A few weeks after the New York Times published a report that Boko Haram may be using drones in fresh attacks in the North East, something unusual happened.
Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State entered a contract with Saudi-based clerics to offer prayers 24/7 for peace to return to the state. The full details of the contract signed with 30 clerics in Makkah are not available yet. But the governor’s spokesperson, Isa Gusau, who described the contract as “a critical move,” explained why the government took the unusual step.
“The aim,” he said, “is to combine different approaches that include sustained support for the Nigerian Armed forces, aggressive mass recruitment and equipping of more counter-insurgency volunteers into the civilian JTF, hunters, and vigilantes as well as socio-economic approach in enhancing access to education, job opportunities and providing other means of livelihood through social protection initiatives (sic).”
No need to split hairs over what the last paragraph means. If you look beyond the grammatical jiggery-pokery to the intent, you might agree that not since the Battle of Austerlitz, when Napoleon defeated the combined armies of three emperors, has the world known or seen such a grand and comprehensive war plan. Nothing has been left to chance.
There was even a report on Cable this week that the government may have, in fact, recruited hundreds of hunters, not your run-of-the-mill type, but those who can disappear, walk through a wall, or leap over Sambisa forest, to protect the governor and citizens, when push comes to shove. The financial package, to be fully funded from state resources, is still a secret.
Who can blame the governor? He was barely 100 days in office when Boko Haram attacked his convoy, letting him off by the skin of his teeth. Attacks have increased in the last few weeks, with reports last week indicating that at least 30 persons including soldiers and civilians may have been killed in different attacks in the North East, with Borno being the worst affected.
Desperate situations sometimes require desperate remedies. But the thing with all desperation is that reason is the first casualty.
At a time when Boko Haram and other forms of violence and criminality appear to be gaining ground and when the perpetrators of these crimes are becoming more brazen and sophisticated, we’re recruiting and paying hunters, vigilantes and clerics for help?
At a time when our brave soldiers are depending on us for the best strategic and tactical support they can get to win the war, we’re using money that ought to have been channeled to the war to buy ecclesiastical support?
Whether it is despair, demagoguery or desperation driving it, this joke is taking hold and it won’t be long before it becomes yet another acceptable absurdity in the Nigerian way of doing things.
Before Governor Zulum contracted the 30 clerics, the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai, was the special guest at a programme organised by the military in Abuja on the efficacy of spiritual warfare in the war on Boko Haram and its cousin, the Islamic State.
Although we have not been told yet if the Army signed any prayer contracts with Christian and Muslim leaders at the Abuja event, I’m sure the Ooni of Ife, the Oba of Benin and custodians of other traditional religions would be watching keenly to see under what auspices they may also be co-opted in the army’s ingenuous contribution to modern combat.
It’s not funny. It was for precisely this kind of absurdity that we severely criticised President Goodluck Jonathan’s conduct of the war on Boko Haram. Troops deployed in the frontlines fought bravely with bare hands, bought their own medicines, slept in open spaces and improvised to survive, while commanders up the ladder diverted funds meant to prosecute the war.
Instead of rooting out the corrupt commanders and accepting foreign offer of help, Jonathan’s government waited until it was too late, and only then did it begin to ferry millions of cash to South Africa in special flights provided by one of the former president’s favourite clerics, to either buys arms in “black market” or hire mercenaries.
Jonathan had apparently been misled or had misled himself into believing that the Boko Haram insurgency was a ruse – a political and spiritual warfare by his enemies, mostly Northern political interests, to bring him down and seize power from him.
In hindsight, however, it is strange that he should believe this nonsense and watch while billions of Naira set aside for the war was diverted in long-winding trails of cronyism, which sometimes ended up in ecclesiastical pockets.
Part of the charges against the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, was that monies meant for the prosecution of the war on Boko Haram were shared among clerics to do exactly what Governor Zulum paid clerics in Saudi Arabia to do last week. And the governor, a professor of engineering, expects applause, sympathy or both?
If five years of warring against Boko Haram and ISWAP have brought Buhari’s commanders and the political elite to the point where they have suddenly realised that entering prayer contracts using public funds is no longer an absurdity, much less an offence, the clerics excoriated in the prayer-for-cash era deserve a public apology. Dasuki’s charge sheet may also need to be reviewed while all business-minded persons of faith should be eligible to bid for spiritual warfare contracts in the next round.
In this business of spiritual warfare, we can’t pick and choose our outrage. We cannot, for example, be outraged that the sales clerk at JAMB, Philomina Chiese, claimed that it was a “spiritual attack” by her house help through a snake that caused the disappearance of N36m in her care, and yet not be outraged by leaving our soldiers at the mercy of prayer contractors and juju-mongering hunters. Why is Philomina facing trial?
We cannot be outraged that Jonathan turned a blind eye while his commanders shared security funds amongst clerics and not be outraged that a similar thing is happening under Buhari.
The DG SSS, Yusuf Bichi, first shared it as a joke. In April, during a retreat by the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) for incoming governors, Bichi said he observed that Nigerian politicians appear to trust marabouts and “babalawos” more than they trust the security agencies.
He is right. But he must have seen lately, too, that faith in the efficacy of spiritual warfare is not solely a politician’s thing. The military is also purchasing it at a premium. It’s not about the name the service providers are called: it’s the absurdity of using or misusing state funds so casually.
What will troops in dire need of essential supplies think of this conduct? The Times report I cited at the beginning quoted the new commander of Operation Lafia Dole as publicly reminding his field officers in August, to “give food and water to the troops.” Yet, these same troops and commanders will hear that clerics have been contracted – at God knows how much – to pray for them while they wait earnestly for the performance of a spiritual contract to save them from clear and present danger.
I have my reservations about the Times report – it’s understatement of the war effort so far and reference to the drones in the headline hardly supported by the story. But the tragic events that followed that report including the killing of a dozen soldiers and even greater number of civilian casualties, suggest that the war is not over yet.
To win the war, especially the war of hearts and minds, we need to get everyone on board, including the Saudi prayer warriors and their non-Saudi cousins wherever they may be. But we must draw a clear line between clerical booty and the public war chest.
There’s a long, shameless history of mixing religion and state in Nigeria that predates Zulum or any of the current political subscribers. But if it was wrong under Jonathan, it surely can’t be right under Buhari. It has to stop, now.
. Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network.