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Deaths, deaths and more deaths in 2016: It is time to stem the tide

By Cheta Nwanze
13 February 2017   |   2:20 am
Just over a week ago, governors of the 19 states that were once a part of the Northern region met in Kaduna to discuss the security situation in the region.

Just over a week ago, governors of the 19 states that were once a part of the Northern region met in Kaduna to discuss the security situation in the region. They emerged from the meeting blaming “immigrants” for a surging conflict between cattle herders and farmers. This conflict, the pastoral conflict, has in the last year, become Nigeria’s gravest security threat. In 2016, there were surges in cattle rustling, attacks by pastoralists on farming communities, oil theft related violence, and attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta region. The Boko Haram insurgency, after a brief lapse at the start of that, its seventh year, witnessed an increase in suicide attacks, and attacks on military units. 2016 was without doubt, a bad one for Nigeria in terms of internal security.

While Boko Haram remained the most active threat in terms of number of attacks. The tide shifted from civilian and military victims, to insurgents themselves. Substantial gains were recorded by Nigeria as the sect was forced to transition from arrogantly perpetrating acts of mass terror – bombing civilian and military infrastructure, wholesale sacking of towns, territorial acquisition and in its most infamous case, the kidnapping of 273 girls from their school dormitory in Chibok, Borno State in April 2014 – to a more minimalist strategy. In 2016, the average number of fatalities per Boko Haram attack was significantly reduced to 17, implying a reduction in the fighting capabilities of the terrorists.

2016 saw the emergence of a new kind of Niger Delta militant, one who is well trained in underwater work, and who has a deep knowledge of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure. The Niger Delta Avengers in their attacks displayed a level of sophistication and skill far above what previous militants could boast of.

In their first attack, the installations that were blown up are 6m and 8m below the surface respectively, requiring deep-divers and significant expertise to lay the explosives. The location close to Escravos, 8m below had a clamp on the line, yet the attackers could target these points and take them out.

The degree of accuracy to target locations with such huge impact on production numbers with such few attacks points to some degree of intelligence information available to these militants. More impressive, was the fact that despite a significant number of Niger Delta militant attacks on oil facilities, the Niger Delta militancy accounted for 20% of the total number of incidents in Nigeria last year, the average number of fatalities per attack was the lowest, at 3 per attack. It is worthy to note that most of the deaths because of oil militant activity were actually in Lagos, when oil vandals attacked two communities in the Ikorodu area in June, apparently as a reprisal for “snitching”.

The pastoral conflict emerged as the deadliest threat in 2016, with my firm confirming almost 2,000 people killed, the vast majority of the attacks involved Fulani herdsmen. 2016 was the year of Agatu and Ukpabi-Nimbo, and most of the victims were farmers. This conflict also had the largest geographic spread with nineteen of our thirty-seven federating units experiencing one form of action or the other.

The reaction of the Nigerian state to the pastoral conflicts has been sadly predictable. From the federal level, we mostly hear silence towards the herdsmen, or attempts to placate the Niger Delta militants. Where the noise from various groups is too much for the state to bear, the military is deployed for policing duties. This abnormal state of affairs meant that by the end of 2016, only Kebbi state did not have an active military deployment.

This ease of deployment of the military for what are, in so many cases issues that could be handled with effective intelligence gathering and policing, are indicative of a lack of internal cohesion in the country. Military force should not be required to keep law and order in thirty-five of our thirty-six states. While it will be a long stretch to say that Nigeria is in a state of war, it is nevertheless of great concern that our military is active in so many areas within our borders. It calls for reflection and makes a strong case for having a conversation about the social contract that binds Nigeria together. Urgent structural changes need to be made before the fissures in our society get exacerbated by the economic recession that we are in and its attendant consequences.
So, what does 2017 hold?

As we have already begun to see, Boko Haram has metastasised, again, and changed tactics. The new form of that terrorist group requires a less ham-fisted approach and more finesse. The group will attempt, increasingly, to get embedded in civilian areas and cause havoc from within, whilst other group members will keep attacking military formations in order to draw the army out. We need to be ready for this.

Throwing money at the Niger Delta militants will not make the structural problems of the region go away. In fact, they may worsen them as more people will conclude that the Nigerian government only understands force. A better, albeit more difficult approach will require engaging the communities directly.

Finally, on the pastoral conflict. This is Nigeria’s biggest security threat not only because of the rising casualty numbers, but because the region most affected is Nigeria’s food basket, and many farmers are no longer harvesting produce. Unfortunately, the response from the government and the security institutions do not demonstrate a clear understanding of the worsening situation. This tepidness on the part of the state has emboldened especially, the herdsmen; and that has the ripple effect of angering other communities, forcing them to consider violence as a viable option. There is evidence that various ethnic groups in Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba states have raised militia which regularly conduct reprisals against Fulani communities. In fact, a lot of the renewed “peace” in Plateau state is because of these kinds of activities. But the question must be asked, what kind of peace? The apparent success of the violent in their rampaging endeavours, has granted increasing legitimacy to their methods amongst those who might have once opposed such violence within their ranks and beyond, creating a volatile mix for the country going forward. It will not be a pretty picture.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner and Head of Research at SBM Intelligence