Security and Foreign Policy

Shades of Violence: Nigeria’s Uncertain Future

Over the past decade, the violence of Boko Haram has led to a sustained set of crises compounded by rivalry, poverty and environmental degradation. Buki Adenekan assesses the uncertainty that Nigerians have to deal with in the face of violence.


Since early 2000, Nigeria has experienced what seems to be an unending series of crises. Over a decade, violence in northern Nigeria has been characterized by radical religious movements, inter-ethnic rivalry and conflicts between herdsmen and farmers. As of May 2018, over 1.8 million Nigerians have been displaced, a 6% increase from the official report released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in April.

In response, former President Goodluck Jonathan had declared a state of emergency in the three majorly affected states: Adamawa, Borno and Yobe in 2013. The move was an attempt to crack down on the growing extremism spreading across the region. Other counter-insurgency programs including the current administration’s Operation Safe Corridor have tried to curb the growing violence but with no lasting results.

Similarly, movements have risen to push back against the Boko Haram insurgency. Bring Back Our Girls movement and the Women’s March have created significant headlines and brought much needed international attention. Yet, the Nigerian population has been voiceless in the international news media.

Of the 1.8 million displaced, only 39% are in camps and receiving government assistance while 61% are in host communities. Out of the six geopolitical zones in the country, the northeast has one of the worst indices of poverty. According to IMO’s report, 73% of the IDPs have cited food supply as their main unmet need. It is estimated that more than 930,000 Nigerians are in hard to reach areas and are likely to be in need of humanitarian assistance. A clear majority of those displaced from the affected areas: Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe are people who already had limited access to resources. Therefore, the struggle over these already scarce resources have resulted in increased violence among residents and IDPs in host communities.

In late June, a conflict between herdsmen and farmers in Plateau left over 11,500 displaced and 233 dead. The two-day attack is a manifestation of a series of clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers over limited farmlands for cattle grazing and farming in the region. According to the 2017 Global Extremism Index, over 2500 Nigerians have been killed between 2012 and 2016 by Fulani extremists. In the face of high death toll, Nigerians have felt that both the international community and the Presidency have been silent about the grievances of those in the affected areas.

In 2017, the Buhari Administration and Nigerian Army succeeded in reclaiming some of the Boko Haram territories, limiting a majority of their influence to the Sambisa Forest in Borno state. However updates have emerged that a splinter group of Boko Haram called the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA) has occupied parts of Borno, Yobe and Lake Chad. Led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, the group claims to offer protection and resources to herders in exchange for money. And the group itself has claimed more than 34,000 lives.

Coupled with the high rates of poverty in the region, violent attacks such as burning of properties by Boko Haram have led to the destruction of property and land that could be useful for crop cultivation. Ultimately, this has created immense food insecurity, low food production, and has caused many farmers to flee their homes. To this day, 86 percent remain unwilling to return home due to the fear of violence.

Amid the crisis, Nigerians in the northeast are forced to face harsh realities revealing a large percentage of the population that are not considered internally displaced persons but are labeled economic migrants. While conducting my research on the displacement crisis in northern Nigeria, I found that among those who claim to be displaced, a large number are unrecognized by the government as internally displaced persons (IDPs). And therefore, do not receive any form of aid or assistance.

This dilemma comes with the difficulty of determining where exactly to draw the line between those who are forced to leave their homes due to violent extremism and those who have fled to relatively greener pastures in search of better livelihoods. These blurred lines have left many in desperate need of assistance to be rejected by local government agencies.

Unfortunately, because of the deeply entrenched poverty in the region, it is difficult to know who truly has been displaced by insurgent attacks especially in impoverished communities. The bottom line remains that displacement in the northern region of the country underlines various factors including violence, rivalry, poverty, environmental degradation amongst others.  These issues reveal the very systemic undertones of a deteriorating national security and economy.

Both international and domestic responses to the violence have fallen short of yielding substantial change. Lack of national security continues to pose a huge risk to the stability of the economy and the wellbeing of those who are currently displaced.

At the heart of the displacement, women and children are the most affected, constituting 79% of the IDP population. Therefore, women and girls have been challenged to take on diverse roles: both as combatants and active participants of terrorism.

While women are often seen as victims in cases of conflict and insecurity, it is important to understand the roles women play in the violence itself. Women have been instrumental to Boko Haram’s tactics, which have been effective in advancing strikes across the region. They do not merely represent passive apolitical roles but are also capable of being conscious political-religious activists. Women are rarely suspected and can easily get away with concealing weapons in their clothing.

In a CNN report, an interview with a female former captive of the insurgents revealed that young girls would fight to wear bombs, not because they themselves had become devout to the violent ideology of the sect, but for the hope of escaping the sexual abuse they experienced while in captivity.

The lack of formal statistics on both sexual violence and female combatants is detrimental to the overall strategy of the Nigerian government in combating the crisis. Women’s voices are being heard as protesters and proponents of peace against the conflict, but there is an absence of advocacy for female returnees and a lack of opportunities for the internally-displaced who are living in camps. The faces and voices of returnees have been blurred by the societal stigma associated with the terrorist group. This could place women in more vulnerable situations and induce local grievances amongst them, leading to more violence.

As the 2019 Presidential election is approaching, the current state of displacement and insecurity will once again be a defining factor. One of the promises of Buhari’s current administration was to put an end to both corruption and Boko Haram. While there are mixed perceptions of how well the administration has been able to work towards the fulfilment of his promises, Nigerians are in desperate need of a strong leadership that will secure the nation both physically and economically.

Instead of giving its citizens fleeting hope, a major challenge for international aid organizations and each 2019 Presidential candidate would be to show Nigerians that they in fact have a robust strategy and blueprint plan that will bring significant change within the next four years.

Buki, originally raised in Lagos, Nigeria, holds a Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University. Over the past four years, she has worked and volunteered for organizations in the United States and Nigeria focusing on public health, women’s rights, climate change and philanthropy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Photo Credit: Stefan Heunis/AFP

The #BeFREECampaign at Princeton University is raising funds to support women, children and families affected by the conflict in Northeast Nigeria. All donations will support the Foundation for Refugee Economic Empowerment in providing humanitarian relief to people affected by conflict in Northeast Nigeria. Click here to make a donation today.

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