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An armed Fulani herdsman

Insecurity in Nigeria: Fighting on all fronts

Bad governance has bred uprisings from Boko Haram to Biafra
Apr 2nd 2016

THE prayers of Gyang Dahoro take on a decidedly political note. A dozen local chiefs, resplendent in traditional Nigerian dress, nod approvingly as he calls for protection from the “terrorists” who have “made us refugees in our own land”. The worshippers are Christians of the Berom tribe, farmers of north-central Nigeria, who have spent 15 years fighting Fulani herdsmen. Homes abandoned in the battle lie strewn across the rocky highlands from which their state, Plateau, derives its name.

Across Nigeria’s “middle belt”, indigenous tribes like theirs spar with “settlers” who are moving south as the Sahel encroaches on their pastures. Up to 300 people were reported dead after an attack by herdsmen in Benue state in February. The Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian think-tank, reckons that Fulani militants killed 1,229 people in 2014, compared with 63 the year before. Berom leaders say their attackers are foreign-sponsored jihadists, though there is little evidence to support this, and the fight is not one-sided. Fulani chiefs living deep inside the Plateau claim that they are provoked by farmers who steal their herds—a serious crime in a culture where wealth is measured in livestock. And modern-day bandit groups often cut across tribal lines.

Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president and a former military dictator, takes security seriously. Yet this conflict in the middle belt, a loosely defined region that cuts across central Nigeria, has passed largely unnoticed in the shadow of Boko Haram, a far more murderous, and undoubtedly jihadist, insurgent group. Mr Buhari was elected president last year at least in part on the promise that he would restore security to the north-east, large swathes of which had fallen to Boko Haram. His government has had some success in pushing back the jihadists, but it has not managed to quell the flames. Villages are frequently raided or bombed. More than 840 people have lost their lives in Boko Haram’s heartlands since January.

A third uprising also threatens Nigeria, this one in the oil-rich Niger Delta. This part of the country was once paralysed by an armed insurgency, which began when locals protested that little of the wealth generated from the oil extracted on their lands made its way into their communities. In the early 2000s oil production in the Delta fell by half, as militants blew up pipelines and kidnapped oil workers. Many also grew rich by stealing oil. The battle only ended in 2009 when the government offered an amnesty and militants were paid to protect the pipes they used to blow up.

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Mr Buhari has now cancelled those contracts, and in January an arrest warrant was issued for a Delta kingpin known as Tompolo, who is charged with laundering $170m. A spate of attacks followed. The worst, an explosion at an underwater Shell pipeline, forced the company to close its 250,000 barrel-per-day Forcados export terminal. Oil-industry executives point out that the attack was well-planned: it used military explosives and hit a part of the pipe that is hard to repair.

Critics accuse Mr Buhari of failing to grasp the mafia-like workings of the Delta, and gloomily predict that deeper trouble lies ahead if militants decide to combine forces with independence protesters in the neighbouring region, formerly known as Biafra. The young people of Nigeria’s south have been growing increasingly fractious since a secessionist leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested last year. These discontented people have little in common with criminals in the Delta, but alarm bells started ringing in January when a ship was hijacked by militants who demanded Mr Kanu’s release.

Diverse as they are, these agitations share some features. An overarching problem is that Nigeria is split between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south, with its 180m people belonging to 250 ethnic groups and speaking more than 500 languages. So differences often manifest along religious or tribal lines. Boko Haram’s insurgents target Muslims as well as Christians, but are mostly ethnic Kanuri. The campaigners who want to restore independent Biafra are mostly Igbos who believe they have been marginalised by Mr Buhari. Politicians have often fanned the flames by financing thugs or favouring one group over another.

Poverty and population growth exacerbate these tensions. As many as 10m children are out of school and half of all young adults are un- or under-employed. Many of Boko Haram’s fighters joined because they were hungry rather than dedicated jihadists. As the oil-dependent economy slows, the number of unemployed and underemployed Nigerians is rising.

Economics plays a part in the other conflicts, too. In central Nigeria, houses have been built across routes used by herdsmen. With no dedicated grazing grounds, herdsmen cut fences and drive their cattle through the crops. In most countries, such disputes would be resolved by the state; but in Nigeria it has been hollowed out by years of corruption. Thousands of policemen are allocated to guarding bigwigs and businessmen. Nigeria’s 80,000-strong army is spread thin, so many rural regions exist almost beyond state control. Vigilantes with ancient hunting rifles attempt to assert some kind of order, but their very existence simply emphasises the limitations of the government.

There are some hopeful signs. The army is better organised since Mr Buhari’s election. He has clamped down on the corruption that had diverted funds from the armed forces (the former chief of national security is under arrest, accused of bogus arms deals totalling $2.3 billion). A joint civilian-military operation in Plateau has been praised for recovering stolen cattle, mediating between sparring communities and preaching peace in schools.

The government says it will re-establish grazing pathways for nomadic herdsmen, and it is offering amnesty payments in the Delta. Safe conduct home may also be offered to fighters who joined Boko Haram for want of a job and are having second thoughts. Yet the only way to counter the forces that threaten to pull Nigeria apart is to help people out of poverty. Mr Buhari has made a start by raising spending on education. But he also needs to turn his mind to boosting economic growth, which has ground to a pace slower than population growth. Without greater opportunities, the frustrations of the young and uneducated will only worsen.

From the Economist magazine

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