By Rafiq Raji, PhD
What was Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, supposed to do when he disembarked from his helicopter in Dapchi, the town of the most recent kidnapping of schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria? Pray tell, should he have deliberately walked on the green grass or sandy grounds just so he would not be accused of needless pageantry on the occasion and venue of such a sad event? We need to be reasonable. The outcry about the great matter might be beneficial in the long run, though. Now the protocol office would know to ponder whether the optics of an arrangement would serve the best interests of their principal or indeed their functions; after all protocol officers are expected to be intelligent folks. A president should not be expected to have time for such little things. At least, not if he or she is doing the job we elected him or her to do. The other criticism about how President Buhari said his handling of this most recent kidnapping is better than his predecessor’s handling of that of the Chibok girls, is, however, justified. The comparison was tacky and unnecessary. It was a mistake. And yes, those who say what is needed from the president at this time is action and not sympathy certainly have a point. I shall choose not to belabour the point of Mr Buhari’s unusual timing and choice of venue for throwing a jibe at his predecessor. That said, I certainly do not buy the story by the presidency that Mr Buhari needed to properly digest the security reports about the incidents before heading to Dapchi and elsewhere. Let me be clear. The president cannot visit every place there is a terrorist incident or kidnapping. But the abduction of schoolgirls, especially in northern Nigeria, is so sensitive that there should not have been the slightest hesitation about getting “the eagle” in the air momentarily after the news. That is the past now.
Smell a rat
During the now ill-fated trip of outgoing American secretary of state Rex Tillerson to Abuja last week – the reason I suspect Mr Buhari kept checking his watch whilst at Dapchi, who he was scheduled to meet a few hours later – the president revealed negotiations were ongoing to rescue the Dapchi girls. When asked whether the Americans were helping, Mr Tillerson gave a scripted generalist answer. My interpretation is that the Nigerian security forces are handling the matter with little or no help from the Americans. By the way, there is usually at least one surveillance satellite ahead of key hotspot countries at any time; any of which could belong to one of the major superpowers, who as could be discerned by the supposed coincidental visits of the Russian and American foreign ministers to Africa recently and the American concerns about the rivalling Chinese influence on the continent, keep a very close eye on activities on the ground here regularly. The problem is that even if the Americans and others were able to follow the trail of the kidnappers, without Nigerian forces on the ground at the time of the event, there was likely little else that could have been done. Which is why the withdrawal of troops from Dapchi just before the sad incident is suspect. It is, however, hugely unlikely, that the truth would ever be revealed. But of course now, the military would get all the funds it needs and terrorists would get to beef up their coffers with public revenue from likely ransom payments to rescue the girls.
Extraordinary measures needed
When you ponder these events, you almost get miffed that Nigerian authorities seem hesitant to declare marauding herdsmen terrorists, who despite recent presidential visits to the sites of their mayhem, continue to maim and kill with seeming impunity. What is the difficulty? In fact, it is believed the hate speech legislation being considered by the Nigerian parliament is in part motivated by elite concerns about the demonisation of Fulanis around the killings by herdsmen. True, the legislation is not particularly novel in these parts. South Africa, another African country, is considering one. But to ascribe the punishment of death to speech is heavy-handed. Never mind that there are already ample existing laws on libel and incitement. And even as it is likely that criminals have been taking advantage of killings by supposedly Fulani herdsmen to cloak their own heinous acts, there is yet to be any culprit captured by the police or security services in regard of these killings that is not Fulani. Besides, there is evidence, from the letter written to the Benue State governor, to media utterances by principals of the association of cattle owners and herders, to suggest that these dastardly acts are organised and the culprits easily identifiable if there is the will to apprehend them. The reason it is important to declare the herdsmen perpetrating these heinous crimes as terrorists, that is, apart from the fact that what they are doing is in fact terrorism, is that it enables the authorities to take extraordinary measures in law that quicken apprehension and prosecution. The president’s gentlemanly approach is not working.