I’ve just been re-reading Drones Alone Are Not The Answer, the brilliant New York Times op-ed by Dennis Blair, a former director of American National Intelligence. Written in 2011, I reckon most of the views aired by the retired admiral on the limitations of unilateral drone strikes in the fight against terrorists in Pakistan are still valid: Even in a post-US election world, a Pakistan UN council membership era, and a pre-Pakistan general elections clime, partnership with sovereign governments is still the best approach to fight al-Qaeda elements in the middle-eastern deserts. However, I must admit that when I first read that piece I skimmed through it rather mindlessly with the cool detachment of Tom Cruise playing the role of Maverick, the naval aviator, in the recently rereleased action drama, Top Gun. Two years later, I find myself poring through the archives, with the flustered mien of a man who just felt the sting of the red laser of an American drone – at least, that’s how I imagine drone sensors work. My hope is that I never have to find out the hard way.
No. I am not a terrorist but I live in Nigeria – of Boko Haram and her splinters. So, when I heard the announcement by President Barack Obama, that America was opening a drone base in Niger Republic, immediate north of Nigeria, I realised how non-quixotic the debates for or against the use of drones are. Before I composed myself to write this article I’d imagined a variety of grisly ‘what if’ scenarios: What if I’d just made a follow-through on a golf course and a drone in mid-air misconstrues my club as a long-barrelled gun? What if it was Christmas and I’m planting a firework rocket in the ground and the drone thinks my intents are more ballistic than festive? What if a drone malfunctions and crashes into my apartment? Of course, these are silly concoctions of a very wild imagination – or are they?
Before parsing the likely outcome of a malfunctioning drone I think analysing the actual facts is important.
Mr Obama in politic-speak has said only Air Force logistics officers and analysts will be at the new base. Also, he asserts the base will be for unarmed Predator aircrafts which will conduct surveillance in the region, namely West Africa. Besides that shocking oxymoron, the other mind-boggling part of the announcement is that the troops are actually armed for self-protection. That’s perhaps the most abused right any foreign contingent – yes, contingent – can ever claim. Scores of Iraqi civilians died under the guise of self-protection by American soldiers in the Iraq War. The veracity of self-protection claims always nestle in a grey, indistinct zone few removes from outright belligerence and is always difficult to investigate because more often than not the victim is a breathless corpse. It’s the flagpole upon which gun-rights advocates in America currently hoist their argument. Regardless of the correctness or otherwise of that domestic right, it is one that is best deployed within one’s own borders. I do admit West Africa is increasingly becoming a nest for Islamic terrorists and that there is an immediate need to curb the trend. But is the American way the right way? Tsk tsk.
In that popular article Mr Blair posited the best strategy in fighting terrorism is to “work with [the foreign] government as an equal partner to achieve our common goals.” He was referring to Pakistan but the same argument applies here. While Nigerien president, Mahamadou Issoufou has given his blessings for this deployment the big question is if the mandate of the drone and its surveillance will be limited to Niger. From all indications this is unlikely. After all, when President Issoufou was interviewed recently he expressed concern over two major regional security issues. One is the likely spill-over of the crisis from war-afflicted Mali into Niger; and, two is the fear of threats by Boko Haram, a militant group primarily resident in Nigeria. I am not privy to the agreement reached between Messrs Obama and Issoufou but as the drones begin to tour the African skies it must be made elaborately clear to both of their governments that if they deemed it fit to exclude Nigeria from the diplomatic talks that led to this announcement then they might as well respect our sovereign rights and steer clear of our airspace.
This is not to say Nigeria has already contained Boko Haram or that we would put bragging diplomatic rights over broader security issues. It is just a declaration of the role every government owes its people: protection of their interests. In this case, there is no guarantee that Boko Haram can be stopped with drones. The terrain of Northern Nigeria is largely different from Pakistan or Afghanistan. Bombs and explosives used by Boko Haram and terrorist groups of their ilk are often home-made with the support of wealthy patrons. The fight against Boko Haram is one that can be largely won by thinning their funding channel and improving the socioeconomic welfare of potential recruits. Also, for all the precision that drones are revered for, there is no real proof that innocent people have not accounted for the majority of casualties they have inflicted. What’s even worse is how these deaths go unaccounted for. In the article A Reader’s War posted in The New Yorker, Nigerian author, Teju Cole asked “What makes certain Somali, Pakistani, Yemeni, and American people of so little account that even after killing them, the United States disavows all knowledge of their deaths? How much furious despair is generated from so much collateral damage?” If Nigerian citizens are not to be included in the national mix referred to in these questions we must speak out now.
Also, we must question the explicit objective of the American drones which, as Mr Obama says, is to make surveillance across the African region. Besides the arrogance with which America often asserts to itself the role of world police one must also question the gross hypocrisy of the scheme. In early February this year the US city of Charlottesville in Virginia passed a resolution prohibiting the domestic use of drones. In support of the resolution councilmember Dede Smith said drones are “a threat to our constitutional right of privacy.” Of course, this is not a national consensus and cannot be used to calibrate the inclination of the entire American people – and so are my views herein. Mr Smith’s concerns are drones being privately invasive; mine are drones being both privately invasive and also being used for military invasion. Draw a mental picture of a weighing balance and see how lopsided the weights of both arguments are. If a little city in Virginia is being pro-active in fighting against the possible use of drones across its skies – and the US government is answerable to it under American laws – how much more should a sovereign nation be more wary and pre-emptive?
In all this one must wonder what the Nigerian government’s official position is on the matter is. As at the time of writing the website of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been suspended. However, media reports suggested the Ministry of Defence is ‘currently reviewing’ the situation. This apparent apathy is not surprising for a nation whose Commander-in-Chief, President Goodluck Jonathan, infamously said in effect that Nigeria was presently having its fair share of terrorism. His cluelessness is a Nigerian affair. We shall handle it internally. Regardless of government indifference citizens of Nigeria are already speaking up. A recent editorial by indigenous newspaper, Leadership, emphasized the need for a “collaborative arrangement [between Nigeria and the US] not a mish-mash of hazy cooperation without specific rules of engagement.” This captures the spirit with which an American engagement in Nigerian airspace will, nay, may be tolerated.
Granted, at the end of this article you will most likely see a disclaimer stating the views expressed here are solely mine but what’s incontrovertible is that death is personal to everyone. In Pakistan, many innocent persons have died from drone strikes. For the survivors, the wound inflicted is nursed privately; for the murdered – yes, murdered – there is no state funeral. So, I may not speak for the generality of 170 million Nigerians but when I swing my golf-club on a misty Harmattan morning I need to know the only thing I should be afraid of is my ball landing in a sand bunker.