The minister of defence, Dr Bello Haliru Mohammed, has said that Boko Haram which has terrorized major cities in northern Nigeria has been attempting to make the entire country its theatre of operation but has been restricted to only 20 of the 774 local government areas of the country.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with LEADERSHIP SUNDAY, Mohammed also said the intelligence agencies have successfully infiltrated the ranks of Boko Haram, but said the June deadline for obliterating the group was not feasible.
With events in Mali taking a turn for the worse, after the March 22 military coup, Mohammed set conditions under which Nigeria could join the ECOWAS in a military intervention to contain the rebels.
This is just as the chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin, has said that he is not in a position to speak on what Nigeria’s next line of action would be regarding a possible military intervention in Mali, but said the nation is committed to whatever ECOWAS and President Goodluck Jonathan may decide.
On his part, the director-general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Prof Bola Akinterinwa, said the priority of the Nigerian government and ECOWAS should be to dislodge the Tuareg rebels before they can come back and restore democracy to Mali.
Speaking further on Boko Haram, Mohammed said: “The fact that we have been able to contain the violence that has been rearing its head to a few local governments within the country, in itsself, is evidence of success of our armed forces, and, from the way the various elements operate, it is obvious their intention is to make the whole country their theatre of operation.
“But the security agencies have managed to lock them in small areas. I would say, of all the talk of insecurity and violence, it is happening only in about 20 of the 774 local governments in the country.”
He said: “Our security agencies, not only the military intelligence, even civilian intelligence like the SSS, NIA and police intelligence, have been doing tremendous work in infiltrating the various violent organisations.
“That is ranging from the Niger Delta up to the current Boko Haram that is rearing itself in the north. And they have managed to adapt very quickly to the developing situation because you know the acts of terrorism are not things we are used to in Nigeria.”
On the deadlock in Mali, he said further: “What is before Nigeria and ECOWAS now is to ensure that democracy is restored in Mali. The military junta in Mali has been told in no uncertain terms that they must restore Malian democracy.
“They must allow elected authority to come and handle whatever situation there is. It is not likely that ECOWAS or Nigeria in particular will give any measure of cooperation to the Malian government as long as it is under military rule.”
The minister added: “But as a member of ECOWAS, whenever help is required to maintain peace and order, Nigeria will be quite willing to participate with other West African countries or even other African countries like we have participated in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire or Darfur in Sudan.
“Nigeria is always willing to be our brothers’ keeper but ECOWAS has made it clear that coup and unconstitutional government are no longer acceptable in our zone.”
Speaking through his spokesman, Col. M Yerma, Petinrin said whatever decision reached by the Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff of ECOWAS would be binding on Nigeria.
Petinrin said that the chief of defence of Cote d’Ivoire, General Soumaila Bagayoko, who is now chairman of the committee, was in a better position to speak on the relation between the committee and the military junta in Mali.
Prof Akinterinwa, the NIIA director-general, on his part said: “The OAU from 1963 has said it would respect the sanctity of colonial frontiers. The AU is also sticking to the principle that it will not accept any unconstitutional change in government.
“Now there is competition between restoring democracy and the issue of separatism. The Tuaregs have declared an independent state and it is not possible for any African country to recognize it. The position of the Nigerian foreign minister is quite good: that neither coup nor the declaration is acceptable.”
But Akinteriwa observed: “To me, African leaders should focus on the declaration because there are too many Tuaregs spread all over. They came back to Libya and started creating problems.”
He, however, said that there was no way that a military intervention by ECOWAS would not be an option but suggested that the regional body should align with the head of the military junta in Mali since he is also against the separatists after which the restoration of democracy could be addressed.