Nigeria: Building Peace – The Only Alternative to a Failed State

Nigerian police at a festival at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos in 2016.
15 January 2020

Africa's largest economy and most populous country, with over 200 million people, has been battling internal conflicts and external insurgencies that are threatening the country's future. Scholars, analysts and community peace activists say the problems, although severe, can be resolved. But leadership at multiple levels across many sectors, as well as understanding the dynamics of violence, is necessary for rescuing a nation with vast potential, before it slides into a failed state.

AllAfrica and our colleagues at Premium Times interviewed peace and conflict specialist Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim in 2019 about the peacebuilding challenges which Nigeria is confronting, including attacks by the religious extremists, the shortcomings of military and police responses to nationwide violence, the need for more engagement from civilian and religious leaders, and competition for resources – whether land, water or earnings from oil production.Ibrahim is a senior fellow and former d irector of the Centre for Democracy & Development in West Africa.

What are the challenges in dealing with cross-border and internal attacks from Boko Haram extremists?

Two great challenges

The first challenge is that even if Boko Haram groups have been reduced as military targets [through Nigerian army actions] - even if they are degraded - they still have sufficient power to do harm. One of the complications is that the movement itself has splintered into different groups, so while some years ago you had one group you could relate to, now you have at least three groups you have to try to relate to, and there are significant differences among their perspectives.

The second challenge is that the armed forces are deployed very thinly. When they attack Boko Haram and displace them from a particular location, they don't have sufficient human resources to stay there and keep the territory. They tend to withdraw to go to other fronts. And, of course, Boko Haram fighters come back where they were. So it becomes some sort of yoyo. That's the second great difficulty.

Pursuing peace

Now in spite of these difficulties, I think it's important to pursue pathways towards peace. There are different issues there.

Some people say you should negotiate with them. It's a bit difficult to negotiate when you don't know what their demands are. Or, as is likely, their demands may be completely unacceptable to you. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't talk with them. I think it's important to talk with them.

Second, for me, is enhancing the numbers and efficiency of the Nigerian police. They are mostly devoted to VIP guard duties. When the military moves In and out, there is no other civil force that's able to keep that ground. We simply don't have enough police to do policing functions, which is a necessary transition from the military zones that we have currently towards a more civilian administration.

The final most important issue in peacebuilding for me is the importance of the civilian population - especially the clergy - playing its own role. I believe that the best strategy moving forward is to minimize the capacity of these [insurgent] groups to recruit new members, which  means that the ideological work, the work of religious education is necessary to put in a divide between these groups and the larger population. This, for me, is the most important task in terms of the communities themselves taking charge of restricting the capacity of these groups to recruit, to expand and to do more damage.

What might it take to get the government and the population to implement these strategies? What can civil society, researchers, officials do?

First, the service chiefs [the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, working under the Chief of Defense Forces] have been in place for an excessively long time, and they've run out of ideas on what to do. It's very important to select a better set of service chiefs within the military.

The lack of a cabinet was important. [Nominees were submitted for Senate confirmation six months after the first inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari and 54 days after his second term began at the end of May 2019.] You couldn't take political decisions when you didn't have political leaders that would meet on a regular basis to consider these issues. Nobody understood why it took the president so long to choose a cabinet, because the elections were over two months before the inauguration. He obviously had enough time to make his pick.

But I think the most important issue for me is community organization and mobilization. What we find is that communities where they have a 'town's union' or a community development organization are better able to build resilience against the insurgents, by the simple fact that they meet regularly, they discuss what to do, and are therefore able to plan their responses. Other communities do not have such associations at all, do not have a forum where they meet to discuss what they can do and, as members of the community, to ensure there is at least a minimum level of protection in their community.

Do these elements you see as critical to building pathways towards peace apply beyond the Boko Haram situation - to what's been called the 'farmer-herder' conflict in the middle of the country, for example? 

I think it applies to all the conflicts, but each conflict has its specificities. In terms of the farmer-herder crisis, part of the structural issue relates to the livelihood of the pastoralists [herders who move with their animals from place to place to find forage for them]. They have been increasingly challenged over the past two decades due to many factors, including the significant growth of farming and the development of agriculture around water sources, creating difficulties of animal access to water.

What we find from the research we have conducted is that there has been so much extortion of the pastoralists over the past two decades by police, by local courts. Whenever there's a conflict, the farmer has very little of value to pay bribes, while the pastoralist is extorted, because they can sell a few cows and pay significant levels of bribes. Through this process, they have lost a lot of their cattle.

As that has happened, a lot of rogue elements have developed within the pastoral communities. These are the ones responsible for a lot of the killings that people are talking about, but also for the current phenomenon of kidnapping, which has become a very serious national threat in the country.

So there has to be a pathway to addressing this issue of livelihood. That pathway is extremely difficult, because whenever there's a proposition to develop animal husbandry and move towards settlement, there's been very strong opposition. You'll recall the 'cattle colony' issue and the debate over Ruga [controversial proposals to settle pastoralists in one place – plans which themselves provoked violence and were abandoned by government].

What's happened is that there has been so much hate and suspicion between the farming and pastoral communities that it's now even more difficult to find pathways. But for me, it's always possible to find these pathways, because [herders] have 16 million cattle that are moving around.

That's a lot of value and, ultimately, they're conscious that continued violence will only lead to their losing more and more of their cattle. So unlike Boko Haram, who may resist a resolution on ideological grounds, I'm sure the pastoralists would be open to seeking pathways to a resolution. But that pathway must be done in such a way that you carry the trust and acceptance of the farming communities, and that, for now, is a big challenge.

Is the conflict in the oil-producing, but impoverished, Niger Delta in southeast Nigeria rooted in similar scarcities and inequities?

That's a resource-based conflict, so its dynamics are a bit different - and it's been going on for much longer. In a sense, that conflict addresses the fundamental nature of the Nigerian state itself, which is a rentier state that's dependent on extracting petroleum rents. [A rentier state derives most or all its revenues from external forces that exploit, or 'rent', its natural resources.]

The demand, therefore, by the Niger Delta communities for a full and unique control of those resources is something that's very challenging to the state as presently constituted. A number of measures have been taken, including the demobilization [of local resisters] that occurred during the Yar'Adua/Jonathan administration [President Buhari's two predecessors], and the resources that are provided for the former militants. It's important that continues. I think continuous discussion with them is also extremely important. My hope is that that continues as well.

You have listed all these challenges, and you've said there may be a way through some of them with the right processes and the right will. As a Nigerian, do you feel that there is an answer? Can Nigeria advance towards peace building?

Peace is the only pathway we have

My approach as a Nigerian is that we must advance towards peace building. We don't have a choice if we want to survive as a nation - and not surviving as a nation is also going to be very destructive for communities. There wouldn't be anything to hold these different communities together. So my approach is that that's the only pathway we have.

You said that when soldiers have cleared out Boko Haram in a  particular community, they are so thinly spread that when they move away to the next community, there aren't enough police to provide basic law enforcement - or at least maintain the peace. Are the police aware of this? Are they doing anything about it?

So far they're not doing anything about it. Under [presidents] Obasanjo, Yar'Adua and Jonathan, three different presidential reform panels on the police have been established. They've made extensive recommendations on improving the police, and none of them have been implemented.

Currently we have about 350,000 police. But 150,000 of them - that's about 40 per cent - are on exclusive VIP guard-duty, which means we have very little police available for normal policing functions. They are extremely thin on the ground. The reality today is that there are virtually no police in rural Nigeria, which is part of the problem both for Boko Haram as well as for the farmer-herder crisis.

It is estimated that the police High Command makes an income of two billion naira - 5.5 million U.S. dollars - every day from charges people pay for VIP police protection. That's a huge amount of money, which means the orientation of the police is essentially towards these VIP services.

So I feel there are a lot of issues to address with the police.

First, and maybe the most important issue, is the financial structure of the police, where most of its resources are consumed in the office of the Inspector General of Police, rather than in the police stations that have hardly any financial provision or equipment for their operations.

The second issue is to reduce the number of police on VIP duty. The third issue is to increase recruitment. Forth is to improve their skills.

Finally, there has to be some sort of ethical revolution. So many surveys in which people are asked, "What's the most corrupt institution in Nigeria?", the answer that usually comes up is "the police". So, in a sense, they are not fit for purpose. That's part of the problem we have.

This two billion naira for police protection - how is it accounted for? How is it paid?

It is not accounted for. That is the point I'm making. You have 150,000 police doing commercial VIP guard duty. You go to the police, and there's a charge for every police. You give them money, and they give you police personnel to protect you.

Because this is not money that goes into the treasury, nobody accounts for it. That's why police have a very strong orientation to focus on VIP guard duties, because they just make so much money out of it.

You spoke about Boko Haram groups being splintered. What is your insight on what's sustaining each group financially? Is it revenues they are making that's creating their proliferation?

What's splintering them is to some extent ideology. They have had extensive internal debates on whether it's right to kill Muslims. I think they all agree that it's all right to kill Christians, but when it comes to killing Muslims they are not agreed. One group believes that's not allowed under Islamic law. Another makes the argument that if you are not part of them, by definition, you are not a Muslim, so it's alright to kill you. The ideological debates are important.

The second issue is the leadership tussle. The issue of blood relations is affecting them. One of the groups is led by the son of the founder of the group, while another leader has no blood relationship with the founder.

The third issue is they have moved into different geographical zones. The traditional Boko Haram is essentially in the Sambisa Forest [an area of scrubby brush in the northeast], the new faction has moved towards Lake Chad. So they are now occupying and operating in completely different sectors, which is deepening the divide.

On finance, basically they are self-financed. They attack people. They take their food. They take their property. They steal cattle from pastoralists. They take what they need from the surrounding communities, so they have sufficient sources of finance to keep the movement going.

There have been theories by some international researchers that some of these groups are funded by bigger terrorist groups or that other enterprises sustain them - for example, car sales, and the proceeds are channeled into the attacks. Do you think those claims are true?

Some of it may be true, but the fact of the matter is that when you have guns, and you live in communities without guns, you can always use guns to collect money and resources from the community. That, I'm convinced, is their main source of financing.

The idea of people sponsoring them from abroad I think is very appealing. People want to believe that's happening, but I haven't seen any evidence. Some people just want to believe, okay, these are Salafist groups [an ultraconservative political/religious movement that tries to live as they believe the first Muslims did] – that there are international affiliations with Salafist groups that must be pumping money in.

It's a bit like when pentecostalism started in Nigeria. Everybody said Americans were funding them, but the fact of the matter today is that they're raising more money than American pentecostalists from the communities in which they operate.

There's been a lot of talk by government about de-radicalization. Do you think it's making any progress? Do you think there's any infrastructure for those who have been de-radicalized? How much of the information gathered from that process are the armed forces or the service chiefs using to curb insurgency?

Well, de-radicalization is a difficult process; it's a long process; and it's often difficult to know whether or not you're succeeding. There is a de-radicalization process known as Operation Safe Corridor, where they tried to get them to give up the ideology they had been engaged with. The idea is to make them return to their communities after they have been fully de-radicalized.

There are two problems with that. One problem is that you never know whether they are sincerely deradicalized, because you don't know what's in their minds. The second problem is that their communities do not welcome them back. It's an extremely difficult problem.

I've always argued that the most important issue is not de-radicalization. It's counter radicalization, which is a process in which the clergy and community leaders are able to engage in religious education to show to members of the communities that radicalization is bad, that it's not the proper Islamic way, and they should resist it. That is a much more effective strategy. I would put much more emphasis on counter radicalization than on de-radicalization.

There was a time when a list of Imams [Muslim clerics] was being prepared to get them into the effort. What happened to that?

Well, you know the counter radicalization program was developed by Colonel Sambo Dasuki when he was national security advisor [to President Goodluck Jonathan]. They had just really started it in 2014-2015 when that administration collapsed. When a new National Security Advisor came, he decided to review the situation rather than continue with the existing program. So there was a long break, and counter radicalization did not take off sufficiently for it to have an impact.

Now, the new national security adviser came back to the conclusion that counter radicalization is [an effective] process, and he has put a lot of emphasis in his 'new counterinsurgency measure'. But we have lost so much time. They are going back to a program that should never have been stopped. But that's the problem in Nigeria. Every new government believes it must start everything anew, which defeats the whole purpose of government, which is about continuity.

Professor Jibrin Ibrahim is a senior fellow and former director at the Centre for Democracy and Development, headquartered in Abuja, Nigeria. Its mission is to be a "catalyst and facilitator for strategic analysis and capacity building for sustainable democracy and development in the West African sub-region". He has been a university professor, is a prolific author, and was the national convenor of the Citizen's Forum for Constitutional Reform, a coalition of ninety non-governmental organisations seeking to reform the 1999 Nigerian Constitution. His PhD in political science is from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Bordeaux, France.

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