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Stop Trivialising Terrorism (By Agba Jalingo)

By Agba Jalingo

Until 1.14 pm WAT, on September 11, 2001, when 2,996 people were killed in a terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York, I frankly was not very familiar with the word “terrorism.” The frenzy that trailed that very horrible terror attack forced the word from nearly every news outlet into my consciousness. From that day on, I began to associate terrorism with the mass killing of harmless and innocent people.

Eight years after the 9/11 attack, the phenomenon came knocking on Nigeria’s door with the birth of Boko Haram and ISWAP. Then I started associating names like Osama Bin Laden, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Mohammed Yusuf, Abubakar Shekau, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, to that word, terrorism. I came to the conclusion that terrorism is a very terrible crime against humanity and that terrorists are mass murderers.

The dictionary defines terrorism as the unlawful use of violence or threats to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or government, with the goal of furthering political, social, or ideological objectives. But over the years, the people that our government has been charging to court for terrorism do not fall into that categorisation. It’s been mostly journalists and activists, who haven’t committed any form of violence in the actual sense.

Just yesterday, the Department of State Security DSS in Asaba, arrested an activist, Israel Joe, and handed him over to the Police. Israel told journalists that the Police have concluded arrangements to charge him for terrorism. What’s his offence? He is billed to lead a peaceful protest in Asaba, against the government, over rising cost of living.

After over five wasted years, the government decided to discontinue the terrorism trial against Omoyele Sowore and Mandate. Why? Because Sowore led the #RevolutionNow protest.

28 February 2018, brothers Timothy and Daniel Elombah, Editor and Chief Executive Officer respectively, of Elombah news site, were arraigned in an Abuja court on cybercrime and terrorism allegations.

22 May 2019, the Nigerian government arraigned Bayelsa based journalist, Jones Abiri for alleged economic sabotage and terrorism. Before then, the DSS detained him for two years without trial. Why? Because of his relentless search light on the activities of oil giants in the Niger Delta.

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Even neighboring Benin Republic, had to imitate Nigeria and on 7 September 2023, arrested a Nigerian journalist, Damilola Ayeni, and charged him before a court in Cotonuo, over allegations that he is a terrorist.

Yours sincerely was arrested in 2019 August, incarcerated for six months and put on a three year trial for terrorism and attempt to overthrow former President Buhari, because I asked questions about N500million belonging to our State owned microfinance bank.

Now you may be wondering why the target is always activists and journalists. The reason isn’t far fetched. Every time the government and security agencies fail in their duty, they find the ensuing media scrutiny hard to digest. So they start haunting the usual suspects. But if the government actually wanted to deal with terrorism, they know what to do. The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2023, ranks Nigeria 8th out of 163, amongst countries with the highest level of terrorism in the world. Yet, members of the groups allegedly involved in these terrorist activities who manage to make it to court at all, are rarely charged for terrorism.

In October 2017, when Nigerian authorities began trials of Boko Haram suspects, most of the 1,669 suspects prosecuted so far, were rather charged with providing material and non-violent support to the group. A Human Rights Watch reports said, in 7 of about 60 cases which they monitored, Federal Justice Ministry prosecutors brought charges for murder, kidnapping, and other crimes, excluding terrorism. Most defendants were prosecuted solely for providing “material and non-violent support” to Boko Haram, including by repairing their vehicles, laundering their clothes, or supplying them with food and other items.

The question then is, why is Nigeria trivialising the high crime of terrorism? Why is the country shy of charging those who commit terrorist acts for terrorism but enjoy hauling activists and journalists who have not committed any crimes before judges for the same? I used to think that terrorism is a very horrendous offence that must not be toyed with. But the trivialisation of this sin against humanity and God by our country’s handlers, makes me push my nose anytime I hear anyone is accused of terrorism, not just in Nigeria but elsewhere as well.

Methinks that security agents in particular must come to the realisation that denying citizens the space to express their dissent is a greater threat to national security than whatever they are prospecting. This attempt to shrink the democratic space by shutting down voices and slamming terrorism charges incessantly on innocent citizens isn’t a sustainable strategy. It has an expiry date.

The decline of servant leaders and the resurgence of dictatorship and “strong men” leaders across the globe may be giving oxygen to this new wave of rights abuse and curtailing of basic freedoms, but if indeed a great majority of the people decide to occupy their space, is there any security organisation strong enough to stop them? Let’s think about it!

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