Armed violence, distrust and politicization of ethnic identity have eroded the fabric of the Nigerian state since independence in 1960. The challenge is how to make ‘unity in diversity’ not only meaningful but also workable. Extremist groups have been able to tap into grievances over widespread poverty, and ethnic and religious divides, to assert their ideology.
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By Michael Olufemi Sodipo
Recent attacks by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria are perhaps the deadliest in the insurgent group’s history. Dozens of villages and towns, and the military base of a multinational force deployed to fight them, are now under the control of Boko Haram.
At the beginning of January, rampaging insurgents stormed Baga and 16 other towns leaving behind a trail of sorrow, tears and blood. Hundreds of people were massacred and over 35,000 people displaced. Many drowned in Lake Chad while escaping the Boko Haram onslaught. The insurgents abducted women and young people, and destroyed property worth millions of Naira. During this same period, Boko Haram carried out several coordinated suicide missions, deploying teenage girls to carry out the attacks.
The spate of recent deadly attacks by Boko Haram comes at a time of political uncertainty and tension in Nigeria. General elections due in February have been postponed due to the security challenges in northeast. Unhealthy rivalry, political realignments and violent electioneering campaigns by political parties are adding to existing tensions. It is imperative that the forthcoming election is free, fair, credible and non-violent.
The insurgency in northern Nigeria is a security concern not just for Nigeria but for the broader Sub-Saharan region and the international community. Nigeria’s strategic importance in Africa cannot be underestimated. With a population of over 160 million, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and home to the continent’s largest economy.
Unless Nigeria and its partners can address the growing radicalization of Nigeria’s youth and the festering ethnic and religious tensions, many poor and marginalized Nigerians will continue to gravitate toward extremist groups, turning the country into a hub of insecurity. This, in turn, has security and economic implications for the wider region.
The rise of Boko Haram
Meanwhile the military’s efforts at countering armed violence have been continually undercut by low troop morale, sabotage by Boko Haram sympathizers, and alleged human rights abuses by the security forces which alienate local support.
Civil society response
Civil society in Nigeria has been vocal in response to the insecurity and insurgency. There is an abundance of activities to increase community engagement, social healing, and a culture of peace in Nigeria. Among the many examples:
- The Bring Back Our Girls Movement is a diverse group of citizens advocating for the search and rescue of the 200 girls abducted in April 2014 and for a rapid containment and quelling of insurgency in Nigeria.
- The Voice and Accountability Platform organises awareness campaigns and town hall meetings with emphasis on non-violence and the need to strengthen good governance and democracy.
- A group of Nigerian organisations have petitioned the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution regarding the deteriorating humanitarian situations and mass atrocities committed by Boko Haram.
More than military might
Addressing the challenges of radicalization in northern Nigeria requires measures that transcend simply crushing Boko Haram and other radical groups through military means. Redressing insurgency in Nigeria will require interventions at every stage, from the measured use of force, to proactive development investments to alleviate social and economic grievances, and countering extremist ideologies:
- Intelligence-driven operations and continuous engagement of local community are key to solving the prevailing security challenges. These would include dealing with extremist training locations, sources of funding and the presence of foreign fighters.
- Demonstrable commitments to drastic reduction of poverty and fuller enrolment in public education are crucial strategic steps for eliminating violent radicalism. Citizens need to be empowered to acquire the basic education and vocational skills that will prepare them to be functional members of society and participate actively. Government and local civil society organisations have critical roles to play in this.
- The authorities need to provide more space for moderate Muslims in northern Nigeria the protection from being silenced. Government and civil society groups should encourage and facilitate public discourse and transformative dialogue between Muslims, Christians and the security forces operatives to foster interfaith harmony and development.
- Government should address other factors that have created a fertile ground for violent extremism in Nigeria, such as endemic government corruption and impunity.
In these ways, the Nigerian government can address the underlying causes of ongoing ethnic and religious tensions.
Michael Olufemi Sodipo is Insight on Conflict’s Local Correspondent for Nigeria. He also works as Project Coordinator for the Peace Initiative Network, a Nigerian peacebuilding organisation.
This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.