By Benjamin Omoike
President Muhammadu Buhari has been under fire to relieve his service chiefs of their duties.
The call has been made severally and unanimously by various individuals, groups, analysts, the opposition, political observers, leaders of thought and the nation’s lawmakers. They are all unanimous in their position that the men at the helm, saddled with safeguarding the nation’s territorial integrity and ensuring an end to the ravaging and rampaging insurgency in the country, have failed.
The Presidency, however, disagrees. They say the nation’s fight against insecurity is at an advanced stage and making any change in the hierarchy or rank and file of the military now, could scuttle, upset and cause a setback to the gains already made in the fight.
Upon Buhari’s assumption of office as president on May 29, 2015, in a tightly contested election against former president, Goodluck Jonathan, to his reelection for a second term in office, in what was a fiercely fought campaign chiefly between him and former vice-president and businessman, Atiku Abubakar, it has been a tale of woes, chaos and confusion, in several parts of the country.
Scores of innocent, unarmed Nigerians – including women and children – have been killed or maimed in the mayhem, which has gradually spread from the North-East to the North-West, and to the North-Central. Other parts of the north have equally had their fare share of the ugly situation. Across the South-West to the South-South, to the South-Eastern states, it has been a tale of woe, pain and lamentations, as citizens bemoan their fate in the hands of these blood thirsty marauders.
Chief among these groups, is the resilient Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the North-East, which seems to be spearheading the onslaught.
Violence, particularly by the Boko Haram insurgency, has displaced more than two million people, created a massive humanitarian crisis, and prompted the rise of civilian vigilante self-defence groups that pose new policy dilemmas and possible security risks.
Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group has destabilised the North-East of Nigeria. Since 2009, the group has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more. About 2.5 million people have fled their homes and towns, and the direct consequence of the conflict is that the North-East has been plunged into a severe humanitarian crisis – as of 2018, one of the worst in the world – which has left about 7.7 million people in need of humanitarian aid. In his first term, Buhari claimed that his government would bring an end to the national suffering inflicted by Boko Haram.
The group has wielded power and influence in North-Eastern Nigeria and parts of adjoining states in the Lake Chad basin. It clawed its way back from a failed uprising in July 2009 against the Nigerian government that left more than 1,000 dead, including the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, to re-emerge as a full-fledged insurgency under the command of one of Yusuf’s lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, eight years later. Over the next five years, and at a particularly rapid pace between 2013 and 2015, the group seized control of much of Nigeria’s Borno state, and began operating in border areas of neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
The organisation plundered villages and bombed markets and churches, as well as mosques it deemed “infidel”. In April 2014, it staged the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state. This mass abduction, which earned it global condemnation, was only one in a long series of violent incidents of striking brutality.
Yet, starting in 2015, Boko Haram found itself under increasing pressure from the Nigerian military and its regional allies, which fed its internal divisions, causing it to shrink in power. In March of that year, Boko Haram lost its self-proclaimed capital, Gwoza, to Nigerian troops, and over time, notable towns it had overrun in Borno state fell back into government hands, forcing the group back into safe havens on the periphery of Lake Chad, in the Sambisa Forest and in hills and mountains east of Gwoza.
Lately, there has been a resurgence by the group, with their renewed attacks on not just soft targets, as the military puts it, but against military formations as well, which has led to the death of many soldiers.
Kidnapping for ransom is one of the biggest organised or gang crime in Nigeria today, and is seen as a national security challenge. The kidnappings are often violent and resistance usually results in the death of victims. Thousands of Nigerians have fallen victim of the crime and have had to pay millions of naira in ransom for their freedom. Kidnapping is seen as a lucrative business and the shortest means to wealth by those involved in this heinous crime.
The current wave of abductions across the country makes every person a potential target, regardless of social class or economic status, unlike political kidnapping which started in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta region in the early 2000s and the one by Boko Haram in North-East and North-West, which began in 2009 when the conflict there started.
In the Niger Delta, agitators have taken expatriates working with multinational oil giants hostage, to force oil companies to carry out community development projects for the benefit of the host communities or force government into negotiations for more of economic benefits accruing to the federal treasury for the region.
Kidnapping for ransom on a commercial scale, which became rampant in Nigeria in 2011, spread across all the 36 states and Nigeria’s capital, Abuja In the North-West states of Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna, hundreds of local community members, mostly young women and children are often abducted by bandits operating from forests.
Herdsmen attacks on unprotected villages in the country have mainly involved disputes over land resources between herders and farmers across Nigeria but more devastating in the Middle Belt (North Central), since the return of democracy in 1999. Often misrepresented as ethnic and/or religious conflicts, they are the result of economic, political and environmental tensions in the country. Thousands of people have died since the conflict began.
Sedentary farming rural communities are often target of attacks because of their vulnerability. There are fears that this conflict would spread to other West African countries but this has often been downplayed by governments in the region.
Conflicts between farmers and herders can be understood as a problem of access to land. These clashes are not necessarily new, but since 2015, the disputes have become more frequent and violent. In 2018 alone, more than 2,000 people were killed in such clashes – more than the number killed in the past two years combined. The conflict now claims an estimated six times more than the Boko Haram crisis. The dispute is being politicised and is stirring ethnic and religious tensions, which is very dangerous in a deeply divided country like Nigeria. Analysts say the president must find inclusive and creative ways of addressing and deescalating this complex conflict.
Islamic Movement of Nigeria
The Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, is an Iranian-backed Shia group in Nigeria. The leader of the group, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, is opposed to the federal system of Nigeria, Israel, the US and also opposes secular governments.
Correspondingly, Zakzaky has called for an Iranian-style revolution in Nigeria. The group’s strong position on these issues and their regular protestations have resulted in clashes with security forces.
However, recently, these clashes have become more frequent and more violent. In 2015, the leader of the sect was arrested, and in 2016 a judicial inquiry revealed that the army had unlawfully killed 347 members of the group in Zaria.
Late last year, security forces arrested 400 IMN members and allegedly killed dozens of civilians in the capital city, Abuja and the surrounding areas. According to Amnesty International, AI, the security forces’ use of automatic weapons was an excessive and horrific use of force. This escalating violence, the emergence of a charismatic leader and excessive use of force by the Nigerian military, are reminiscent of the rise of Boko Haram. President Buhari has to ensure that the army has learnt lessons from how they dealt with the then emerging threat of Boko Haram, and make sure that the situation does not repeat itself.
Motorcycle Bandits in North-West
Motorcycle-riding armed bandits operating out of abandoned forest reserves are ransacking communities in the nation’s North-West, have joined the long list of ‘predators feeding on it’s prey’.
The groups are the latest to join Nigeria’s lucrative kidnap for ransom industry, and are quite brazen in their operations. In the last decade, more than 8,000 people have been killed in the states of Kebbi, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara, according to the International Crisis Group.
But recent attacks in the president’s home state of Katsina, where more than 100 people were killed in attacks between April and June, have led to protests and calls for his resignation. On two separate occasions, the bandits targeted villagers who had received food handouts from the government during the coronavirus lockdown.
“They were about 200 on motorbikes, each bike rider carried a passenger and they all carried AK-47 guns,” Bashir Kadisau, an eyewitness, told the BBC.
The Niger Delta, which is the oil-producing core of Nigeria, has for decades suffered from oil pollution, which has led to the loss of livelihoods and sources of food for locals. The area has, also, allegedly been neglected by the Federal Government, even though the bulk of the country’s fund comes from the region. In the last decade, clashes between armed groups in the area and security forces reached an all-time high; kidnappings were rife, and oil infrastructure destroyed at a phenomenal rate.
In 2016, one of the most prominent armed groups in the region, the Niger Delta Avengers (and other smaller groups), destroyed oil production infrastructure reducing production from 2.2 million barrels per day to the two decades low of 1.4 million barrels a day. The infrastructure vandalism contributed to the onset of one of Nigeria’s worst economic recessions on record.
Efforts were made by the Buhari administration in its first term to address the grievances of the region.
The Islamic State in West Africa Province, ISWAP, a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence in North-Eastern Nigeria. It has notched military successes and made inroads among Muslim civilians by treating them better than its parent organisation and by filling gaps in governance and service delivery.
While ISWAP owes its relative strength in part to its break from Shekau’s most brutal tactics, it also has benefited by cultivating the economic strength and favour of communities in its territory through the provision of a semblance of justice and governance that was otherwise lacking.
One way in which ISWAP has governed in its core areas has been through its own brand of “Islamic justice”. It has created a sense of security among locals that distinguishes ISWAP from its parent and parallel organisations – and from the Nigerian state, which was never very responsive in the Lake Chad basin. Notwithstanding the draconian nature of its punishments, many civilians are grateful that they seem to have brought about a drop in crime. They note, for instance, that banditry, and particularly cattle rustling, a major problem on the lake, has disappeared from ISWAP areas.
Why does it matter?
The resurgence of a potent jihadist force around Lake Chad means continuing conflict for Nigeria and neighbouring states, as well as ongoing peril for civilians caught in the crossfire.
What should be done?
State authorities should supplement their military campaign with efforts to weaken ISWAP’s influence by improving governance and services in the north-east. While the time may not seem right for comprehensive negotiations, the parties should keep channels of communication open in order to advance short-term goals such as increasing humanitarian access.
The Nigerian and Regional Military Response
Nigeria’s military has struggled to counter ISWAP and is now looking to enhanced regional cooperation to advance its efforts.
For the Nigerian army, the challenge has been multifaceted. On the one hand, it is facing a formidable adversary: ISWAP is more battle-ready, better trained and more rooted in the population than its parent organisation was. On the other hand, the army itself struggles to be effective. Experts describe how its troops are badly led, poorly equipped and insufficiently supplied. Army bases are poorly fortified. Troop rotation is rare, medical evacuation capacity is feeble, coordination with air support (which has occasionally been essential to repelling attacks on ground troops) is weak, and senior leadership has been slow to grapple seriously with its problems.
ISWAP’s successful attacks over the course of 2018 hit the army increasingly hard, contributing to low morale. Soldiers have staged a few protests, and there are many reports of desertions. The Nigerian army typically downplays its losses, repeatedly claiming (as they did about Boko Haram before its 2016 split) that ISWAP’s attacks are “the last kicks of a dying horse”. But the army’s repeated threats to punish fleeing troops and frequent rotation of commanders indicate significant internal difficulties.
For Nigeria to counter ISWAP militarily, it will likely need to invest more heavily in cooperative efforts under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – a regional command that is supposed to coordinate the troops of the four Lake Chad basin countries operating in the area (ie, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad). The MNJTF has taken time to rise to the challenge that ISWAP presents. Its Operation Amni Fakhat (April-July 2018) aimed to reoccupy key positions and begin some service delivery to populations in the lake area but achieved little; ISWAP launched a massive offensive right after the operation stopped.
A new MNJTF operation, Yancin Takfi, began in March 2019. This time, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari canvassed neighbouring states for support in person, and troops from Chad, which had played a key part in the 2015 pushback against Boko Haram, entered deep into Borno state to participate. After an unconvincing start (including a three-month delay), there are indications that the Chadian and Nigerian troops, backed by massive air support, are making some headway, reaching a number of important sites in ISWAP core territory. It remains to be seen whether they can hold their positions on the lake as the rainy season approaches (it begins in July), creating operational challenges for the MNJTF, which is a heavier, less agile force than ISWAP.
The nation is in dire straits. Nigeria’s military and other security forces have their work cut out for them. As it is today, pandemonium seems to be the order of the day, literally speaking. The question on the lips of Nigerians, then is, ‘will Buhari prevail and deliver on his.promise of safeguarding lives and property of Nigerians?’