“Can our president keep us safe when we travel to any part of this country?” Muhammadu Buhari said in 2015, months before the former military dictator won the Nigerian presidency in a wave of massive anger over jihadist violence and corruption. “Is your life better today than it was six years ago?”
Midway through his second term, he is asked the same questions. As the insurgency in the Northeast has persisted and grown in recent years, security crises have proliferated across the country. Criticism of his administration has increased, including from within his own party.
When the former military general came to power, many accepted his promise to end the violence in northeastern Nigeria. Yet despite many claims to have defeated Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency led by other groups remains a daily reality there, with no end in sight after 12 years of conflict.
The likely death or exile of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and many of his fighters at the hands of the rival terror group Islamic State West African Province (Iswap) has further complicated and deepened the crisis in the region. Iswap, which is aligned with Isis, appears to be on the rise in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
Although significant progress was made to undo control of Boko Haram early in Buhari’s first term, it has gradually eroded according to Audu Bulama Bukarti, a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
“Buhari started working when he took office,” he said. “We saw Boko Haram being rejected from occupying a region the size of Belgium. They were significantly dismantled and evicted. The mistake the Buhari administration made was to interpret ‘dismantle and evict’ Boko Haram as meaning ‘defeat’ Boko Haram. “
Flaws in military strategy allowed the jihadists to rally, he said, with Iswap aligned with Isis now as the dominant and most potent challenge for Nigerian authorities.
The shortcomings of the Nigerian army and security forces are becoming increasingly apparent. When Buhari ran for office in 2015, there were widespread accusations that corruption was leaving Nigerian soldiers with less powerful weapons than jihadists.
“Boko Haram would come by the hundreds and with weapons much more powerful than the Nigerian army. Soldiers reported how they would stop [firing] after every minute or so because the weapons would get too hot. And these were weapons that were bought in the 1970s, ”said Bukarti, who in 2014 defended 13 soldiers in court after they were accused of not fighting the jihadists. “Very little has changed since 2014.”
In recent years, despite huge spending on military acquisitions, similar allegations have resurfaced. In a viral video last year, a Nigerian commander fighting in the northeast lamented the lack of ammunition delivered to his soldiers. “It seems that the people we fight have more firepower than we do,” he said. He was fired after an investigation.
Meanwhile, as Nigeria’s military and police seem increasingly stuffy, ill-equipped and mismanaged, the security threats facing Africa’s most populous country have increased.
Attacks by bandit groups against rural communities in northwestern and central Nigeria have claimed thousands of lives. More than 1,100 people died in the first half of 2020, according to Amnesty International, with more than 300 deaths in April alone.
Bandit gangs existed long before Buhari took office. But militants have exploited the security vacuum in rural areas, giving them an opportunity to launch mass killings, robberies and kidnappings in their forest enclaves.
The new alliances between the different groups have added to the fear that the crisis in northwestern Nigeria is deteriorating. Many residents lament how openly the attackers act: they are often known by the communities they attack and by the government officials who have granted them amnesties and settlements.
Ransom kidnapping, especially targeting schools and interstate transportation links, has caused commotion across the country. There have been at least six mass kidnappings of schoolchildren and university students in the last six months.
With Nigeria’s economy reeling from two recessions in five years and the economic effects of the pandemic, kidnappings for ransom have become more common. In many cases, families say that the police know where the assailants are keeping their abducted relatives, but are afraid or reluctant to pursue them.
Compounding these problems is the rise of a pro-Biafra secessionist militancy in southeastern Nigeria, with attacks on police and government agencies. Police blame the Eastern Security Network, a military wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), the dominant pro-Biafra group in southeastern Nigeria.
In the years since 2015, southeastern Nigeria has seen the sharpest resurgence of secessionist sentiment since the 1967-70 Biafra war, when millions died in one of the darkest chapters in Nigerian history.
Controversial new crackdowns on mass protests and operations against pro-Biafra groups have added to the tension.
“It is not necessary to be an expert in the southeast to notice that what we are seeing [with pro-Biafran groups] It resembles the beginning of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, ”said Bukarti. “These armed groups are launching strategic and calculated attacks against security agencies and civil authorities.”
With the next presidential election two years away, insecurity appears to be an even more potent issue than it was when Buhari came to power. The elder leader now has a remote figure, issuing promises to end bloodshed and bring justice to criminals, but is rarely compromised in any meaningful way. The crises, meanwhile, continue.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism