Nigeria today faces a formidable combination of security challenges, which led President Goodluck Jonathan last week to declare the situation “even worse than the civil war”. The situation, which combines communal clashes, civil unrest and a growing tide of almost daily violence by ‘Boko Haram’ militants puts the country’s police under a spotlight. The crisis points to whole issue of self-defence, human insecurity, faith in the power of the state to protect and the need for a wholesale reorientation of policing to reflect that.
It is clear that a variety of interests are sheltering under the umbrella labels ‘Boko haram’ and/or the more formal Jama’atu Ahlis-sunnah lidda’ati wal Jihad (claimed as its ‘true’ title by one faction of the group.) The August 2011 attack on UN headquarters in Abuja made it clear that there is an internationally networked aspect to the group, linking with wider jihadi worldviews and activities, but while it is this headline-grabbing set of activities which have caught the attention of the outside world – most recently, the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence – the picture in Nigeria is more complex. Attacks in Kagoro, Kaduna state, in December, and more recently a massacre of (Christian) Igbo businesspeople holding a meeting in Adamawa State, put it beyond doubt that the aim of at least one tendency in Boko Haram is to escalate violence past the state’s capacity to respond, and thereby to destabilize the country into ethno-religious war.
Meanwhile, there seem to be other aspects of the movement more focussed on perceived injustices in the group’s original home of Borno State itself, and the local electoral and traditional political offices there. And other factions or actions of the insurgents seem to indicate deliberate political manipulation. In fact, there is no reason why the group should be more internally consistent than the militants of the Niger Delta, who span the range from the deeply ideological to the greedy opportunists. But it is clear that the longer the insurgency continues, the more the extreme tendencies with an interest in escalation seem to be gaining the upper hand.
It is equally clear that under all of these manifestations lie the same root cause – a persistent trajectory of underdevelopment and misgovernance in that corner of Nigeria, which was ironically in past times one of the first hubs of learning, literacy and scholarship in the time of the trans-Saharan trade. Media speculation, which pointed fingers at former Governor Ali Modu Sherrif as the ‘father’ of Boko Haram, seems to have been wide of the mark, (devout Islamists and his brand of politics stayed far apart,) but it is fair to say that the administration, and others like it in the region, created the conditions for the spread of extremism by fostering thuggish, winner-takes-all corrupt politics at the same time as completely neglecting basic services and education.
Religious scholars such as sect leader Mohammed Yusuf preached a pro-poor message which was admired even by some Christians in the city, and gave more concrete help, such as micro-credit, to their own followers. Neither is it surprising that the movement exhibits a marked antipathy to the state – it is after all born in a region which has seen previous millennial Islamic risings such as the 1980s Maitatsine movement, and in which evading the state through border-crossing, smuggling and migration around the Lake Chad borderlands is a virtual way of life for many.
But whatever the roots and ideological aims of the cluster of insurgent activities and activists we label Boko Haram, one clear priority of the group is a war against one particular agency of the government – the Nigeria Police. Since the July 2009 crackdown on the movement in Maiduguri, in which the group’s leader and numerous followers lost their lives in circumstances still unclear, officers of the Nigeria Police Force have been a prime target for attacks. Perhaps this is motivated by vengeance, or maybe it is because of the prime role of the police in representing and enforcing the writ of a federal government the militants see as intrinsically illegitimate. Whatever the reason, life in Borno and other states of the north-east zone has become riskier for police officers. At work their station may be attacked by militants with guns and bombs, and out of work many have been followed home, ambushed and assassinated by motorbike-mounted Boko Haram hit squads; shot in many cases in front of their families. After video clips surfaced of abuses by security forces in the 2009 operations, five police officers have been put on trial for the extrajudicial killing. But this hasn’t made any perceptible difference on the ground.
The police themselves then seem to be on the defensive, and while the war of attrition continues, private citizens, afraid that their security is not assured, have begun to take matters into their own hands. On Thursday 8th December Lagos’ O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), a crime-fighting vigilante group – politically important during the late 1990s – staged an armed march through the streets of Lagos, to warn Boko Haram that “we are ready for them” if an attempt was made to stage attacks in the city.
Meanwhile, it seems like a new set of militant groups are prepared to try even more extreme tactics in response to terrorism: after two explosions in majority-Christian areas in Northern cities (an as-yet-unexplained explosion in an Igbo spare-parts market in Kaduna, and three separate bombs in Jos) in the first week of December, an explosion seriously injured a worshipper at a mosque in Sapele, Delta State – in the Niger Delta many hundreds of miles from the northern conflicts. Police have not yet determined if it was a bomb attack; if so, it may be an act of retaliation against Muslims for attacks in the north. This is a worrying development; Nigeria really does not need an escalation in tit-for-tat acts of sectarian and ethnic terror.
But the greatest cause for concern is that just as the Niger Delta militancy has calmed into an uneasy near-peace, a new arc of insecurity is emerging across the country’s north-east. Boko Haram, perhaps squeezed by a more active heavy security presence in Borno, has reached into neighbouring states. Yobe State saw a major coordinated gun and bomb attack on multiple targets in the towns of Damaturu and Potiskum on Friday 4th November, in which at least 63 died, and the last month has seen violence spread to new locations in Gombe, Jigawa and Adamawa States, all of which had been previously free from violence. Meanwhile, continued ethnic conflict over the Plateau State capital Jos and its environs continues to rage in a low-intensity war of raids and pogroms. And Bauchi State, sandwiched between these two conflicts, experiences spill-over from both which aggravates its own local problems. Next door in Kaduna state, the 2011 elections seem to have reignited sectarian tensions dormant since the mid-90s. And in all these areas, career criminals take advantage of the general escalation in insecurity to rob and raid; the whole region is now suffering from a security crisis. After a point, the insecurity becomes self-reinforcing. A friend doing research in northern Nigeria wrote to me recently:
Today I went to a village that was attacked. I spoke with women who had lost their children (one had lost four children, her mother, and her mother-in-law) and got accounts of what had happened. There were empty cartridges from AK47s still on the floor, and burned out houses, cars and motorbikes. People were still living there, fetching water and doing their normal activities to live. There are other settlements on some of the hills around the village, and we could see the people there, some of whom had been involved in the attack.
Later, he continued:
For the past two weeks it’s been too dangerous for the villagers to go to their dry season farms on the western side of the village. The vigilantes are patrolling the bush around the village during the day and night, guarding against attacks.
If a community is in danger, and the state which is supposed to secure lives and property is overstretched; why would people not take matters into their own hands? Nigeria has a long history of self-help vigilance groups fighting crime, and sometimes, too, militant reactions are provoked: In July 2011, a group calling itself Akhwat Akwop, claiming to work for the emancipation of (Christian) minorities in the north, announced its existence with a publicity campaign across the north, following up with threats to diplomatic representatives of Islamic countries in Nigeria. So far this organization has remained active only at the level of publicity, but even if that is all that is intended, it is still an unwelcome marker of polarization. In the Niger Delta a group calling itself Egbesu Mightier Fraternity has threatened northerners residents in the region – after two apparent revenge attacks on a Koranic school in Sapele, Delta State, Hausa Muslims this week began to leave the town, as well as the oil city of Warri and the state capital Asaba. At the same time, a small but significant stream of northern-resident southerners are heading home, although Igbo community leaders across the nation have called for them to stay put.
Civil society groups in Nigeria have noted the connection between extremism and self-help militancy. The well-respected Centre for Democracy and Development and the Open Society Justice Initiative last year noted that “Boko Haram is a manifestation of a pattern of alienation into militancy and violent self-help of youth populations around different parts of Nigeria” and warned that the tendency was on the increase; such warnings seem not yet to have been heeded. Security self-provision may be a short-term defensive tactic, but in a modern state in which the rule of law is held to apply, there can be no substitute for police.
The government’s solution seems to be increased security spending. In this year’s budget, N921 billion (US$5.5 billion – almost 20 percent of the country’s whole budget) was allocated to security spending. Some of that might be necessary – better equipment for bomb detection units, and communication and transport – but there is a clear accent on procurement rather than on human resource development or structural and procedural changes which might make security institutions more effective. Recently, the government signed off on a mammoth US $470 million deal for Chinese CCTV equipment for the capital Abuja – but bigger successes might be delivered at less expense by reorientating the security agencies to work better with the public.
One way to do that is to meet informal security provision half-way. The Nigerian Police reacted to the proliferation of vigilante groups in the 1990s by working with them, to regulate their activities and collaborate in crime detection. Such tactics have been quietly helpful in many towns and villages across the country. Another is community policing, which re-connects the linkage between police and the publics they serve. Many Nigerians do not trust the police, accusing them of corruption, extortion and incompetence. But community policing training programmes, such as the courses supported by the UK government’s DfID, aim to rebuild that relationship of trust, encouraging police managers to be consultative in setting policing priorities, and to build intelligence-gathering links so that the public at large feel secure in passing information on crime and criminals. In return, community members on Police Community Relations Committees find ways to provide police with the resources they need to do their job. Nigeria’s crime and security challenges will not vanish overnight, but the atmosphere in the divisions where community policing has been entrenched is noticeably different – more service-oriented, more responsive, more professional.
Rather than anti-terror police, increasing paramilitarism, or increasingly expensive high-tech gadgets, it is these ground-level tactics which can help detect crime and extremism, gather intelligence and build partnership and confidence with the public. It is this kind of quiet revolution in approach which is capable of delivering the ultimate result – preventing future generations of Nigerians wanting to take up arms themselves to secure their position. Only when people feel secured by the state and its agencies will they stop investing their own security in militant groups.
Olly Owen is a PhD student at Oxford University – he has recently returned from a 2 year research trip focused on the Nigerian police and human security.