Government corruption, gangs, and terrorism are among the challenges facing Nigeria and threatening its stability.
After decades of dictatorships, Nigeria saw its fourth ever democratically elected president take office one year ago. Today, the country’s nascent democracy is being tested by rampant crime, a disaffected public, and an unprecedented campaign of terror.
In the south, civil unrest threatens safety and stability. To the east, gangs who kidnap expatriates for ransom lie in wait on the roads, in bars, and in town centers. And to the north, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram is growing in both organization and brutality. The group has issued brazen challenges to the government and the ultimatum “leave or die” to Christians and those living in the northern region but belonging to ethnic or religious groups from the south. Confidence that the government can protect the people is at an all-time low.
For the last two years, Nigeria was categorized as the 14th worst state out of 177 countries ranked by multiple factors in the Fund for Peace (FFP) Failed State Index. “The 2011 elections exacerbated north-south religious and ethnic tensions, leaving the state vulnerable to further internal conflict,” notes a 2011 FFP country profile for Nigeria.
“The security situation there is very fluid right now,” says Jay Radzinski, intelligence manager at Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm.
Violence between the Christian and Muslim communities is not new. It has in the past resulted in the death and displacement of thousands in the Middle Belt region, Radzinski says. But it is currently more widespread with the resurgence of Boko Haram—the number one threat to stability in Nigeria right now. According to the BBC, “Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it ‘haram,’ or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. Recently, the group has resurged, staging more wide scale and sophisticated attacks.
Boko Haram first emerged in the early 2000s. It attacked government buildings and churches, making demands that the country reject any notion of Western culture. The Nigerian government fought back, killing hundreds of the sect’s members and, eventually, the head of the group.
That was thought to be the end of the Boko Haram threat. But its recent activities have shown that the group was only dormant, and rebuilding its capabilities so that it could return. Its bombings are now expected occurrences.
“Literally the concern in the north is when the next explosion is going to go off,” says Matthew Leonard, of Adatin Restore , a security consulting and VIP security firm based in Lagos. Leonard says the bombings have led to high demand for advanced bomb detection equipment, which was previously deployed only in a few high-risk embassies, like those of the American and British governments.
The United Nations says Boko Haram’s links to al Qaeda are a concern. One indication of that link is that the same tribes appear to supply both groups.
Boko Haram’s reemergence comes amid great civil disenchantment with the current government of President Goodluck Jonathan and as the country’s fragile democracy struggles to develop. After the government canceled subsidies on oil in January, gas prices skyrocketed, causing workers across the country to strike in protest. Workers refused to work until the subsidies were reinstated. The strike ended on January 16, after Jonathan agreed to cut fuel prices by one third. Four days later, Boko Haram bombed several government buildings. In the attacks, 185 people died, according to reports from African media agencies.
On January 25, five days after Boko Haram’s assault, Jonathan dismissed the country’s police chief and all of his deputies, blaming the police for failing to cap the violence. In addition, security forces raided known Boko Haram hideouts. But recent statements by Ade Adefuye, Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, have downplayed the threat and spread of Boko Haram in an effort to attract investors.
The Action Congress of Nigeria, one of Nigeria’s leading political parties, has been quoted as saying that the new government is clueless on how to tackle Boko Haram, calling it an irony that the government deployed troops to quell protests by unarmed citizens during the oil protests but “could not checkmate those who are posing a real threat to national security, leaving them to run amok.”
While that could be dismissed as political squabbling from the opposition, government security forces have sometimes reportedly avoided areas they know Boko Haram to be operating in for fear of confronting the group, despite the recent show of raiding hideouts. That has given the group nearly unfettered mobility throughout the country’s Muslim northern states, says Radzinski.
Both security companies and government agencies were caught off guard by the recent uptick in the level of violence, says Oyediran Babawale, a military veteran and security officer at Jagal Group, a Nigerian fuel company.
Companies need to employ more security professionals, and they should increase intelligence gathering, says Babawale. He also suggests more coordination between the government’s security agents and private security in fighting Boko Haram.
Although there is already some collaboration and information sharing between private security companies and government agencies in Nigeria, private security companies often feel like their hands are tied because it’s difficult to protect clients without arousing government suspicion themselves.
For example, says Leonard, if a private company uses dogs to detect explosives, the government may become suspicious “because the authorities might raise an eyebrow to how a private security company came by the funds for the sniffers as well as training for the handlers.” However, he says, “if any private security company can convince the authorities of the funding and training, there should be no problem.”
Also, the Nigerian government needs to learn the terrorism-fighting lessons from 9-11. For example, they need to use intelligence to find and stop improvised explosive device (IED) attacks while plans are still aspirational, well before the IED is built, says Max Security intelligence Director Dor Raveh.
“[T]o stop a terror cell from developing and launching attacks, you need to go undercover and gather that information. That is the challenge for the Nigerian government at the moment,” Raveh adds.
One problem is that security expertise is limited in a country where this level of terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon, Leonard says. And training and resources for building that type of intelligence gathering capability is lacking.
Another problem was highlighted by Jonathan in a January 9 address. He noted that part of the difficulty in defeating Boko Haram is that the group has infiltrated both the government and the military. Another problem may be corruption. Close to 95 percent of the populace believe their government is corrupt, according to a Gallup survey released in January.
The U.S.-Nigeria Bi-National Commission, a working group focused on strengthening Nigeria’s security, met at the end of January to discuss strategy. The United States has also pledged support in locating members of Boko Haram.
But it is hard to tell to what degree the government will accept that help. Among the comments made publicly by Ambassador Adefuye is that not all recent threats from Boko Haram have actually been Boko Haram. He has said that criminal groups have begun to commit acts of violence using the name. Moreover, he has said, “I want to assure you that our security services are very well equipped and are of sufficient competence to deal [with] and contain the dangers posed by Boko Haram.”
Will the combination of a fragile government, continued civil unrest, and existing militias, combined with a stronger, more determined Boko Haram be the factor that tips Nigeria into destabilization? Experts say it’s still too early to tell what the long-term effects of Nigeria’s mix of threats might be.
Raveh doesn’t see Nigeria collapsing in the near future. “Nigeria is a fairly strong country,” but if the situation goes unchecked, the potential for destabilization could rise, he says.