(case study)
In the last days of 2016 it was announced that Nigeria’s army has captured Boko Haram’s last enclave in the Sambisa forest (Borno state, north-east of Nigeria). According to Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, the capture marked the “final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave in Sambisa forest”. The enclave’s capture followed a several weeks offensive of the Nigerian military.
The Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima has described the outgoing year as one that witnessed a major breakthrough in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency, saying 2016 has been the best in the last five years, especially with the fall of Sambisa to the Nigerian armed forces.
During its seven-year insurgency aiming to create, in northern Nigeria, an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, Boko Haram[1] has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. On March 7, 2015, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to Daesh[2] leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who accepted Shekau’s allegiance and renamed the group as the Islamic State’s Wilayat West Africa.
While undoubtedly a victory for the Nigerian military, some analysts warn that the recent announcements about the defeat of Boko Haram might be over optimistic, due to the group’s resilience. Moreover, the successes against Boko Haram must not overshadow the fact that Nigeria is experiencing its most challenging period since its return to democracy in 1999. The West African country is in recession, confronted by the biggest humanitarian disaster since the Biafran war of 1967-1970, faced by terrorism and militancy, and challenged by internal clashes and protest movements at risk of escalating into destabilizing conflicts.
The resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta slashed oil production to its lowest level for 25 years, with losses of around 1 million barrels per day (and the corresponding revenue) for six months from March 2016, before rebounding slightly. Nigeria continues to face a crippling shortage of foreign exchange, and at mid-2016 the central bank allowed the currency to float freely. For Nigerians, the drop in revenue and foreign exchange restrictions have meant lost jobs, declining businesses, high inflation, worsening livelihoods, and lacking supplies of imported goods, including medicines. There have been difficulties and delays in paying public servant salaries since mid-2015. Nigeria is still a country where, according to the last statistics, around 117 million people are living on less than a dollar a day.
According to the local media, in 2017 and further on, Nigeria has to address several major actual or potential conflict situations:
– The post Boko Haram humanitarian crisis in the northeast: 480,000 children are suffering severe malnutrition, 800,000 people are severely food insecure and without interventions an estimated 67,000 children under the age of five might die: 184 every day in Borno and Yobe states.
–  The resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta: an economic and security threat from the Niger Delta militants, capable of attacks that have shut down production repeatedly in 2016. They currently have a strong bargaining position and the government can barely afford a redeployment of military resources from the northeast. Also, the clashes between settled farmers and nomadic herdsmen along Nigeria’s Middle Belt and northwards, if mismanaged and securitized, could escalate into a new destabilizing conflict.
– The persistence of the all-scale corruption phenomenon, in spite of the recent measures launched by the government.
1. Boko Haram: not yet defeated, but leaving a heavy legacy
According to many analysts and local observers, the fight against Boko Haram is unlikely to draw to a close in the near future, despite high-level proclamations to the contrary, and will likely extend into 2017 and beyond. Several recent attacks in urban centers and against the communities surrounding Maiduguri demonstrate the insurgency’s resilience.
Boko Haram has repeatedly demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of increased military pressure. Defeating it will mean addressing the resource constraints (exacerbated by corruption) of the Nigerian security sector and filling the training gaps that hamper its effort against the group.
Obsolete equipment and exhausted personnel
The Nigerian military’s effort against Boko Haram has witnessed tough times, as renewed attacks have claimed army commanders and their troops in ambush, while others are missing in action. Sources within the Nigerian Army believe it will take a very long time to replace the troops killed by Boko Haram.
Obsolete equipment, poor handling of security reports and exhaustion of the personnel have been identified as some of the factors that generated the setbacks in the fight against Boko Haram.
In the recent past, troops and commanders operated under harsh climatic conditions, fought in the battle field for more hours than expected while machines and equipment were over used, a development that reduced their capacity to perform at optimum capacity.
Instead of fighting in the warfront for between three and six months, some officers and men remained on the frontlines up to two years. An officer serving in Maiduguri said the pattern of replenishment for the troops killed is very minimal and it is affecting operations.
The fact that millions of people are still unable to return to their communities highlights the fact that, although the Nigerian forces have been able to regain territory from the insurgents, holding that territory remains elusive. Part of the reason that the military and police have failed on this front is inadequate training and equipment for the troops, which itself is due to corruption and mismanagement. Soldiers have complained that the insurgents are better equipped than they are. The Nigerian military even relies on vigilante groups in the northeast to supplement its aerial intelligence and to fight alongside its soldiers against Boko Haram.
New fronts opened
Military observers also pointed out that after their displacement from parts of Sambisa forest, Boko Haram militants used the “opportunity of the shortfall in the ranks of the military” to open new fronts in central and northern parts of Borno State, hence stretching the activities and capacity of troops and equipment.
Also, Boko Haram’s splitting – that led to the emergence of two camps, one led by AbubakarShekau and the other by Abu Mus’ab Albarnawi, the son of late founder of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, added pressure on the Nigerian troops.
Another pressure developed as a result of the renewed militancy in the Niger Delta, a development that affected operations in the North-east. Many troops and equipment originally deployed to the north-east for the war against Boko Haram were taken to the Niger Delta for operations to curb militancy.
The equipment used to recapture territory in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe is the same equipment deployed to the Niger Delta and parts of Birnin Gwari in Kaduna State and the vast forests in Zamfara State. Both the machines and those manning them had been over used in the past year, a development that brings about poor performance.
The humanitarian crisis: a risk for future radicalization
The army’s success in retaking much of the territory seized by the insurgents has exposed a severe humanitarian crisis, which includes not only the areas that fell to Boko Haram and were cut off for as long as two years by the conflict, but also the region’s largest city of Maiduguri, where hundreds of children aged under five have died of malnutrition and disease in the past few months, according to aid groups.
As early as December 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated” and announced his administration’s priority would be rebuilding infrastructure so that people could return home. Almost a year after, most of the exhausted people who have sought refuge in Maiduguri have refused to go home because they do not believe it is safe to do so.
Mental health specialists working in the areas liberated from Boko Haram assess that many of the more than 2 million Nigerians who fled their homes to escape the Islamist extremist group are suffering from trauma and its side effects such as depression and if this problem is left untreated it will threaten the future of the country. While therapeutic rebuilding is as crucial to stability as reconstructing roads and schools, such efforts are threatened as the government grapples with the worst economic crisis in 25 years and deals with other problems such as the recent insurgency in the Niger Delta.
The UN says the humanitarian emergency is among the world’s gravest, but funding to increase the aid response is so far falling short by about 75 per cent of the organization’s target for the year.
According to Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno state, the only way to prevent the insurgency from taking root again, is to ensure that people do not grow up hungry and desperate. Human rights groups agree and warn that the counterinsurgency efforts risk drawing more disaffected youth in to religious extremism and possibly militancy.
The poverty and difficult socioeconomic conditions that prevail across the region, notably the shortage of secure jobs and living conditions for young men, are unhelpful and facilitate jihadi recruitment. The case of Boko Haram shows how a persistent failure to tackle such issues can fuel the spread of violent extremism. The growing popularity of more fundamentalist Islamic preaching may also play a part in attracting people to jihadi groups. Moreover, many communities in the region lack meaningful political participation. This fuels marginalization and resentment towards central governments, potentially making it look attractive to join terrorist or criminal networks, the distinction between which is becoming increasingly blurred.
Boko Haram’s adaptability and inappropriate retaliation: recipe for resurgence
Another challenge to defeating Boko Haram is Abuja’s underestimation of the group’s adaptability. As Nigeria’s police and military units pushed Boko Haram out to the rural areas, the State of Emergency was considered effective. However, after being pushed out of the cities, Boko Haram began attempting to hold territory, ushering in the most brutal and lethal period in the militant group’s history as it overran entire towns. The Nigerian government had earlier assumed that the death of Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf (along with an estimated 700 other members of the group) in 2009 would be sufficient to end the insurgency. Instead, it reemerged under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau, as more violent.
Even though Boko Haram has suffered many military setbacks, the group still threatens isolated villages in the region – challenging the claim of victory by the Nigerian military. Also, researchers point out that Boko Haram’s ideology, which is based on the gap between the rich and the poor in Nigeria is still present and able to spread everywhere. Even if the movement has been crushed, in two or three years it might re-emerge.
The risk of increasing radicalization due to the government’s heavy-handed measures was recently evoked in the case of another religious group, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), based in the city of Zaria, in the Nigerian Kaduna State and led by 63-year-old Shia cleric Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.
During 2015, the police accused the followers of IMN of disregarding the state laws by blocking traffic. The IMN believed this was used as a pretext to disrupt their activities and, on December 12, 2015 the situation escalated after soldiers accused members of IMN of plotting to kill the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai. The intervention of the army against IMN resulted in the deaths of 347 people.
Subsequently Zakzaky and his wife were detained and have been in prison ever since. IMN denied allegations of plotting to kill the army chief and have accused the army of using the plot accusations as a pretext to suppress their freedom and to kill and detain their members and leadership.
Following the massacre in Zaria, the government instituted a Commission to investigate the incident. On December 5, the commission issued a White Paper which basically absolved the soldiers of any wrongdoing and blamed the leader of the organization, Zakzaky, for the massacre. It recommended that Zakzaky be prosecuted and the IMN declared an insurgent group.
Observers noted the similarities between this situation and the 2009 harsh measures against of Boko Haram. In 2009 the police stopped a group of Boko Haram members on motorbikes (on their way to a funeral) for not wearing helmets. The encounter resulted in police officers opening fire on the group, with more than a dozen injured. This led to more clashes between Boko Haram and the police and more deaths. After the arrest, torture and murder by the police of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, its members adopted more violent tactics in defying state authorities. Abubakar Shekau succeeded Mohammed Yusuf, and under his leadership Boko Haram became one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.
The Islamic Caliphate in northern Nigeria: a century-old ideal against the Western-imposed borders
Another significant factor that increases the risks of further Islamic radicalization of the northern part of Nigeria is the historic tradition of the Kanem Bornu Empire (700-1900), which stretched to present-day Chad, Libya, Niger and Cameroon, and was bound by trade and ethnic similarities and religion.
Northern Nigeria is home to the large Hausa ethnic group, the Hausa language being spoken by more than 50 million people across the present-day Sahel (north Central Africa, spanning much of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Togo, Chad, and Sudan). Hausa is still the region’s second language of trade; the primary languages come from the region’s colonizers: English, French and to a degree, Arabic.
In the early 19th century, a powerful Islamic figure, Sheikh Uthman ibn Fodio (1754-1817), emerged in what is now northwest Nigeria. Although not a Hausa but an ethnic Fulani, he galvanized support across the Hausa-dominated regions and parts of the old Kanem Bornu Empire and ended up creating an Islamic Caliphate.
In the mid-20th century, the Western powers partitioned West Africa, and other parts of the African continent, into nation-states that had nothing in common with each other apart from geographical proximity. The ethnic groups that made up the old order still consider themselves as distinctive nations, regardless of the fragmentation of the Caliphate into multiple nation-states. Under such splintering, the Islamists ideas that saw the rebirth of the region through Jihad were easily adopted, such as those of Sayyid Qutb or Osama Bin Laden.
Although the Caliphate was dismantled, the general consensus among the Muslims in the region was that the West won not by the superiority of its ideas or civilization, but by its superiority in organized violence. This reasoning has played into the hands of extremist Islamic groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda, as they won support across the region.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Cameroonian Muslim clergyman emerged in the northeast of Nigeria: Muhammad Marwa, popularly known as Maitatsine, Hausa for “the one who damns.” He, like Boko Haram, also rejected Western education. He and his movement were crushed by military firepower. Nigeria’s current President, General Muhammadu Buhari, was appointed at that time to neutralize Maitatsine. Nigeria’s military captured Maitatsine, and his movement collapsed. Not surprisingly, Boko Haram emerged in the same place 30 years later with the same ideology.
Between Daesh and al-Qaeda
The current situation of Boko Haram will also be influenced – according to counterterrorism experts – by the evolution of the main terrorist organizations active in the region, Daesh and al-Qaeda.
While the 2015 pledge of allegiance from Boko Haram was seen at the moment as one of the symbolic victories of Daesh in sub-Saharan Africa (together with the loyalty of at least one faction of the militant group al-Mourabitoun in Mali, and the support of a few minor al-Shabab members), analysts consider that so far, Daesh failed to displace al-Qaeda as the continent’s premier jihadi franchise.
Al-Qaeda’s initial expansion into sub-Saharan Africa was impressive for its speed and its breadth. By 2014, when Daesh began to make inroads in Africa, al-Qaeda had two strong organizational affiliates and could count on the cooperation of a handful of other like-minded groups.
Daesh’s rise threw al-Qaeda’s dominance in Africa into doubt. Having largely outmaneuvered al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, Daesh began dispatching emissaries into sub-Saharan Africa in an attempt to steal al-Qaeda affiliates. By the spring of 2015, it had won the allegiance of Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as a splinter group of al-Mourabitoun. Daesh also began courting al-Shabab, sending envoys to encourage the Somali militant group to switch its allegiance and even producing propaganda videos featuring members of Boko Haram that were designed to appeal to al-Shabab’s rank and file. In October 2015, between 150 and 200 al-Shabab fighters defected to Daesh, and in April 2016, another group of former al-Shabab fighters calling themselves Jabha East Africa pledged alliance to Daesh.
But al-Shabab’s top leadership resisted Daesh, launching a series of attacks on the factions that defected. Daesh suffered similar setbacks in West Africa. Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Mourabitoun, confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda and Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau challenged Daesh by maintaining local control in Nigeria. When Daesh claimed in August 2016 that Abu Mus’ab Albarnawi, the son of the founder of Boko Haram, was appointed the new leader of the Islamic State’s West Africa wilayat, Shekau contested the claim, and fighting erupted between the parties. Shekau has since renounced his ties with Daesh’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; in losing Shekau, Daesh may have lost a large faction of Boko Haram.
Counterterrorism experts explain Daesh’s lack of success in Africa mainly because of the manner in which its leaders underestimated the historical ties between many African jihadi organizations and al-Qaeda. Daesh also failed to appreciate the degree to which the leaders valued their autonomy, which comes against Daesh’s vision of centralized control through a caliphate.
Under American observation
The fact that Nigeria and the sub-Saharan Africa are still of interest from the counterterrorism point of view is also shown by an increasing presence of American and Western specialized agencies in the region, with neighboring Niger becoming one of the main observation centers.
American involvement in the Sahel began in 2005 with the Trans Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative. In 2007, the Pentagon launched AFRICOM, its military command for Africa. Since then, the number of special forces operatives in Africa has risen sharply; on average around 700 are deployed there. In the western Sahel region, drones fly from a base in Chad, while small surveillance planes operated by contractors have flown from Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Niger has become a key location for America’s expanding security presence in West Africa. There is a new military base, mainly for drone operations, in Niamey, Niger’s capital, and another one is in construction in Agadez, an ancient desert city in the north of the country, that is a transit point on the migration route to Europe.
The focus on Niger comes from the fact that this country is a good “observation point” for several conflicts. In the north-west Mali’s Islamist insurgency has spilled over the border. In the south-east, near Lake Chad, Boko Haram’s insurgency against the Nigerian government has pushed thousands of refugees into Niger’s Diffa region. And from the north and north-east, weapons and fighters from Libya threaten to destabilize a region already known for violent uprisings, particularly from the Toubou and Tuareg desert tribes. The worry is that these conflicts will link together, or already have.
America is not the only country with operations in Niger; France, the former colonial power, also has a base there and Germany is building one too (which it says will be for logistics only).
2. The Niger Delta militancy: difficult times ahead
If the recent successes against Boko Haram do not mean a definitive victory for the Nigerian government, the ongoing Niger Delta conflict, with the multiplying attacks against the foreign companies’ facilities and the proliferation of the local insurgent groups are seen as a major challenge, from the security as well as from the economic point of view.
The conflict was generated by the oil reserves, which are mostly located in the south of the country, in the Igbo-dominated secessionist state of Biafra that came into existence in 1967. In spite of the oil reserves, the region remained the poorest and most backward of the country, being also affected by severe pollution due to the oil spills. Consequently, militancy grew up, with local people protesting against the negative impact of the oil industry, corruption and lack of development.
Like most other African countries, British Nigeria grouped people without respect for their religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. The Niger Delta region became part of a Niger Coast Protectorate in the 1890s, when communities of the Niger Delta region signed an agreement with the British colonial agents. It was subsumed into the Southern Nigeria Protectorate in 1900, and then merged with the Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1914. In 1960, when it became independent, Nigeria had a population of 60 million people consisting of nearly 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups.
For almost as long as Nigeria has been pumping oil in the Niger Delta, portions of its population have protested against the environmental impact of the industry and a perceived failure for the region to share the benefits.
The Niger Delta oil and gas-generated conflicts took, over time, a violent turn with growing tension between foreign oil companies and minority ethnic groups, championed by community elites who felt exploited. Arms build-up from inter-ethnic clashes and political militias from the 1990s worsened at a fast pace, leading to the militarization of the entire region. By the early 2000s, widespread violence hit the oil industry. Government’s military solution to it yielded no tangible results.
A war game followed by its reality
In 2005, the United States, a major importer of Nigeria’s oil, conducted a war gaming exercise called Oil Shockwave 2005”,created by several energy policy think tanks, the National Commission on Energy Policy and Securing America’s Future Energy. The war game outlined a series of hypothetical international events taking place in December 2005, related to the world’s supply of and demand for petroleum.
In the simulation, a decrease in oil supply and price spikes caused a variety of negative effects on the United States economy. One of the sub-scenarios involved the outbreak of violence in the oil-producing area of Nigeria that would lead to evacuation of expatriates, including US citizens, and hike in oil prices. At that time, Nigeria was the eighth largest oil exporter in the world and the fourth largest exporter of crude oil to the US.
About six months after the “Oil Shockwave” exercise, in December 2005 massive bomb explosions at major oil facilities announced the commencement of oil industry violence in Nigeria and resonated around the world.
The crisis escalated, taking a heavy toll on lives, property, and the environment, which was devastated by oil spills. Over half of the country’s production of oil and gas was shut in, leading to a drastic reduction in government revenue. Resource control became a popular phrase, and the international oil market was on edge, just as was predicted by the American war-gaming exercise.
Militant groups seeking to control the resources have indulged in oil theft and violence which sometimes has been claimed as retribution for mistreatment of the locals by the oil industry. A violent insurgency was carried out under the banner Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) until a controversial amnesty agreement was reached in 2009.
A period of relative calm followed this amnesty, which provides for monthly payouts to former militants who accepted the deal. The ascension to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan was undoubtedly a factor in this: from the region himself, he was seen as being sympathetic to the Niger Delta’s concerns.
A 2016 chronology
The conflict reignited after the election of Muhammadu Buhari as president in 2015. This was due in part to rumors that Buhari considered abandoning the amnesty agreement (especially the payments). Moreover, the way Goodluck Jonathan was removed from power seemed to exacerbate Nigeria’s north-south and Muslim-Christian divides and further infuriated the Niger Delta militants.
Bombings of oil installations started in February 2016, and in March 2016, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) publicly announced their existence. The Niger Delta Avengers claim to be fighting to bring prosperity and development to the region, which has not benefitted proportionally from its vast oil wealth.
The NDA’s declared aims are to create a sovereign state and they have threatened to disrupt Nigeria’s economy to achieve their goals. The group has also criticized President Buhari for never visiting the region as well as for the detention of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu, who said he was not affiliated with either MEND or the NDA.
Other militant groups with roughly the same demands emerged in May 2016. One group, calling itself Red Egbesu Water Lions threatened to shut down all oil exploration activities in the region. Another group, the Egbesu Mightier Fraternity threatened to blow up all offshore facilities in the region if the government did not meet its demands.
A group calling itself Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force emerged in early June 2016 and vowed to launch six missiles in the Niger Delta. It further warned that it will bring down any helicopter deployed in the area and that it might shut down the Nigerian satellite orbit within a week so that telecommunications within the country would be cut off. It also demanded that the Nigerian military leave the Ijaw communities.
In late June 2016, a group calling itself the Niger Delta Red Squad declared its existence and claimed that it had blown up two pipelines belonging to Shell in the Asa/Awarra axis and also threatened to attack major oil pipelines in Oguta Council area, as well as shutdown all oil wells in Imo State. A few days later, another group calling itself Adaka Boro Avengers emerged, threatening to destroy oil producing facilities and warned all oil companies to leave the Niger Delta within a week. In July, the group announced that it would declare an independent state on 1 August and warned all northern Nigerians to leave the region.
A group calling itself Asawana Deadly Force of Niger Delta also emerged in late June 2016 and demanded independence for the region within a few days while threatening to shut down oil production in the region if it failed to achieve its goal.
On 8 July, a new group called Niger Delta Revolutionary Crusaders (NDRC) bombed the Brass Creek Manifold (Bayelsa State). On 1 August, the group released a statement accusing northern Nigerians of plotting to Islamize the region in order to take control of its oil. After the new leader of the split Boko Haram, Abu Mus’ab Albarnawi, threatened to increase attacks on Christians, the NDRC threatened to kill Muslims and destroy mosques if Boko Haram carried out its threats.
On 9 August, the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate declared its existence and threatened to destroy refineries in Port Harcourt and Warri. The next day, the group reportedly blew up a major oil pipeline operated by the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) in Isoko. On 12 August, the group warned that it would blow up more oil installations and on 19 August, it was reported to have blown up two pipelines belonging to NPDC in Delta State.
The main groups, led by the Niger Delta Avengers declared a unilateral ceasefire and agreed to negotiations with the Nigerian government, and, at the same time, Nigeria’s Army launched “Operation Crocodile Smile” in late August to get rid of all criminal activities in Niger Delta. The main groups declared the launch of “Operation Crocodile Tears” in response to the military’s operation.
In spite of the efforts to reach a ceasefire, the attacks against the oil facilities continued throughout the last part of 2016. On 9 November 2016, Niger Delta Avengers said it was behind an attack on Shell’s Forçados crude pipeline.
Economic damages
The violence has shut down several oil wells, claimed dozens of lives and forced major companies such as Shell and Chevron to evacuate staff and halt production in some areas. It also had a devastating impact on production.
At the end of the year, Nigeria’s state oil company announced losses of more than 1.5 trillion naira ($4.8 billion) as a result of attacks on pipelines and facilities by militants in 2016.
The group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Maikanti Baru, told a conference in the capital Abuja that the corporation had recorded 59 attacks on facilities that resulted in full or partial shutdown and consequently, a loss in revenue.
According to local observers, there are different motives behind some of the recent actions. Some people are out there to make money out of it as contractors who would be assigned to carry out the repair works on the damaged oil installations. Some industry and government sources suspect some past political office holders under probe are the masterminds.
Whatever the motive of the attacks is, the Niger Delta region will, in the end, turn out to be the major victim.
Difficult negotiations
Despite its reluctance to officially set up a negotiating committee to hold talks with militants in the Niger Delta, the federal government has continued discreet talks with the belligerent groups in the region. Several meetings took place in the last few months between the militants and federal government emissaries coordinated by the National Security Adviser (NSA), Major General Mohammed Moguno (rtd).
Instead of going through third parties, government agents reached out directly to the groups in order to identify the reasons for the several attacks on the oil infrastructure aside the ones publicly voiced by the warlords. It went beyond the known violent groups like the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate (NDGJM) – the two groups that have publicly claimed responsibility – to reach out to smaller groups.
Given the critical importance of oil to Nigeria’s economy, the potential consequences of the Niger Delta unrest make it an even bigger threat to Nigeria than the Boko Haram insurgency. Sustained attacks on oil facilities will affect production and the cost of oil, prices will rise, and Nigeria will have to start importing oil.
This might also lead to mass protests, which could destabilize the whole country. There are already signs that this insurgency will be even harder to contain than previous outbreaks of violence in the Niger Delta.
3. Organized crime and corruption
Besides Boko Haram terrorism and civil unrest in the Niger Delta, organized crime and large-scale corruption are considered to be even more difficult challenges for the Nigerian authorities in the years ahead.
Organized crime
In Nigeria, as in all Africa, all the forms of organized crime are present: crimes driven by natural resource extraction, illicit trafficking in various illegal substances, drugs, arms. Also, there are more ambiguous forms of illicit trade of normally legal goods such as electric and household appliances, medicines, tobacco, luxury goods or cars. Some of the emerging types of crime are present, such as cybercrime, highly prevalent particularly in West Africa.
According to researchers of the phenomenon, there are three distinct phases in the way organized crime has evolved in Africa. Natural resources-driven crime emerged first, particularly in the post-colonial period when foreign facilitators helped to remove illicit goods from the continent and gave access to international markets. Often, this involved complicity with state actors and was often state-endorsed. The second phase followed the end of the Cold War, when organized crime became deeply interwoven with conflicts in Central and West Africa. The fragile states that remained after this period attracted global trafficking flows of the more illegal varieties – mostly drug trafficking. These in turn became interwoven with traditional forms of cross-border smuggling, for example, across the Saharan belt from East to West where nomadism is prevalent and traditional livelihoods were breaking down. The final phase has seen the growth and internationalization of Africa’s role in the global illicit economy – firstly through emerging crimes such as cybercrime, but also more proactive engagement by African actors in global supply chains of illicit goods.
The ‘tokunbo’ trade
One of the lucrative illegal trades in Nigeria is the import of used electrical and electronics equipment (EEE). The ‘tokunbo’ (the used equipment, e-waste) import is illegal by both European and Nigerian standards. At least half of all electrical and electronics equipment (EEE) imported into Nigeria are used products, and about 600,000 tons of used EEE are imported into the country annually.
Despite local laws banning the ‘tokunbo’ import, inefficient enforcement still makes Nigeria one of the largest e-waste importing countries in the world. The e-waste trade is illegal because Nigeria does not possess any organized e-waste recycling or dismantling facility. The 440,000 tons of e-waste every year are left to be crudely recycled under hazardous conditions. The crude recycling of e-waste is toxic to humans and to the environment.
Investigations in various European countries show that the illegal business is mainly controlled not by criminal groups but by individuals who try to make money for themselves.
E-wastes are usually recovered from homes and offices in Europe and are supposed to be moved straight to treatment plants. But some individuals have now seen huge business opportunities in intercepting EEE as they move various stages of the transport chain. Big quantities of e-waste is intercepted on the transportation chain and illegally shipped abroad to countries such as Nigeria.
According to local experts, the business is based on the great demand for both e-waste and used EEE in Nigeria, mainly because most Nigerians cannot afford new products, but also because they also consider that the European used products are of better quality than new ones imported from China. Such ‘new equipment’ transforms faster into e-waste because of low quality.
The transnational trade on ‘tokunbo’ electronics also created a whole economic sector in Nigeria, with thousands of exporters and importers of used EEE and e-waste, and a lot of jobs in Nigeria’s informal sector. About 80,000 people are estimated to work as scavengers, people who pick the electronic waste from homes, dumpsites and other places. Another 52,000 are estimated to repair the ‘non-tested’, non-functional electronics which are made functional for several years more.
The informal scavengers also obtain money from the precious metals of e-waste in Nigeria, with Chinese, Lebanese and Indian traders buying the pieces from the scavengers and reselling for profit to Europe.
“Sicilian” methods and connections
The intersection between organized crime and terrorism comes mainly from the fact that often, terrorist groups who have managed to establish a zone of protection and control around a specific territory tax everything that goes through, whether it is legitimate or illegitimate, in the same manner as the Sicilian mafia.
– Boko Haram has a protection policy similar to the classic mafia behavior known as protectionism. They will go to communities, they count houses and they tax them based on the village as a whole. One has to pay 30 dollars per house; this is the tax for not burning the village (though sometimes they burn the village anyway just to keep everybody in their toes). In the Sahel/Sahara it is the same principle. A percentage or a cost per head or a cost per truck is taken off the commodities by the groups that control the region. In that way, if there is an Islamic terrorist group or a jihadist group that controls a particular territory, they can tax the trade – whether it is drug trafficking or migrant smuggling – but they are not directly involved in the trafficking themselves.
– A significant development from this point of view was recently recorded in Sicily, where prosecutors in the capital Palermo are warning that a new alliance between the mafia and Nigerian criminal gangs moving in from Libya could herald a new era of organized crime. They say that the mafia brings in drugs and the Nigerians distribute them among both Italian and African clients.
The neighborhoods under mafia control have changed in recent years due to the growing presence of foreigners, especially Nigerians coming on boats. Among them, there are people who want to transfer their illegal trafficking, linked to prostitution and drug dealing, to Sicily. And the mafia was quite happy to integrate them into their criminal business.
In Ballarò, a mafia stronghold market area in the historic centre of Palermo, profits from pizzo – the tax levied on merchants by the Sicilian mafia – are reinvested to buy drugs for resale to Nigerian clans and their dealers.
There is a subordinate relationship between the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Nigerian clans, with the former controlling the latter. If a Nigerian boss tried to rebel against Cosa Nostra, he would probably end up incaprettato (tied up and killed) in the countryside. To have better control of their new African partners, Cosa Nostra seems to have made another rule clear: no guns.
The most dangerous enemy: structural corruption
Corruption has become increasingly important in facilitating the flow of illicit goods, illicit trade and organized crime. There is an increased inter-dependence between the ability to be an effective trafficker and the ability to have the necessary influence over the political and security institutions of the countries.
The level of corruption is mainly linked to the value of the trade. For low-value, low-interest goods’ trafficking, the penalty is small. The level of corruption is transactional, consisting in bribes to the local police or security institutions. In the case of high-value goods, like cocaine or heroin, that are of higher interest for the international community, the cost of corruption is very high. It is easier for international trafficking groups to corrupt at the top and assume that the top will take care of the bottom than to pay little bribes all the way up.
According to John Campbell, former US Ambassador to Nigeria, corruption is structural in the country and the whole political system, so it is difficult to uproot.
Nigeria is on the 136th place out of 175 countries, according to the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International. A World Bank survey in 2014 found that 55% of firms in Nigeria expected to pay bribes or give gifts to bureaucrats or politicians and others to “get things done,” more than double the average in sub-Saharan Africa. Forty-five percent said corruption was “a major constant.” Corruption is a major stumbling block toward reaching the U.N.’s sustainable development goal of ending poverty by 2030, according to the bank.
Some estimates say the country has lost hundreds of billions of dollars to graft since its independence from Britain in 1960. According to London-based accounting firm PwC, if left unaddressed, corruption could cost the country an amount equal to more than 37 percent of gross domestic product by 2030.
There are different forms of corruption: non-existent “ghost workers” on the government payroll, overcharging on government contracts, diverting money from government accounts, and bribes.
According to many analysts, one of the causes of the phenomenon is that Nigeria is a fragmented state. Countries that are more difficult to govern, whether because of challenging terrain or ethnic divisions, are more likely to develop a culture of bribery. Leaders have an easier time governing varied ethnic landscapes if they buy loyalty. Though other factors (including cultural norms, weak institutions and abusive rule) can lead to and reinforce endemic corruption, state fragmentation is the underlying basis.
Recent history
By 1983, when the Nigerian military ousted the civilian government amid an economic decline and Muhammadu Buhari first became president, the public had generally come to see the civilian government as corrupt and incompetent. Given his unorthodox route to the presidency, Buhari needed to quickly establish his credentials as a national leader. One way to do so was to distinguish himself from his corrupt predecessors. He did target corruption during his administration, though some accused him of letting his fellow northerners off more lightly than their southern counterparts. Buhari’s administration, however, seemed to ignore rising resentments among the military, political establishment and Nigerian public (fed especially by ongoing economic weakness), eventually leading to his overthrow as military head of state. From 1985 to 1993, his successor, Ibrahim Babangida, led what came to be considered one of the most corrupt governments in Nigerian history.
By 2015, Nigeria was enduring another round of economic difficulties and was being led by an administration under President Goodluck Jonathan, which was seen as being corrupt even by Nigerian standards. However, while the new civilian political system was a rotational power-sharing agreement by which each of what Nigerian leaders call the country’s “geopolitical zones” would have a stake in power, this has not resulted in the strengthening of Nigerian political institutions, which remain feeble and prone to domination by whoever holds the presidency.
This plus Nigeria’s fractured nature, its weak institutions, the financial windfall from the oil boom in the late 2000s and Jonathan’s reliance on patronage networks to keep supporters happy led to the raiding of government coffers on an epic scale during his administration. Tens of billions of dollars are thought to have been stolen.
A side-effect of corruption: the “Jungle justice”
The rampant crime in Nigeria and the lack of trust of the law of many people led to the increase of vigilante killings of suspected criminals, a phenomenon already called “jungle justice”.
While policemen and politicians condemn the killings and the Nigerian senate is considering a bill aimed at cracking down on mob justice, experts say that Nigeria is Africa’s kidnap capital and that policemen are often involved. The feeling is that if a crime suspect is handed over to the police, he will be released for money since Nigerian law does allow certain criminal suspects to post bail, and the police are staggeringly corrupt. Many officers spend their days mounting roadblocks to extort cash from drivers. People who report a crime are often told to pay up or the cops won’t investigate it. Consequently, people don’t have confidence in the police so they prefer to take laws into their own hands and dispense mob justice. When they do, there is usually someone nearby with a camera to record the episode and release it on the social media.
Anti-corruption efforts
Nigeria’s anti-corruption drive has been made more urgent by the country’s worst recession in three decades, as the oil-dependent economy reels with the decline in oil prices. The economy shrank more than 3% in the second quarter of 2016 alone. The crisis comes as Nigeria’s oil revenues have been hit further by rebels in the oil-producing southeast, who have blown up pipelines, forcing a drop in production from 2.2 million barrels a day to 1.4 million.
In these circumstances, the spending by Nigeria of $4.4 billion a year on civil service salaries (40% of all spending), is already considered by the government as unsustainable.
– In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari implemented an essential reform: government departments and agencies, that used to have more than 10,000 accounts in various commercial banks, were obliged to use only one government account in the central bank, the Treasury Single Account.
Consequently, banks could no longer lend government money back to the government at exorbitant rates. Bureaucrats couldn’t siphon off bank interest. Money could no longer be discreetly detoured out of the breathtaking tangle of accounts. Scandalously inflated government contracts could be easily traced. The government knows where its money is and how it’s spending it.
– Also, in an unprecedented anti-corruption drive, judges, senators, former governors and deputy governors, political staffers and ex-bankers have been swept up in recent months.
Seven judges, including two Supreme Court judges, have been arrested on corruption allegations. The sacked head of the military, Alex Badeh, is being tried on charges of stealing $3.1 million from Nigerian air force accounts to buy houses in Abuja. A cousin of former president Goodluck Jonathan has been charged with the theft of $40 million that was supposed to pay for tactical communication kits for Nigeria’s special forces. A former customs boss, Abdullahi Dikko, was arrested and accused of pocketing $40 million. A former national security advisor, Sambo Dasuki, has been involved in a fraud scheme prosecutors say reached $13 billion.
– In December 2016, the Federal Government has approved a policy that aims to encourage Nigerians to report financial and other related crimes to relevant authorities. The main point of this policy is that whistleblowers whose revelations lead to recovery of money will be entitled to as much as 5 per cent of the recovered sum. The government announced that it would set up a website and provide a phone number and email for people to use, and anonymity and protection of whistleblowers will also be guaranteed.
Buhari’s anti-corruption initiatives also carry risks, one of which is that they might end the traditional practice of providing payoffs to buy peace in the restive, oil-producing Niger Delta, potentially sparking renewed attacks on the region’s oil and natural gas infrastructure.
Nigeria’s entrenched interests, which benefit handsomely from the weakness of the country’s institutions and the corresponding opportunities for graft, will also hold back Buhari. Cutting these figures off from their sources of largesse will not automatically trigger a coup, as it might have in the past. But it could create the conditions for Buhari’s defeat in the next presidential election by motivating powerful opponents to line up against him.
Even if Buhari somehow managed to overcome resistance to his anti-corruption campaign based on fears of authoritarianism and of losing patronage, the underlying structural factors that gave rise to Nigeria’s endemic corruption will not change. Its fragmented ethnic geography, weak institutions and history of authoritarian rule will limit Buhari’s ability to quash corruption, and the ability of future presidents to do so.
4. Conclusion
According to French diplomat and analyst Jean-Marie Guéhenno[3], Nigeria is part of the “10 conflicts to watch in 2017”, together with the greater Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. The analyst points out that, while the security forces of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad have stepped up their fight against Boko Haram and the Nigerian president announced the “final crushing” of the terrorists, the group has not been vanquished. A leadership quarrel has split the jihadi movement, but it remains resilient and aggressive.
The Boko Haram insurgency, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and despair. If regional governments do not react responsibly to the humanitarian disaster, they could further alienate communities and sow the seeds of future rebellion.
Nigeria is a tug of war between positive influences and negative forces, between ideologues and pragmatists, between self-interested elites and reformers with national vision, between long-term planning and short-term expediency. Its turbulent times will continue well into 2017. At a time of deepening recession and no fiscal fall-back, whether in policymaking or in society, the divisions become starker and their upshots devastating.
Rather than fight against corruption or corruption fighting back, in Nigeria there is a war of political hegemony among different factions of the ruling class. It is a war of all against all and no holds are barred. The war against corruption is a mask for a deeper and more fundamental competition for the soul of the nation. This kind of contention can only end with the mutual destruction of the contending classes and the nation as currently configured.
[1] The Boko Haram insurgency and its terrorist activities were presented in three of our previous works: Daesh: From the Red Sea to the Atlantic (January 2016), Boko Haram: Derrière les apparences – étude de cas (September 2015), Terrorism in the Sahel and the Sub-Saharan Africa: more than a regional threat (March 2014)
[3] Former United Nations under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations (2000-2008), currently President and CEO of International Crisis Group. For the full article, see

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