On Tour in Northern Nigeria, Col. Dasuki Emphasizes Dialogue with Boko Haram

In June, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, facing increasing domestic criticism over his government’s handling of the Northern rebel sect Boko Haram, appointed a new National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki. Dasuki, who is a member of the Northern aristocratic, political, and military elites, soon initiated a tour of Northern cities that have been affected by Boko Haram’s violence. The Jonathan administration has in the past talked about dialogue with Boko Haram, and Dasuki’s tour has repeatedly stressed the idea of dialogue, suggesting that the administration’s strategy is moving more firmly in that direction. Dasuki’s tour has also attempted to give Northern “stakeholders” a greater sense of inclusion in the administration’s efforts to deal with Boko Haram.

Among Dasuki’s first stops were Maidiguri (Borno State), Potiskum, and Damataru (Yobe State). Maiduguri, site of one of Boko Haram’s largest uprisings in 2009, has remained the epicenter of the violence, and Boko Haram has repeatedly attacked the latter two cities. In Maiduguri, Dasuki spoke of a potential ceasefire between the government and Boko Haram.

Other stops have included Jos (Plateau State), Katsina State, and Kano (Kano State). In Jos, Dasuki announced his intention to meet with Boko Haram:

Dasuki, who spoke in Jos during a meeting with stakeholders in Plateau, said he was planning to meet with the group on the need for it to cease fire and embrace dialogue as soon as possible.

“I was in Yobe and Borno States last week and I have got the telephone numbers and contacts of key Boko Haram members and I will meet with them. I saw the dangerous effect of Boko Haram in these states and what I saw was pathetic. But I have the mandate to put heads together with religious and traditional leaders as well as the state governments to ensure an immediate ceasefire,” Dasuki said.

If Dasuki has obtained the telephone numbers of Boko Haram leaders, then his tour has already borne some fruit.

In Kaduna, Dasuki added another element to the call for dialogue. “He urged the stakeholders to reach out to all known contacts of leaders of Boko Haram and make them embrace the latest dialogue initiative by the Federal Government.” The dialogue strategy, then, combines Abuja’s own efforts at outreach with more localized efforts.

As Dasuki pursues dialogue, he is also working to reassure Northern leaders and strengthen the Federal Government’s relations with them. In Katsina, he emphasized the idea of “listening” to the local leaders (indeed, almost every article on Dasuki’s stops includes quotes from governors and other local politicians):

When he paid a courtesy visit to Katsina State governor Ibrahim Shema, [Dasuki] said “what is happening in the north is not something anyone will be proud of”.

“We are in Katsina to listen to the state’s concerns to and offer full support to the government in ensuring that peace is sustained,” he said. “While we are addressing areas with problems, we don’t want new ones to come up.”

Dasuki said that his visit was part of measures to offer support and cooperation to the state.

In Kano,

He assured Kano state governor, Dr. Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso that his office was ever ready to partner with the state government to surmount rising security challenges in Kano.
Dasuki said the government of President Goodluck Jonathan was ready to give full assistance to the people and government of Kano state in their bid to ensure adequate security of lives and property.
“Considering the importance of Kano, a major economic hub, the last place anybody would want any disruption is Kano.”

As reported in the press (and it is noteworthy that in Kano Dasuki complained about the press’ coverage of national security issues and stated that journalists sometimes distort his words), the tone of some governors’ statements has been slightly different than the tone Dasuki takes; for example, Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State asked the federal government to deploy more troops to his state, and expressed caution about dialogue at the same time that he said authorities in his state are pursuing it. But despite what seems to be the occasional difference of opinion, the Northern governors appear to have received Dasuki quite enthusiastically and to be happy with his appointment. His physical presence on the scene appears to have meant something to state and local authorities. Dasuki’s background and personal connections, of course, may play a role in making some of the Northern politicians comfortable with him.

I have not seen a schedule of the tour, so I cannot tell whether Dasuki will return to Abuja, take the tour further west, or make these visits an ongoing part of his work. But now that he has made these visits, his challenge will be to make the promised dialogue happen and to preserve the goodwill he seems to have established so far.

Nigeria: Changeover in Top Security Personnel

In words that have come back to haunt him, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan stated in March that the problem of Boko Haram, the rebel sect that regularly conducts attacks throughout much of Northern Nigeria, would be over by June. June is here, and now Jonathan is under more pressure than ever to deal with Boko Haram. Recent attacks on churches have incensed Christian groups, Muslim-Christian violence gripped Kaduna for several days last week, and just yesterday Boko Haram staged another of its signature prison breaks.*

On Friday, Jonathan replaced his National Security Adviser, General Andrew Owoye Azazi, with Colonel Sambo Dasuki, and fired Defense Minister Bello Haliru (also called Bello Muhammad in some reports). Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Jonathan offered a need for “new persons” and “new tactics” as the reason for the shuffle. In words that seemed to reference the cyclical reprisal killings in Kaduna, Jonathan also said that Boko Haram attacks churches to “instigate religious crisis” and destabilize the government. He also “pledged that Nigeria would halt the violence. He said the government was open to dialogue if Boko Haram figures identified themselves and made clear demands.” AFP (linked report above) comments that Sunday’s remarks “featured some of his clearest statements yet on the Boko Haram insurgency.”

Many people have wondered whether Boko Haram will undermine Jonathan politically to the point that his presidency enters a serious crisis (some Nigerians, of course, would already say that it has, for reasons not limited to insecurity). The answer depends on how one defines “crisis.” I do not expect Jonathan to resign or be impeached, but he is certainly feeling the heat. Additionally, even though Boko Haram’s range remains limited to the North (it has not, for example, attacked Lagos or Port Harcourt), in terms of attention from the press, civil society, and ordinary people, the issue is becoming even more “national” than it already has been.

This kind of shuffle with security personnel is not new – Police Inspector General Hafiz Ringim and six of his deputies got early retirement shortly after the mass bombings in Kano in January. But Friday’s firings were even more dramatic. The motivation seems primarily political to me. My reading is that Jonathan wants to buy the government enough time, politically, to find a solution; the President also seems to feel that the solution, when it comes, will likely involve dialogue. These personnel changes, however, will probably not blunt the criticism for long if the violence continues. What options will Jonathan have then, except to muddle through?

It is noteworthy but probably not decisive that the new National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki (profile here) is from the royal family of Sokoto, and has complex ties to former heads of state Gens. Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo. I say “noteworthy” because pondering what political considerations led to his appointment may tell us something about Jonathan’s relationships with different parts of the Northern elite. I say “not decisive” because I doubt Dasuki’s aristocratic pedigree will matter much to Boko Haram, or give militants serious pause as they plot further attacks. What will matter most is whether there will indeed be fresh thinking on both the security and the political fronts.

*One wild detail in the report on the prison break in Yobe State is the line that Boko Haram attacked the prison “through the Emir’s palace.” Presumably the Emir was unhurt; if so, this incident will add to the complex history of Boko Haram’s decisions to sometimes assassinate royals and sometimes spare their lives.