I have had occasion to warn that when a government breaks laws and/or ignores court orders, it is unwittingly permitting further events which will likely have unpredictable results. There are few peoples are shrewd as Nigerians and, in these desperate times, anything that appears to work, regardless of how illegal it is, will be replicated faster than you can blink. Nigerians have shown a fantastic ability to copycat anything that works, so when a government makes clear that the rules aren’t set in stone, be prepared to see it replicated across the spectrum in ways we can hardly predict right now.
That is why the decisions of the federal government, led by President Buhari, to designate both the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) as terrorist organisations, and to arrest (some say abduct) recent presidential candidate, Mr Omoyele Sowore, and charge him for, amongst other things, treasonable felony simply because he called for nationwide protests under the banner #RevolutionNow will have grave consequences for this country going into the future. And despite courts ordering the release of Mr Sowore, Sheikh El-Zakzaky of the IMN, and Colonel Sambo Dasuki, Mr Buhari’s government has consistently refused to do so. Indeed, the Federal High Court of Abuja warned the Director-General of the DSS that unless he obeys the order he “will be guilty of contempt of court and will be liable to be committed to prison”, yet the government ignored that as well. And now we are already beginning to see copycat moves from a state governor in whose name a journalist has been arrested and charged with treason because he allegedly wrote an article calling for protests against the governor. As if to buttress my point, the journalist is being charged with being an associate of Mr Sowore’s and using the #RevolutionNow movement to forcefully overthrow government. And this in less than a month.
Anyway, since Mr Buhari seems to enjoy invoking “national security” to disobey court orders and make rubbish of an already-degraded constitution, we are forced to consider what exactly constitutes terrorism and what requirements must be met for any organisation (including yours) to be declared a terrorist organisation.
What Makes A Terrorist?
So who gets to decide which organisation is classed as a terrorist organisation and what is the criteria for that? A breakdown of Nigeria’s Terrorism Prevention Act of 2011, complete with analysis and comparison to similar laws in other countries, shows that ours (or should I say theirs?) is just another law written by a military dictator for a military dictator as it provides neither neither checks and balances nor avenues for challenge or justice to any party unlucky enough to be brought under its hammer. It simply allows the president, through any of 3 appointees whom (s)he can hire and fire almost at will, to declare any group which isn’t a political party as a terrorist organisation and that’s the end of it; they will remain so literally forever (or until the government changes, which is pretty much the same thing because This Is Africa). For that reason, I’m going to basically ignore that farcical piece of legislation and focus instead on what should apply in a true democracy. By the way, if any legal minds are reading this, perhaps you might consider asking a judge to declare the entire law itself unconstitutional so that we may have the opportunity to rethink and redraft.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of the USA which details how that country designates Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTO) provides the best example of a democratic approach to the matter that I’ve found.
In their case the decision is made by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, “following an exhaustive interagency review process in which all evidence of a group’s activity, from both classified and open sources, is scrutinised.” Yet even that is not enough. Seven days before the organisation is designated the Department of State has to provide classified notification to Congress. If Congress does not object and the organisation is designated as such, it is still subject to judicial review, meaning the organisation can challenge it in federal court, at which point the federal government is to rely on the administrative record which informed the Secretary of State’s decision in the first place. Obviously, if the judge finds it flawed, it may be reversed. Another important point is that the designation automatically expires after two years unless renewed. Like most other democratic processes, there are requirements, procedures, criteria that have to be met, clear explanations of what it means for the accused, and opportunities for them to challenge the designation.
But it still begs the question; what constitutes terrorism? The definition of terrorism is a contentious one, in part because it’s somewhat subjective. You have of course heard the old cliché that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. While highly simplistic, it illustrates the point that cause and intention tend to matter in these matters.
However, because my concern is primarily that of the victims of terrorism and the third parties who the terrorists are attempting to compel, I prefer to reduce the value of intent. I acknowledge there might be grave grievances that lead people to engage in acts they might not necessarily do in other circumstances, but two wrongs don’t make a right and the innocents who committed no crime against anyone but instead found their lives and livelihoods being used as tools in the struggles of others take precedence for me. For instance, when a group believes that conflict with another group is inevitable, sometimes it is prudent to strike first and, while the intent may be to protect and preserve one’s group, if that attack is conducted against a civilian population with the intent of changing policy in some way, I would still class it as a terrorist attack. For that reason, let’s restrict ourselves to terrorist activity, regardless of nature of the intent.
The Act defines terrorist activity as any activity which is unlawful AND includes any of;
- High jacking or sabotage of conveyance (transportation in short)
- The seizing or detaining, and threatening to kill, injure or continue to detain, another individual in order to compel a third person (including a governmental organisation) to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the individual seized or detained.
- A violent attack upon an internationally protected person (think diplomat) or upon the liberty of such a person.
- An assassination
- The use of any [Weapon of Mass Destruction]/explosive or firearm…with intention to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.
- A threat, attempt, or conspiracy to do any of the foregoing.
The definition is quite broad, but that’s what you get with such a contentious issue where the policy people are trying to cast as wide a net as possible without snagging unintended schools of thought (fish?) or breaking legal boundaries.
Beginning from the top, I have not seen or heard any suggestion that either IMN or IPOB hijacked or sabotaged any form of conveyance, so we can safely assume that’s not the reason for their proscription. Actually, nothing I have read or heard indicates that the groups have engaged in any activity which falls under the categories listed above until recently when IPOB claimed responsibility for attacking a former deputy senate president while he was on a foreign trip. The IMN in particular could probably argue with some success that they have themselves been victims of terrorist activity.
But you know who might be considered culpable of some of these acts?
Boko Haram is obvious and indisputable. However, there are two groups besides them who are estimated to kill the highest number of Nigerians per year. In no particular order, they are;
Fulani Herdsmen Militia
The Fulani herdsmen militia have, for the longest time now, been held responsible by everyone (except, notably, the federal government) for items 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the terrorist activity list. It initially appeared that the federal government didn’t really see the threat as it focused on pushing back Boko Haram; an understandable but very short-sighted excuse considering that, in 2015, the year Mr Buhari became president, deaths at the hands of the herdsmen militia were already rivalling those committed by Boko Haram, surpassing them not long after. Their profile outside of the Middle Belt was significantly lower than that of the group which achieved global infamy with the Chibok abductions, but someone somewhere in the government should have been ringing the alarm bells.
However what has caused the most consternation is that Mr Buhari’s government has, time and again, looked to become apologists and offer the militia and its affiliates nothing but appeasement while pretty much ignoring the other party in the “farmers/herdsmen clashes.” And since the last time I wrote about the RUGA settlement plan which was roundly rejected by Nigerians, the federal government has been working with select state governors to implement it anyway, albeit under a different name. The cherry on top – the Bauchi state governor’s open admission that foreigners would be welcomed in these government-sponsored camps because “The Fulani is a global or African person…and his nationality is Fulani.” Then in the very next breath the governor goes on to say that “In most cases, the crisis is precipitated by those outside Nigeria. When there is a reprisal, it is not the Fulani man within Nigeria that causes it. It is that culture of getting revenge which is embedded in the traditional Fulani man that attracts reprisal.” In other words, we will accommodate all Fulani from anywhere in Africa, including the ones whom we know killed our fellow countrymen because, you know, they’re Fulani (like the governor himself admits to being) and they can’t help the obsession with revenge.
And so the federal government decided that in order to remove the ethnic colouration it would start blaming everything on “bandits” and “banditry.” This is despite the “bandits” of Zamfara state themselves giving conditions for a ceasefire including the cessation of alleged persecution of Fulani people. Then the governor of Katsina state, from whence Mr Buhari hails, offered amnesty to the “kidnappers and bandits” terrorising the people of his state. At the meeting where the “bandits” pledged to release about 1000 people in their custody there were reported statements by the bandit representative which began with “We Fulani…” and proceeded to mention being aggrieved by Hausa farmers, etc. From this we can safely surmise that the killings that began in the Middle Belt years ago but were virtually ignored by the federal government have now spread to areas most didn’t see coming.
Another group which could reasonably be accused of terrorist activity against the Nigerian people is the Nigerian government itself. Looking at the definition of terrorist activity above, they tick most of the boxes. Hijacking conveyance? Check. What else would you call it when commercial motorcycle riders in all the different regions of the country complain of policemen taking away their vehicles to undisclosed locations at a whim? Even the bus you’re traveling in may be hijacked by any security agent… Seizing and detaining a person to compel a third party to do or desist from doing something? Check. It is astoundingly common in Nigeria that when someone is suspected of committing a crime, his/her entire family may find themselves thrown behind bars until the suspect is “produced.” And for No.5, the use of explosives and firearms “with intention to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property” can be seen in the treatments meted out to the IMN, for instance.
State terrorism is a real thing, though it can often be difficult to define, much less prove. An important distinction must be made between state terrorism, which is loosely defined as violence or threat of violence against citizens of the state concerned, and state-sponsored terrorism, which is when a state sponsors, aids or arms others to commit terrorist acts against citizens of other states. There is a school of thought which argues that the term terrorism should only apply to non-state actors, in the belief that state violence against its own citizens should instead be called “human rights violations” while state violence against citizens of other countries fall under the umbrella of “war crimes.” I disagree with that view for two reasons. First, the term “terrorism” is thought to have been derived from the Reign of Terror in France between 1793-94 during which the revolutionary regime killed and imprisoned thousands of real or perceived opponents, “with the explicit purpose of terrorizing all ‘counter-revolutionaries’ into surrender. This was called ‘terrorism’ by critics in Britain, and Jacobin revolutionaries were labeled ‘terrorists’.” For that reason, states cannot be exempt since the term was coined to define state terrorism. My second reason, however, is that, as stated above, I’m less concerned with the rationale of the perpetrators, whoever they might be, but more with the effects on the victims. The same as murder is murder, regardless of if it’s in the first, second or third degree, I believe terrorism is not as fluid as those who take charge of definitions might have you believe.
There is one important caveat to classifying governments action as state terrorism, however, which is that the third party should be of more importance than the citizen(s) upon which the violence is threatened or carried out. This matters because if the violence or threat is intended simply to compel the person(s) it is carried out against, then the actions may be classed as abuse of power or something else. In order to qualify as a terrorist act by a state, however, the actions must be intended to cow, coerce or otherwise affect third parties, whether they be citizens, other factions within the government or foreigners. It is for this reason that I am not yet convinced the Nigerian government engages in state terrorism; the haphazard nature of unlawful violence carried out by the state against its own citizens does not appear to bear the hallmarks of a concerted and clear policy to intimidate and coerce, at least not on a large enough scale to warrant the charge. Which is not to say that we are moving away from state terror; more like we have dipped our toes in and now have to decide if we want to take the plunge or not.
In conclusion, I recommend that we put our lawmakers to task to enact well thought out laws instead of using a militarily-imposed set of rules to hold citizens hostage. Happy Independence Day to those celebrating; in my town the only evidence of it is the hawkers on the street who have added little Nigerian flags to their repertoire of goods. Haven’t seen anyone buying though.