Children seized. Towns attacked. Can Nigeria fix security crises?
From gangs kidnapping for ransom to armed groups overrunning towns, the government faces a series of security challenges across the country’s increasingly restive north.
Abuja, Nigeria – Swirls of dust, whipped up by a construction site nearby, envelop Ibrahim Usman’s stationed commercial tricycle. But the 26-year-old, who runs a shuttle service between Galadimawa, a suburb of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and other satellite towns, is unperturbed.
“Dust means nothing to me. The most important thing for me right now is the safety I enjoy in Abuja and the little money I make from my business,” he says, as he bids his turn to transport passengers.
“When I came to Abuja, I had nothing to do for a few weeks and relied on friends to survive, but today I am able to also support others and my family.”
Usman is among the thousands of people who were forced to flee their homes in Gwoza, a town in northeastern Borno state that was overrun by the Boko Haram armed group in 2014.
Nigeria’s security forces pushed the fighters out the next year, but many residents – including Usman, a father of four – have opted not to return as attacks on the town and other parts of the region have persisted.
“Going back home is not an option for me now,” says Babagana, who fled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, after his hometown of Kukawa came under attack in August.
Just on Monday, fighters attacked the town of Dikwa, east of Maiduguri and home to more than 100,000 people, including tens of thousands of already internally displaced persons.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on Dikwa, but Borno has suffered frequent attacks by Boko Haram and its splinter faction, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Retired army general Muhammadu Buhari was first elected as Nigeria’s president in 2015 on the back of promises to eradicate Boko Haram and tackle the country’s rising insecurity.
Shortly afterwards, government forces recaptured major towns across the northeast – but the success has been short-lived, as the fighters have since recaptured some of the key towns and villages in the region and have continued mounting attacks.
However, the long-running conflict – which has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced more than two million and spilled into neighbouring countries – is far from Nigeria’s only security challenge.
In the country’s northwest, gangs of so-called bandits are increasingly being involved in mass abductions, often targeting boarding schools located outside towns and cities.
On Friday, gunmen abducted nearly 300 girls from their school in Jangebe village, in Zamfara state. Governor Bello Matawalle announced their release early on Tuesday. The previous week, 42 people, including 27 students, were taken from a boarding school in Niger state. They were released on Saturday.
The criminal gangs behind the abductions seem to not be driven by ideological motives but by financial gains. Between June 2011 and March 2020, at least $18m was paid to kidnappers as ransom, according to a report (PDF) by SB Morgen.
State Governments must review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles. Such a policy has the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences. States and Local Governments must also play their part by being proactive in improving security in & around schools.
— Muhammadu Buhari (@MBuhari) February 26, 2021
Meanwhile, frequent clashes between farmers and semi-nomadic herders have left thousands of people dead, and in some years caused more fatalities than the conflict involving Boko Haram.
Elsewhere, government security officers have continuously clashed with a southeastern group campaigning for secession, while the Gulf of Guinea coast that includes Nigeria has been described by the International Maritime Bureau as one of the most dangerous in the world for piracy.
“Since 2016, the military has taken on too many internal security operations, many of which could have been better managed through good governance at state and local levels, supported by a robust and effective police force,” says Nnamdi Obasi, the Nigeria senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“The military is now clearly overstretched,” Obasi told Al Jazeera. “[It has been] dissipating energy in too many directions, and [has] yet to achieve decisive results against the insurgents in the northeast and various armed groups in the northwest.”
Buhari last week blamed local and state authorities for the increase in attacks, saying they must improve security around schools. He also wrote on Twitter that their policy of “rewarding bandits with money and vehicles” could “backfire with disastrous consequences”.
New security chiefs
In January, after months of public pressure over the rising violence across the country, the president sacked his security chiefs and named new top military commanders.
Leo Irabor was named chief of defence staff, while Ibrahim Attahiru, Awwal Zubairu Gambo and Isiaka Amao took the helm of the army, navy and air force, respectively.
Abdulrazak Namdas, the chair of the House of Representatives committee on the army, expressed confidence that the change of guard would be a “game-changer” in containing insecurity in the country.
“The new service chiefs have held command positions in the fight against the insurgency,” Namdas told Al Jazeera, describing the appointees as “agile and energetic” commanders “who have already tested the grounds”.
“The new thing that we are expecting is that they should take the fight to the insurgents and shouldn’t wait until they are run over or ambushed,” he said.
Despite some military gains, attacks on towns and army positions have continued. Last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a deadly rocket attack on Maiduguri.
Namdas said there was an urgent need for an increase in the number of military personnel.
“The major challenge is to recruit more,” said Namdas. “They are recruiting 5,000 soldiers yearly and they are using the same pre-colonial depot. The equipment and infrastructure are still the same. No expansion.”
“Even if you are going to use technology to fight, you still need human beings to operate some of these technologies. In Africa, places where there are no networks, you still require human beings to get to certain areas.”
But for Lemmy Ughegbe, executive director of the Make A Difference Initiative, a civil society group, what is needed is for authorities to regain public confidence and trust among the members of the affected communities.
He cited claims by locals “that they often give intelligence to the military of impending attacks in their communities before they strike”.
“However, no effort is made to secure them,” he said, calling for the recruitment of so-called development communicators “to engage the communities at various levels to restore confidence and get their buy-in into efforts to tackle the insecurities”.