Antonin Scalia, the famous American jurist, once said: “Words have meaning.” Today, that seemingly simple quote is relevant, especially in an age where doublespeak is fast becoming the standard. Take Nigeria for instance, where a Nigerian Air Force Alpha Jet aircraft was shot down two days ago. The media said the plane was attacked by “bandits.”
But words have meaning – any group of people who have anti-aircraft guns or surface-to-air missiles and can shoot down an air force jet are no longer bandits. They are terrorists who have declared war on Nigeria.
The terrorist attack of July 18 is the fourth air crash involving a Nigerian Air Force plane in the last six months. A NAF Alpha Jet which went missing on March 31, 2021 has still not been found. There are no reports on any investigations into the incident in the public space, speaking to the current government’s mishandling of terrorism in Nigeria’s Northern region.
The war against Boko Haram has now entered its second decade and despite several claims by the current administration that the insurgency is over, there is no real end in sight. Every proclamation of a technical victory over the insurgents is quickly followed by a resurgence. It is clear that Nigeria cannot win this war in the short term; it is time to speak plainly.
Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau was killed not by Nigeria’s military, but by a rival group, the Islamist State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in a palace coup. There is nothing to celebrate in that. While the initial thinking was that it indicated a tussle in the enemy camp, that narrative is not holding up very well right now. Members of Shekau’s army are reportedly now pledging loyalty to Abu Musab Albarnawi’s ISWAP.
It is against the background of this change we must consider the June 18 downing of the NAF jet. The incident calls into question a few things, mainly the Nigerian government’s strategy in combating these bandits, the level of arms proliferation due to porous borders, the weaponry available to said bandits, and the future of the war on terror in Nigeria. I read a report by SBM Intelligence some months ago that said arms available to non-state actors in Nigeria surpass those available to the military by a huge amount. In shooting down the jet, surface-to-air missiles must have been deployed, a huge and worrying shift from the known capabilities of these terrorists. This should be treated as a matter of urgency.
Acquiring weapons like anti-aircraft guns or Surface-Air-Missiles is expensive. It is not unlikely that the so-called bandits have enriched themselves enough from ransoms received from kidnapping scores of innocent citizens and most notably school pupils to the extent that they can now purchase such equipment. This latest incident also questions the level of intelligence available to the Air Force and the Nigerian security apparatus. This display of strong technical prowess in bringing down a fighter jet is a new low in the war against terrorism in Nigeria. Such a successful operation will only boost the morale of these bandits and they will only become more brazen going forward.
It will also demoralise the men of the Air Force, even though they can claim a small victory in the successful recovery of Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo, who successfully ejected from the aircraft and used his training and survival instincts to evade the bandits while waiting to be rescued. Questions should be asked to determine how low he was flying and reach a conclusion on the type of weapon used to down his jet. Questions must also be asked about the crew of the earlier jet which was brought down some months ago.
The Nigerian government needs to treat this issue of banditry as an all-out war against the state and direct its security apparatus to completely decimate them and bring this to a close. The days of treating this issue with kids gloves, where notable clerics go into the forest for photo ops with bandits and serve as their unofficial mouthpieces, should end.
Political will should match military might and actions in getting to the root of this scourge. We cannot, as a nation, sit and fold our arms as bandits shoot down fighter jets from the sky. If appropriate action is not taken this would be the first of many and will be normalised, like other heinous acts of terrorism in the country.
The implications of this attack are grave and the Political and Military leadership should approach this banditry scourge with the urgency that it requires, showing the Nigerian people that it is still alive to its primary responsibility as defined by the constitution, which is the protection of lives and property.
Ogundipe is currently a Master’s Candidate studying Security and Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University, Israel. He tweets from @Dotchillz.