By Festus Eriye
What’s in a name? Everything – judging by the ongoing debate about proper nomenclature for the band of gunmen who have transformed hostage-taking into a billion naira enterprise in the Northwest.
The discussion has become more intense following the downing by bandits of a Nigeria Air Force jet, as it returned from an operation over forests between Zamfara and Kaduna States.
One national newspaper just published a front page editorial criticising the media and political elite for persisting in calling a spade a shovel.
It would appear the gunmen are thriving because they’ve not been called sufficiently derogatory names. Referring to them bandits just doesn’t go far enough.
Ordinarily, being tagged terrorist should attract greater scrutiny from government and society. You become a person of interest to police forces and intelligence agencies around the world. But that’s not been our experience in Nigeria.
Boko Haram who have been labelled terrorists for more than a decade are still in business. Government did same with the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), but that didn’t douse the secessionist agitation.
Sometimes, the labelling process becomes complicated – influenced by everything from the mundane to gravely serious; with a healthy helping of politics thrown in.
I recall how in the early days of Boko Haram then President Goodluck Jonathan’s government resisted efforts by the Hilary Clinton-led US State Department, to classify the group and its leaders as terrorist. An influential local lobby arose, claiming that such tagging would expose innocent Nigerians to inconveniences and embarrassment at airports around the globe due to guilt by association.
The administration even argued that the sect were “our brothers” who they would reason with for amicable resolution of their grievances. Little did they realise that the demands of extremists are often non-negotiable and that their “brothers” would accept nothing short of surrender to their ideology.
Nigerians have moved on and the insurgents have done enough in the last decade to secure their place in the terrorists’ hall of infamy. So, naturally, people are more inclined to throw names around. But let’s be sure the cap fits.
There’s no perfect or universally accepted definition of what constitutes terrorism. That’s why some argue one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Nelson Mandela was a hero to his people and an inspiration to millions around the world. But to South Africa’s apartheid regime he was a dangerous terrorist who they locked away for 27 years.
The UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60 adopted on December 9, 1994 titled “Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism” contains a provision which describes terrorism as: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.”
It stated that such actions were “in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”
Another UN panel on March 17, 2005 described terrorism as any act “intended to cause death or serious bodily to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.”
A typical dictionary definition explains it as “the unlawful use of violence or threats to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or government, with the goal of furthering political, social, or ideological objectives.”
What is common to the foregoing is that these violent actions are usually tied to political, ideological or religious goals. In that sense what’s happening in the Northeast fits the classic definition of terrorism because of the ends pursued by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
But as I argued last week, banditry in the Northwest has had no political or religious overtones. It has been largely transactional. People are held hostage for money. Those who rustle cattle, do so for cold, hard cash. The ones engaged in illegal mining are in it for economy reasons, not with any aspiration to making Paradise.
One dictionary defines a bandit as “a robber or outlaw belonging to a gang and typically operating in an isolated or lawless area.” This is exactly what’s playing out in vulnerable areas of the Northwest – from Zamfara to Kaduna – where well-armed criminals have been targeting schools and communities which have little or no military or police presence.
The use of extreme violence for economic ends isn’t something that’s unique to Nigeria. Violent Mexican and Colombian drug cartels often engage in senseless slaughter of the innocent while protecting or expanding their turf. No one calls them terrorists but simply the organised criminals that they are.
What’s going on in the Northwest isn’t a problem caused by labelling, neither is it going to be terminated via a naming ceremony. The idea is as ridiculous as suggesting Nigeria’s woes would miraculously disappear with a name change. That famous phrase from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet says: ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.
The only way peace is going to return to the region is by first acknowledging the root of the problem. As Bill Clinton famously said: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The absence of economic opportunities has created a desperate segment of the population who have no sense of what’s right or wrong, moral or immoral, human or inhuman.
They are so desperate they abduct and kill those whose condition is as abject as theirs. They maim and murder young and old with no religious or moral compass directing their actions save the money they now worship. Those splitting hairs over names must now wake up and smell the tangy coffee.
Zamfara State Governor, Bello Matawalle, whose domain is epicentre of the problem, last weekend in Kaduna issued a cutting analysis of the situation – locating the blame where it belongs.
He said: “Rural banditry in Zamfara and other parts of the North is a result of the progressive degradation of our moral standards and a culture of greed fed by an unfettered need for material goods. It is evident that we, the leaders, are responsible for the plight of the North.
“The North lacks responsible leadership to steer it through our time’s uncharted waters. Our ruling elite has no vision for the region beyond gaining political power.”
Matawalle isolated the problem brilliantly. So what’s he and other leaders going to do about creating the opportunities that would make banditry lose its appeal?