Nigeria Is Caught Between Military Abuses and Islamist Rebels

Is the country turning into a failed state?

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Nigerian Army soldiers stand as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna on January 17, 2013. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

A month after President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency on northern Nigeria, the first eyewitness accounts are only now emerging about the Nigerian military's brutality. The state of emergency, accompanied by a troop surge, is the centerpiece of a government effort to quash Boko Haram, the northern based Islamist insurgency. Accompanying this offensive is a cell phone and media blackout. Humanitarian organizations have been denied access to areas of military operation and local politicians have largely fled in fear. Government spokesmen claim unverified success after success, especially in border areas adjoining Niger and Cameroon, where the military is arresting Boko Haram members.

Nevertheless, witnesses are now reporting massive civilian casualties as people are caught between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. On May 31, Al Jazeera reported unverified accounts that far more civilians, including women and children, have been killed than Boko Haram members. The Nigerian government denied this report. Then on June 6, the New York Times, interviewing Nigerian refugees who fled to neighboring Niger, reported a general climate of terror, including stories of young men being rounded up, disappearances in the night, and indiscriminate killing.

These accounts come on the heels of a massive assault on the northern town of Baga by the Multi National Joint Task Force, which includes Chadian, Nigerien, and Nigerian troops and is headquartered in the town. The assault left over 200 people dead and nearly a third of the town scorched. The Nigerian government attempted to downplay the deadly extent of this operation, but numerous eye witnesses and satellite images contradicted government accounts. There are credible rumours that the destruction began as revenge for a murdered soldier.

Growing concerns about Islamist terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa have made Nigeria a priority for the Obama administration. But persistent security service human rights abuses are likely what kept President Obama from including Nigeria on his June Africa trip. In an apparent effort to balance U.S. equities, Secretary of State John Kerry, in a public statement, has denounced both "Boko Haram" terrorism and security service abuses.

Some Nigerians fear that their country is on the road to becoming another Afghanistan. The state has already clearly failed in the northeastern part of the country where security services have been unable to contain Boko Haram's destructive presence. But confidence in government in its current form is eroding nearly everywhere outside of President Jonathan's core ethnic and regional constituency in the south.

In the Niger Delta, Nigeria's oil producing region, production is down to about 1.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, not the 2.2 million often cited by the government. Oil continues to provide more than 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange and about 80 percent of the government's revenue, which is then distributed to federal, state, and local government. Access to oil revenues remains a highly divisive debate in Nigerian politics.

In the central part of the country, where ethnic and religious boundaries coincide, the government has also been unable to tackle the rising communal violence. The Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker finds that in the last two years, nearly 2,400 people have been killed. This bloodshed is largely ignored by the Western media, in part because they have only an ephemeral presence in the region. In the south, there is credible evidence that wealthy Christians are forming and funding militias parallel to the Islamic militias in the north in a tit-for-tat pattern recalling Lebanon. While this is a powder keg in the making, thus far religious revenge killings have been few in the southern half of the country.

In Lagos, the heart of Nigeria's non-oil economy, the seventeen million plus population is increasingly terrified by a wave of kidnappings-for-profit that the local authorities are powerless to stop. That Lagos continues to boom (and has surpassed Kenya's national GDP) is an indication that state failure in Nigeria will look different from that in Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- or Afghanistan, where deterioration was coupled with economic distress.

The country is entering a new political season, with national and presidential elections to take place in late 2014, with the presidential inauguration in May 2015. But, politicking is focused on personal and patronage rivalries with little or no attention to the country's challenges and no accountability to the Nigerian people. No new generation of political leaders has emerged to change the dynamics. The 2011 pattern of appeals to ethnic and religious identities is about to be repeated with the potential resumption of the killings that followed those elections, themselves the worst since the 1967-70 civil war. There is an effort to establish a new, genuine opposition party by long-established political figures now alienated from the Jonathan administration. But the smart money is on the president's re-election because of the power of the incumbency and his access to oil revenue. In face of this chaotic violence in all areas, formal politics recalls the rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.