While Nigeria confronts the humanitarian fallout of the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency and simmering separatism in the South East, crucial reforms have been stalled. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 - Second Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to encourage the government to prioritise engagement with regional leaders and other stakeholders.
This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 - Second Update.
Nigeria is facing a time of uncertainty and peril. President Muhammadu Buhari's failing health - he has spent more than 110 days battling an undisclosed illness in the UK - is prompting intense manoeuvring regarding who will run for president in 2019, particularly among loyalists and others seeking to preserve Northern rule. The eight-year-old insurgency by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram persists.
An older problem, Biafra separatist agitation in the South East, is provoking dangerous domino effects in the north and Niger Delta, while deadly clashes between herders and farmers are escalating across the central belt and spreading southward. Defence chief, General Abayomi Olonishakin's recent comment that the military is battling at least fourteen challenges across the country underscores the widespread insecurity.
House of Representatives speaker, Yakubu Dogara, said Nigeria "is effectively permanently in a state of emergency". For the European Union (EU), which is already largely engaged in the Niger Delta and the North East, this means that it should also watch closely political, social and security developments in other regions in Nigeria, and work with other international actors to push for much needed reforms that will address these challenges.
President Buhari's Health Crisis
The president's health has deteriorated significantly, particularly since February 2017; government secrecy about his condition has only fuelled diverse speculation. Most observers doubt he can effectively complete his first term, scheduled to end in 2019. As constitutionally mandated, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is filling in, but several important government decisions and appointments are stalled, awaiting the president's attention.
More troubling, some of Buhari's Northern and Muslim loyalists are ill-disposed toward Osinbajo, from the South West and Christian. They fear that in 2019 Osinbajo might run for and win the presidency, as former President Goodluck Jonathan did following President Umaru Yar'adua's death in 2010. That would violate an informal understanding to rotate the two-term presidency between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, which has been in place since the return to multi-party democracy in 1999 as a way to address Nigeria's delicate ethnic-religious balance.
The agreement itself is in dispute, however, and those who argue it is unconstitutional, non-binding and divisive will encourage Osinbajo to run. The South East, where complaints of political marginalisation increasingly are stoking Biafra separatism, also is likely to make a stronger claim to the presidency. The influential Northern Elders Forum has declared that a Northerner must complete Buhari's second term, signalling a serious north-south power struggle in 2019.
Adding to these, army chief General Tukur Buratai's warning in May that troops should steer clear of politicians approaching them for "undisclosed political reasons" raises fears of military intervention.
To renew confidence and further reduce north-south suspicions, as well as ensure stable federal governance, the EU, along with member states most closely engaged with Nigeria, should:
Encourage transparency about the president's health as a matter of public accountability to dispel rumours of a Northern conspiracy to keep him in power even if incapacitated.
Send strong private or public messages to both military and regional political leaders, against unconstitutional actions, particularly military intervention.
Press all parties to abide by constitutional provisions, particularly to achieve a smooth transition if Buhari is unable to continue in office.
The Stubborn Boko Haram Insurgency
President Buhari's December 2016 declaration that the army had conquered Boko Haram's last stronghold raised hopes the conflict was ending. But, seven months on, the insurgency remains very much alive. Fighters continue to attack civilians and military targets with new ferocity. June's casualty rate - more than 80 - topped those for earlier months of the year. In April, there were indications that Boko Haram was establishing new forest camps in Borno and Taraba states, and setting up new cells in Kaduna, Kogi and Niger states. There are also indications that the military, which has units deployed in 28 of the 36 states, is overstretched and unable to provide troops with sufficient resources. Some exhausted troops are complaining of not being rotated. The rainy season could further hamper operations, enabling Boko Haram to regroup and rearm.
The conflict's humanitarian fallout is worsening: about 4.5 million people lack sufficient food.
The conflict's humanitarian fallout is worsening: about 4.5 million people lack sufficient food. On 8 June, the government launched a new food intervention plan for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri, but it remains impossible to reach many of the needy. Despite the February Oslo donor pledging conference, UN officials reported the US$1.05 billion Nigeria humanitarian response plan was only 37.8 per cent funded as of 7 July 2017.
Insecurity is also constraining aid efforts, as Boko Haram carried out 97 suicide and vehicle borne attacks between March and June 2017 according to Nigerian military authorities. The Borno state government's shelving of its earlier plan to close all IDP camps by 29 May underscored that large areas of the state are still unsafe. If aid efforts are not stepped up, expanded and sustained, Borno state in particular could slide deeper into humanitarian crisis.
The EU most recently announced a €143 million support package for early recovery and reconstruction, bringing its total support in Borno state alone to €224.5 million for 2017. Delivering this package requires safe access, but many humanitarian aid agencies complain that convoys are not effectively secured, exposing them to ambushes and abductions. To help improve confidence and guarantee safer space, the EU should:
Prod the government to intensify military and other security efforts to ensure safer humanitarian access.
Prioritise humanitarian assistance with operational presence, fast-track food assistance and cash-based transfers wherever feasible.
Biafra Agitation Sparking Dangerous Domino Effects
Deepening separatist agitation in the Igbo-dominated South East, spurred by perceived political and economic marginalisation, is producing dangerous ripple effects. A successful sit-at-home action called by agitators on 30 May - the 50th anniversary of the declaration of an independent Biafra - provoked sixteen northern youth groups to demand a week later that Igbos leave the north by 1 October.
This in turn prompted a call by a coalition of eight Niger Delta militant youth groups for all Northerners leave the delta by the same date. Although northern state governors disavowed the declarations while Acting President Osinbajo consulted with both northern and south-eastern leaders to defuse tensions, the youth groups have not withdrawn their demands. Should they seek to enforce them, or should mobs take matters into their own hands, there could be violence and large-scale population displacements.
Militants in the Niger Delta have not launched any major attacks on oil installations since the federal government engaged the region's ethnic and political leaders last November, pledging to revive infrastructure projects, clean up the polluted Ogoni environment and allow local communities to set up modular refineries.
Yet the region's situation remains fragile. Attacks against Igbos or other southerners in the north might lead some delta militants to target oil companies, either to pressure the federal and northern state governments to stop anti-Igbo violence, or to cover criminal activities.
The EU, especially its delegation in Abuja, and its member states should encourage the government to continue consultations with regional leaders and other stakeholders. In particular, it should:
Encourage the government to strengthen measures to protect citizens, working with the military, police but also community leaders and associations.
Engage with leaders of relevant south-eastern, northern and Niger Delta youth groups, and organise forums with the goal of halting inflammatory rhetoric, withdrawing quit orders and publicly denouncing violence.
Urge the National Assembly (federal parliament), presently divided over the 2014 National Conference Report and its recommendations, to commence deliberations on suggested federal reforms that could help prevent conflicts and curb separatist agitation.
The Herder-Farmer Tinderbox
Violent conflict between largely Muslim Fulani herders and ethnically diverse farmers in predominantly Christian areas has taken on tribal, religious and regional dimensions. Clashes across the central belt and spreading southward, are killing some 2,500 people a year. The conflict is now so deadly that many Nigerians fear it could become as dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency. Escalating internally, the conflict could also spread regionally: herders might seek to draw fighters from their kin in other West and Central African countries, as some Fulani leaders have warned. This in turn could undermine a fragile region already struggling to defeat the Boko Haram insurgents.
In the absence of a strong federal response, states have been devising their own policies, including bans on open grazing that are vehemently opposed by herders and cattle dealers. Because state governments do not control the police and other security agencies, community vigilantes might be mobilised to enforce these bans, which could spark violence, particularly in Benue and Taraba states. In the short term, the EU should:
Urge state governments to exercise caution in considering - or enforcing - these new laws, and urge cattle herders' and dealers' associations wishing to protest to use lawful channels.
Press the federal government and its security agencies to strengthen measures to detect and pre-empt potential unrest among both community vigilantes as well as herders and cattle dealers, particularly in Benue and Taraba states.
In the longer term, EU member states should support, through funding, capacity building and technical aid, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture's proposed National Ranching Development Plan, which seeks to promote cattle breeding only in ranches, as a permanent solution to herder-farmer friction.