President Buhari Image credit:

If President Muhammadu Buhari is serious about defeating Boko Haram; if he really means to protect the lives and property of people all over this country; if he is not joking when he speaks about erecting and maintaining “an efficient, disciplined people–friendly and well–compensated security force within an overall security architecture”, then there is one move he can make that would be unmistakable. Mr Buhari, tear down these barricades.

Virtually every Nigerian knows the barricades of which I speak. For those not acquainted with the phenomenon, here is a synopsis: On a Nigerian street, you may encounter barricades of reinforced concrete roughly 2-3 feet tall, barrels full of sand and stone, or sandbags piled up about 5 feet high. Do not be alarmed, you have not crossed into a war zone. You are simply approaching a government installation where some VIPs happen to frequent. There are police stations in major cities that have sandbags placed all around, except for an exit only large enough for one car at a time. The sandbags are typically manned by grim-looking men in black clothing carrying assault rifles which follow the movement of anyone approaching. And, as shown in the image below, when approaching these police stations, motorcyclists are required to dismount and push their bikes until they are well past the station before hopping back on and continuing on their merry way.  Police station in Kaduna state Image credit:

Tactics vs Symbolism

In his inauguration speech, President Muhammadu Buhari, when speaking about the Boko Haram insurgents, declared that “victory can not be achieved by basing the Command and Control Centre in Abuja”. He said that the command will be relocated to Maiduguri until such time as the Boko Haram menace is subdued. That is great, but he should not be afraid to do more. Still, let us look at the possible reasons for this action.

First, there is the camp that believes it to be a strategic move intended to really take the fight to the insurgents. This makes sense in a number of ways. First, by moving the men with all those stars on their cars closer, the lines of communication between the battlefield and headquarters will be greatly shortened, thereby allowing for much faster decision-making. Tactical changes can be made and communicated without too much disruption to the rhythm of the fighting forces. It also makes sense as a way of making the generals directly responsible for conditions in the Northeast. After all, their very lives may depend on the defenses engineered to keep the city safe. But, equally, the conditions under which your average soldier is having to fight will be very visible to the top brass. That might help to encourage them to work on cutting out the corruption that is said to have made it such that soldiers do not receive what is owed them, and are sometimes sent off to fight without the right equipment. If that fails, they can more easily be held directly responsible due to their proximity to the problem and ability to actually do something about. it.

There is another camp, however, who see the move as political in nature. The thinking here is that moving the headquarters doesn’t actually achieve very much, except for reassuring the people of the Northeast that this president believes them important to the nation. The theory also holds water because you could argue that the star-studded men are unlikely to risk their own lives by straying outside of fortifications and will therefore do little of note. Indeed, the troops required for VIP protection would be well-trained, experienced men who might be more useful on the battlefield than patrolling a compound within the safest zone in the state. Proponents of this theory believe that it is largely a symbolic gesture which, while desirable, should not be mistaken for a solution.

The truth may be one or the other, or even somewhere in-between. But that is not too pressing an issue. The real question is whether this move is the beginning of a profound change in Nigerian society whereby the security agencies come to the realisation that their first duty is to the people. Are we finally going to see a uniform that isn’t attempting to bully and/or extort us, or is this just a ploy to make us comfortable before they hit us again? Will they finally start trying to earn our respect or are they simply tricking us into believing in them for this short period, until they can defeat the enemy? Is this a genuine show of them recognising that they willingly signed up to put their lives on the line for our protection, or is it just a gesture intended to raise false hopes and strengthen their hand against us without really changing anything?

Even if President Buhari’s move is more symbolic than tactical, it still has its benefits. However, even if it his intentions are purely the former, there is one symbolic move which, above all else, will demonstrate that he is serious about stopping the rot of insecurity in Nigeria. He must remove the barriers that have been placed between the residents of Nigeria and their protectors.

Back to the Barricades

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But how did these barricades come to be and what is their purpose? It all started back in 2009 when Boko Haram attacked their first police station. For many years they continually targeted the security apparatus of the nation, as well as members of government and influential people in the society. That was when the barricades began to appear. It began with police stations and military barracks but, as the bombings grew more audacious and widespread, ever more government (and civilian) establishments began constructing barricades. Now entire roads have been closed off for fear of suicide bombers ramming their way in, similar to the attack on the UN office in Abuja. However, as soon as the insurgents had the country’s security forces pinned down behind their high walls, they turned their attention to us, the helpless civilians who have neither the training nor the weaponry to defend ourselves. And the casualties have been enormous. Was it a deliberate tactic or an opportunistic one? It is hard to know for sure.

Which is why I think that the barricades need to be taken down in order for real security to become an achievable goal. Because at this time when concrete steps are being taken to address the security issues, the approach should engage all stakeholders and bring us together. President Buhari, before his inauguration, spoke about defeating Boko Haram by “the strength of our collective will.” But there cannot be a collective when there is such discordance between the level of protection afforded to soft targets like schools, markets and bus stops and that afforded to harder targets like police stations, military barracks and government offices. While it is true that weakening the security of one does not increase the security of another, I am not actually advocating for a weakening of security practices, but rather a change of thinking in how we approach security. Reactionary fortifications and the like only serve to hand victory to those who wish to make us live in terror and perpetual fear and distrust of each other. In order to defeat terror we must stand together, united, and not allow them come to factionalise us whether based on Christian vs Muslim, tribe vs tribe or, indeed, uniform vs civilian.

To be clear, I am not advocating for barricades at soft targets to be dismantled. It sounds a bit hypocritical, but I think those need to be kept in place, if not reinforced. The fact is that establishments such as schools and markets where dozens (if not hundreds) of civilians gather are prime targets for the insurgents and need every protection they can get. The majority of people within such premises have little security training and as such are quite vulnerable to sudden attacks. And one of the key ways in which security forces can gain the trust of the people is by ensuring that they are seen to be doing their utmost to keep the latter safe, even at risk to their own safety. In this way, they can begin to earn the trust of those who may have information that they need.

As well, I do not mean to belittle the threat facing the security forces because it is true that the same conditions which necessitated these barricades in the first place are still very much in place. But the truth is that the barriers do not work for us anymore. Real security is achieved not through concrete or steel, but through vigilance. Plus, as long as the security forces remain safe behind their barricades and fortifications, they have little incentive to work at keeping the rest of us safe. They might venture out once in a while to keep up appearances and flex a little muscle, but they ultimately go back behind the safety of their barricades, because it is easier to simply apply lethal force to anyone who attempts to get too close to your sandbag mountain. However it is much more difficult to gather intelligence, investigate and do some actual policing. And without actual police work and engaging personally with the community, the fight against insecurity will continue to be a reactionary one with the initiative left to the insurgents and the chasm between people and security growing ever wider.

In his book, “Shake Hands with the Devil”, Lt-Gen Roméo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, spoke about how one of the first things he did upon taking command was to disable the air conditioning of all the UN jeeps. He did it because he felt that, driving around with the windows up like that, the soldiers under his command would suffer a disconnect between them and the people they were meant to be helping. How much greater is the disconnect between Nigerians and their supposed protectors?

And yet quite a few top security agents have seen fit to accuse citizens of not bringing information to their forces. It beggars belief. We have often heard the military and police forces lamenting the fact that people do not come forward to them with actionable intelligence or information. There is the oft-repeated saying that security is the job of everyone, not just the people in uniform. The Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Usman Jibrin, shortly after the first security briefing with the new president, reiterated it by saying “All Nigerians should continue to support the military and provide us with the needed intelligence, as to the human beings, their movements and suspicious movement should be reported to the police [and] of course the police will make that available to us.” If they are serious about that, then they ought to remove the barricades that separate them from the people because the only way that the military and police can receive pertinent information to aid in fighting the insurgency is to make themselves available for such information. If you want to talk, invite us in.