Buhari’s Security Challenges The President's Lasting War on Insurgency

Muhammadu Buhari began his presidency in 2015 promising to make Nigeria a safer place but, as he quickly found out, fixing Nigeria’s numerous security issues is no easy task.

With a population of more than 180 million people, Nigeria is no stranger to conflict. The Civil War of 1967–1970, in which millions of lives were lost, remains a raw and painful period of Nigerian history. And while a slide back into civil war has been avoided, Nigeria hasn’t escaped regional uprisings and bouts of civil unrest.

Almost every region in Nigeria is in some way affected by an ongoing conflict, whether in the form of anti-state violence or in criminals waging war against citizens. Of these conflicts, perhaps the most notorious is the insurgency in the North East driven by the Islamist group, Boko Haram. The Boko Haram conflict has been raging since the public execution of the group’s popular leader, Mohammed Yusuf, by police forces in Maiduguri.

Led by Abubakar Shekau, in 2009, Boko Haram began a campaign of violence since which, according to Kashim Shettima, the Governor of Borno, as many as 100,000 people have lost their lives and two million people have been displaced. The conflict has had a devastating impact on the regional economy, too. Agriculture has been hit particularly hard with many farmers unable to return to their farms for fear of being confronted by unexploded landmines and the return of militants.

Another unwanted by-product of the conflict is the humanitarian crisis. The North East is in the grip of a food crisis that, UNHCR warns, could develop into a full-blown famine with 4.5 million people facing acute malnutrition and severe food shortages.

There was global outrage when more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram in 2013. It was, arguably, this audacious act that exposed the gaps in Nigeria’s security and brought the conflict in the North East to the world’s attention. The government at the time was accused of neglecting the North East, and of leaving the military underfunded and vulnerable to militant ambush. This apparent lack of security was a determining factor in the outcome of the 2015 elections.

Before the elections in 2015, President Buhari, then a presidential candidate, made a bold promise in pledging to eradicate Boko Haram by the end of the year. After his inauguration, Buhari quickly focused on the insurgency by relocating the military Command and Control Centre from Abuja to the militant heartland of Borno. He also made visits to neighbouring countries that had been affected by the insurgency to reassure them that his administration would take the lead in defeating Boko Haram where the previous administration had failed. He replaced the National Security Adviser, an act that invoked allegations of colossal levels of corruption being within and beyond the Office of the NSA. He also promised to make good on Nigeria’s commitment of $100 million to the Multinational Joint Task Force created by the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1998 to fight the insurgents. However, it quickly became apparent that defeating the enemy would take a lot longer than 6 months and in interviews the president would make the point that he was “not here to perform miracles”. Alarmingly, around 200 civilians were killed in the conflict during the president’s first month in office.

Since assuming office, Buhari’s government has seen some success in weakening the Boko Haram insurgents. Boko Haram no longer ‘controls’ large swathes of territory in Borno and, financially, the terrorist group appears to be less buoyant—perhaps an unexpected impact of the contracting economy. There has also been a reduction in reports of Boko Haram overpowering the Nigerian military.

However, Boko Haram remains active and deadly. Most recently, the number of young female suicide bombers carrying out devastating attacks in public places has been increasing, and remote towns and villages remain especially vulnerable to raids by militants.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between January and August 2016, more than 2,000 fatalities occurred as a result of Boko Haram-related activities. The estimates come in the aftermath of the president’s declaration that the insurgents have been “technically defeated”.


While international interest in the Boko Haram conflict grows, another deadly but less discussed wave of violence is claiming lives outside the North East.

Across large swathes of the country bloody acts of violence are raging between pastoralists and farmers. Unresolved land disputes, climate change, religious and ethnic sectarianism and a lack of understanding of the needs of rural communities have resulted in killings, internal displacement and extensive damage to property and livestock within affected communities.

Tensions between nomadic pastoralists and settler communities are not new. Pastoralists in search of grazing land for their cattle have often found themselves in dispute with farmers and landowners. More recently, however, the disputes have turned violent and have resulted in large-scale occurrences of civil unrest, riots and mass killings portrayed as driven by religious and ethnic differences.

Although not all Fulani are herders, that Fulani ethnic group dominates pastoralism and although not all Fulani are Muslim, the majority are. In a similar vein, not all the farmers in the affected areas are Christian, but the majority are. Yet to view the clashes as being centred on religion and ethnicity is to ignore the need to redress some historic grievances concerning land and identity and a people’s sense of belonging in society.

Nigeria’s diversity does not translate into a unified and cohesive society. Across the length and breadth of the country you would be hard pushed to find a group of people who do not feel in some way marginalised by the elites, who occupy the centres of power. Marginalisation breeds fear and suspicion towards an assumed oppressor. In the herder/farmer case, the assumed oppressor is the Fulani ruling class who are represented well in Nigeria’s political hierarchy. It is why victims of violence against farmers and settler communities claim that powerful politicians of Fulani ethnicity protect the violent elements within the pastoralist communities.

In Kaduna State where the southern half is a hotbed of violent clashes, the Governor is of Fulani descent. A divisive figure, his bold statements regarding the actions of some herders have caused discomfort and anger against many across the country, with some Nigerians accusing him of hate speech. His methodology of attempting to end the violence by openly and monetarily compensating for the loss of livestock to a group of violent herders, he said, “came from outside Nigeria to attack farmers,” has further added fuel to the fire.

President Buhari (who is also of Fulani ethnicity)’s apparent disengagement from the Herder/Farmer crisis has lent credence to suspicions of a political cover up. An unfortunate evolution of the conflict has been the increased hostility towards non-pastoralist Fulanis who, somehow, are being considered responsible for the violence affecting rural communities.

Beyond the hysterical media headlines, there are several issues, social and geographical, that are driving the Herder/Farmer conflict. Land—or the lack of it—is a major contributing factor. Pastoralists need grazing land for their livestock. Historically, agreements and provisions had been made for to guarantee pastoralists with access to land but as societies have developed and populations grown so has the demand for land from non-pastoralists increased. Furthermore, the effects of climate change are worsening the scarcity of land available for grazing. In all, these factors continually encourage herders to move south in search of land and into potential clashes with established farming communities.

The alarming brutality associated with these clashes has given birth to the phenomenon of the “rampaging herdsmen”—a heavily armed mob prone to engaging in killing sprees, arson attacks and other acts of violence against farming communities. Reprisal attacks are common. The paradox here is that for all his anti-insurgency rhetoric, President Buhari has been largely silent on the issue of this conflict.

Also alarming is how few perpetrators have felt the full force of the law. Prosecutions and convictions are scarce, a condition that further breeds suspicions of an ethnicity-driven conspiracy.

Proponents and advocates of a dialogue centred solution to the crisis are urging the government to view this as a national problem and explore options that benefit both herders and farmers. One of the problems is the way pastoralists are viewed by much of the settled population—as if they operate outside the wider economy. An example of this is the omission of livestock rearing from the 2017 agriculture budget. The government has been at great pains to modernise agriculture as an industry and regard its business potential as serious. Two-thirds of Nigeria’s labour force is employed in the agriculture sector according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), yet agriculture languishes behind petroleum as a contributor to GDP and foreign exchange earner.

Reluctance to recognise the value that investment in livestock as an industry can add to the economy and society is, perhaps, another contributor to the conflict. According to the FAO, about 60 per cent of Nigeria’s livestock is managed by pastoralists. However, production is a long way off from meeting demand, which, paradoxically, means Nigeria imports a lot more livestock and livestock produce than ought to be necessary. One of the objectives of the government’s current plan to boost agriculture is to make Nigeria self-sufficient and able to feed its population without relying on expensive imports. Around thirty per cent of animals in Nigeria slaughtered for consumption are imported yet the 2017 budget makes no provision for livestock.

One of the key benefits of treating livestock development as an important industry is the creation of employment—particularly among young people who are vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs and insurgent groups. Despite the grand declarations successive governments have made regarding economic diversification, petroleum exports remain the highest income earner with Nigeria receiving more than 70% of her export income from this sector.

Failure to invest in a long-term solution to the Herder/Farmer conflict is detrimental not only to the affected communities but also to the country as a whole. Criminal gangs have been known to exploit the tensions between farmers and herders and in some areas rural banditry is on the rise. Pastoralists complain about harassment and cattle theft by armed gangs who proceed to terrorise farmers under the guise of being herders. Farmers are accused of hiring thugs to wreak havoc amongst herder and settled Fulani communities. These attacks often give birth to reprisal attacks and further deepen the cycle of violence.

Clashes between farmers and herders are not only prevalent in the north and middle belt. There have been reports of incidents in parts of the South East and South West of the country.

In 2016, in the aftermath of a particularly bloody series of attacks in Agatu, Benue State, the country’s legislators debated large-scale military deployments to affected parts of Nigeria. With the armed forces already overstretched as they continue to fight the insurgency in the North East, the long-term feasibility should be brought into question—especially if little or no attempt is made to address the aforementioned factors that contribute to the violence.

As a presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari pledged to eradicate Boko Haram by the end of 2015. The terrorist group, though facing pressure from the military, remains rampant and deadly.

Kidnapping: A Growing Industry

It is no coincidence that the most restive parts of the country are areas with high youth unemployment. Nigeria’s official unemployment rate is 13.9%. Underemployment and youth unemployment are 19.7% and forty-six per cent respectively. As Nigeria’s population grows, the median age decreases—a potential time bomb. Poverty is frequently being cited as a reason for engaging in criminal acts and one area of crime that has seen a spike in reported incidence is kidnap. Once the misfortune of wealthy expatriate workers and prominent Nigerians, acts of abduction for ransom are now being committed against ordinary citizens.

A lot of kidnappings in Nigeria go unreported. Reasons for this include mistrust of law enforcers and a penal system believed by many ordinary citizens to be deeply flawed. The US Department of State notes that, “Targeting of average Nigerians for smaller monetary gains has increased in recent years.”

The low official figures are also partially explained by criminals knowing that “police are rarely contacted during a kidnapping and that families are quick to pay ransoms for the release of relatives.” Indeed, some official figures released by individual state police are at odds with the constant slew of cases reported daily in the media.

Lagos, which has seen a sharp spike in non-politically motivated kidnappings, only had 51 recorded cases reported by the police in 2016. This is in contrast to observations of the risk analysts at Control Risks who report that they record almost weekly incidents in Ikorodu alone. In Kano, traditionally another kidnapping hotspot, police say 43 cases were reported in 2016 while 119 suspected kidnappers were arrested. Nigerians once abided by self-imposed curfews and avoided travelling on highways at night for fear of encountering armed robbers and kidnappers. Now, daylight abductions are no longer an uncommon occurrence.

Penalties for kidnapping vary from state to state with some governors adopting a zero-tolerance approach. In Lagos, for example, a newly passed bill could see convicted kidnappers facing the death penalty.

While kidnappings in Nigeria have traditionally been linked to terrorism and insurgencies the frequency and ease with which a gang can abduct citizens for cash reveals another gap in security. Questions should be asked about why so few cases are reported and what limits the actions of the police when allegations are brought to them. Harsh penalties such as the example of Lagos State are unlikely to be an effective deterrent if the issues of trust surrounding reporting incidents to the police are not addressed.


At the beginning of the last decade, kidnappings were a common feature in the Niger Delta insurgency in the South-South region. Foreigners and Nigerian security staff employed in the oil industry were the regular targets of insurgents who would demand hefty ransoms.

In 2009, Port Harcourt, the oil industry capital, gained the unfortunate label of the being the most dangerous city in the world. Oil companies would pay their staff high premiums to work in the region and it was considered such a dangerous place to work that multinational firms would regularly buy all the seats on domestic flights so their staff could travel without fear of hijacking or kidnap.

An amnesty programme introduced by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, in 2007, brought a lot of the violence to an end, but it came at significant financial cost to the government. Militant groups that had carried out a thirteen-year insurgency against oil companies were enlisted on to a rehabilitation programme. They worked alongside the Nigerian state, which such groups had accused of complicity in polluting their environment and of depriving communities of employment opportunities. The militants also received a monthly stipend, jobs and lucrative pipeline security contracts from the government.

However, the administration of the amnesty programme was riddled with corruption and communities complained that only a handful of people benefitted from it. The programme was supposed to provide for infrastructure development and job creation but many of these promises never materialised. Though much of the violence abated, once again the underlying causes of insurgency were not addressed.

When he came into office, President Buhari did not commit to extending the amnesty programme and, instead, started to put plans in place for its wind down and eventual closure. This coincided with threats from former militants to resume their armed struggle.

While existing groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) chose to engage in dialogue with the government other groups with a more militant agenda started to emerge very quickly.

The cost of militant activity to Nigeria’s economy is high. 2016 saw a thirty-year low in crude exports due to renewed activity in the region. The Minister of State for Petroleum said attacks on oil installations cost Nigeria $100 billion in 2016. In September 2016, a military drill, Operation Crocodile Smile, was launched in Bayelsa and Rivers State as a show of the armed forces readiness to deal with militants in a combat situation if necessary. This, however, further antagonised the already volatile relations between the militant groups and the government.

The most notorious and active of the new crop of militant groups, the Niger Delta Avengers, laughed at the operation and vowed to continue their campaign of sabotage. In January 2017, the group’s spokesman issued a statement, condemning President Buhari’s “deaf” approach to ongoing peace talks between the government and militants. The group also accused the government of an unwillingness to engage in dialogue or negotiation.

Developments like this put the very fragile cessation of militant activity in jeopardy. The government and the main militant groups had engaged in peace talks in November 2016 and although attacks on pipelines and oil infrastructure have reduced, a long lasting peace deal remains elusive.


East of the heart of the Niger Delta conflict, President Buhari is, once more, accused of employing strong-arm tactics against a dissident community. This time, the battle is against the supporters of Biafran independence. Fifty years after the Civil War, the desire for an independent state persists. In 1970, after the War ended, General Yakubu Gowon, who led Nigeria, declared that there was “No Victor, No Vanquished”.   The physical and moral loss was such that there were to be no winners declared.

While there have been movements for Biafran independence since the war, the most passionate supporters of Biafra today appear to be youths with little or no direct experience of the war or its immediate aftermath. While previous generations may be more stoic in their reflections of the secession and war, their offspring have a more definitive idea of what Biafra means to them. A more accurate way of looking at it may lie less in the way the current pro-Biafra camp sees Biafra and more in how they view Nigeria.

For many of the young pro-Biafrans, Nigeria has been nothing but a disappointment. The same bleak economic indicators and the bitter legacy of 1967 have produced a virulently anti-Abuja sentiment. As with many anti-government movements, the various pro-Biafra groupings have united under a common cause. In this case, it was the arrest and detention of the Director of Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu, also part of the leadership of the Indigenous People of Biafra organisation (IPOB) was arrested in Lagos in October 2015. He was charged with criminal conspiracy and membership of an illegal organisation and although he has been granted bail under very tight conditions, he remains in detention.

Kanu’s appearances at events and on the radio were a great source of controversy with many accusing him of hate speech. There is video footage of him appearing to demand arms in the presence of a large crowd of his supporters. His continued detention has been a source of anger and frustration towards the Nigerian state. The treatment of pro-Biafra protestors at demonstrations by the authorities is also breeding new grievances.

To say President Buhari is not favoured in the East is something of an understatement. Many in the region view him as being responsible for the deaths of many Igbos during the Civil War and his apparent unwillingness to visit the South East while, at the same time, making several foreign trips, has further fuelled suspicions about the way he views the Igbo people.

The government responded to the pro-Biafra activities by launching another military drill in the region. Operation Python Dance—a one-month operation launched in December 2016—was to restore order to the region. Instead, the heavy military presence and checkpoints antagonised people and, again, added to the feeling of distrust towards the President.

It has been more than 30 years since Muhammadu Buhari’s first attempt at governing Nigeria. His previous tenure during the 1980s is largely remembered for authoritarianism and mismanagement of the economy. His victory at the elections in 2015 was partly the result of a nationwide feeling of nostalgia towards his militarist approach, especially when it appeared that the insurgency in the North East might consume other parts of the country. The thinking of the body politic was that if anybody could restore law and order, defeat the extremists and make the army a force to be reckoned with again, it was Muhammadu Buhari.

However, two years into his presidency, Muhammadu Buhari has been a disappointment to many. From, so far, the limited successes in his much-lauded War on Corruption, and his management of the economy to—and, perhaps, most damning—the nation’s security. It should also be noted that his declining health is also posing questions about his ability to see through a complete term in office.

Commentators and Nigeria analysts were once fond of describing the country as being on the brink; that a total breakdown in security and law and order would result in another civil war. Instead, what we are seeing are multiple conflicts, which, arguably, are more difficult to resolve. The one thing these conflicts have in common is their deep rootedness in unresolved political and social issues that successive governments have shied away from addressing. Most urgent of these issues is a fast-growing majority that is becoming increasingly polarised from the elites at the centres of power.

Until a leader is brave enough to stick his or her neck out and tackle the underlying causes of the issues troubling the nation, Nigeria may well continue descending deeper into the violent and bloody abyss of conflict⎈