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Nigeria on high alert as Boko Haram approaches Abuja

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Wednesday, 28 April 2021 17:32, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:51

Nigerian soldiers in Kankara, Nigeria, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 . (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari rode into power as an army general on a wave of goodwill after promising to fight insecurity, particularly the Boko Haram insurgency that has ruined lives in northeastern Nigeria. But after six years in office, the president now faces a bigger challenge as the insurgents are gradually spreading to other parts of the country, including Niger State which neighbours the seat of power.

In Shiroro LGA of Niger State, where Aisha Abdullah has lived all her life, much of what she can remember as a child was that her family home was on the outskirts and surrounded with mountains and forests. Now, at age 23, Abdullahi, like other residents, are still in shock over the news that Boko Haram terrorists have camped in the state, using those very mountains and forests as their hideouts.

Boko Haram terrorists will surely take advantage of the land mass in Niger, establishing units across those forests.

Governor Abubakar Bello broke the news on Monday 26 April, a day after Boko Haram insurgents killed more than 30 soldiers when they attacked a military base in Mainok, Borno State.

“Boko Haram elements are here in Niger State; here in Kaure. I am confirming that they have hoisted their flags here,” Bello said, adding that women from affected villages were captured and “forcefully attached to Boko Haram members.”

Boko Haram in Niger State means ‘even Abuja is not safe’

With Nigeria’s seat of power located just two hours from Niger state, Bello warned that “even Abuja is not safe” if care is not taken to flush out the insurgents who had made Nigeria the third most terrorised country in the world for six years running, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

A day after Bello’s revelation, federal lawmakers and other authorities scurried off to seek ways of managing the situation:

  • The Senate summoned security chiefs and asked its leadership to meet with President Buhari;
  • The House of Representatives said national infrastructures in Niger State must be protected at all costs;
  • The president met with top officials including Governor Babagana of Borno.

The Nigerian army, through its spokesperson Brigadier General Mohammed Yerima, said in an interview that although the matter is still an internal security issue in the hands of the police, it is ready to “help when we are asked to.”

It won’t be that simple, suspect some analysts. “No military or law enforcement approach, even in the most sophisticated of societies, resolves political differences, especially of violent sectarian kind, when consistently fed by ancient suspicion and mistrust”, says Saleh Bala, a retired army general and CEO of White Ink Consult, an Abuja-based defence and security consultancy firm.

There is also a major concern that the insurgents can easily move about Niger, considered to be Nigeria’s biggest state with a landmass of 76,300 square-km — more than double the size of the five states in the southeast.

“Boko Haram terrorists will surely take advantage of the land mass in Niger, establishing units across those forests,” says Taiwo Oludare, a security expert who pays particular attention to the northeast.

This is also not the first time the insurgents are closing in on Abuja. In January 2021, Governor Abdulahi Sule of Nasarawa state warned Buhari  about “a team of Boko Haram [insurgents] who had settled at the border with the FCT.”

How did we get to this point?

The Boko Haram emergence in Niger state is just the latest of the many “existential threats facing Nigeria. According to Bala the country is battling a “serious criminal armed violence, promoted and exacerbated by general mistrust and apathy towards the ruling class.”

Underneath the rush in Abuja to manage this latest threat lies a chronic problem that has hindered Nigeria’s security agencies — particularly the police — from efficiently protecting residents: the failure to introduce far-reaching security and economic reforms.

Joachim MacEbong, Senior Analyst at the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence firm, says Nigeria has failed on three fronts regarding security: personnel welfare and training, weapons and number.

“We don’t have anywhere near the required number of policemen to secure the country. Secondly, Nigeria needs genuine security reforms that improve the training, welfare and weaponry available to the police in order to do its duty efficiently,” he says.

However, contrary to MacEbong’s argument, and the claim of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who said on Tuesday 27 April that “policing is very difficult” because Nigeria “is a big country,” some believe Nigeria is over-policed but under-secured, with too many police officers providing so little security.

There is no recent official data on the number of police personnel Nigeria has, and the security agency could not provide any when contacted by The Africa Report. However, the country reportedly has about 370,000 police officers.

That puts its police to citizen ratio at 1 to 540; slightly below the UN recommended ratio of 1 to 450. Unfortunately, nearly half of the available officers protect VIPs and unauthorised persons, leaving the other half to protect about 200 million citizens who often react to crimes rather than prevent them.

An overstretched army can’t help either

In February, a violent clash occurred in one community in the southern Imo State and, in the hours that followed, military trucks and helicopters were deployed to restore order. 

Although the Nigerian constitution only mandates the police to take charge of internal security with soldiers helping only when the need arises, the scene that played out in Orlu is a common practice in most states in Nigeria, from Delta to Benue and Rivers.

“The army is currently engaged in one operation or the other in nearly all states and, while it should not be so, we have normalised that because of the chaos that we have found ourselves in,” MacEbong says.

Both the Nigerian Army and Defence Headquarters did not respond to enquiries about the current number of ongoing military operations across Nigeria. But a recent list, compiled by Tolu Ogunlesi, special assistant to the President, puts the number at 15 – covering at least four states.

While a local newspaper reports that there have been 40 of such operations in the last five years.

“There is hardly any soldier you will meet that hasn’t been to Operation Lafiya Dole in the north-east, [Ed. note: the fight against Boko Haram has been on since 2009],” Oludare says.

“Many of them have overstayed, and they are tired. Now, imagine redeploying them to another operation in Niger? I think the military needs to conduct a massive recruitment and training.”

Nigerians are resorting to self-defence

Nigeria is said to have six million arms in the wrong hands, mostly illegally imported through the country’s porous borders. Moreover, election periods are usually characterised by a proliferation of arms in most parts of the country where elections are still synonymous with violence.

“The whole country is awash with small arms, and it is those small arms that are now in the hands of young people who are unemployed. We have seen cases where politicians bring in these small arms for one reason or the other,” MacEbong says.

But even with millions of illegal arms in circulation, there is an emerging trend where residents are acquiring more arms to defend themselves, especially in northern Nigeria where banditry and conflict between farmers and herdsmen have become a daily occurrence.

In Niger, for instance, Abdullahi, who now lives in Minna, the state capital, spoke of some communities in Shiroro LGA where residents now take up arms, anticipating for the worst-case scenario.

“Almost all of them are in possession of guns for self-defence and I just wonder how they intend to defend themselves against these insurgents,” she adds.

Even some of the elites also subscribe to self-defence. In 2020, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State asked the Nigerian government to consider granting gun licences to citizens who want to own one.

“Our security agencies … have not been able to stop, completely, the killings that are going on. The government should be able to license (residents to carry guns) so when those people (criminals) come, they can confront them because it is impossible to put policemen all over the place,” said the Governor.

Where will help come from?

Both Oludare and MacEbong agree that “the bandits are already working with the Boko Haram terrorists” and “there is strong circumstantial evidence that the people who are carrying out banditry in the north are actually former Boko Haram fighters who went over to the northwest and got involved in other criminal acts,” they say respectively.

With Abuja now within a stone-throw distance from Boko Haram, the opposition has been outspoken about how they are willing to assist — while also not ruling out the option of impeaching President Buhari, who has been heavily criticised over the situation even by his party members. 

Kingsley Chinda, who leads the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) caucus in the House of Representatives, says the opposition lawmakers are in full support of Buhari’s impeachment to save Nigeria from further crises.

“We have asked Nigerians, [to] ‘call on your leaders (in the house) to commence the impeachment process’. We as a caucus cannot do it alone because we don’t have the number,” he says, adding that “if anybody brings a motion for impeachment, we will support it because that is our position.”

For his part, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who contested the 2019 election with President Buhari, recommends a number of steps, including a constitutional arrangement that allows states to play “a much more defined role.”

Speaking through Paul Ibe, his spokesman, he adds that there must be a bipartisan approach “where you bring everybody on board.”

“Government must not be shy in asking for help far beyond their small enclosure of government. It can look outside, this is about Nigeria. If there is no security, it is a disincentive for investment and that means no jobs. When there are no jobs, the army of unemployed people who are likely to be hired for criminality will increase by the day,” he says.

Bottom line

While Bala admits that there are no immediate solutions to Nigeria’s security woes, he advocates for “clear good intentions which must be operationalised by the political, traditional and the intelligentsia across the nation to accept that Nigeria needs unity.”

“The sources of our problems are in our divisions, while the solution lies in the consolidation of the strength of our diversity. Politicians and social groups must tone down language of division, hate and all the acrid vitriol that has become the currency and settle of communication in Nigeria today,” he adds.

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