Leena Koni Hoffmann
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Last week, fierce fighting between security forces and suspected insurgents in Borno State's Baga village killed an estimated 185 people, possibly more. This was not the first clash between security forces and suspected insurgents in Nigeria that has led to civilian casualties, but it ranks among the deadliest battles seen in the country's North East since the Boko Haram uprising began three years ago. It is part of a spiralling security crisis in Nigeria; a national quagmire that is arguably the most precarious since the country’s civil war which ended in 1970. 

Nigeria's stability is crucial for the West Africa region. With a population of about 160 million and 60 per cent resident in the northern half, none of Nigeria's neighbours have the capacity to absorb the numbers of people that could be displaced in the event of a full-scale humanitarian disaster following mass violence.

Nigeria's considerable security provision of $5.8 billion in last year's budget does not seem to have brought the country out of the current crisis. There is a growing perception in Nigeria that the federal government, in charge of the police and armed forces, is losing the capacity to safeguard the lives and property of its citizens.

If President Goodluck Jonathan decides to run in the country's elections in 2015, his record on handling the security crisis will be central to the level of support he will receive.

The president's attempts at engaging Boko Haram in amnesty talks is a sign that he is aware of the need for a change in strategy. But the withdrawal of some members from the amnesty committee, even before its inauguration, is a discouraging sign for the president and might also reflect the fact that Nigeria’s security challenges have more to do with a lack of justice than a need for amnesty.

Boko Haram's rejection of the idea shows that the group does not believe it has exhausted all its options. The deployment of rocket-propelled grenades and other types of military-grade artillery by the insurgents in the recent clash is a worrying sign of the growing capacity and sophistication of Boko Haram.

Domestic concerns

Despite the camouflage of extreme rhetoric and menacing imagery, the agendas of Nigerian extremist groups, when stripped back, are rooted in political causes and in many cases are financially motivated. Within a short space of time, Boko Haram has become adept at thinking globally — because of the immediate attention and fear that religious terrorism generates — but still acting locally. The set of demands and ultimatums issued by Boko Haram to the Nigerian government demonstrate that its anti-establishment sentiments have less to do with national or global jihadist aspirations and more about narrow, locally rooted issues. 

There is a danger that the power of extremism in northern Nigeria and the estimated numbers of young men conditioned to fight and die for a spiritual cause is overstated. Across the Muslim community in northern Nigeria, the idea of a global jihad against a distant, ominous enemy in the West — being pedaled by Ansaru, a more recently formed militant Islamist group — is a hard sell. For northern communities problems related to the decline in commercial activity, decaying infrastructure, corruption and poverty are greater and more immediate, albeit less sensational than threats issued by Boko Haram.

Governed by impunity

A committee to investigate the adherence of the multinational force comprising of troops from Nigeria, Niger and Chad to the rules of engagement during the confrontation in Baga village, has been received with some cynicism. Previous inquiry efforts have not resulted in prosecutions or penalties. The pervasive nature of impunity in Nigeria is at the centre of the country’s security challenges, which could be attenuated by a more determined follow-through by the Jonathan administration. 

Problems of militancy, whether hinged on resource control or Islamic extremism, are unlikely to be permanently resolved through a simple agreement to lay down arms. The opportunism that invariably catches up with political or religious militancy means that groups can easily have a second or third life.

In a fragile and fragmented north, the Nigerian government has to channel its resources into preventive strategies — beyond putting soldiers with guns on the streets — that can shield tense areas from being caught up in the forest-fire of factional violence. Jonathan must be seen to be doing more than talking tough about the need for accountability in government. The pardoning of a former governor convicted of embezzling money from his state's account does not help the president’s campaign for zero-tolerance of corruption or his standing in the next elections. 

Rethinking security

There are important opportunities being missed by the incumbent administration. Its security strategy must be all encompassing and include the implementation of agricultural reform — critical to the north — and extend the availability of electricity which would jumpstart the pace of structural transformation in these areas and boost living standards.

Domestic security and its associated socio-economic factors will take centre stage in the next elections. Ahead of 2015, aspiring presidential candidates in every political party will have to present a clear plan on how they will do things differently. With a significant election in view there is a real risk of further politicization and aggravation of security threats. The onus is on the Jonathan administration to shore up public trust and credibility by delivering on Nigerians' immediate expectations of justice and ending impunity.

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Research on Nigeria.