Situation Report: Nigeria’s 2017 woes

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of one Boko Haram faction – Photo © Ritsaiph / Wikimedia Common

Despite significant strides against Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, Nigeria will continue to face a tough security and economic outlook in 2017.

Boko Haram Islamist insurgency

Nigeria started 2017 on a positive note. On 24 December 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that Nigerian troops participating in Operation Lafiya Dole had seized the last stronghold of Islamist non-state armed group (NSAG) Boko Haram, in the Sambisa forest – an area of 1,300 hectares in the north-eastern Borno state. He said in a statement that Chief of Army Staff Tukur Yusuf Buratai had informed him on 22 December that ‘Camp Zero’ had fallen at 1335 local time and the jihadist fighters had fled.

The assault took months to plan and was repeatedly delayed due to the vast size of the Sambisa forest and ‘difficult weather’, according to one intelligence source; the harmattan weather phenomenon, which lasts from mid-November to March, brings sand and dust with north-easterly winds which tend to reduce visibility. Another challenge was preventing a massacre, as hostages were used as human shields by Boko Haram fighters. Around 4,200 soldiers from the Nigerian army took part in the assault, attacking the group from various fronts. In addition to the mass-arrest of Boko Haram fighters, several hundred men, women, and children were freed and the two key thoroughfares linking Maiduguri to Bana in the east and Damasak in the north returned to government control.

However, this was not the first time the Nigerian army under Buhari had dealt a serious blow to the Islamist NSAG. Buhari announced already in Mach 2015 that the sect had been ‘technically defeated’. This time over 560 Boko Haram fighters were arrested, but the charismatic leader of one of Boko Haram’s factions, Abubakar Shekau, escaped. On 29 December, he published a video which he claimed was shot from within the Sambisa forest on 25 December. In the footage, he accused the president of lying, and claimed he was still safe in the forest. These claims are unsubstantiated, however; several news sources have reported that Shekau fled east along with a ‘large number’ of Boko Haram fighters, last seen in an area close to the local government area of Kala Balge, located 196km from Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno, and 110km from the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. It was, furthermore, in this area where the Nigerian air force accidentally launched an air strike that killed over 52 people and injured hundreds more at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on 17 January.

Map of north-eastern Nigeria and Boko Haram’s zone of activity

What next for Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is now confronted with two options. On the one hand, some of its fleeing fighters will likely regroup and attempt to reach Lake Chad, bordering Cameroon and Chad, where two splinter factions of Boko Haram have set up base in recent years. These factions include one led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who Islamic State announced as Boko Haram’s new leader in August 2016. A second faction is led by Bana Blachera – a senior Boko Haram commander who was key in an assault on an army base in the Nigerien border town of Bosso on 3 June 2016, in which 32 soldiers were killed. Both are less outspoken and extreme than Shekau. Barnawi is the son of Mohammed Yusuf, an Islamic cleric who is seen as the founding father of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, and is considered as the legitimate heir to commanding the insurgency. Blachera, for his part, is considered an excellent strategist and a talented logistician, as evidenced by the Bosso attack. Furthermore, the Lake Chad region is an ideal hiding area, consisting of hundreds of small islets, with dense vegetation making reconnaissance missions challenging. From there, Boko Haram could set up another stronghold from where it could conduct guerrilla-tactic kinetic operations in north-eastern Nigeria, as well as neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

Key to defeating the insurgency is to prevent it from preaching to and recruiting from local communities

On the other hand, some fighters will attempt to blend in among the general population and launch sporadic personnel-borne improvised explosive device (PBIED) attacks on ‘soft targets’ across the region. This is likely to be the preferred tactic of the group in the coming year, as it is no longer able to hold large tracts of land. This is supported by the fact that co-ordinated PBIED attacks in Maiduguri have killed at least a dozen people this year. Initially, it is possible that those factions of the militant group become ‘sleeping cells’ to infiltrate civil society and recruit fighters underground.

Key to defeating the insurgency is to prevent it from preaching to and recruiting from local communities. For instance, despite Shekau’s erratic behaviour and extremist views, he is considered an excellent orator who can easily switch the language in which he is preaching between Arabic, Hausa and Kanuri. Boko Haram leaders have also tapped in to historical memory in the region, building on both nationalistic and religious principles. Conversely, the armed forces and the police have taken a more confrontationist approach towards local communities and the victims of Boko Haram, many of whom have been accused of colluding with the group.

Another pitfall in the ‘soft’ fight against Boko Haram is that Nigeria’s military deployments in-country rest on an idea of power sharing between the northern and southern states, meaning that southern soldiers with little local and cultural knowledge of the north have been deployed to communities in Adamawa, Borno, and Gombe. In several instances, the soldiers did not even speak the languages of the local populations, which further undermined mutual trust.

Although the Buhari administration has made significant strides in reforming and improving the capabilities of the armed forces, the security services remain dogged by a lack of sustainable funding, low morale and high levels of corruption. Furthermore, the fight against Boko Haram has relied heavily on the armed forces rather than the national police and intelligence community, thereby reducing the likelihood of Nigerian security services being able to foil any attacks on high-profile targets across the country. The security environment in the region is now morphing, and a large number of charities have arrived in Borno in recent months to provide aid to local communities and camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), increasing the threat to life and personal security of aid workers and local communities.

An ill-designed provision of goodwill

Since 2009, Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, including Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, has killed around 20,000 people, and has left 10.7 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in January 2017 that the number of people who were severely food insecure because of the conflict doubled in the past year to over seven million people. This number is likely to increase if the region experiences another year of drought, as it did last year.

That is increasing the security risk to the IDPs and aid workers at the camps, and raises challenges to public agencies attempting to provide security to both victims and foreign NGO workers. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (or UNOCHA) estimates that at least USD2.7 billion is needed in 2017 to tackle the current humanitarian needs in the region. However, budgetary requirements in previous years have only been partially met, suggesting that the current budget needs will meet a similar fate. Furthermore, before April 2016, the security situation in the region was so poor that few aid agencies dared to start operating there. However, since then international aid organisations have swarmed in, creating bottlenecks that could do more damage than good.

In 2016, Boko Haram launched several PBIED attacks at IDP camps; on 28 October two female suicide bombers detonated their suicide vests in close proximity to the Bakassi refugee camp, home to 17,000 IDPs in Maiduguri, killing seven people and injuring two dozen more. The threat to IDP-camp personnel and humanitarian staff delivering food parcels and medicines, as well as military personnel guarding the camps, is likely to increase throughout the coming year, particularly if local grievances and distrust towards foreign aid grows. Early in 2017, the Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima, strongly criticised international aid agencies operating in the region and questioned their efficiency in delivering aid. He deems that only eight out of the 126 registered agencies were doing a good job, including the World Food Programme, a U.N. agency, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The rest, he argued, were mismanaging funds and exploiting the misery of locals to their own benefit. Such statements could signal wider antipathy among the local population, which could further stigmatise IDPs and increase hostility towards international aid agencies and their workers.

Returning home – a distant prospect

The provision of aid and the return of IDPs to their home communities is being challenged by serious infrastructure deficits, the prevalence of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left by Boko Haram and changing local social dynamics caused by the insurgency.

Besides the humanitarian dimension, persistent attacks by Boko Haram have completely disrupted commercial operations and trade in the region, and have decimated the local infrastructure, including roads, the power grid, and healthcare systems. Buildings, such as hospitals and schools, have been destroyed in IED attacks and roads have become impassable, or remain very dangerous due to the presence of UXO; this includes the two roads from Maiduguri to Bana and Maiduguri to Damasak mentioned above. Specifically, the weapons systems recovered by the army or indicated in witness testimonials by former hostages include mortars, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, man-portable air defence systems (or Manpads), and small arms munitions. These weapons systems have been found in Adamawa, Borno and Gombe states, all in north-eastern Nigeria, and it is highly likely that similar risks face the Lake Chad region in neighbouring countries. In Nigeria, the demining operations are being carried out by the military and police, but the lack of sustainable funding and capabilities is likely to delay the progress of this activity.

Firstly, this means that humanitarian needs in the region could be under-represented, as well as providing an authoritative risk assessment as aid agencies have been unable to reach some remote areas, including within the Sambisa forest. Secondly, this is making the return of IDPs to areas previously occupied by Boko Haram more risky, as their security cannot be guaranteed. In addition, their return is also challenged by the resentment and distrust towards those who were taken hostage by Boko Haram, many of whom are accused of collusion with the group or are considered ‘tainted’; this distrust has been echoed by soldiers, civilian task forces who assist the government in its counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence operations, and the home communities of the victims.

Beyond the humanitarian plights, regional trade which is crucial to the livelihoods of local economies is unlikely to recover any time soon, due to the ravaged infrastructure in the region, including housing, medical centres, and schools. Furthermore, cattle grazing and farming – the main agricultural activities in the area – have been almost depleted by the conflict, as well as by a drought in 2016, which is looking increasingly likely to occur again in 2017.

[T]otal costs, including peace-building efforts and infrastructure reconstruction, [will] amount to over USD6.6 billion

The financial requirements to restore the depleted infrastructure are extraordinary. In January 2016, the government launched an assessment project to estimate the costs caused by the Boko Haram insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria. The North-East Nigeria Recovery and Peace Building Assessment estimated the total costs, including peace building efforts and infrastructure reconstruction, to amount to over USD6.6 billion. The bulk of those costs were identified in private housing, health, education, and agriculture. However, most economic activity in north-eastern Nigeria is focused around subsistence farming, which employed over 70 per cent of the local population before the insurgency started. However, more broadly, Boko Haram’s attacks have had little impact on the commercial centres in the south, such as the cities of Calabar, Lagos and Port Harcourt.

The World Bank has pledged to provide interest-free loans amounting to USD2.1 billion over ten years to finance the infrastructure reconstruction in the north-east. The success of those programmes will depend on the capability of government agencies to distribute that aid, although, given the endemic corruption across public services in Nigeria, there is a risk that those funds are mismanaged or used inappropriately, further delaying reconstruction. Transport routes in the region are therefore likely to remain insecure or in poor condition, making overland freight operations through the area time-consuming and costly.

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