Short Essay 39
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
Telecoms and Boko Haram
The much expected claim of responsibility for the attacks on offices and installations of telecommunication companies (telecoms) in Nigeria by Jama’at Ahlus Sunnah lid Da’awati wal Jihad – or Boko Haram as they are popularly called – finally came yesterday. With it, it is certain that the two elephants are logged in a fight that would leave ordinary Nigerians at the receiving end.
The contention, I believe, is all about management of private information received on trust, and not about terrorism per se. Last February, Boko Haram issued a warning on possible attacks on properties of telecoms for passing the content of communication among its members to Nigerian security and law enforcement agencies. By attacking those targets after six months, it is clear that, in the judgement of Boko Haram, the alleged collaboration between the telecoms and the government agencies has not stopped.
At this point, I think a denial by the telecoms, if the allegation is false, is critical. Boko Haram has thrown two challenges at the telecoms: the allegations and the attacks. Both have been replied with silence, if not with further collaboration, by the telecoms. If the companies are not collaborating with the security agencies by passing over private information of their suspected Boko Haram customers, something that contravenes the ethical and legal fundamentals of the industry, they should say so such that further attacks by the sect can be avoided. In fact, I expected the to put up even a “white lie” to avoid the present catastrophe. But they have not.
Well, the grammar above is just for the purpose of understanding the positions of both sides. On the one hand, telecoms are under pressure from government to pass over information about locations of callers suspected to be Boko Haram members and what they say in their calls or text messages. One can easily see them obliging such requests either as their ‘patriotic’ contribution in the fight against Boko Haram or in a bid to play the ‘good boy’ before government even if it contravenes the law. This understandably and instantly places them on the group’s hit list.
Boko Haram, on the other hand, definitely needs the privacy of their information to succeed in eluding the authorities. However, this is a desire that may hardly be granted to any insurgent group anywhere under the sun today. More than that, however, I must say that it is wishful in the first place. Anyone using digital technology must know that he is liable to hacking by the authorities. His location is the easiest thing to find. Since the row between Blackberry and China, India and a number of governments in the Middle East in 2009, it became clear that hardly would any technology be permitted into the market today without its “antidote” known to western governments. Technologically advanced countries were quiet on the BB Messenger row precisely because they have many such antidotes in their security stock. Boko Haram must understand the simple logic in this Hausa proverb: “kowa ya sayi rariya ya san za ta zubar da ruwa.”
For now, the Inspector General of Police has directed that security be provided to every office and mast of telecoms in the country. This is a good gesture though, unfortunately, a practically impossible one. I cannot see any Nigerian police playing a martyr in defence of a telecom installation in the bushes and villages of Northern Nigeria. He will be offering too much for nothing in return. Families of policemen who died in such circumstances are always complaining of neglect by the authorities. But that is even taking the argument too far. The basic reality is that with three to five masts in every village in the region there are just not enough policemen to safeguard the hundreds of thousands of such telecom masts even if all the policemen in the region are diverted to the project. I concede that there could be a reasonable number for their offices and, perhaps, personnel. But all masts? Kai, Mr. IGP.
The telecoms must therefore invent a practical equation to secure their installations, offices and staff. They must be ready to forego a scratch on the surface of the billions they daily harvest from Nigerians in protecting their assets with the formidable private security personnel for the foreseeable future. But please let them not pass the cost to us – the consumers. Let this not be an opportunity to return the cost of calls to N50/minute wo!
As for Boko Haram, my advice is that hardly would reliance on conventional telecommunication channels guarantee safety from surveillance of anti-establishment group. In fact, even without the collaboration of the telecoms, there are dozens of equipment that can intercept digital communications available over the counter for authorized bodies all over world. If it must survive, the group must keep this in mind and think ahead in its communication strategy. Hitting telecoms underlines its lack of its sophistication. More importantly, it undeniably puts the people that the group claims to protect centuries backward in economy, scholarship, culture, etc. Without modern communications, the North will eventually be reduced to its colonial era of kar ta kwana in which mails were delivered by a chain of native pedestrian human couriers until they reach their destination, non-stop. This is a fate that the group must work to avoid as it does not serve its cause in any imaginable way.
Finally, let me reiterate my analysis in my previous discourse. The whole Boko Haram insurgency and the general violence pervading Northern Nigeria is a product of the prevailing corrupt leadership in the country and the silence of Northern political leaders and intelligentsia over the injustice that such corruption perpetrates. This has led everyone outside the cliques of political and economic consortiums feel alienated, frustrated and hopeless. In that state of social perversion, anarchy cannot be avoided. In that state of affairs, the rich – like the telecommunication companies – and the strong – like the law enforcement agents and politicians – will both share in the tears of the desolate downtrodden whose life depicts the popular dictum: aluta continua. It is an analysis on which I remain unrepentant.
7 September 2012