Elusive Peace in West Africa and Sahel
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Sep , 2014


In October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom after decades of colonial rule. Democracy was restored in 1999 after a sixteen-year interruption; from 1966 until 1999, Nigeria had been ruled (except the short-lived second republic, 1979-1983) by military dictators who seized power in coups d’état and counter-coups during the Nigerian military juntas of 1966-1979 and 1983- 1998. Nigeria is the top oil producer in the entire African continent as well as the most populous African nation. Despite the wealth of resources that it has, Nigeria today, under the democratically elected Goodluck Johnson, is fighting a crucial fight for its survival against the terrorist organization Boko Haram that has consistently been carrying out assassinations and suicide attacks throughout Nigeria.

Today the north of Nigeria is undoubtedly poorer than the south in almost every conceivable measure.

Causes of the escalation of terrorist activity in Nigeria – North-South Dynamics

The north of Nigeria is significantly different from the south, a split roughly mirrored by a Muslim-Christian divide. During the colonial period, indirect British rule in the north buttressed such divisions, allowing the region to retain a degree of tradition at the cost of adaptation to a changing environment. This is most permanently demonstrated through the continued emphasis on Islamic education, or almajiri schools, which prioritize rote memorization of the Qur’an at the expense of developing more technical skills – playing into the origins of the name “Boko Haram.” The reinstatement of democracy in 1999, underwritten by an implicit “zoning” bargain whereby the presidency is to take turns alternating between the two regions, also symbolizes the north-south divide.

However, when current President Goodluck Jonathan (Bayelsa state) ran for re-election in 2011 after former President Umaru Yar’Adua, (Katsina state) died in office, many felt cheated. Rumours abound that angry northern elites utilized Boko Haram as a means to express their displeasure. While this has been nearly impossible to prove and links during the infancy of the Boko Haram movement may have been terminated by today, some politicians from the north have been put on trial for alleged support. Periodic bouts of unrest between Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria’s central regions, though largely attributed to resource competition, also reinforce religious divisions and underline northern Muslim fears regarding southern domination. Boko Haram has been able to tap into these grievances, and present the movement as a “defender” of Nigeria’s Muslims.

Today the north of Nigeria is undoubtedly poorer than the south in almost every conceivable measure. Combined with limited resources and deteriorating environmental factors, such as a rapidly shrinking Lake Chad, parts of northern Nigeria are economically destitute environments. Poor government leadership and corruption have contributed to the current socio-economic situation, and generate an environment lacking viable job prospects for large numbers of youth. The heavy handed response by security forces towards Boko Haram and the overall lack of justice has also engendered resentment towards the Nigerian state. Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have detailed allegations of mistreatment and the disappearance of young Muslim males, generating a backlash amongst the population, security forces are ostensibly deployed to protect.

The heavy handed response by security forces towards Boko Haram and the overall lack of justice has also engendered resentment towards the Nigerian state.

In part, as a response to the socioeconomic situation and decades of poor leadership, Zamfara became the first Nigerian state to introduce shari’ah law in 1999 – a move followed by 11 other states in short succession. Local support for shari’ah was driven by its perceived ability to reform the north and generate prosperity. In reality, this did not transpire, allowing Boko Haram to argue that its implementation has been inadequate and further call for more extreme measures. A multitude of cultural, social, and political factors define Boko Haram’s operating environment. Nonetheless, factors external to northern Nigeria, along with issues like porous regional borders and conservative religious influence from Gulf nations, also contribute to Boko Haram’s success in the North.

Refugee Crisis

This insurgency has also given rise to a refugee crisis, as scores of people have fled the affected villages and towns and headed for the border with Cameroon for their safety. There are fears of insecurity spilling over into Cameroon’s Far North Region, where authorities say there are 8,128 Nigerian refugees, but only 5,289 are registered by UNHCR. Deadly attacks by Boko Haram, and Nigeria’s military crackdown on the Islamist gunmen, have displaced entire communities across north-eastern Nigeria. The Cameroonian authorities fear that the lack of registration could ease Boko Haram infiltration into the country. Early on in October 2013, UNHCR received a report that the Cameroonian border security forces had forced 111 people back into Nigeria from a Cameroonian village on the border. Therefore; there is a potential risk for the relations between Nigeria and Cameroon to be adversely affected by this growing refugee problem. Tensions between the two governments have already begun to appear as some incidents have already taken place to put both countries on guard, such as the kidnapping of a French family of seven by Boko Haram in February 2013. More significantly, such incidents and the tension and uncertainty they create could provide a feasible to Boko Haram members to spread their activities of terror into neighbouring Cameroon as well.

Human Rights Violations

In its crackdown, the Joint task force of the Nigerian government has detained hundreds of thousands of people. Humanitarian organizations have been denied access to areas of military operation and local politicians have largely fled in fear. Government spokesmen claim unverified success after success, especially in border areas adjoining Niger and Cameroon, where the military is arresting Boko Haram members. Nevertheless, witnesses are now reporting massive civilian casualties as people are caught between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. On May 31 2013, Al Jazeera reported unverified accounts that far more civilians, including women and children, have been killed than Boko Haram members. The Nigerian government denied this report. Human rights monitors are deeply troubled that scores or possibly hundreds of detainees have gone missing in a country where security forces have a reputation for human rights abuses. The Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria has received thousands of calls from people across northern Nigeria complaining that loved ones have disappeared after being arrested by the military or police in the past three years.

The majority of the population of the region suffers from chronic food insecurity and malnutrition.

In sum all fighting parties are committing act of human rights violations of various forms. Boko Haram, however, in carrying out terrorist attacks against everyone that is against the group’s beliefs, continues to commit the worst violations.

The Humanitarian Crisis of the Sahel

The Sahel region has one of the world’s highest poverty rates and lowest development levels. This is linked to a series of structural factors including, high demographic growth; low levels of education; lack of access to basic services; weak social protection systems; political instability; conflicts; weak economies; and trends towards urbanization and rural exodus. The majority of the population of the region suffers from chronic food insecurity and malnutrition. In the countries of the Sahel acute malnutrition rates are persistently above the internationally recognized alert threshold of 10% Global Acute *Malnutrition (GAM) rate. Every year, roughly 230,000 children die of malnutrition and health- related consequences, even in years when no acute emergency has been declared.

What aggravates the situation is the widespread outbreak of endemic diseases due to poor access to health services, low coverage of immunization, limited access to clean water and sanitation. Population growth is among the highest in the world (on average, the population of the Sahel doubles every 25 years). This increases pressure on natural resources and food supply. Approximately 10.3 million people remain food insecure and over 1.4 million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition in 2013. While it is imperative that development actors themselves refine and scale up their programs to support resilience, currently, humanitarian assistance has a crucial and complementary role to play in supporting households rebuild resilience, and in ensuring early warning and risk reduction against future disasters. Furthermore, the refugee crisis that has emanated in the region as a result of the situation, first in Mali, then in Nigeria has already impacted access to basic services and, in addition to the existing food insecurity crisis, putting more pressure on resources for recipient host communities. It is also likely to exacerbate intercommunity tension.

it is essential that an immediate and effective response is provided to the people and an equally effective and foolproof long term strategy is made in order to alleviate poverty, adjust food insecurity and enhance the resilience of the people of the Sahel.

UN OCHA estimates that at the beginning of 2014, there were almost 20 million people in the Sahel not knowing when or where they will have their next meal. 5 million children are expected to become malnourished in 2014. The crisis and ongoing fighting in the regions as led many people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. This further strain already limited resources of these countries, adding to the severity of the humanitarian crisis. Therefore, it is essential that an immediate and effective response is provided to the people and an equally effective and foolproof long term strategy is made in order to alleviate poverty, adjust food insecurity and enhance the resilience of the people of the Sahel.

Past UN Action

To address the challenges in the Sahel region, the UN has been trying to adopt resolutions to resolve the blazing issues. Following the influx of returnees to the region from Libya and the resumption of armed conflict in northern Mali, the Security Council convened a series of meetings and adopted resolutions 2056 (2012), 2071 (2012) and 2085 (2012), in addition to a presidential statement on 10 December 2012 (S/PRST/2012/26), to effectively address the interrelated challenges facing the Sahel. UN-Security Council Resolution 2056, unanimously adopted on July 5th 2012 by the 15- nation body, called for sanctions against rebel fighters in northern Mali. The resolution also warned that the desecration of Muslim shrines in the northern city of Timbuktu, blamed on fighters from the group Ansar Dine, could lead to charges of war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC). It also included a road map for restoration of constitutional order in Mali.

In Resolution 2071, adopted on October 12th 2012, the Security Council declared its readiness to respond to Mali’s request for an international military force. It also took note of the country’s requests to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for military assistance, and requested the Secretary-General immediately to provide military and security planners to assist joint ECOWAS and African Union planning efforts in order to tackle the continuing deterioration of the security and humanitarian situations and the increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements with the aim of allowing the Malians to regain their sovereignty and the integrity of their territory and to fight against international terrorism. In December 2012, the Security Council approved Resolution 2085 (2012), authorizing the use of force to reclaim Mali’s Northern territory and approving the deployment of an international support mission in Mali (African-led International Support Mission in Mali – AFISMA) as well as the training on human rights of Malian security forces. Malian authorities have also adopted a roadmap for the transition, scheduling in particular the holding of general elections on 31 July 2013.

Following the influx of returnees to the region from Libya and the resumption of armed conflict in northern Mali, the Security Council convened a series of meetings…

In April 2013, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2100 (2013), establishing the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) by 1 July 2013, and thereby transferring the functions of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) — set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — to the new entity. The Council authorized MINUSMA to use all necessary means, in support of the transitional authorities of Mali, to stabilize key population centres, especially in the north, deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas. It would support Mali’s transitional authorities to extend and re-establish State administration throughout the country, and support both national and international efforts towards rebuilding the Malian security sector.

In the recent Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in the Sahel region from June 2013, the UN special envoy Romano Prodi, called on the Security Council to back a framework that would guide the United Nations collective efforts in capacity building to address resilience, cross border threats and inclusive governance. He proposed a strategy for the Sahel region, aiming to bolster governance, security, humanitarian requirements and development, while enhancing coordination in four spheres between the Governments of the region, the international community, the people of the Sahel, and within the UN system. The United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel is built around three broad areas of support formulated as strategic goals and organized according to key themes:

  • Inclusive and effective governance throughout the region is enhanced
  • National and regional security mechanisms are capable of addressing cross-border threats
  • Humanitarian and development plans and interventions are integrated to build long- term resilience.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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