There are different accounts of how ‘Afghanistanism’ became an English word. But the most popular is the one that traces its origin to the 1947 American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in Washington DC. In their column, ‘Behind the Front Page’, Robert H. Stopher and James Jackson wrote that it was coined by Jenkin Lloyd Jones of Oklahoma’s Tulsa Tribune who said: “The tragic fact is that many an editorial writer can’t hit a short-range target. He’s hell on distance. He can pontificate about the situation in Afghanistan with perfect safety. It takes more guts to dig up the dirt on the sheriff.” In another account of the convention, Jones was quoted as saying, “I don’t wish to belabor this subject of Afghanistanism, this business of taking forthright stands on elections in Costa Rica, while the uncollected local garbage reeks beneath the editor’s window.”
Regardless of who first used it, the word essentially depicts a situation where people ignore pressing domestic challenges to focus attention on problems in some distant parts of the world. But as the Americans have learnt in recent days, there is really nothing like ‘Afghanistanism’ anymore. In the world we now live in, ignoring what happens in far-flung places like Kabul can be perilous. It is a lesson that will also serve us in Nigeria, especially now that the authorities are sending ‘repentant’ Boko Haram killers back to their communities, almost as if they just returned from the Tokyo Olympics with gold medals.
I arrived New York, United States, on Sunday night to the news that Taliban fighters had finally taken Afghanistan barely a week after launching a nationwide attack. And since then, American media have gone ‘Afghanistan’ though this time, in a different context: Kabul has become the most defining political issue with far reaching implications for President Joe Biden. On Monday, the New York Times led with this headline: ‘Taliban Capture Kabul, Stunning U.S. as a 20-Year Effort Unravel in Days’. In the accompanying news analysis, the newspaper wrote on how what Biden said five weeks ago has come back to bite him.
However, Biden is not alone in proving that talk is cheap. As a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins University (and later, UN and World Bank official) in the United States for more than two decades, the run-away Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani was a regular opinion contributor to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc. In a post in Los Angeles Times in February 1979, Ghani wrote: “The Soviets have left Afghanistan, making the collapse of the besieged puppet regime in Kabul, just a matter of time.” The last image of Ghani (co-author of the 2009 book, ‘Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World’) was of him peeping through the window of an aircraft as he fled Kabul, following the collapse of the American ‘puppet regime’ he also headed!
It is instructive that the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan on the day President Muhammadu Buhari wrote, in a Financial Times opinion article, that Africa has become the new frontline for terrorism. It is an apt summation of the challenge now confronting us, made more complex by the likely resumption of Afghanistan as the global operational headquarters for the training of terrorists. Therefore, events in Kabul should compel a rethink of some of the choices we are making in the war against insurgency in Nigeria.
There are quick lessons to draw from Afghanistan. One, the capacity for endurance and staying the course by terrorists is grossly underrated. The Taliban waited out the Americans for 20 years. The moment their troops left; they simply took over the country without much trouble. To rub insult on injury for the United States, the Taliban reportedly captured an array of modern military equipment, including combat aircraft, guns, ammunition, helicopters etc. Two, the ease with which the Taliban achieved their military objective indicates that democracy has not served Afghan people well, so they apparently saw no reason to fight for a government that has made little or no impact in their lives. Flowing from that is how the civil populace in a badly governed country can easily surrender to anything when disenchanted with the status quo. The less said on this the better but I hope the political class in Nigeria gets the message. Three, there is no magic wand in Washington for resolving complex security problems. We have for years listened to American experts on how we could have ended Boko Haram insurgency within days but after spending more than a trillion dollars, as confirmed by President Biden in his broadcast on Monday, all the political, military and security structures the Americans built in Kabul collapsed within days. Four, when people are desperate, they will take stupid risks as we also saw with the Afghans climbing the underside of the departing American plane on the tarmac. Five, terrorists are smarter than we give them credit for, especially in Nigeria. The manner of the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan is similar to the seamless way Boko Haram operatives dissolved into the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), following the death of Abubakar Shekau. That speaks to dexterity in leadership by the insurgents that some people delude themselves into believing have been ‘technically defeated’.
This is where I come to the controversial ‘Operation Safe Corridor’ initiative of the Army started in 2016. Few people subscribe to the idea, which means there was never a buy-in from critical stakeholders prior to implementation. The Shehu of Borno, Abubakar El-Kanemi said it would be difficult to cohabit with insurgents who have killed thousands, including at least 30 traditional rulers. “Many people were killed along with their property for 12 years. And you people and the media expect us to forget and forgive the repentant terrorists?” he queried at the weekend. Chairman of the Senate Committee on Army, Ali Ndume, is no less vehement. “The war is not over and some criminals that have been killing people you say that you are doing Operation Safe Corridor for them. I am completely against that idea. They know my position on that,” said Ndume last week. “You are just telling people to go and join Boko Haram and then repent…that’s a totally unacceptable way of solving the problem.”
Ndume has been consistent on this issue and his view cannot be discountenanced because it is about his constituency. When in February last year the military announced that the second batch of 603 ‘repentant’ Boko Haram insurgents had completed their de-radicalisation programme, Ndume alleged that most of those earlier integrated into the communities had gone back to their old ways. “Many among those released have since run away. They will never repent. The government should know what to do about them, but not reintroducing someone to you, who has killed your parents or your relations”, said Ndume who cited specific examples to buttress his position.
I agree with Ndume on the factor of timing and the issue of justice. You don’t pamper killers with goodies and send them back to the families of their victims in the middle of a war that has no expiry date. Any policy based on the appeasement of criminals at the expense of justice for their victims is bound to fail, no matter the justification for it.
In August last year, Vanguard newspaper sent reporters to the various Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps in Kaduna, Maiduguri, and Abuja where Boko Haram victims are kept. Their accounts are heartrending. Abba Ali, taking refuge at Bakassi Camp in Maiduguri, with two wives and four children said, “imagine you had your children murdered, your wife raped and killed. The culprits are arrested, and the government tells you they are now repentant. And while you are still at an IDP camp, with your family disorganised, and you are struggling to get food to eat, the government brings the culprits, feeds, and clothes them, gives them education and money to start a business and sends them to come and be your neighbours. I learnt that many of them who pretended to surrender were not only given money and certificates after their graduation from a radicalization centre in Gombe, but they were also allowed to be reintegrated into the society to mingle with their victims. It is very shocking to me.”
Let’s be clear. Deradicalisation is not a bad idea, and many countries have different variants of such programme. In 2016, the United Kingdom introduced the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) with stringent measures to “have individuals develop an identity that is more accepting of others, understand their religion in a more mainstream way, and reject any ideology that is inconsistent with British values.” Singapore has a similar Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) programme though with a proviso that “no individual is released until the state has confidence they will not re-offend.” The Saudi deradicalization programme commenced in 2004, also based on the idea of balancing traditional security measures with techniques that address ideological sources of violent extremism. So, what Nigeria is doing is not novel. The problem is in how we are doing it.
To effectively tackle the issue of ‘reformed terrorists’ in any country, according to Sabariah Hussin, a research analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, the authorities must be well equipped to handle the various reintegration challenges. “This requires strong political will, adequate resources and the involvement of the wider community,” Hussin wrote. “An under-appreciated aspect of the reintegration process involves community engagement.”
That no such engagement took place before ‘Operation Safe Corridor’ was being implemented is why many are suspicious of the intention behind the whole idea. Former Agriculture Minister and current chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Mr Audu Ogbeh spoke to this issue during the week. “We are currently witnessing large scale surrender of large numbers of Boko Haram insurgents, among whom are bomb makers, commanders, arsonists, rapists, and child snatchers,” said Ogbeh who then asked: “Do we have good reason to cheer and hope for an end to this decade-old insanity? Is ‘I am sorry’ enough to bring relief to Nigerians and the thousands of dead and maimed?”
Meanwhile, the greater concern is why these Boko Haram insurgents are now giving up the fight. There are reports that their action may be motivated more by the defining ethos of ISWAP than by any altruism. A charismatic and more deliberate leader than the brash Shekau, Abu Musab Al-Barnawi is believed to have laid down new rules of engagement for Boko Haram members. “They are quitting because they can’t raid – they can’t steal – like they used to. All that was acceptable is no longer the case [in ISWAP’s] new normal,” according to Idayat Hassan, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) Director, who spoke to ‘The New Humanitarian; (a publication founded in 1995 by the United Nations) in their latest edition.
In February this year, Al-Barnawi, who in 2016 pledged allegiance to ISIS, displaced Shekau who reportedly blew himself up rather than surrender to superior fire power. Against the background that in July 2018, The Sun newspaper of the United Kingdom had reported that ISIS leaders were furtively bringing their commanders into Nigeria to recruit and train terrorists, the military must understand that they now confront a more strategic enemy. If after 20 years of American efforts the Taliban could retake Afghanistan in the manner they did last weekend, authorities in Nigeria should be careful in the manner they deal with the ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members. The Taliban had 75,000 fighters. The Afghan government had a well-trained and better equipped 300,000 soldiers that had apparently been infiltrated by ‘repentant Taliban’ fighters. By the time push came to shove last week, the Afghan forces simply adopted a ‘‘tactical maneuovre’. The rest, as they say, is now history.
When Teenagers Dare to Win!
In her opening remark at the 2021 Teens Career Conference of The Everlasting Arms Parish (TEAP) of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) last Saturday, Ms Elizabeth Ekpenyong reminded the audience that the past two years have ushered in a dramatic change in our world “and in the months and years ahead, we will require more than the wisdom of the past to navigate this new world.”
Navigating this new world was indeed the thrust of the interventions by each speaker, beginning with Chinedu Azodoh, co-founder and Chief Growth Officer at MAX, whose ‘home coming’ was celebrated, as a former teenager in the church. According to Azodoh, while COVID-19 may have come with some restrictions that have changed the way we used to live, the epidemic has also thrown up rewarding opportunities for those who can innovate. The Group Managing Director (Nigeria), NewGlobe Education, Mrs Omowale David-Ashiru, argued along similar lines. While it is true that every venture in life begins with a dream, according to her, achievement is found only with those who can raise their hands a little higher, acquire the requisite knowledge and stand out to be outstanding, “for this brave new world is for the strong, not the slothful.”
For Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Chairman of Talent City, the first issue for young people to resolve is that of identity by asking themselves such questions as ‘Who am I? What is the purpose for my existence? What am I called out to do?’ Aboyeji concluded that dealing with those questions would help young people to avoid the tragedy of becoming successful failures.
Like previous editions, the Teens Conference this year was a great success. But we must express our appreciation to those who partnered with us to make it so: the GMD, Sahara Energy Group, Kola Adesina, CEO, Beloxxi Industries Limited, Obi Ezeude, Chairman, Phase3 Telecom, Stanley Jedege, and president, Pro-Health International, Iko Ibanga. May God continue to bless and prosper them.
In his ‘Father’s Blessings’, Pastor Eva Azodoh reminded the teenagers that to dare is to recognize that success is not achieved overnight, “it is the product of deliberate, gradual effort.”
Adieu Baba Joda
On two occasions in 2019, in the office of the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre Director General, Ms Jackie Farris, I had the privilege of sitting down with the late Alhaji Ahmed Joda to chat about ordinary issues. And I found his power of recall (he was 89 at the time) as well as capacity for analyzing complex local and international issues rather incredible. But most importantly, despite his towering figure and the respect he had earned by dint of his achievements, he was such a very simple man. At 91, Joda had lived a full life. Yet, his passage remains a huge loss to our country and Nigerians across all generations. “God gave us the gift of life,” according to French historian and philosopher, Voltaire. “It is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.”
By every standard, Alhaji Ahmed Joda certainly did. May God comfort the family he left behind.