a pointer to just how the rest of the world sees Nigeria: helpless, uninspiring.
And it is understandable, even if not justifiable. There is little or no initiative on our part as a country to take charge of the most challenging factors affecting us. I cringe every time I see that President Jonathan has gone on yet another junket to Chad in search of a solution to Boko Haram. Call me a foreign policy novice, but shouldn’t the Chadian President be the one coming to Abuja, not the other way round? My view is that Abuja should be the one leading in convening the all-important security meetings involving the region and country, instead of abdicating that responsibility to Paris or London or Washington.
The quote that follows (I have previously used it in this column – in a piece on Boko Haram, published June 10, 2013) is from the book ‘Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics under Buhari and Babangida’, by Nigerian military historian Max Siollun: “Buhari was in charge of troops sent to Nigeria’s north-eastern border region in 1983 to prevent infiltration by armed rebels from the neighbouring Republic of Chad. After his troops successfully cleared the Chadian rebels from the border area, the troops advanced several kilometres into Chadian territory. The political hierarchy ordered Buhari to withdraw his troops, but he refused, arguing that the Chadian rebels would return to the area as soon as his troops departed. Buhari’s view was that it was futile to risk the lives of soldiers by confronting the rebels, only to withdraw and allow them to return once the objective had been achieved.”
How has Nigeria gone from that country pursuing rebels deep into enemy territory, to one whose President runs off at the slightest opportunity to take pictures with the President of a country with a population and GDP smaller than that of Lagos? It doesn’t quite sound right. Recall a decade ago (late 2003), when President Obasanjo, obsessed with catching the now-deceased Beninoise cross-border car-snatching kingpin, Hammani Tidjani, ordered the closure of Nigeria’s border with Benin.
According to news reports at that time, the closure hit the Benin economy so hard it forced the government to ferret Tidjani out of hiding and hand him over to Nigerian authorities (the saga also cost a dozen high-ranking Beninoise security chiefs their jobs; fired by an angry President Kerekou for alleged complicity with Tidjani). As far as I know, at no time did then President Obasanjo head to Benin cap-in-hand in search of a solution to a problem that needed decisive action on the part of Nigeria.
But let me also add: The blame I am generously offloading does not exclusively belong to the government. Nigeria’s academia, think-tanks and the media are all guilty. We should be doing a better job, on all facets, of agenda-setting and thought-leadership regarding our security crises.
But maybe when you’ve got a President whose trademark lines boil down to abdicating responsibility, maybe its easy to see why that attitude has infected the entire national response. Again that is something I’ve complained about in this column – how the President enjoys singing that ‘terrorism is a global problem’ and ‘we are not the only ones suffering’ and ‘this too shall pass’ and ‘the international community should rise up to help Nigeria’.
While there is truth in that stance, it should not be the headline story. The headline story should be projection of a presidential and government attitude that takes responsibility, and that views international assistance as the icing, not the cake.
By all indices – demographics, geopolitics, economics – Nigeria deserves to occupy a more important place in global consciousness, and not simply as a victim. Not simply as that country that gives up more than 200 girls to a terrorist group without a fight, but instead a country that takes the initiative and shows no hesitation to demonstrate decisiveness in dealing with its security challenges.
The excitement that greeted Nigeria’s conquest of Ebola is evidence of just how rare good news from Nigeria is, and possibly how desperate the world is to hear uplifting news from the most important black country in the world. The Ebola narrative has clearly shown that there just might be a massive market for good news from Nigeria (hint, hint).
And I would be the first to insist that change is possible. Nigeria can take the lead in solving its challenges. Last month I attended the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Canada. At one of the plenary sessions, General John Kelly, Commander of the United States Southern Command (overseeing Central and South America, Panama Canal, and the Caribbean) testified to the impressive work Colombia has done in its fight against the cocaine cartels that once almost exclusively defined its international reputation.
Fifteen to twenty years ago, Kelly said, Colombia was “a failed state.” But, “mostly through their own efforts, [and] almost exclusively through their own money” – by embarking on ambitious reforms that touched on everything from tax codes to the military – the Colombian government turned the situation around. Now Colombia is “exporting [its] experience” to the rest of the world.
Recall that that was what followed Nigeria’s conquest of Ebola – all attention turned on us for lessons and insight. Now, how about seeing if we could replicate that success story with Boko Haram, the criminal gangs in the Niger delta, the pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, and the urban kidnappers everywhere else? Even though the scenarios are very different – Ebola is not Boko Haram, obviously – the responses should all share something in common: the confidence to fight back, and to boldly seek to make a difference.
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