By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I memorized almost all of Malcolm X’s speeches when I was an undergraduate at the Bayero University in Kano. You may disagree with the man’s philosophy (and I disagree with many) but you can’t resist being a sucker for his irresistibly brilliant witticisms, his spellbinding oratorical genius, his folksy yet profound insights, and his ornately phrased rhetorical counterpunches during debates.
When I read that President Goodluck Jonathan had declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states and instructed the military to frontally confront the vicious Boko Haram terrorists that have made life a living hell for the masses of our people in northern Nigeria, I couldn’t help recalling a powerful Malcolm X speech I memorized 20 years ago.
|Malcolm X in Ghana|
On February 14, 1965 in Detroit, Michigan, Malcolm X addressed a crowd of supporters about the ironic communicative and dialogic utility of retaliatory violence. He was talking about the best way to confront the persistent violence of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist, negrophobic group that used terrorist tactics (including lynching and other kinds of extra-judicial murders) to intimidate and overawe American blacks. During the speech, he said:
“You can't ever reach a man if you don't speak his language. If a man speaks the language of brute force, you can't come to him with peace. Why, good night! He'll break you in two, as he has been doing all along. If a man speaks French, you can't speak to him in German. If he speaks Swahili, you can't communicate with him in Chinese. You have to find out what does this man speak. And once you know his language, learn how to speak his language, and he'll get the point. There'll be some dialogue, some communication, and some understanding will be developed.
“You've been in this country long enough to know the language the Klan speaks. They only know one language. And what you and I have to start doing in 1965—I mean that's what you have to do, because most of us have already been doing it—is start learning a new language. Learn the language that they understand. And then when they come up on our doorstep to talk, we can talk. And they will get the point. There'll be a dialogue, there'll be some communication, and I'm quite certain there will then be some understanding.”
Now, I am NOT an advocate of violence. I have never held a real gun in my entire life and probably never will. I am a pacifist, but I’m not a naïve, simple-minded pacifist. I know that the only language Boko Haram terrorists speak and understand is the language of violence, and you can’t speak or dialogue with them with the language of peace. There will be a communication breakdown—the kind that will result if you speak Mandarin Chinese to a farmer in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
Retaliatory violence doesn’t always eliminate violence, but it sometimes provides a, if not the, basis for the negotiation of the cessation of violence. That’s why Gandhi’s oft-quoted aphorism that “an eye for an eye will only leave the whole world blind” is not entirely accurate. It unduly pampers the aggressor, unfairly restrains the victim, and defeats the logic of proportionality of justice. A potential eye “plucker” may hold himself in check if he discovers that one eye “plucker” nearby has had his own eye plucked in retaliation. Freedom from the consequences of our action can encourage a repeat of the action.
That is why this whole proposal to grant “amnesty” to Boko Haram was wrongheaded from the beginning. Boko Haram predictably rejected it because it thought it had the upper hand in a balance of terror with government security forces. As Zainab Usman, the incredibly smart and perceptive Oxford University PhD student, noted on her blog in the wake of Boko Haram’s rejection of government’s amnesty offer, you can’t legitimately offer forgiveness to a man who has—or thinks he has—an upper hand in a confrontation with you.
“This phase of the Boko Haram insurgency against the Nigerian state and the offer of amnesty by the government is analogous to two people, Mr. A. and Mr. B., engaged in bloody physical combat with Mr. A gaining the upper hand against Mr. B. Upon realising how imminent his defeat is, Mr. B. proclaims in between steely punches smashing his face ‘I forgive you Mr. A., I grant you amnesty.’ Of course at this point, Mr. A will realise how powerful he has become, and simply finish off Mr. B.,” Zainab wrote.
The logic that flows from Zainab’s unassailable analogy is that the federal government should first militarily subdue Boko Haram before it would be in a position to offer it amnesty. To paraphrase Malcolm X, the Nigerian state has to understand and speak the language of Boko Haram. Then, there will be some dialogue, some communication, and hopefully some understanding. Although security forces had confronted Boko Haram before, the confrontations had been halfhearted, fragmentary, and ineffectual. Of course, I am not unmindful of the fact that it was the Nigerian police’s high-handedness that radicalized Boko Haram in the first place, but it also can’t be denied that the group has transmogrified from a lunatic fringe preaching strange doctrines to an insidiously malignant group that indiscriminately murders innocent men, women, and children without reason or rhyme.
That’s why, as much as detest this government, I wholeheartedly support President Jonathan’s current action against Boko Haram. But while I applaud the latest sustained offensive against Boko Haram, I worry that the Nigerian military’s scorched earth policy may not spare innocent civilian populations in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe—as happened in Baga. That would be monumentally tragic. We cannot win the war against Boko Haram if the government and its forces can’t give everyday, innocent civilian populations caught in the labyrinth of Boko Haram’s confusion a clear distinction between Boko Haram and government security forces.