Buhari and Boko Haram: A return to brutality?

President Muhammadu Buhari
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Andrew Walker argues that Buhari’s military past was characterised by a brutality that is likely to re-emerge as he seeks to tackle Boko Haram. Andrew has been writing around Nigeria since 2006. He worked in Abuja for The Daily Trust and reported from there for the BBC. His new book, ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The harrowing of Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram’, is published by Hurst Publishers. 

The hot dry season of 1984, in the city of Yola north east Nigeria.

An attempt by the police to arrest a group of Islamist militants had become a riot. This unrest swiftly degenerated into a bloody stand-off. On the second day, Military Head of State General Muhammadu Buhari flew in to personally watch the army quell the uprising in the Jimeta ward of the city. The militants, holding an unknown number of hostages, began burning the slum. People fled in panic or sheltered where they could. It was clear the police were unable to bring it under control.

General Buhari, a stern military commander, needed to act decisively.

Fast-forward thirty years. In 2014 Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency that has shattered north-east Nigeria, shocked the world with an extraordinary shift in tactics. Since 2009, the group had waged a guerrilla insurgency in the north east, striking soft targets with bombing attacks, executing coordinated gun assaults on the security services and melting away into the population from where they came. But during the rainy season of 2014, the group began pouring into towns and villages mob-handed, raising their black shahada banner. They were doing what guerrilla armies aren’t supposed to be able to; they were taking territory. In deranged videos their leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared an Islamic state had been created. Its’ existence was down to Allah’s provenance, he said.

Observers thought it was the weakness of the Nigerian military that had allowed this to happen.

International anxiety over Nigeria’s inability to act against Boko Haram grew. At its height the Nigerian government blamed the US and the UK for deserting them, refusing to sell them the weapons and share the intelligence, which they said they needed to combat the Islamists. Nigeria’s ambassador to the US even used a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC to try and shame an audience of foreign policy types. They reportedly shifted in their seats, awkward and angry, as he laid the blame for the situation squarely at their feet.

The US government’s hands were tied, they said, by the Leahy Act. This legislation prevents arms sales to regimes where there is a risk the military is involved in human rights violations. Nigeria certainly falls into that category. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the military of being involved in massacres on several occasions. The town of Baga in Borno state is just one example. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands of houses burned down after a military patrol took fire nearby the town in April 2013. Witnesses reported hundreds of people were buried in mass graves near the village.

Amnesty has also criticised the military for the way they imprison Boko Haram suspects. They are held in military sites, effectively black holes where they are tortured and left to die of their injuries, infection, disease, starvation or thirst. The military chiefs appointed by President Jonathan could be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Amnesty say.

In 2015, however, there has been what appears to be a seismic shift in Nigerian politics. For the first time in Nigeria’s history a ruling government has handed over power to an opposition party after the president conceded defeat in an election. Buhari, now a retired general, is assembling his new government.

Throughout the campaign, Buhari’s main talking point was to remind Nigerians that he dealt decisively with a previous Islamist uprising in the north east. He promised to repeat this feat. Just before the election, the military began to roll up Boko Haram’s gains, routing them with the aid of South African mercenaries. Now Buhari is in charge, the international community has responded to his history of military competence and the broad mandate given to him by executing a remarkable about-face.‘The concerns over Leahy will, most likely, go away,’ former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell told me. The UK too has announced that it will renew its training relationship with the Nigerian Military, which it had quietly put on ice under President Jonathan.

So what decisions did Buhari make that were so effective in dealing with a previous uprising, thirty years ago? The militants, followers of Maitatsine, a radical preacher killed in an uprising in Kano some years before, were armed mostly with cutlasses, bows and arrows, and a few rifles stolen from police. According to a history of the incident, the army declared the area of the slum to be a ‘prohibited zone’. Anyone in those coordinates was to be ‘liquidated’. An artillery battery opened up and rained high explosive shells down on the neighbourhood.

After the area was shelled to oblivion, military units went in and ‘mopped up’; dealt with any wounded or surviving militants, clearing the area of booby traps. The fate of the hostages the sect seized is not known, but can be guessed. With the assault complete, the military was allowed a victory display. They marched under their regimental standard over the battered killing ground.

Hundreds, perhaps over 1,000, were dead and 30,000 made homeless. Despite the overwhelming force, some of the sect managed to escape. There would be another confrontation with the military in the town of Gombe the following year. The military’s response followed broadly the same pattern, and had the same outcome.

Around 800 people were arrested in the two revolts. Nigerian academic Sabo Bako interviewed surviving members of the sect for his PhD in 1992. His research revealed that conditions in prison were horrendous. The overwhelming cause of death among the inmates was starvation. According to Bako, some resorted to eating the bodies of their dead cell-mates to survive.

After his election this year, Buhari told a Washington audience at the United States Institute of Peace that he felt the US had indeed contributed to Boko Haram’s rise by deserting the Nigerian government in their hour of need. In response the US has indicated it will give all assistance it can. Buhari has vowed the Boko Haram sect will be eliminated by the end of the year.

Most agree that to deal with the sect, a robust military response will be necessary. But, there is little sign the methods and practices of the military have materially changed. On the evidence of what is still recent history, expecting it to be anything but a brutal experience may be wishful thinking.

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