Security challenges: the Islamist threat

Sola Tayo

Islamist insurgency in parts of the north has been in the news headlines, but is just one of several issues threatening Nigeria’s security in difficult times.

With an Islamist insurgency in the north, sectarian violence in the Middle Belt and a costly amnesty programme failing to end militant activity in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s government is battling against several threats to the nation’s security.

When the Islamist group Boko Haram announced a ceasefire in its campaign of violence in northern Nigeria earlier this year, the news was greeted with caution. The ceasefire was not recognised by some of the group indicating a split, with one half seemingly keen to lay down their arms and engage in dialogue while the other half continue to terrorise the region with shootings and suicide bombings.

Boko Haram has made headlines since the group launched its armed offensive in response to a government crackdown in 2009. The group’s then leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed along with dozens of members when they attempted to storm police and government buildings in Maiduguri, its base in Nigeria’s far north.

Opinion is divided on the sources of the group’s funding. The finger has been pointed at wealthy northern Nigerian businessmen and politicians. There is also speculation that they receive support from Salafist groups in the Gulf. The alleged links between Boko Haram and politicians makes for uncomfortable reading and, if true, is an indication of why the government is seemingly unable to put an end to the violence.

In April 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan said he believed that the government and security services had been infiltrated by the group and its sympathisers. In November 2011, a northern politician, Senator Ali Nduma was arrested and accused of being a sponsor of Boko Haram. His case is awaiting trial. In January 2012, it was reported that Ibrahim Shekarau, the former governor of Kano state, had been arrested and questioned over allegations that he had made regular payments to Boko Haram. These reports have been denied by his office.

There have been crackdowns by the police, army and intelligence services and emergency rule where necessary. The effectiveness of this is questionable. The Joint Task Force (JTF) has been accused of antagonising civilians in its zeal to root out militants. This has created antipathy towards the government and a reluctance for civilians to engage with security services about the whereabouts of suspected militants.

Regional intervention in Mali could further aggravate the crisis. While there is no conclusive evidence of its being an Al Qaeda franchise, more information is suggesting that Boko Haram operates with insurgents in the Sahel and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The foreign minister of neighbouring Niger recently warned that Nigerian militants were being trained in camps across the Sahara. As West Africa’s economic and military giant, Nigeria is traditionally the largest contributor of troops to regional conflicts. The French-led intervention in Mali is being supported by the Economic Community of West African States but, while Nigerian troops are fighting Islamists in the Sahel, opportunists are likely to capitalise on the security vacuum and further escalate attacks in the north.

A failure to establish security in the north will almost certainly see an increase in offshoots or splinter groups like Ansaru, who have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of foreign workers in Bauchi. The group issued a statement claiming that it would avenge interventions in Afghanistan and Mali by western powers with more kidnappings of foreigners.

In addition to Boko Haram, the Nigerian government has to deal with other national security threats. Long held grievances between Muslims and Christians have resulted in sporadic and deadly acts of violence in the Middle Belt. With Boko Haram operating across the north the likelihood of revenge attacks or retaliation from angry Christians will increase.

Before Boko Haram came to prominence, militant activity in Nigeria was associated with groups in the Niger Delta, that waged war on the oil companies they accused of impoverishing the local people and profiteering from their misery. An amnesty programme in 2009 promised militants a monthly income of $400 in return for an end to the violence and kidnapping that had turned the area into a hotbed of lawlessness. Around 30,000 militants were signed up to the programme.

The amnesty programme has created resentment in the impoverished north with locals questioning the government’s reluctance to offer a similar deal to Islamist militants, and the winding up of the programme in 2015 could prove to be problematic for the government. At its peak, militant activity in the region resulted in almost halving the country’s oil production, costing Nigeria’s economy billions of dollars. Worryingly, as the amnesty programme will end during an election year we could see increased violence in the south during a traditionally volatile time.

About the author:

Sola Tayo is an Associate Fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House


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