Who is a terrorist? Politics of categorisation of terrorist organisations
Christopher Akor examines the politics around the categorisation of individuals and groups as terrorist organisations using the Nigerian example as a case study.
The title of terrorists should not just be thrown at anybody. And there is a danger that if we continue this way, it may become more and more difficult for us to arrive at a peaceful solution.”
Since the return of General Buhari and his August 21 broadcast where he concluded that “Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable” and where he warned that “we shall not allow irresponsible elements to start trouble”, it was obvious the General had had enough of Nnamdi Kanu and his Independent People of Biafra’s (IPOB) irritating gang and was determined to deal with them once and for all. If the administration had treated Kanu and IPOB as misguided hotheads before then, the overwhelming success of the IPOB’s sit-at-home order at the end of May where schools, banks and markets fell quiet to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the failed Biafran Republic project may have finally convinced the government that the group can be dangerous and effective.
Expectedly, on September 7, the Nigerian Army through its Chief of Training and Operations, Maj. Gen D.D Ahmadu, announced that, from September 15, the army will commence a crackdown on violent agitators, kidnappers and other bandits in the five South-Eastern states code-named “Exercise Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II). But even before the day the Python was to begin its dance, the soldiers drafted to Umuahia the Abia state capital ahead of the operations decided to engage IPOB members – and the fanatical IPOB gangs were more than willing to oblige them.
On Sunday, September 10, the army tried to surround and gain entrance into Kanu and his father’s residence and IPOB members will not let them thus leading to violent clashes that left some dead. It appears that was all the army needed to escalate the clash. The army sent in reinforcements with about 10 Armoured Carrier Vehicles and seven Hilux vans, surrounded the Afaraukwu country home of Kanu, invaded the Abia state council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, destroying computers and other valuables and terrorizing the residents of Umuahia and Aba in the process. Videos later emerged to show soldiers savagely and inhumanly torturing IPOB members and sympathizers they caught.
Promptly, the army declared IPOB a “militant terrorist organization” and urged parents not to allow their children join the illicit group. Justifying the bizarre action, the Director, Defence Information (DDI) Maj-Gen John Enenche, said IPOB posed security challenge and had metamorphosed from one state to another. “After due professional analysis and recent developments, it has become expedient to notify the general public that the claim by IPOB actors that the organsiation is non-violent is not true…. The formation of a Biafra Secret Service, claimed formation of Biafra National Guard, unauthorized blocking of public access roads and extortion of money from innocent civilians at illegal road blocks….militant possession and use of weapons (stones, Molotov cocktails, machetes and broken bottles, among others) on a military patrol on Sept. 10, 2017.
Although the Senate President, Bukola Saraki disagreed with the army and condemned the categorization of IPOB as a terrorist organization, it later emerged the army was speaking for the government. The Minister of Information and Culture and the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity have similarly labeled IPOB a terrorist organization. According to Saraki, the action was unconstitutional and that only a legislation from the Nigerian National Assembly could make such a pronouncement valid. “Our laws make clear provisions for taking such actions and without the due process being followed, such declaration cannot have effect. I am sure the President will do the needful by initiating the right process.
Well, after Saraki’s comment, the government rushed to court and pronto, it got a court order proscribing IPOB. The Federal High Court in Abuja also ruled that IPOB is a terrorist. IPOB too has gone to court, demanding the order be quashed. The organization described the court order categorizing it as a terrorist organization as “a black market order”. The group argued that the said order violated its right to freedom of assembly, expression and a right to demand freedom as enshrined in the United Nation’s charter on Human Rights as well as other national and international rights treaties to which Nigeria is a signatory. Regardless, President Muhammadu Buhari quickly signed the proscription law. The final step, according to the Nigerian government, is the gazetting of the order. Once the order is gazette, it becomes law, according to government officials.
But there is an international dimension to the categorization of IPOB. The Nigerian government will naturally want to see IPOB’s sources of funding blocked. To do this effectively, it needs to get the international community to also list IPOB as a terrorist organization. Multilateral or international proscription of terrorist groups became more widespread only after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States when the international and or transnational dimensions of terrorism became more apparent. The reasoning in multilateral listing is that by blocking material support and raising the costs of pursuing terrorist activities, such individuals and groups will be forced into abandoning terrorism or in the least cause serious disruption to their activities.
However, the US, Britain, and many watchers of events in Nigeria were clearly not impressed and disagreed with the labeling of IPOB as a terrorist organization by the Nigerian government. The Spokesman for the American Embassy in Nigeria, Russell Brooks, maintained that IPOB is not seen under US laws as a terrorist organization. He said “although US is strongly in support of a peaceful resolution of internal crisis in Nigeria, however, under the United States’ laws, IPOB does not fit in as a terrorist organization. The UK toed similar lines and upon the disappearance of Nmandi Kanu after Operation Python Dance I, sought clarification of his status and whereabouts from the Nigerian government since he’s also a UK national.
This then naturally leads to the question: who is a terrorist or terrorist group and under what circumstances could a group be categorized as a terrorist organization? Also, why do countries differ on categorization of terrorists and terrorist organization? Answers to these questions are not so simple and are largely determined by international or national politics at play at a particular time. For instance, despite its prevalence, there is yet no acceptable definition of the term ‘terrorism’. The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research, for instance, includes a selection of more than 250 definitions that emphasize different attributes. Perhaps, that is why some scholars argued that terrorism is perhaps the most diverse and controversial term in modern usage and political positions often influence the choice of definition or even usage.
We can see this at play constantly in the United States. For instance, when 20 year old James Alex Fields Jr rammed a car into protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, United States President would not describe him as a terrorist. But the same Trump will use the word terrorist several times to describe a similar attack in Bercelona just a week after. Similarly, this week Stephen Paddock, a 62 year old US national went on a shooting rampage, outrightly killing 59 people partying in Las Vegas and wounding over 500 others. Yet, Donald Trump would not use the word ‘terrorist’ to describe him. He rather described him as a “very sick, demented man” but not a terrorist.
Similarly, when Andreas Lubitz, the 27 year old co-pilot of Germanwings intentionally crashed a plane in 2015, the narrative was that of a depressed man who became suicidal and not a terrorist. However, no such narrative or reasoning is allowed or permitted for similar offence(s) by person(s) of Middle Eastern or African heritage.
Many Africans may be unaware, but for long Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were considered a terrorist and terrorist organisation by both the United States and United Kingdom government and Mandela’s name remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list till 2008 not minding that both Mandela and the ANC were fighting for their people’s freedom. Perhaps that motivated the saying that “One’s man terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Regardless, we may have to rely on the Oxford dictionary definition of terrorism as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Going by this definition, many US Republicans have argued that the cases mentioned above concerning US citizens cannot be described as terrorism since, though the actions were violent, but there were no political motives or aims. Even if we were to accept this reasoning, the case of James Alex Fields Jr cannot be said to be devoid of politics since he was motivated chiefly by a political ideology – the conservative, white nationalist agenda.
In Nigeria also, there has been controversy over the categorisation of IPOB as a terrorist organisation by the government. For many, despite the annoying antics of Nnamdi Kanu and his gang, IPOB’s activities have largely been peaceful. Besides, they are agitating for self-determination, which has long been recognised by the United Nations and in international law as a fundamental right.
The agitation for self-determination is also universal. Recently, the Kurdish people who had always harboured desire for statehood ignored pressure from the US, Turkey, Iraq and Iran and held a referendum on independence from Iraq. Similarly, this week, the region of Catalonia, despite stiff resistance from the Central government in Madrid, and in defiance of Spain’s Constitutional Court and European Union, held its independence referendum and would, in a matter of days, declare its independence from Spain. Also, both Scotland and Quebec voted on separate occasions on secession from the UK and Canada. So the activities of IPOB are not unusual and cannot be criminalised under any law. According to Olu Fasan, lawyer, political economist and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, the right to self-determination, as expressed or implied in the UN Declarations, impose a duty on states to refrain from any forcible action calculated to deprive a people of this right. He therefore surmised that “militarising the Southeast, under the so-called “Operation Python Dance”, and declaring IPOB a terrorist group amounted to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A wise government would not deploy the military to clamp down so hard on an irritating, yes, but unarmed agitators for self-determination.”
For Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, even though Kanu and IPOB have not conducted themselves in a manner worthy of any commendation, the step taken by the government is “one taken too far.” “My understanding of a terrorist is a deadly armed activist. I don’t think merely speaking or talking or threatening will add up to being a terrorist. I believe it is a mistake. It was overdone and I fear that a lot of people outside Nigeria will find it difficult to agree with us in this matter. It will create a bad image for us” said the Cardinal. On the proscription of the group by the courts, the Cardinal was not similarly impressed. “If we reduce the courts to a body that just confirms whatever aspirations that government has, then the judiciary will not be seen as independent. The title of terrorists should not just be thrown at anybody. And there is a danger that if we continue this way, it may become more and more difficult for us to arrive at a peaceful solution.”
What has irked most commentators is the soft approach the government has adopted in dealing with the murderous Fulani herdsmen while labelling a largely peaceful group a “terrorist organisation and trying to violently crush it. Over the past year and a half, precisely since the coming to power of President Mohammadu Buhari, Fulani cattle rearers have virtually replaced the dreaded Boko Haram as the new terrorists on the bloc. They have literarily gone amok, killing and destroying communities all over the country. From Benue to Plateau, Taraba, Enugu, Delta, and Ekiti, Oyo, Niger, the story has remained the same. Fulani gunmen invade communities at the thick of the night or when the men have gone to farms in the mornings, killing defenceless and innocent women, children, the old and infirm, looting and burning the communities for fun.
Shockingly, the reaction of the government to these killings have followed one trend: deafening silence at first and only half-hearted response that fails to stop the killings and refusal or inability to apprehend the killers and bring them to justice.
As far back as 2015, the Global Terrorism Index named Fulani herdsmen the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the entire world with 80 victims in 2013 and 1,229 by 2014. The numbers have risen astronomically since 2015!
For Opeyemi Agbaje, a political economist and consultant, Buhari’s attitude to the Fulani herdsmen has been particularly abhorrent! “Officials of the regime have either outrightly ignored their killings or laboured to either defend their activities or rationalise government’s lack of response, while the casualties of their terror mount….[meanwhile], as at the day Operation Python Dance 2 was launched, IPOB had not killed a single person! Rightfully, both the US and EU have rejected Buhari’s proclamation of IPOB as a terrorist group.”
Cardinal Onaiyekan fully agreed.
“The Fulani herdsmen who are armed, lethal, murderous, vicious and have been killing people in our communities; they are the ones that we are waiting for, to see what the government will do,” the Cardinal said.
The question was put to the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu and his bizarre response was that the Fulani herdsmen killing innocent Nigerians are criminals and not terrorists. Reiterating that same position, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, while being featured on a BBC Television programme, “Focus on Africa” in London last week said the activities of Fulani herdsmen cannot be classified as terrorism. “Acts of criminality should not be confused with terrorism acts”, he stressed.
“When an organisation decides to not just attack the Army but set up its own parallel government; when an organisation openly solicits for arms all over the world; when an organisation starts issuing out its own passports and currency and does not recognise the democratically elected government, then it becomes a different thing”, Mohammed fumed.
The federal government also faulted the decision of the US and UK authorities not to recognise its categorisation of IPOB as a terrorist organisation. “It is very unfortunate, if countries decide to pick and choose which organisations are terrorists and which are not, bearing in mind that terrorism has no boundary… I think what we should do is that every country should work together to ensure that terrorism does not thrive”, Mr Mohammed counselled. He insisted that the “acts and utterances of IPOB were acts and utterances of terrorists.” He went into details: “For instance, Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB leader was caught on tape, saying that they want Biafra and not peacefully, but by force. He declared that if they do not get Biafra, Somalia will be a Paradise with the kind of mayhem they will unleash on Nigeria. The group openly embraced arms and ammunition and the leader set up Biafra National Guard, Biafra Secret Service and openly attacked army formations”.
Mr Mohammed pulled no punches: he pointedly accused Britain and France (and corrupt failed politicians) for granting safe haven to IPOB and for being the source of the organisation’s funding and that if these countries have cooperated with Nigeria, things would not have deteriorated. “In tackling IPOB again, there are a few very naughty diplomatic issues which you need to skip…The Federal Government asked the United Kingdom to help shut down Radio Biafra in London from where Kanu was transmitting hate speeches, the UK government rejected the request based on the need to protect freedom of speech”. He also accused France of being the financial headquarters of IPOB.
It is clear from the above that listing of an individual or group as a terrorist or terrorist organisation is highly subjective and often depends on the person doing the labelling. Just like in the Middle East where Saudi Arabi, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and a host of other Sunni nations are attempting to strangulate Quarter in the pretext that it supports terrorists. More outrageous is even the demand to shot down the Aljazeera network probably because the station has been quite critical of Saudi Arabia and its main allies in the region.
In the Nigerian case, even after the Global Terrorism Index consistently named the Fulani herdsmen as terrorists, the Nigerian government merely sees them as criminals and not terrorists. Coincidentally, Nigeria’s president, Mohammadu Buhari, a Fulani himself, is their life grand patron. The IPOB militants however are not so lucky such that even their inalienable right to self-determination is being denied and proscribed. But the refusal of other international actors to follow categorise them as a terrorist organisation may hamper the federal government’s effort to tame the group. The government may just be fanning the embers of another violent insurgency. Well, just like the President said, his entire resolve is to see that “Nigeria did not break up under his watch.” Whatever happens after may not be of interest to him.
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