LAGOS, Nigeria — On all sides, Nigeria is buffeted by crisis.
A series of mass abductions — most recently on May 30, when 136 schoolchildren were carried off by gunmen — have swept the country’s north-central and northwest regions: Since December, more than 800 students have been kidnapped. States in the southeast and southwest, meanwhile, have witnessed the rise of separatist militias, as conflicts between farmers and pastoralists have grown ever more deadly. And Boko Haram and its rival factions continue to terrorize the country’s northeast.
Each of these issues is longstanding, with roots going back years if not decades. But they have come together to create a gathering sense of crisis — for which President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 2015 on the promise to restore the country’s security, has been roundly blamed. On social media, posts lambasting the president are rife. Civil society groups and prominent public figures have called on Mr. Buhari to resign. Others have gone even further, calling for a handover of power to the military.
But such critics are likely to be disappointed. Despite the spiraling security crisis, Mr. Buhari has been largely insulated from political backlash. His influence within the ruling All Progressives Congress party, which dominates both houses of Nigeria’s parliament and most state governorships, remains steady. And for those who covet his nomination in next year’s presidential election primaries, he is beyond rebuke. There is no serious challenge to his rule.
For the country — bearing the legacies of civil war, communal violence and military dictatorship — that could be calamitous. In the absence of a viable political alternative, the violent division in Nigeria could spill over into disaster, with damaging consequences for both the region and the African continent.
Mr. Buhari, for his part, clearly has no answers to the problems that engulf the country. Initially befuddled, he shifted responsibility away from his administration, instead vaguely blaming governors for failing to secure their states and calling on the United States to relocate its military headquarters overseeing Africa from Germany to the continent. In the past week, he became belligerent, posting on Twitter to threaten separatists with violence. After the tweet was removed by the company and the president’s account briefly frozen, Mr. Buhari’s government suspended Twitter altogether, succumbing to the same authoritarian instincts he displayed in the brutal suppression of protests last October.
It’s a bad moment to play the tyrant. The confrontations in the countryside between farmers and herders, aggravated by climate change and the economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, have intensified. Falling along historical lines of ethnic and religious division — Muslim Fulani make up the majority of Nigeria’s herding communities while most farmers are Christians of various ethnicities — the conflicts are especially damaging for the country’s social cohesion. Clashes in February between Yoruba and Hausa communities in the southwestern city of Ibadan, in part set off by rising tensions in the countryside, resulted in the deaths of about a dozen people.
In this atmosphere of fragmentation, ethnonationalist militia movements, led by regionally dominant ethnic groups calling for secession, are on the rise. In the southwest, proponents of the Oduduwa republic have called for the founding of a Yoruba nation. In the southeast, a proscribed separatist group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra, founded in 2012, has revived demands for the state of Biafra, the breakaway republic defeated in the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70.
In response to that group’s operations, which include a security force known as the Eastern Security Network, the police recently launched a new operation in the southeastern states, with the military reportedly planning to deploy helicopters and other aircraft to beat back the separatist movement. After months of secessionist attacks on police stations and military personnel, answered in turn by heavy-handed reprisals, parts of the region are slipping out of control.
In May, the leaders of 17 southern states, in an effort to contain the crisis, called for a national dialogue with the federal government — as well as a ban on open grazing and the movement of cattle by foot. But governors and parliamentarians in Mr. Buhari’s party have stopped short of openly breaking ranks with the administration, content to lament the security situation rhetorically while avoiding direct criticism of the president. Among them, talk of possible political moves — impeachment, even — is inaudible.
As for the spate of kidnappings, there seems to be no remedy at hand. In the face of historically high rates of food inflation and diminishing prospects for formal employment, kidnapping for ransom has become an increasingly attractive career path, with ransom payments ranging from hundreds of U.S. dollars to six-figure sums for high-profile victims. Aside from refusing to pay ransoms and arresting a handful of kingpins, responses at the national and state levels have been almost nonexistent.
The government’s efforts to quell the Boko Haram insurgency, likewise, have been far from effective. A much-touted replacement of Nigeria’s top military officials in January has failed to regain the initiative. The military’s “super camps” strategy, which entails retreating to garrison towns and waiting to repel Boko Haram attacks, remains unchanged. Even the alleged killing of Boko Haram’s leader, Ibrahim Shekau, can’t be notched up as an achievement. Reports suggest Mr. Shekau was killed during an attack by a rival insurgent group rather than the security forces.
Yet the attention of the Buhari administration is elsewhere. Rather than seeking lasting remedies to the various causes of insecurity — among them the corrupt use of army funds, the poor human rights record of the security forces, the proliferation of weapons, the lingering trauma of previous conflicts and growing material impoverishment — the government is instead evading responsibility, asking citizens to “rise to the challenge of the moment” to defend themselves.
That’s bad enough. But Mr. Buhari’s veiled threats and his suspension of Twitter suggests incompetence could become malevolence, and the future very dark. In a country of the size and significance of Nigeria — the most populous on the African continent and its biggest economy — any dramatic disarray would ramify far beyond its borders, with potentially ruinous effects.
Right now, in large stretches of the country itself, violence reigns — with no end in sight.
Sa’eed Husaini (@SaeeduH) is an analyst and researcher at the University of Lagos who has written extensively about Nigeria’s politics, history and society.
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