Nigeria gripped by flare up of extremism



Photo source: Foreign policy
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The security situation in Nigeria is deteriorating for quite a while. Newer conflicts have been simmering in its region, surpassing the older ones, most recent being the north-western region conflict, which has been regarded six times deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast that started in 2009.

There is a bandit- extremist nexus in northwest Nigeria, which include local kidnappings and manslaughter. The official stance of this conflict by the government is ‘banditry’. However in actuality, there has been an ever growing evidence that the region is becoming a haven for Islamic groups linked to ISIS. It includes the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Ansaru, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a splinter of Boko Haram, formed in 2016, popularly referred to as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the Fulani herdsmen of West Africa, once rated as one of the fourth deadliest extremist group in the world.

Some military and government sources in Abuja point to evidence of transactional relationships between ISWAP and other armed groups in Nigeria’s northwest. In 2019, security forces had intercepted communications showing delivery of ammunition from Boko Haram or ISWAP to a “bandit” group. Nigerian military, officials and police, since the recent escalation of war, with these groups, also has had some other interesting anecdotes to share. They believe some of the rifles captured in encounters with some herder-allied armed Islamic groups either bore inscriptions from, or were the same models used by, Cameroon’s Rapid Intervention Battalion. That suggests the rifles may have been confiscated from Cameroonian soldiers by jihadist groups operating in the Lake Chad area, where Nigerian and Cameroonian forces cooperate with one another to combat the offshoots of Boko Haram.

Government officials and residents have been regularly pointing to a rising number of attacks in the northwest since 2019 in which perpetrators used religious slogans that jihadists in northern Nigeria have embraced previously. Security sources reveal that some of the arms captured from bandits were inscribed with the phrase Allahu akbar (“God is Great” in Arabic). In a January 2020 attack in Zamfara state, the gunmen told residents that they were on “jihad”.

Moreover, since late 2019, ISWAP and Ansaru have themselves started taking credit for attacks in the region. In October 2019, ISWAP claimed responsibility for an attack on Nigerian troops in Sokoto state. On 14 January 2020, when gunmen attacked the motorcade of the emir of Potiskum, Alhaji Umaru Bubaram, on the Kaduna-Zaria highway, killing at least six people and abducting several others, Ansaru claimed responsibility, making this ambush its first claimed operation since 2013. Further confirmation of Ansaru’s return to the region came on 5 February 2020, when the Nigerian police reported that its special units had stormed a camp that was being used by Ansaru and “bandits” in Kuduru forest, in the Birnin Gwari area of Kaduna state, and killed “over 250 members” of jihadist and “bandit” groups. Ansaru also reported the event but claimed that it killed or wounded 34 policemen in the encounter.

In May 2020, some five hundred bandits attacked a village (or perhaps several villages) in Katsina state in northwest Nigeria. They made off with ‘thousands’ of livestock, presumably cattle, and killed eighteen villagers and a local headman. The bandits (as the Nigerian police keep calling them) were mounted on motorcycles and armed with ‘sophisticated’ weapons, including assault rifles making this episode to be a part of a series of attacks in the region.

Fom 2011 to 2020, the Nigeria Security Tracker recorded 8,500 deaths related to political violence across northwest’s seven states. Crisis Group reported similar numbers. Some two hundred thousand have fled their homes to Niger. These facts are underreported by the Nigerian media, and are largely absent in the international media coverage.

Northwest Nigeria is unique in many ways which has given rise to several other forms of violence and collaboration among rebels. For example, the Kankara abduction in December 2020 proved that Boko Haram had perfected the art of kidnappings, as they had done in previous abductions in Chibok and Dapchi in northeastern Nigeria. But, it also gave the extremist group an opportunity to forge alliances with splinter groups in the northwest: while Boko Haram’s main co-coordinating centre had been the Lake Chad basin, ISWAP operates from southwestern Niger. In between these regions comes northwest Nigeria, where there is a likelihood of co-ordination and interaction.

There was another prominent abduction of over hundred villagers from the Zamfara state, who were freed after forty two days in captivity in July 2021. The bandits agreed to release the kidnapped villagers after the police and state authorities assured them no action would be taken against them.

As per various inputs, bandit gangs operate from camps in the vast Rugu forest, which cuts across Zamfara, Katsina, and Kaduna states in Nigeria, as well as neighbouring Niger. In counter attacks, Nigeria's air force has in the past attacked bandit camps while some northern states have sought to negotiate with by offering amnesties in return for disarmament.

There are also other reasons for incessant attacks in the northwest Nigeria. Violence between herders and farmers has alarmingly grown since 2011, spreading from Nigeria’s north to the central and southern states. The combination of environmental degradation and violence due to climate change, high population growth, Boko Haram insurgency and armed criminal activity such as cattle rustling has pushed herders from the north of the country southward in search of pasture and water, resulting in almost daily clashes with farming communities.

As per an International Crises Group report (2020): ‘the policies which allocated land to farmers also resulted in encroachment on, and blockage of, livestock grazing routes, and created conditions for increased trespass on farmlands by herders, and more demands for compensation for damaged crops. While farmers complained of herders trespassing on their farms and damaging crops, herders protested the compensation they had to pay for damaged crops, and complained that farmers, district heads, police and courts were colluding against them in a corrupt process. The stage was set for more deadly confrontations.’

Nigerian authorities have responded by deploying security forces to the affected areas but later realised that a military response was insufficient to deal with the main cause of herder-farmer conflict: competition over land and water. The intensity of the violence varies from region to region, but so far, Nigeria’s north-west and north-central zones have been hit hardest.

The International Crises Group (2020) report further noted: ‘Some state governments have more recently engaged in peace talks with herder-allied armed groups, partly because these groups are perceived as the major actors in the violence. They are offering amnesties to those willing to disarm, while pledging to address herders grievances and needs. These concessions produced peace agreements that curbed the violence in late 2019, but with deadly incidents continuing and the region awash in arms, the sustainability of these deals is highly questionable.'

As herder-farmer conflicts and criminally motivated attacks spread through the northwest, young men in many predominantly Hausa farmer communities increasingly mobilised themselves into vigilante groups, referred to as yan sa kai (volunteer guards), to protect their villages. Armed with locally made guns, machetes, clubs and other crude weapons, their vigilante activities and atrocities further aggravated relations between Fulani herders and the predominantly Hausa farmers. In parallel, Fulani formed militia groups, known as yan-bindiga (gun owners) to protect themselves and their cattle and to avenge vigilante atrocities from Hausa farmers. The Fulani militia has also procured weapons from other armed groups in north-eastern Nigeria, including the Boko Haram offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), or from corrupt government security personnel, gun importers in southern Nigeria and local gunsmiths.

For several years, farmers in the affected areas have been abandoning their fields for fear of attack or kidnapping. In Zamfara state, over 13,000 hectares of farmland have been either destroyed or rendered inaccessible as a result of attacks by herder-allied armed groups and criminal gangs. In Sokoto state, the State Emergency Management Agency reports that as of October 2019, some 21,316 hectares of farmland across five local government areas remained uncultivated, as 80,000 intimidated farmers stayed away. Huge numbers of livestock have similarly been lost: from 2011 to 2019, about 141,360 cattle and 215,241 sheep were rustled in Zamfara state. These disruptions have impoverished farmers and herders alike, created food shortages in some communities, and aggravated malnutrition particularly among children. It has also led to disruption of commerce. Thousands of shops and other businesses in north-western Nigeria are in ruins or have shut down due to direct attacks and kidnappings of businessmen, which have fed rising fears of insecurity. Significant private property has been lost: as of April 2019, Zamfara state reported “more than 10,000 houses, shops and silos” destroyed. With road travel hazardous, local traders are afraid to transport farm produce to markets. Investor confidence has also plunged.

As the northwest has porous borders with Niger, which are poorly policed by the Nigeria Custom and Immigration Services, it has given a reason for the spread of violence from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The presence of forests, a vast, rugged terrain, sparse population and dense vegetation makes surveillance difficult. The arm trafficking on this route is widespread. That’s why these extremist groups have been using sophisticated weapons of late. Cattle rustlers, highway robbers, kidnappers, and cannabis growers have been ever present on its routes. Extortion also includes that of miners and traders in the largely unregulated gold mining sector. The zone also currently has the highest number of out-of-school children in Nigeria. Millions of children are in the poorly resourced and ill-supervised Quranic school system, or almajiranci, which produces cohorts of unskilled youth.

The violent attacks in the northwest are also a symptom of exclusionary, or exploitative governance systems, which include weak institutional capacity within the police, extreme social inequality, poverty, unemployment, and citizen alienation from the government. Hence, it’s not surprising that five of Nigeria’s poorest states – Sokoto, Katsina, Zamfara, Kebbi and Jigawa, lie in the northwest region. Add to that, there have been controversial peace agreements done by the government with the rebel groups, which have granted them amnesty and other incentives to end violent attacks. The deals included release of all arrested rebels in exchange for hostages. When negotiations failed, there was a rise in attacks.

Competition among mineral resource deposits, in places such as Katsina and Zamfara has also heightened existing tensions. Extremist groups often control minefields, and are able to act with impunity because of the patronage and complicity from the authorities.

Over the last four decades, Nigeria’s northwest has witnessed waves of violence including sectarian clashes, Islamist militancy and electoral violence. From 1980 to 2010, it saw numerous Christian-Muslim and intra-Muslim riots. Between 2011 and 2015, Kaduna and Kano states suffered many Boko Haram bombings and shootings, most notably the 20 January 2012 attacks in Kano city that killed about 185 people. In 2011, after the then opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the far northern Katsina state, lost the presidential election to the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta, protests in fourteen northern states – including all seven north-western states – escalated into ethnic and sectarian riots that left over 1,000 people dead and 74,000 displaced. In southern Kaduna state, a decades-long contest between the Hausa and Fulani, on one hand, and several smaller ethnic groups, on the other, over political offices, economic resources and the fruits of government spending has resulted in recurrent violence, often with significant fatalities.

The region’s fatalities and acts of violence are although not as large in numbers as compared to its northeast, a region where three hundred thousand people have been killed in the span of twelve years. This death toll, has been given by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in a new study on the war in northeast is ten times higher than previous estimates of about 35,000. Of nearly 350,000 deaths from the conflict in northeast, it is estimated that 314,000 have resulted from indirect causes.

The armed group Boko Haram displaced more than two million from their homes, spawning one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions of people dependent on aid. The northeast conflict still shows little sign of ending.

Despite ongoing military operations, the group has continued to launch attacks, spreading violence to parts of neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Niger. In northeast Nigeria alone, 13.1 million people live in areas affected by conflict, out of whom 8.7 million are in need of immediate assistance.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general, is under pressure to end armed groups’ violence. But the security forces appear overwhelmed as they battle myriad security challenges.

There are also separatist calls from every area of Nigeria. Republic of Biafra, led by Igbo group, seeks secession from the eastern part of the country. One of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, member of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra was detained for nearly two years on several charges that included treason and operating a private radio, Radio Biafra. He was refused bail, despite court granting him a bail. His prolonged incarceration turned him into a cult among his followers. There are also calls for an Oduduwa Republic for the Yorubas. It's members see Nigeria as a broken republic. In the north, some talk of the Arewa republic. In Niger Delta, there are demands of Niger Delta Republic for a resource control. The separatist agitations took a new turn on June 6, 2017 when a group of northern youths under the aegis of Coalition of Arewa Youths gave the Igbos until October 1, 2017 to leave the northern states in what they called as the Kaduna Declaration. However, it is difficult to know whether the leaders of the various separatist groups, actually reflect the wishes of the people of those areas, or whether the agitations are mere masks for pursuing other agendas.


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