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Nigeria's Insecurity State
Despite the promises of a new president, there appears to be no end in sight for the multifaceted violence plaguing Nigeria.
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In what is becoming a tradition for incoming Nigerian presidents, when Bola Tinubu took office in May of this year he promised to restore Nigeria’s security. “Security shall be the top priority of our administration,” he said in his inauguration speech, “because neither prosperity nor justice can prevail amidst insecurity and violence. To effectively tackle this menace, we shall reform both our security doctrine and its architecture.” Yet while Tinubu has shown himself to be an energetic reformer in the economic arena (albeit with a pro-investor bent that has compounded the hardships of the poor, at least in the short term, and that has not stopped the slide of the naira), his security approach has been far more conventional. A collective groan went up, from the commentariat and numerous citizens, when Tinubu announced his pick for defense minister: Bello Matawalle, whose single term as governor of the northwestern Zamfara state overlapped with an explosion of severe banditry there. More and more, insecurity and criminality appear to be the norm in much of Nigeria, rather than the exception.
Nigeria’s multilayered and multifaceted security challenges include not just banditry, but also oil theft, separatist violence, farmer-herder clashes, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflagrations, kidnapping for ransom, other forms of organized crime, and jihadism. In a way, jihadism is the most stubborn of these crises, and the longest continually running form of mass violence in the country. Nigeria’s tilt from episodic violence into endemic insecurity could be dated to 2010, when the Boko Haram movement began a phase of systematic insurgency. It is not that Nigeria was free of violence or crisis before that year, but authorities often managed to cajole, buy off, suppress, ignore, or otherwise deal with successive crises before that. Boko Haram has been Nigeria’s open wound. And to push the metaphor further, Boko Haram weakened the body politic and primed it to receive other wounds that now also refuse to heal.
But what is—or what was—Boko Haram? From roughly 2002 through 2016, one could have given a fairly straightforward answer to that question: Boko Haram began as a hardline religious sect under the preacher and jihadist dilettante Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), then transformed into a hardened, revenge-oriented insurgency under the bloodthirsty Abubakar Shekau (ca. 1970-2021). From 2016 through Shekau’s death, one could still have answered the question “what is Boko Haram?” with a quick sketch: riven by internal disagreements over how to treat Muslim civilians, split over Shekau’s autocratic style, and competing for the attention of the Islamic State’s central leadership, Boko Haram split into two. One faction claimed the loyalty of the majority of fighters and the backing of the Islamic State, calling itself Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The other faction was a rump group loyal to Shekau, calling itself Jamaʿat Ahl al-Sunna li’l-Daʿwa wa’l-Jihad, often abbreviated as JAS by analysts.
In 2023, however, it is no longer easy to say what Boko Haram means or indeed what the contours of Nigerian jihadism are. The death of Shekau (by suicide, as ISWAP hemmed in his forces and demanded his allegiance) unleashed and compounded trends that were there all along. First, unit commanders appear to have considerable autonomy, with jihadists operating more as fragmented bands than as an army-like hierarchy. This seeming autonomy of the unit commander allows for substantial variation, ranging from pragmatic organized crime to outright predation, in units’ relations with civilians. Second, personalities rise and fall within the jihadist milieu for reasons that are murky to outsiders. Some “kingpins” have even seemed to distance themselves from the fighting, living quietly with their families until the authorities catch onto them, as reportedly occurred in Niger State recently.
Even discerning who among the leadership is alive or dead at any given moment is difficult: reports of the deaths of major figures—particularly Abu Musʿab al-Barnawi, one-time leader of ISWAP, and Ibrahim Bakoura, head of a major unit—have been disputed. Journalists and analysts have “reported” waves of leadership tussles within ISWAP, but their sources often lead back to anonymous “well-informed sources” (i.e., little more than rumor). And when key jihadist personalities are reported dead, often only the bare outlines of their biographies are known (see here for a recent example). Third, jihadists search for allies among bandits, while bandits copy some jihadist tactics. Yet as the analyst and reporter James Barnett has argued persuasively, based on his fieldwork in northwestern Nigeria, “Nigeria’s bandits are too fractious and too powerful for jihadis to easily co-opt them and…jihadism holds little intrinsic appeal for them.”
In light of all these trends, “Boko Haram” and “terrorism” have long been near-meaningless terms in the Nigerian press and among the commentariat, terms used as weapons to discredit opponents or rile up audiences. One recent analysis concluded that “Boko Haram” never existed as such—and that the US government should remove Boko Haram from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and replace it with more delimited group monikers. Yet as the term “Boko Haram” has gotten fuzzy in popular discourse, analysts and data coders have sometimes been too precise in their use of factional titles such as ISWAP, JAS, and the even murkier “Ansaru,” attributing more cohesion to these groups than exists in reality.
Regarding Ansaru, there has been a nagging issue of how to understand—and how seriously to take—this Boko Haram splinter group. Ansaru (short for Ansarul Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan, the Defenders of Muslims in the Lands of the Blacks) emerged in 2011-2012 out of the founders’ objections to Shekau’s bloodthirstiness. Ansaru made a media splash as a supposed ultra-sophisticated terrorist vanguard. But after an initial wave of botched kidnappings and minor attacks in 2012-2013, the group faded from view and its leadership was decimated. Since then, analysts and journalists have repeatedly proclaimed that Ansaru was making a comeback. Ansaru may have gained some credibility when it pledged (or perhaps affirmed) allegiance to al-Qaida in 2020, but on the ground its gains have often been quickly reversed. Al Jazeera’s Festus Iyorah reported, for example, on the group’s failures in Nigeria’s Kaduna state: “Ansaru lost the villages under its control—Damari and Kuyello—to local bandits, followed by heavy losses to the Nigerian military offensive that left the group spineless from protecting vulnerable Muslim communities. Consequently, the villages have become a crime-free-for-all zone – comprising former JAS members, Ansaru, and bandits.” The fuzziness of “Boko Haram,” “JAS,” and “Ansaru” undermines stable categories and clouds understanding of the conflict.
Even within the ostensibly more rules-bound ISWAP, would-be “rationalizers” have struggled to implement their will. In one infamous unit, the Ibrahim Bakura faction, fighters displayed an “attachment” not to crisp organizational structures, but “to a different, non-bureaucratic, political, but also symbolic and moral economy – more violent certainly, but also more flexible, which leaves room for looting.” If there is a “disaggregation problem” when commentators fail to distinguish between ISWAP and JAS, there is also a corresponding problem of over-construction, as Sarah Phillips and Nadwa al-Dawsari recently argued with regard to Yemen. Phillips’ and al-Dawsari’s brilliant article is worth reading in full, but the takeaway as regards Nigeria is that “terrorist groups” are not rigid bureaucracies and purely “non-state actors”; rather, they are slippery formations that benefit from state counterterrorism in various ways.
In Nigeria, allegations that the state and/or individual politicians support Boko Haram and its offshoots mostly—although not always—fall into the realm of conspiracy theory. But the idea that both the Nigerian military and jihadists benefit from a long-running “war economy” is quite plausible, and indeed fits with political science research on the complex relationships between states and “non-state” groups. On one level, the Nigerian military and jihadists have divided control over the northeast since approximately 2019, when the military launched a strategy of protecting key garrison towns as “super camps” and effectively ceded much of the countryside to ISWAP and JAS. On another level, however, the urban and the rural are intertwined, and ISWAP has benefited economically not just from “taxing” villagers but also from taxing transport routes and taking a cut of illicit economic activities carried out even within major cities.
For their part, the Nigerian military and civilian officials prey on the conflict zone in their own ways, whether on the ground through sexual exploitation of internally displaced persons, or at the top through widely alleged corruption by senior officers in defense procurement and though civilian officials’ opaque “security votes”—setting up discretionary, cash-based security budgets. Soldiers and politicians do not appear to be handing jihadists sacks of cash, but if official corruption means that only a fraction of the allocated resources ever reach the battlefield, that enables the insurgency to plod on.
In terms of overall trends in violence, one could say that the worst period in recent history for Nigeria was in 2014-2015. This peak came amid Shekau’s campaign of overt territorial conquest, when his fighters took control of towns in northeastern Nigeria—primarily in Borno State, Boko Haram’s birthplace and epicenter. Boko Haram’s highly predatory rule translated into mass killings of civilians. Boko Haram’s violence, from its initial mass uprising in 2009 through its territorial peak in 2014-2015, has also roughly correlated with an increase in the security forces’ violence against civilians. This escalatory spiral was only broken once Boko Haram overextended itself and the Nigerian government was effectively forced to bring in multiple outside actors (Chadian and Nigerien forces, as well as South African mercenaries) to help dislodge the militants. Talk at the time of Boko Haram’s “technical defeat” was factually wrong and morally offensive to many Nigerians still living through the group’s viciousness, but it is true that violence declined sharply after 2015—for a time.
Violence in Nigeria reached another peak in 2021 and 2022 before easing slightly this year. Drawing on the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project, one can see that the more recent uptick has involved fewer targeted killings of civilians than in 2014-2015, but more people dying in clashes and battles. From ACLED and from press reporting, we can see that the recent violence has also been geographically broader. At their peak and even now, Boko Haram and its offshoots have been relatively parochial organizations, hugging their zone of origin in the northeast—although, as one recent analysis suggests, the Nigerian military’s turn to “super camps” allowed ISWAP and JAS to take the offensive even more. The recent uptick in violence in 2021-2022 had multiple perpetrators, as mentioned above: jihadists, but also bandits, criminals, farmers and herders, separatists, etc. A slight dip in violence in 2023 has occurred in northeastern states such as Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, and even more dramatically in the northwest, in banditry-affected states such as Zamfara and Katsina. I have not yet seen any systematic analysis of the reasons for the dip, which may prove elusive; factors may include community-level dialogues with bandits in the northwest, war fatigue in the northeast, the compounding effects of surrender programs for jihadists, and more.
At the same time, precise death tolls and perpetrator identities remain elusive: in 2022, a report from the Red Cross estimated that 25,000 people have gone missing amid the Boko Haram conflict, and a recent investigation by New Lines and HumAngle concluded that “the Nigerian state – and in particular the military – has helped to drive this crisis, through a campaign of arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention, extrajudicial killings, mass burials and deliberate attempts to obscure their actions.” It should be underscored that the crisis is more than just jihadist attacks; it is the tragic collision of jihadist violence, state violence, displacement, exploitation, economic crisis, and more.
If there is a “typical” kind of Nigerian jihadist attack in 2023, it would be the ISWAP ambush of a military convoy or checkpoint in rural Borno—a type of attack regularly trumpeted in the pages of the Islamic State’s global newsletter al-Nabaʾ. Another typical type of attack would be the intimidation of civilians, targeted or indiscriminate, particularly in the Borno countryside. High-casualty terrorism is infrequent, but the week-in, week-out grind of rural predations continues, locking much of Borno State in a stalemate and directly and indirectly contributing to insecurity elsewhere. Periodic airstrikes hit at the jihadists in remote areas, but efforts at restoring full-blown government control are patchwork. Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum declared in October that “none of the 27 local government areas of Borno State are under the control of insurgents,” but this appears overly optimistic.
To return to where we started, it is not at all clear that anyone in Tinubu’s administration—or any senior Nigerian official, civilian or military—has a viable solution for the crisis. Between the apparent corruption up and down the military hierarchy and the related difficulty of projecting security into rural areas, the “defeat” of ISWAP, JAS, Ansaru, or the bandits appears remote. Community-level pacts may purchase a desperate kind of peace in parts of the northwest and northeast, and some urban strongholds offer a higher level of day-to-day security. Surrender programs also offer a ray of hope. However, the number of surrenders reportedly ranges into the tens of thousands, figures that are substantially higher than the likely fighting strength of all the jihadists put together—meaning that officials are either inflating the statistics, or that the programs cast their nets so widely that we can’t be sure how many genuine combatants they catch.
Ominously, Nigeria is approaching the point where large numbers of jihadist fighters will have been born and come of age during the crisis itself, never really knowing any other way of life. Yusuf and Shekau have come and gone, army commander after commander has rotated through the northeast, and the presidential villa at Aso Rock has had four inhabitants since the crisis began, but the bloodshed in the north continues.
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