Nearly four years after the Chibok attack, from which an estimated 112 of the abducted students are still held hostage, the February 2018 attack against the Government Girls Science and Technical Secondary School in the town of Dapchi (Yobe state) by Boko Haram brought again to the attention the situation and the security threats confronting Nigeria.
Several structural factors create a high risk for internal turmoil in Nigeria. Amongst its 170 million inhabitants, Nigeria is estimated to have up to 50 million young people who are either unemployed or underemployed, creating a potential time-bomb. Poverty is widespread, with 63% of Nigerians living on less than $1 dollar a day (in 2010), and is particularly pronounced in the northern regions. Mismanagement and corruption have reached huge proportions within the Nigerian state, particularly in the oil sector. Beyond this, the country is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and there are multiple fault-lines of religion, political representation and economic interests. Consequently, beyond Boko Haram, there are numerous other causes of intermittent violence, including the currently dormant Niger Delta uprisings, violence between herders and farmers and large-scale violent riots.
The Dapchi attack
According to most witnesses, the Boko Haram militants invaded Dapchi on February 19 and targeted the Girls Science Secondary School with trucks mounted with high caliber weapons, shooting sporadically and later headed to the girls’ hostels at the school where some 740 girls were resident. At least four bodies of students were recovered from the bush in the nearby town of Kusur. Students and teachers at the school fled into the bush for safety, fearing the Islamist militants would abduct them.
Residents and civilian militia groups in Dapchi said they believed Boko Haram had carefully planned to kidnap schoolgirls in their town. According to the Yobe State Governor, the abduction was preceded by the withdrawal of troops around Dapchi, a week before the attack leaving the town vulnerable (this was denied by the military). Also, Nigerian military sources were unusually silent about the claims by parents that the girls might have been abducted.
Just like in the Chibok case, the first pieces of information aimed to deny the abduction; then came the stories about the rescue, before a further apology about misinformation. On February 25, the Federal Government confirmed that 110 pupils were still “unaccounted for”.
It has been reported that half the of the girls abducted from their school in Dapchi have been ferried across the border to the border town of Duro in Niger Republic, while another group was left in the Tumbun Gini area of Abadam (northern Borno State), three kilometers from Bosso, Niger Republic.
It also has been reported that the government is working on the hypothesis that the school girls were abducted by the Abu Musab al-Barnawi faction of the Boko Haram which is loyal to Daesh. However, this group has previously attacked military targets, while the other major faction of Boko Haram, led by Abubakar Shekau, which supposedly is holding some of the remaining Chibok girls, frequently uses suicide bombers to try to kill civilians.
Security analysts and local observers noted that the attack may have been motivated by knowledge that the government can make payments to secure the release of the Chibok girls. In May 2017, at least two million Euros is said to have been paid for the release of 82 students, also in an exchange with jihadist fighters in Nigerian government custody. According to security analysts, ransoms had become a new way of financing Boko Haram’s activities. While payment of a kidnap ransom is often seen as the only way of securing a person’s release, the government risks being dragged into “a dirty game” of money.
1. The Boko Haram insurgency: developing into a more complex threat
The Dapchi attack came shortly after the Nigerian military announced yet another “complete defeat” of the Jama’atu Ahliss-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (“People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”) better known by its name in Hausa “Boko Haram” (“Western education is sinful”). During February, more terror attacks and suicide bombings were recorded, culminating with the Dapchi attack. Also, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video on 6 February, pledging to continue attacks and saying that the recent offensive to clear out Boko Haram’s stronghold of Sambisa forest in Borno State had failed.
Several announcements about Boko Haram’s defeat were made previously. During the mandate of former President Goodluck Jonathan, on two occasions the military announced the killing of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. However, Shekau continues to appear in videos which the group posts online. The Jonathan government’s difficulty in crushing Boko Haram made easier for his competitor, retired Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, to win the 2015 elections by promising, among other things, to vanquish the insurgents in six months. In December 2015, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, also announced the “technical defeat” of Boko Haram. Since then, the Army, the Federal Government and the Borno State Government continued to maintain that Boko Haram has been defeated.
According to a report presented at the end of 2017 by the Swedish Defense Research Agency[1], Boko Haram is weakened, but not defeated, and there’s a risk that it can become strong again.
While in 2014 the group was estimated to have between 15000 and 20000 members, now there are approximately 6000, of which 5000 are in the faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The report assesses that this faction may become stronger, mainly because its leader, in contrast to Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the other wing, has chosen not to go after civilians and potentially, he can regain popular support, recruit manpower and receive supplies and financing.
The splitting of Boko Haram
Following an internal strife among Boko Haram’s leadership, in August 2016 Daesh appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the “Islamic State’s West Africa Province” (ISWAP), but Abubakar Shekau refused to step down and vowed to continue the insurgency. Al-Barnawi is a former spokesperson for Boko Haram and believed to be the son of its founder Muhammed Yusuf. Between 2013 and 2015 he had been working with Ansaru (formally known as “al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel”), a group that had split from Boko Haram because of a disagreement over the killing of civilian Muslims.
Following his appointment, al-Barnawi criticized Shekau for targeting ordinary civilians and promised to target primarily Christians, sparking a propaganda war between himself and Shekau. In August 2017, al-Barnawi even released a video in which he agreed to help the Nigerian government defeat Shekau’s Boko Haram. Barnawi claimed that he was ready to negotiate a peace deal with the government, but that Shekau has been a major obstacle to peace since 2009.
This was not the first splitting of Boko Haram. A splinter group called Ansaru emerged in January 2012, stating Shekau’s targeting of civilians as a reason for splintering. Ansaru has stayed relatively lethargic since 2013, when the French launched Operation Serval aimed at retaking northern Mali from Islamist groups. The operation reportedly cut Ansaru’s supply routes and pushed it to re-enter into allegiance with Shekau.
Shekau appears to be the operational leader of the main bulk of the group, which has reverted to using the original name of Jama’atu Ahliss-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (JAS or Boko Haram) and is largely operating to the south of Maiduguri in the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria. Al-Barnawi is thought to be in control of the breakaway ISWAP group, which operates in northern Borno, around Lake Chad and the region that crosses Yobe State in Nigeria and southern Diffa Region in Niger.
The two factions also have distinct modi operandi, with the Shekau faction mainly attacking “soft” civilian targets and reportedly acting without much ideological or strategic guidance. The al-Barnawi faction, by contrast, is better organized, attacks mainly police and military targets, emphasizes treating Muslim civilians better, and conducts complex operations, including the kidnapping of a large oil exploration team in July 2017.
The split has also led to the al-Barnawi faction retaining access to the better skilled media producers. Videos released by al-Barnawi are still professionally made and resemble the videos released by Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Shekau, on the other hand, has seemingly reverted back to low tech productions, similar to those from before Boko Haram swore allegiance to Daesh.
Another development of concern is the potential for al-Barnawi to exploit existing conflicts elsewhere in central and northern parts of Nigeria. Conflicts over water and grazing lands between nomadic and stationary farmers rival the deadliness of the Boko Haram insurgency. These conflicts have not yet been framed as Muslim vs. Christian, but there is a risk that they may be exploited – particularly by the al-Barnawi faction – by giving them a religious narrative, as they already overlap with religious tensions
Connections with jihadists worldwide
Close observers in Nigeria are convinced that the Shekau faction is considerably weaker than the al-Barnawi faction and that it is the latter that should be the long-term concern. Much of the top and mid-level leadership reportedly chose to take al-Barnawi’s side. Al-Barnawi can use his alleged blood relationship to Boko Haram’s founder Yusuf, as well as the support of Daesh.
He also has possible connections among jihadists worldwide, since his faction counts on one of the most influential Boko Haram members, namely Mamman Nur. The Borno-born jihadist is said to have spent time with both AQIM and Al Shabaab in the past. Nur was the mastermind behind the 2011 bombings of the UN headquarters in Abuja, and is widely believed to have been Boko Haram’s go-between in its relationship with other jihadi groups in the region and beyond. Since Mamman Nur is loyal to the al-Barnawi faction, this implies that should al-Barnawi seek to establish further contacts with other regional terrorist organizations, Nur could act as a well-connected go-between.
Sources of resilience[2]
Both Boko Haram successor groups still have sources of resilience. For instance, Shekau has maintained his position over a long period of time, in spite of evident strife within the leadership, and has managed to lead his faction without being detected and apprehended. The ruthlessness of Shekau makes his group tactically flexible and able to cause a lot of damage with limited means in the short term. Along similar lines, this means that the group will likely be able to finance itself and the supply of recruits will not dry up as long as there are civilians to extort.
By contrast, the al-Barnawi faction presents a greater threat in the long term, but faces a number of short-term obstacles to achieving its strategic aims. By targeting mainly the security forces and Christians, pledging to treat Muslim civilians better and not using forced recruitment, the faction may potentially rebuild voluntary support. The faction also has support from Daesh in producing and disseminating its propaganda, as well as tactical and technical support via electronic means. Given the central role that Mamman Nur seemingly played in contacts with other Islamist terrorist groups, it is also possible that the faction may be able to rekindle such cooperation. In the recent past, this has included collaboration with al-Shabaab and AQIM, before Shekau pledged loyalty to al-Baghdadi. Given the strong presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Nigeria’s vicinity, a shift towards al-Qaeda may further boost the resilience of the al-Barnawi faction.
‘Remote warfare’ in Nigeria and its risks
With the rise of Boko Haram, international support to Nigeria and its neighbors has increased, with the U.S., the UK, France, Russia and China providing training, equipment, intelligence and military aid.
This international support is consistent with the concept of ‘remote warfare’ that makes use of the recent development of new technologies and capabilities. It also answers to the lack of political appetite of the Western governments for direct large scale military interventions against jihadist networks. The recent shift away from ‘boots on the ground’ deployments towards light-footprint Western military interventions means Western forces now work with and through local and regional forces, that undertake the bulk of the frontline fighting.
National and regional operations against Boko Haram are undertaken under the umbrella of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a consortium of military units from Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria.
The Lake Chad Basin Commission originally established the task force in 1998 to confront cross boundary criminal activity; however, it was activated as counter-terrorist force in 2014, and its deployment against Boko Haram was authorized on 29 January 2015. Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria contribute the estimated 10,000 personnel that make up the task force. The MNJTF is headquartered in N’Djamena in Chad, and there are MNJTF sector headquarters in Mora in Cameroon, Diffa in Niger, Baga-Sola in Chad and Baga in Nigeria.
The force has an official approval from the African Union (AU), with a mandate (renewed at the beginning of 2018 for a further year) to conduct military operations, achieve coordination at inter-state level, conduct border patrols, find abducted persons, stop the flow of arms, reintegrate insurgents into society, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice.
At their recent meetings, defense officials from the MNJTF countries noted that major military campaigns had splintered Boko Haram into smaller groups, thereby disaggregating the MNJTF’s resources. They also warned that the militaries of the MNJTF lack sufficient resources for wages.
MNJTF receives intelligence and training support from the United States, Britain and France and, although theoretically financially self-reliant, money from the EU, which in August 2016 agreed to allocate some 50 million Euros to it, paid through the AU. Serious budgetary shortfalls and delays in procuring equipment, which left MNJTF troops without essential equipment for over a year and strained AU-EU relations, have hindered the force’s effectiveness.
Foreign support
– In 2016 the United States’ Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) recommended a limited ‘advise and assist’ mission deployment to Nigeria, and in April 2017, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) indicated that the administration’s support for counterterrorism operations in the Lake Chad region would remain unchanged and will continue to emphasize ‘African solutions to African problems’. At the end of August 2017, the Pentagon notified the U.S. Congress of the sale of $593 million worth of military equipment to Nigeria. The equipment consists of 12 Super Tucano A-29 surveillance and attack planes, among other weapons. Super Tucano A-29 planes are mostly used in counterinsurgency operations, allowing pilots to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions, as well as providing close air support to ground troops.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has also announced a donation of $89 million in additional development assistance to Nigeria. This was in continuation of US’ support for development goals outlined in a Development Objectives Assistance Agreement signed between both countries.
While the aircrafts are unlikely to give Nigeria’s army an immediate edge in fighting Boko Haram, which adopted guerrilla tactics, American forces are active in Chad, which became a centre of the international counterterrorism fight, with U.S., French, and British troops working alongside local forces at the Multinational Joint Task Force in the capital of N’Djamena.
The U.S. fight against Boko Haram is also supported by a small drone facility in northern Cameroon. Since 2015, drones there have run surveillance of the border to sniff out Boko Haram fighters, and there are about 300 American troops there.
– The United Kingdom supports a Nigerian intelligence and analysis cell based in Abuja but focused on the northeast of the country. This has also been described as an intelligence fusion cell, where British, U.S. and French intelligence officers work alongside Nigerian colleagues to process geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
In December 2016, a new regional British Defense Staff (BDS) for West Africa was created, based in Abuja, which engages Nigeria and other Lake Chad countries, with a focus on the transnational threats from Boko Haram. It is designed to show a permanent military support for Nigeria and provides a coordination headquarters for UK and other foreign forces deployed to the area.
Also, on 31 August 2017, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, visited Nigeria and unveiled a £200 million aid budget. The five year package will help prevent 1.5 million people from falling into poverty and keep 100,000 children in education. The money will also be used to develop infrastructure and services.
– Russia is mainly present in Nigeria through weapons’ sales. In June 2017, the Nigerian Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, visited Russia for bilateral talks on economic development and military co-operation and told the media that Nigeria was negotiating the purchase of Russian military hardware, including helicopters, to aid Nigerian military operations against Boko Haram. Onyeama also highlighted the importance of Russian intelligence sharing and Russia’s potential role as a bulwark in the UN Security Council against any budget cuts to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. Also, the Defense Minister of Nigeria, Mansur Dan Ali, held talks with Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, on the sidelines of the International Army Games 2017 forum held in Moscow on 23 August, and the meeting resulted in a new bilateral military cooperation and training agreement.
– Other international actors have supported the fight against Boko Haram. In August 2016, the European Union agreed to contribute €50 million from its African Peace Facility for the creation of the MNJTF headquarters in Chad and sector headquarters in Cameroon and Niger. It also provided transport and communication assets for the force headquarters to support effective command, control and communication (C3). Canadian special forces have also provided counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism training to Niger and Nigeria. The MNJTF partners may also receive ancillary training and maintenance support linked to arms purchases. Analysis of SIPRI data reveals that, alongside Russia and the U.S., China and Ukraine are also substantial arms exporters to West Africa.
The ‘remote warfare’ also takes into account the fact that any U.S., European or Russian military participation in or support for Nigeria’s mobile strike forces carries reputational and operational risks. Limited air platforms to move troops, a higher likelihood of civilian casualties and friendly fire incidents and the potential for human rights abuses are all risks for external foreign forces. Foreign involvement becomes riskier where counterterrorism (CT) operations are shared across multiple Nigerian agencies and are reactively shaped by opportunistic Boko Haram attacks. The geopolitical objectives of foreign powers may not sufficiently justify such risks. For some foreign powers, containing Boko Haram within north-eastern Nigeria may be enough to meet their national security interests.
The objective of the Nigerian government and their MNJTF partners to defeat Boko Haram is not necessarily the same objective as its foreign allies. For example, the UK’s provision of humanitarian aid and military training to Nigeria is spurred by its status as former colonial power. However, its continued involvement in combating the insurgency is as likely driven by the desire to forge new trade partnerships as it is by security concerns. From a security perspective, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is more likely to preoccupy London than the insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria.
Russia’s limited involvement in combating Boko Haram is likely driven by the bilateral trade relationship it has built with Nigeria based on arms sales. Discussions between Moscow and Abuja during 2017 highlight the opportunities that the Russian defense industry sees to supply modern military hardware, such as Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jets, to a regional power in Africa. Russia’s interest is not so much in helping defeat Boko Haram as it is in expanding its defense industry and encouraging Nigeria and its security partners to procure Russian military hardware.
Resulting “metastasis”
The mostly reactive use of remote warfare tactics in Nigeria seems to have played a role in the organizational restructuring and tactical repositioning of Boko Haram, which managed to adapt and avoid a decisive defeat.
Boko Haram shifted from high-profile attacks on government forces and infrastructure to high-frequency attacks on soft targets, such as camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Research by BBC Monitoring shows the group killed more than 900 people in 2017, marginally more than it did in 2016. Boko Haram reportedly mounted a total of 150 attacks in 2017, an increase on the 127 attacks it is said to have mounted the previous year.
According to Amnesty International, despite the continued military offensive against Boko Haram, the rise in its attacks has been driven by the group’s increased use of suicide bombers. According to an August 2017 study of the Combating Terrorism Centre, an affiliate of the US military, in the first six months of 2017, the group launched 54 suicide attacks, which is more than in 2014, when attacks also notably increased.
The evolution of the Boko Haram insurgency over 2017 shows that while the operations carried out by the Nigerian military, alongside its regional and international partners, have degraded Boko Haram, they have also encouraged the factional forces to “metastasize”, build resilience and craft new tactics to sustain ongoing political violence.
Just as structural factors originally facilitated the rise of Boko Haram, events beyond its control – escalating conflicts elsewhere in Nigeria, a weakening of the MNJTF, or a shift in the presidency – could allow one of its successor groups to again establish itself as a major security threat in northern Nigeria and beyond.
The “metastasis” phenomenon is not limited to the Boko Haram case, and analysts are also worried of a similar trend in the case of Daesh, which is entering in a similar stage in the wake of the destruction of its ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria. Also, recent history offers notable examples of terrorist groups that have escaped near-defeat to become highly capable fighting forces again, as illustrated by the resurgence of Daesh between 2011-2015 (from al-Qaeda in Iraq), Al Shabaab in Somalia from 2010 and Boko Haram in 2010-2015.
A risky approach: “negotiations”
In the most recent years of Boko Haram’s insurgency, Nigeria’s government has vacillated between various tactics for ending the war. It often expressed the view that military force would be enough to crush the group, but it also had, for a while, the idea of amnesty, a promise of forgiveness to lure militants away from fighting. With that came the idea of rehabilitation, a carefully managed program to work the extremism out of repentant ex-fighters, but the terms of detention involved seemed too indefinite.
In 2016 the army introduced the so-called ‘Safe Corridor’ project, which encouraged Islamist fighters to surrender in exchange for amnesty and reintegration into society. However, the project run by the office of the National Security Adviser was shrouded in secrecy and it is not clear what impact it had.
In other cases, the government used negotiation, which often seems to strengthen the militants’ hand, giving to them captured members or funds, or allowing them safe passage. However, such an approach can expose the government’s own abuses. In the Chibok case, the government has kept the freed girls cloistered for six months, and many speculated that the government was afraid that, if allowed to return to their home communities, the girls would reveal the military’s complicities in its encounters with Boko Haram. In 2017, the faction of Boko Haram that released the twenty-one girls has said it has more girls to offer if the government wanted to make another deal. The Nigerian government, faced with few other choices, responded that it was willing to talk.
Jihadist new trends in the Sahel region
The Boko Haram splitting, as well other developments make the Sahel area to be seen as a potential reunification point of the jihadist movement.
– Currently, after Daesh’s defeat, counter-terrorism experts notice mutations and changes of loyalties back towards al-Qaeda. One significant example is the fact that several groups in al-Qaeda, including AQIM, came together in March 2017 to form the largest jihadist organization in the Sahel, namely the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims – JNIM / GSIM), grouping AQIM, Ansar Dine, Macina Liberation Front & Mourabitounes Coalition.
– On the other hand, Daesh continues to be active, as shown by the October 2017 attack that resulted in the killing of four U.S. military personnel north of Niger that was assumed by a group called ISIS-Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS).
According to some counter-terrorism experts, ISIS-GS may be grouping nomadic people (since the name does not refer to a country) most likely Tuaregs of the younger generation, while older ones remained loyal to al-Qaeda.
The group leader seems to be Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui, one of the leaders in Al-Mourabitoun. Al-Sahraoui has in the past publicly voiced his opinions on joining Daesh and pledged an allegiance, but was denied by the al-Qaeda loyalists. It is possible that he has split from Al-Mourabitoun and has formed ISIS-GS.
The 40-year-old Al-Sahraoui is thought to have grown up in refugee camps in the south of Algeria, where he was committed to the nationalist cause of the Western Sahara. Little is known about how he became interested in Islamist extremism but by 2012 he was spokesman for the militant coalition that took over Timbuktu, the mythic city in northern Mali. French troops forced the militants back into the northern deserts of Mali in 2013, and a year later the rise of Daesh split their coalition. Some factions maintained their ties to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Sahraoui went his own way with a few dozen extremist followers, eventually pledging allegiance to Daesh in May 2015. It took 18 months for al-Sahraoui’s bayat, or oath of allegiance, to be formally accepted and this delay has raised doubts over the substance of al-Sahraoui’s links with Daesh.
The ISIS-GS area of operations appears to be in the traditional areas of the Tuareg people, Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Burkina Faso. This area is vast and large with many ratlines, tunnels, caves etc. that only local Tuareg people can navigate.
– A recent report by the International Crisis Group noted that jihadist groups have established a presence in the northern Tillabery region, close to Tongo Tongo, through targeted recruitment of young members of the Fulani community – one of the largest ethnic groups in west Africa comprising mostly herders – who are looking for ways to counter their ethnic rivals or protect their businesses or communities.
2. Persisting and new threats: weak state, vigilantes, separatism…
Although the Boko Haram insurgency is the most high-profile crisis facing Nigeria, the country has many security challenges, affecting several federal states. The Nigerian military is at the moment able to prioritize counterinsurgency efforts in Borno and its surrounding states, but there is potential for escalation elsewhere that may force the Nigerian state to divert its attention to other regions. The separatist factions, the farmer-herder conflicts are major security threats and piracy and insurgency in the Niger Delta have a potential for escalation. A new worrying threat is the risk that the Nigerian state may lose control over the vigilante phenomenon.
The vigilantes
Vigilantism plays a large role in the current fight against Boko Haram. Vigilante groups started forming in Maiduguri in 2013 as people who had become tired of both Boko Haram and government forces violence started hunting suspected Boko Haram members and setting up checkpoints throughout the city.
The original vigilante group in Maiduguri, which took the name Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), had amassed around 500 vigilantes by June 2013. Since then, the CJTF has become an collective name for self-defense militias all over the Nigerian northeast and it has grown immensely both in terms of manpower and capability. Estimates claim that there are around 26,000 vigilantes in Borno state alone. Self-defense militias have also appeared elsewhere in the Lake Chad region, including Cameroon, Chad and the Nigerian states surrounding Borno.
The army offered support to organize, train, equip and spread the CJTF, and it has since become a paramilitary force with detachments throughout Borno State and elsewhere, with strong ties to the Nigerian military and local political leaders.
Although the civilian vigilantes have been instrumental in pushing back Boko Haram, their growth in numbers and capability does not come without risks. Several observers expressed concern over the long-term implications of the CJTF’s existence. Some even go so far as to label the vigilantes as “the next crisis for Nigeria”, with the motivation that some of the vigilantes have received special forces training, making them a capable foe should they turn against the state.
Separatism’s surge
The surge in secessionist rhetoric across Nigeria follows years of agitations, claims and counter claims that were bound to strain the fragile bond between the constituent nationalities of this country. Recent activities of the members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and various notices for Nigerians to quit parts of the country issued by different groups from the North, South-West and the Niger Delta are a real danger for the peaceful existence of Nigeria.
Several secessionist movements are gaining traction in Nigeria at present, especially the revival of the pro-Biafra sentiment, as people with no memory of the war have been seduced by the idea that the region is not getting its fair share of spending.
– Support for an independent Biafra is on the rise: surveys by Nigerian think tank SBM Intelligence have witnessed support growing from 21.4 percent to 43.2 percent in the south and southeast over 18 months, but autonomy, rather than full secession, is seen as the more likely solution.
This has largely been triggered by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian who heads up the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group calling for secession. Kanu, who also re-launched in 2012 in London the Radio Biafra (named after the original republic’s station), was arrested in Nigeria in October 2015 and charged with treasonable felony; he was bailed in May 2017 after almost two years in detention without trial. He failed to attend a bail hearing on October 17th 2017.
The government has resorted to firm hand measures. In September 2017, the government sent in the army on “Operation Python Dance II”, which sought to tackle “violent agitations by secessionist groups, among other crimes”. One of its first acts was to attack an office in Abia belonging to the Nigerian Union of Journalists and to smash reporters’ equipment. The government also declared IPOB a terrorist organization. The group says it is not violent.
The government’s response fed the resentment that first led to an upsurge of support for IPOB among Nigeria’s Igbo. The perception of the army as a northern institution, and the fact President Buhari is from the north (there has not been an Igbo head of state since the military government of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi in 1966), has compounded many Igbos’ feelings of alienation.
– The oil-rich Niger Delta has also been the site of militant insurgencies in recent years. In 2016, attacks on oil pipelines and facilities, led by a group called the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), slashed production by more than half and drove Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy into recession. The NDA, like other Delta-based groups, have called for a greater share in Nigeria’s natural resources, but have also threatened secession, though their campaign has diminished in recent months.
After generating more tension by sending the military into the Niger Delta, the government has managed to calm tensions, in part by extending amnesty payments to former militants in the region.
– The secessionist trend took an alarming dimension in mid-2017, with calls for the country to be split into five entities to be collectively known as the United Republics of Nigeria.
The call was launched by a coalition of militant groups under the auspices of the ‘Reformed Egbesu Assembly’ (REF). The REF group militates for the re-creation of the Republic of the Niger Delta, (RONDEL), which had been proclaimed in 1966, since the crude oil and gas in the Niger Delta in the main factor that unites the people in the region.
The group called on “the British Prime Minister, President Donald Trump of the United States and the United Nations, UN, to conduct a referendum for the peaceful dissolution of the Nigerian states into Arewa Islamic Republic, Biafra Republic, Oduduwa Republic, Republic of the Niger Delta-RONDEL, and the Republic of the Middle Belt to be collectively known and addressed as the United Republics of Nigeria based on the principles of non-exodus and non-violence.”
The group considered this model as the minimum acceptable political requirement for the ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta to remain in the Nigerian state, and the best option to avoid the impending humanitarian crisis of a full-blown Nigeria civil war.
According to local observers, the government is unlikely to give in to the secessionist’s demands, particularly given the bloodshed of the 1967 war and there is little chance of the federal government considering an independence referendum for any part of Nigeria. The country’s elites will rather handle the secessionist demands via some form of unwieldy yet ingenious backdoor compromise.
The Fulani problem
Another worrying threat are the attacks by Moslem Fulani raiders against largely Christian farmers in Central Nigeria (mainly Plateau, Jos, Kaduna, Benue and Nassarawa states) which in 2017 spread to Adamawa state where Boko Haram was also active. In 2016 the Fulani violence left 2,500 dead and that intensity continued into 2017. While the Fulani herders have recently become more aggressive, the Fulani problem has been around for centuries in Nigeria.
Tribal violence in this area has been a problem for generations because Moslem and Christian tribes do not get along and, according to many Moslem clerics and religious teachers, never will.
Nigerian Fulani are also in touch with Fulani in nearby Mali where many young Fulani have joined Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims – JNIM / GSIM). The newly-formed al-Qaeda affiliated group avoids northern Mali, where the French counter-terror operations are concentrated and where Tuareg tribes predominate. The Tuareg and Fulani have a long history of feuding over grazing land and water sources for their herds and north of the Niger River the Tuareg will usually prevail.
Currently the main Fulani trouble spots are in Nigeria (where they clash with Christian farmers), Niger (cattle) and Mali (long standing feuds with Moslem farmers and Tuareg cattle thieves). The Fulani showed up in Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as various Islamic terror groups in Niger where they were involved in the October 4 2017 clash with American military advisors that left four Americans dead.
The government is under growing pressure from the Christian community (half of all Nigerians) to recognize the growing threat in central Nigeria from the Fulani herders moving south. Most of the victims of the Fulani violence are Christian and the raiders have also been attacking soldiers or police. Both sides (the Fulani and their victims) blame the government of taking sides.
Calls for police’s de-centralization
The regional problems and threats facing Nigeria generated a growing support for a de-centralization of the police structures, in order to better tackle the local threats and for a better communication with the local people.
According to recent polls, the proposed creation of state police has the approval of over 61 percent of Nigerians, also being supported by Nigeria’s Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo and 36 state Governors.
A recent call for the decentralization of the Nigerian Police came during a National Security Summit organized by the Nigerian Senate in Abuja, when most participants conceded that a country the size of Nigeria cannot be realistically policed centrally from Abuja. The support came mainly from the representatives of the North-West (69 percent), the North-East (68 percent) and the North-Central (65 percent) zones, which have had significant security challenges, such as the high occurrence of cattle rustling in the North-West, Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East, and the farmers and herders’ clashes in the North-Central. Also, the state police would overcome the problems of the lack of communication between law enforcement and members of the public of different ethnic origin. For instance, residents of Borno state are more likely to be familiar with a Cameroonian from the Extreme North region than they would be with a Nigerian from the South. Sending an Ijaw policeman, who is a neither resident nor an indigene, to serve in Borno is not the most effective way of policing a society.
Migration with Tuareg “help”
A less visible but all the same real problem is the migration phenomenon, with Nigeria being one of the main sources of female migrants trafficked for prostitution.
African migrants follow the ancient caravan routes of the trans-Saharan slave trade, through the same desert villages where, for eight hundred years, black slaves and concubines were transported. On the old slave routes, tens of thousands of human beings who set out voluntarily find themselves trafficked, traded between owners, and forced to work as laborers or prostitutes. The overwhelming majority of females are teen-age girls from around Benin City, the capital of Edo State, in southern Nigeria.
More than eleven thousand Nigerian women were rescued in the Mediterranean last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, eighty per cent of whom had been trafficked for sexual exploitation.
The migration of young women out of Benin City began in the nineteen-eighties, when Edo women, fed up with repression, domestic chores, and a lack of economic opportunities, travelled to Europe by airplane, with fake documents. Many ended up doing prostitution since, according to a report commissioned by the United Nations, the fear of AIDS rendered drug-addicted local girls unattractive on the prostitution market and Nigerians from Edo State largely filled the demand. By the mid-nineties, most Edo women who went to Europe in this way were probably aware that they would have to engage in prostitution but they were unaware of the conditions of violent and aggressive exploitation. Between 1994 and 1998, at least a hundred and sixteen Nigerian sex workers were murdered in Italy.
The journey north avoids the territory controlled by Boko Haram and crosses an unguarded part of Nigeria’s border with Niger. After a thousand miles, it reaches Agadez, an old caravan city at the southern edge of the Sahara. Its oldest walls were built some eight hundred years ago, and by 1449 it had become the center of a Tuareg kingdom ruled by the Sultan of Aïr, named for the local mountains. The Tuareg developed a reputation for guiding merchants through the desert, then robbing them. Though the Tuareg make up just a tenth of Niger’s population, they control vast swaths of empty land.
All manner of contraband passes through Agadez, but however, by 2014 the value of the migration trade had surpassed that of any other business in the city.
Each Monday, Tuareg and Toubou drivers go to the migrant ghettos, collect cash from the connection men, and load some five thousand sub-Saharans into the beds of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, roughly thirty per vehicle. They set off with a Nigérien military convoy, which would accompany them part of the way to Libya, a journey of several days. Bribes are paid along the way: seventy thousand West African francs (about a hundred and fifteen dollars) to the police before they got to the desert; ten thousand to the gendarmes at Tourayat; twenty thousand split between the police and the republican guard at Séguédine; another forty thousand at Dao Timmi for the military and the transit police; and, finally, at Madama, the last checkpoint before Libya, ten thousand to the military.
Niger’s anti-corruption agency found that, because funds from the military budget were stolen in the capital, bribes paid by smugglers at desert checkpoints were essential to the basic functioning of the security forces. Without them, soldiers wouldn’t have enough money to buy fuel, parts for their vehicles, or food.
A persisting threat: large scale corruption
While separatism appeals to some in the south, most Nigerians realize it is in their mutual best interests to make a united Nigeria work and that means reducing corruption and expanding the rule of law.
This can be seen happening in the south, where Niger Delta rebels have united in demanding that the federal government do something about the continued corruption in the Delta and do it by January 15th 2018 or the attacks on the oil infrastructure will resume. That would be a major defeat for the government.
Today, Nigeria is Africa’s richest country, but the money that is set aside for public infrastructure is often embezzled or stolen by government officials. As Nigeria’s economy has grown – spurred by oil extraction, agriculture, and foreign investment – so has the percentage of its citizens who live in total poverty.
– In the military, corruption is a large inhibitor of efficiency and permeates the entire organization. The procurement process is notorious for facilitating embezzlement. Government-to-government arrangements are rare, as officials and high-ranking officers have a preference for using rent-seeking middle men with whom they organize purchases at inflated prices and split the gains. Moreover, there are regular reports of phantom procurements of equipment that does not exist and is never delivered, although recorded as such. On top of this, payroll fraud and embezzlement of funds that are earmarked for e.g. renovations are common. Perhaps even more alarming are the frequent reports of military personnel being involved in organized crime and selling military equipment to insurgents.
– In the financial sector, Nigeria accounts for a significant percentage of Africa’s loss of over $80 billion annually through illicit financial flows (IFFs).
Last February, the government agreed to collaborate with global anti-graft groups to combat the menace in the continent. Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, declared that Nigeria identified some groups in the country and agreed a high-level collaboration to include the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank Group.
The Minister also said the Nigerian government had engaged an international Asset Tracing and Investigation Agency (Kroll), to trace and track illicit flows and assets, apart from signing the Multilateral Competent Authority on Common Reporting Standards, to allow for exchange of financial account information. The country also adopted the Common Reporting Standards and the Addis Tax initiative aimed at improving the fairness, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of the tax system. As part of measures to tackle IFFs, Mrs. Adeosun called for the tightening of Nigeria’s tax codes and laws to encourage tax avoidance as well as strengthen the tax system to make it more efficient.
– Nigeria’s economy is also gravely affected by patronage and corruption that are mostly visible in the fuel-supply channel that influences the entire economy.
With four ill-maintained state-owned refineries working at just a fraction of their capacity, oil-rich Nigeria depends on gasoline imports to meet domestic needs. Without building any new refineries in more than 30 years, successive governments have subsidized imports, to ensure lower prices.
As crude prices recovered in the past year, outstanding subsidy payments due to fuel importers have mounted, now exceeding $2 billion, forcing them to suspend gasoline orders and shortages ensued, increased by the smuggling of Nigerian gasoline across the borders into neighboring countries where prices are twice as high as in Nigeria.
Analysts also note the fact that Nigeria is at the mercy of global crude oil prices not only because it imports a great share of its fuel needs, but also as a producer. Nigeria depends on crude exports for more than two-thirds of government revenue and at least 90 percent of export income.
When prices plunged in 2014 and attacks by militant groups in the oil region depressed output, the country fell into its worst economic slump in 25 years. Production hasn’t returned to full capacity. Even with improved oil prices, government finances are still too fragile to shoulder the full burden of fuel subsidies and the debt owed to fuel-marketing companies will continue to increase the longer the government delays payment.
For the longer term, the government hopes for the completion of the 650,000 barrel-a-day refinery being built in Lagos by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. Scheduled to begin production in mid-2019, it’s designed to meet Nigeria’s needs and have surplus for export. Before then, Buhari’s government will remain inclined to maintain the subsidies to ensure lower prices for fear that price increases would trigger social unrest and diminish its electoral chances at the February 2019 polls.
2019 electoral perspective
The health problems of the Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, who in mid 2017 has been in London for several weeks, being treated for a mysterious illness, as well as the election due in February 2019, brought into the light not only the country’s serious problems, but also some of the would-be candidates for the next presidential election.
The most visible is vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, who was previously Lagos state’s attorney-general. He would automatically take over if the president resigns or is declared incapacitated. His “godfather”, Bola Tinubu, is probably the most powerful politician in Nigeria’s south-west (Bola Tinubu, a Muslim, had to forgo the vice-presidency before the 2015 election as it was deemed politically toxic for both names on a ticket to be of the same religion). Yemi Osinbajo is a Christian pastor who said he is on loan from his church.
However, northern politicians will want one of their own to step in to any vacancy. There is an unwritten rule that the presidency rotates between north and south, and the northerner Muhammadu Buhari has only served two out of his potential eight years (assuming he were to be re-elected).
The reform-minded governor of Kaduna state, Nasir El-Rufai, was once seen as Buhari’s heir, but his intolerance of dissent, including the banning of a Shia organization[3] has seen him fall from favor. Christians accuse El-Rufai of siding with Muslim herders over lethal clashes with farmers in southern Kaduna.
Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy former vice-president, is likely to contest any primary of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party. However, he is dogged by corruption allegations and has already run unsuccessfully for president four times.
Another possible candidate is the Senate president, Bukola Saraki. The former governor of Kwara, a state in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt”, was not the APC’s choice to lead parliament. He was nonetheless elected with the backing of opposition party senators in June 2015. But the northern elites reportedly do not see Saraki as one of them.
A more recent candidate is Jaiye Gaskia, founder of “Take Back Nigeria”, which he described as a movement and not a political group and promotes the idea of voting outside the current ruling elites. According to Gaskia, the electorate must, through the voters’ cards, ask politicians to answer for their failed promises.
A similar position was recently exposed by Ayo Fayose, the Ekiti state governor, who has urged Nigerians to do away with President Muhammadu Buhari and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He called them “expired leaders” who have nothing to offer the country.
A former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Kingsley Moghalu, also announced at the beginning of February that he was consulting widely to run for the presidency in 2019. Moghalu told political correspondents in Lagos that time had come for technocrats, intellectuals and experienced people to take power from Nigeria’s career politicians. He advised Nigerians to become more forceful in demanding accountability from their leaders.
Kingsley Moghalu, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who served as CBN deputy governor from 2009 to 2014, is a political economist, lawyer and a former United Nations official. He was also a professor of practice in international business and public policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, U.S.
Boko Haram, as well as the other above-mentioned threats, are seen by most analysts as a symptom of a Nigerian state weakened by political patronage, corrupt and abusive security forces, unchecked urbanization, and the erosion of traditional religious authority. The country’s widespread corruption problem successfully feeds into the narrative of Boko Haram, which claims that the state’s secularity contributes to the high level of corruption, and it also fuels the separatist trend.
The tensions are likely to come to a head, with Nigeria’s population continuing to grow (U.N. estimates show that by 2050, Nigeria will overtake the United States as the third most populous country in the world) and with poverty widespread. Local observers see Nigeria as currently unstable and with current revenue trends, it has two decades maximum before some kind of implosion.
[1] Daniel Torbjörnsson, Michael Jonsson: Boko Haram: On the verge of defeat or a long term threat?, Report no. FOI-R-4488-SE, November 2017, Swedish Defense Research Agency, see–4488–SE
[2] Resilience is defined in the quoted report as the ability of an insurgent group to exercise military force and social control over time during an armed conflict.
[3] After at least 347 of its members were massacred by the army in December 2015.

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