Nigeria is drifting towards another civil war because recent efforts to reform the government and deal with the corruption that crippled the military and local police showed some progress, but not enough to be effective. Calls for national unity in the face of all this are increasingly ignored as more criminal gangs emerge and threaten the oil industry in the south (Niger River Delta) as well as shipping off the coast. Piracy is growing because, as in Somalia, corruption and chaos on shore meant pirates could operate more freely. While the Nigerian pirates cannot take large ships and entire crews hostage, they can kidnap foreign officers commanding these ships and get large ransoms. Too many Nigerian political, police and military leaders are willing to cooperate for a large enough bribe.
In central and northern Nigeria, growing land and water disputes between Moslem Fulani herders and existing Christian and Moslem farmers continues to cause more deaths than Islamic terrorism.
Outside of Nigeria, the activities of Islamic terrorists in the north get most of the media attention. Up there Boko Haram Islamic terrorists survive for the same lack of effective police, soldiers and government administrators the entire nation suffers from. Now Boko Haram is moving south, heading for the national capital. That has the attention of corrupt legislators and state governors, but they have no quick fix for the approaching chaos.
Nationwide there is the threat of another civil war with irregular private armies forming religion and tribe-based coalitions and fighting for local control as well as the oil resources concentrated in a few southern states. This threat has existed for decades but the distant threat is now getting visibly closers.
Yet most of the violence is still concentrated in the three northeastern state where most of the mayhem has been taking place for a decade now. These three states have a population of 13 million (Borno; 5.5, Yobe; 3.1 and Adamawa; 4.3). That’s about seven percent of the national population that has endured well over half of religion-based violence of the last decade. There is some Boko Haram activity in other northern areas making Boko Haram a problem for nearly 20 million Nigerians. There are nearly as many people in neighboring countries who are still terrorized (although to a lesser extent) by Boko Haram and other Islamic terror groups like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Qaeda. The security forces in these neighboring countries have proved more effective at dealing with Boko Haram, which remains mainly a Nigerian organization. Boko Haram has reorganized since it lost control of much territory in 2016-17. There are now two Boko Haram factions which do not fight each other, but do compete to carry out more attacks than each other. Both factions survive by looting and various criminal enterprises (mainly extortion and kidnapping).
What has the attention of most Nigerians is the oil, which has been the major export for decades and is concentrated in Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers States. These three states are all in the Niger River Delta, an area that comprises about seven percent of Nigeria and 11 percent of the national population. Oil is responsible for 40 percent of economic activity and 80 percent of the central government budget. The rest of Nigeria is not going to support the three oil states becoming independent and will fight to prevent it.
April 27, 2021: President Buhari, in a teleconference with the American Secretary of State, asked for some immediate help in dealing with the growing chaos throughout Nigeria. The Americans responded favorably but vaguely, making no promises of specific assistance or when it might arrive.
Buhari is dealing with problems he inherited when he took office in 2015. Back then Boko Haram had taken control of many towns in the northeast (Borno State) during an offensive they began in 2014. Nigerian political leaders called for foreign military assistance, especially from NATO countries who had demonstrated their ability to handle similar situations in the Middle East. At that point the main obstacle to receiving such aid was the leadership of the
Nigerian military, who would not even tolerate foreign military advisors. Some embassies had their military attaches (officers serving under diplomatic immunity) to informally advise and Nigerian senior officers, especially those who were openly hostile to “foreign interference.” The military attaches reported that the Nigerian military has a lot of bad habits and some very poor senior leaders. The elected leaders are a different story and accepted American and NATO offers of military advisors. The Nigerian military continued to block the use of foreign advisors. It was not just pride, but the Nigerian officers had a lot of hide like corruption, incompetence and poor leadership skills. All this was no secret as Western military personnel had encountered these problems when dealing with Nigerian troops on peacekeeping missions. In effect the politicians were calling for some competence in the fight against Boko Haram but faced resistance from their own military leaders as well as the Islamic terrorists.
All that changed in early 2015 Muhammadu Buhari won the presidential election by defeating an incumbent running for reelection. This was the first time this had ever happened in Nigerian history. Presidents running for reelection had never lost before, largely because of fraud and intimidation. Buhari, a former dictator (1983-5 when he was in his 40s), who was in turn overthrown by a 1985 coup by generals who did not agree with Buharis anti-corruption efforts. Buhari was put under house arrest for three years and retired from the military. All this made Buhari an enemy of corrupt military and civilian leaders but to most voters he was respected advocate for clean government and the suppression of corruption. Buhari is a Moslem, a retired army general, a Fulani and has come out strongly for suppressing Boko Haram and reforming the military. As a former general, Buhari had quietly monitored the situation in the military via first hand reports from former soldiers and officers as well as the few local journalists who reported on the sad state of military leadership. It was support like that enabled Buhari to enter politics in 2003 and build a political coalition that won more and more votes as Buhari stood for election to president several times before winning in 2015, and defeating considerable efforts by veteran politicians to rig the vote.
The election of Buhari was not well understood outside Africa but by 2016 the United States and France quietly became more active dealing with Islamic terrorism in countries north of Nigeria and with Nigeria itself. The Boko Haram violence and the threat of Iran-backed Shia terrorism caused Nigeria to ask the Americans and French for help in tracking the activity of Islamic terrorists throughout the region. The Americans and French have been sharing such intel with Nigeria while building a new airbase in Agadez, Niger that was 550 kilometers north of the Nigerian border. The U.S. was already operating UAVs from a Niger military base near the capital, Niamey. The new American airbase was closer to Chad, southern Libya and Nigeria, where American aerial surveillance was more in demand by the local governments. Agadez was to support armed UAVs as well. The U.S. continued to supply intelligence obtained by the Niger-based UAVs with Niger and other nations in the area that have intelligence sharing agreements. Agadez was the second American airbase in Africa and, like the first one, will be shared with France and other allies. In 2014 the U.S. signed another ten year lease for an airbase in Djibouti (the northwest neighbor of Somalia). U.S. forces in Africa were increased after Islamic terrorist resistance collapsed in Iraq in 2008 and the base became the command post for a network of American operations throughout Africa. Most of the effort was directed at monitoring what is going on in Somalia and Yemen as well as Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The Americans were carrying out major military operations against local terrorists in some countries. The Djibouti base also supported operations throughout the Sahel, the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia.
In 2008 “Africa Command” (AFRICOM) was established to handle American military operations in Africa. AFRICOM was similar in organization to other commands (Central, or CENTCOM, for the Middle East, and South, or SOUTHCOM, for Latin America, etc). AFRICOM coordinates all American military operations in Africa. Before 2007 those operations were coordinated between two commands, the one covering Europe and the one covering Latin America. The establishment of AFRICOM meant more money for counter-terror operations in Africa, and more long-range projects. One thing most African nations wanted from AFRICOM was military and counter-terrorism trainers. The problem with this is that the people so trained are often then employed as enforcers for the local dictator. Even providing training for peacekeepers can backfire, for those peacekeeping skills can also be used to pacify your own people. This was seen as a problem in Nigeria as well, as long as there is so much corruption in the government and military. But at the same time the U.S. could not ignore the growing cooperation between Boko Haram and al Qaeda type organizations, especially those in northern Mali, which had become a new sanctuary for al Qaeda. Boko Haram was becoming part of the terrorist threat to the U.S. and the West.
In 2012 Nigeria asked for American help in dealing with Boko Haram and the commander of AFRICOM made it clear that Boko Haram was not going to be defeated by military action alone. If the U.S. provided major assistance to Nigeria, it will be via AFRICOM. Nigeria was OK with that but the continued corruption in the Nigerian military and government created domestic opposition to military aid in the United States. That was not overcome until 2016.
Buhari was already trying to reform the Nigerian military had knew that it was going to take time. Officers, and many lower-ranking soldiers had grown accustomed to doing what they pleased, and that generally led to more stealing than fighting Boko Haram. Buhari used the military effort against Boko Haram in the northeast, mainly Borno state. Since 2016 he has been relieving lots of senior officers who failed in Borno state and soon officers feared a transfer to Borno. More officers and enlisted troops were being prosecuted for corruption and enough progress was made to get him reelected to a second term. The 1999 Nigerian constitution limits a president to two terms because of the tendency of presidents to want to be "president-for-life." That part of the constitution has been respected. Buhari is 78 years old and not in the best of health. There are plenty of corrupt politicians waiting to replace him in 2023.
In early 2021 Buhari, responding to growing calls for better performance from the military, replaced the four most senior military commanders, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. Buhari has for several years kept replacing senior commanders in the north until he found officers who could be innovative and competent enough to reorganize the troops and reverse the string of defeats the soldiers were suffering. That was not enough because most of the military leadership remained riddled with corruption and incompetence. Fixing that was considered a long-term project and it was not assured that future presidents will keep it up. That led to the call for replacing the most senior commanders until ones could be found who would do what needed to be done. The new top commanders have been ordered to find and replace senior subordinates and Buhari hoped that would produce some quick results. It didn’t.
Recently Buhari asked the United States to move the headquarters of AFRICOM from Germany to somewhere in Africa. Early on the U.S. sought an African nation willing to host the AFRICOM headquarters but found no takers. An AFRICOM headquarters would be a magnet for anti-American demonstrations and Islamic terrorist attacks. He did not offer Nigeria as a candidate in part because Boko Haram is on the offensive again and moving toward the national capital Abuja in central Nigeria. The Nigerian military is on its own defending Abuja because foreign African allies in the fight against Boko Haram are willing to operate on both sides of their borders with Nigeria but not any further. Since 2015 the
MNJTF (Multi-National Joint Task Force) has proved very effective against Boko Haram and ISIL. The 8,700-man MNJTF force maintains bases and camps near Lake Chad in northern Borno state and concentrates on hunting down and killing Islamic terrorists. MNJTF has taken the lead in containing local ISIL groups and blocking the Islamic terrorist efforts to once more control territory in the region.
The increasing violence across the border in Borno state led to the creation of the MNJTF, which consists of troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Nigeria. At first the MNJTF was used mainly inside Nigeria but by early 2017 MNJTF was spending most of its time clearing Boko Haram out of border areas, especially the Lake Chad coast. Each member country assigns some of their best troops to the MNJTF and the Boko Haram have suffered heavy losses trying to deal with the MNJTF. This played a role in the 2016 Boko Haram split that turned Boko Haram operating near Lake Chad into ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). MNJTF concentrated more and more on the areas around Lake Chad and has been successful at curbing ISWAP operations there.
Neighboring Chad and Niger have also recently increased operations against Boko Haram, especially near Lake Chad, which all three nations border. The reason why there is so much Islamic terrorist activity near Lake Chad is because Boko Haram has quietly cut itself in for a large share of the income from the smoked fish and agricultural products from Lake Chad and coastal farms. Boko Haram charges fishermen and farmers “taxes” (extortion payments) to avoid being attacked by Boko Haram. This provides several million dollars a year, plus payments in kind (fish and crops) that keep Boko Haram operational. Since 2014 many fishing and farming families near Lake Chad have fled, leaving those who remain and pay tribute to Boko Haram, actually better off economically.
The 2021 Boko Haram offensive is not as bloody as the 2014 one and is aimed at Christian majority southern Nigeria. Christian political and religious leaders have warned that if the religious violence moved south and the government was incapable of handing it, there would be another civil war. Boko Haram has been homicidally anti-Christian and most of the Christians in Borno state have fled south since 2014.
Buhari is asking NATO for more than military advisors and weapons imports and NATO is not inclined to send troops. The problem in Nigeria is more than just an incompetent military. The national police force is in worse shape than the army. For over a year there have been nationwide protests against police corruption and misconduct. The immediate cause of this round of protests was the revelations about illegal, and often fatal for victims, SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) behavior. The government promised to deal with this problem but many protestors are unconvinced. Police misbehavior has been around for decades and survived multiple efforts to reform it. The government has to come up with something new to calm things down, especially since many of the protests have also pushed for a reduction in corruption and an increase in government competence. These issues are what got Boko Haram going in the north. At first Boko Haram was non-violent, but that changed when the security forces began killing large numbers of Boko Haram leaders and members.
By late 2020 37 SARS policemen were expelled from the national police and 24 of them were prosecuted. Many doubt that SARS will stay disbanded. SARS was created in 1992 to go after those responsible for the more outrageous forms of robbery, kidnapping and abuse of power in general. SARS was given wide powers to investigate and arrest suspects. Like the rest of the national police, SARS soon went bad and became notorious for extortion, false arrest, kidnapping and so on. SARS has already been “purged” and “reformed” many times but the current uproar was generated by a current scandal that triggered renewed interest in the many past SARS transgressions that were captured by cellphone photos and videos. While the nationwide demonstrations focused on SARS it was also about the similar depravity and corruption found throughout the security forces (police and military). Decades of popular protests have called for needed reforms. Politicians promise reforms but those reforms never happen. The popular attitude is that the government will allow the police to quietly reconstitute SARS, probably under a different name.
SARS is but one small part of the 360,000 strong national police, which is itself larger than the 310,000 strong armed forces. SARS, and similar specialist units, were formed since the 1990s to create less corrupt specialist police who would be more reliable in dealing with specific problems. These specialist units were supposed to be monitored more closely to keep the corruption in check. Since there were SARS detachments in each of the states, there were differences and in some states the SARS unit was less corrupt than other SARS units as well as the police as a whole. It’s the violently corrupt SARS units that get the most attention. Such bad behavior is common throughout the national police and several major reform efforts over the last three decades have failed to solve the problem. In part this is because corruption is so pervasive and entrenched throughout Nigeria, especially among politicians and government employees.
April 26, 2021: In the north a coalition of 52 political and religious groups called on all Nigerians to support independence for the Igbo people in the south. This group was doing what has long been forbidden, openly partitioning Nigeria. In the southeast (Imo, Enugu and Anambra states) Igbo separatists are organizing armed militias and threatening to expel Moslems recently arrived from the north, by force if necessary. This is another escalation in Igbo efforts to gain autonomy, if not a separate state. This movement has been around for over half a century and is commemorated every May 30th by a growing number of Igbos who have not forgotten the 1967 war for Igbo independence. This is all about reminding the Nigerian government that the Igbo are still a force to reckon with. Biafra Day is increasingly visible, especially in in urban areas and major cities in the region like Port Harcourt. IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) is the main organizer of public, and sometimes violent, demonstrations in support of Biafra.
The Biafra separatist rebellion in the south is not only returned but is also resisting suppression. During 2017 there were several hundred arrests related to the Biafra demonstrations and other pro-independence activity. That simply made Igbos angrier. For 2018 police were ordered to deal with the protests and unrest carefully and avoid bloodshed. Someone in government apparently remembers that the original 1967 rebellion began because in 1966 over 40,000 Igbo in the north were murdered by Fulani groups after a much smaller number of Moslems were killed. The subsequent Biafra rebellion did not end until 1970 and left more than a million Igbo dead. Yet the Igbo remain a major force in Nigeria, comprising nearly a fifth of the population and dominating even more of the economy. This is particularly resented in the Moslem north, where the Igbo returned in greater numbers since 1970 and are now a key part of the northern economy and, as Christians, a favorite target of Boko Haram.
Partly in response to the Boko Haram violence the Igbo separatist movement was revived in 2015 and at first the government ordered police to crack down. By 2016 nearly 200 Igbo had been killed by police attacks on demonstrators and anyone suspected of separatist activity. The violent response was obviously making it worse and after 2018 a gentler approach was tried.
The pro-Biafra separatists have been around and increasingly active since the 1990s. Back in the 1960s the Igbo (or Ibo) people of southeastern Nigeria considered establishing a separate Igbo state called Biafra. A brutal war followed before the separatist movement was crushed and the Igbo were warned not to try it again. Separatist attitudes were silenced but not extinguished. Pro-Biafra groups began to appear again in the late 1990s, trying to revive the separatist movement. Since then, over a thousand separatists have been killed, and many more imprisoned, while the government continues to insist that Biafra is gone forever. But as details of the extent of government corruption during the last few decades came out, Biafra again seemed like something worth fighting for. Senior government officials, including president Buhari, are paying attention and seeking to work out a compromise with the Igbos. The Fulani are less amenable to any compromise, especially since the Fulani are Moslem and consider themselves defenders of Islam against non-believers like the Christian Igbo.
In response IPOB has formed an armed security component, the ESN (Eastern Security Network), to defend Igbos in Imo State from Fulani and government violence. The government has responded by sending a battalion of infantry to an area thought to be a base for ESN members. This was unpopular with the locals as Nigerian soldiers are notorious for their violent behavior. These troops had been ordered to behave but that proved difficult for them to so in the face of Igbo contempt and hostility.
April 25, 2021:
In the south (Rivers state in the Niger River Delta) unidentified gunmen carried out two attacks on checkpoints, leaving eight soldiers and policemen dead. Over the last few years Rivers state has become the base area for criminal gangs the raid ships offshore, carrying away portable valuables and kidnapping foreigners, usually officers, for ransom. On land the gangs seek to kidnap foreign oil workers. This sort of thing has become common throughout the Niger River Delta oil producing region. Toe days later the state governor the governor declared a night time curfew at state border crossings to the adjacent states of Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Imo. This is in response to attacks on security personnel two days ago by gunmen believed to be from adjacent states.