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.