Conflicts between pastoralists and resident local communities are not new in Nigeria. A violent attack on my village by nearby pastoralists in northern Nigeria in June highlights yet again the inability of the military to tackle this aggression.
For the past two years there have been violent clashes in many parts of the north – in Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Niger, Taraba, Katsina and Zamfara states – yet it is the Boko Haram insurgency that attracts global media attention. In all cases, the lack of action from the state continues to baffle observers.
Usually, Boko Haram militants emerge in convoys of trucks and motorbikes and take several hours to inflict violence in communities, and retreat to their base without any response from the military. Similarly, pastoralists and cattle rustlers will arrive at rural communities, where they unleash terror for days without any effective response from security agencies. It seems the security establishment is unable to address these constant threats, regardless of who they are coming from.
The failure of the state security agencies – the military, police, secret police – to confront this violence is sometimes attributed to incapacity. But many say deep corruption prevents the military from containing the insurgencies.
The complex dynamic of religion, locality and hierarchy in Nigeria tends to blur the issues and reduce everything to a competition between Christianity and Islam, or north v south. The governments at the federal, state and local level subtly play up these sentiments and exploit them for popular support from a divided citizenry. In addition, the local elite have a tendency to tap in to this rhetoric to maintain their turf and position.
Corruption in the military and other security agencies is rooted in the government’s uniquely strange and ambiguous understanding of the concept of security. “Security matters are highly sensitive”, is a common cliche in such circles, entrenching the idea that these matters need not be subject to public scrutiny.
This school of thought gained traction under many years of military rule, as demonstrated by the late despot Sani Abacha, who looted about £2.5bn under shady “security” heads from 1993-98.
In 2010, the government awarded a $470m (£274m) contract for security across the capital. However, few of the hundreds of cameras installed function, yet the work was paid for and signed off. Since this increased security effort, there have been seven bombings in Abuja, and yet despite the investment, the security agencies cannot track from where the bombs originate. In spite of this blatant failure to properly address insecurity in the capital, attempting to understand what happened is barred. A media inquest was made harder with a “secret clause” that prevents parties to the contract from disclosure.
In the huge military operation in the north east, where Boko Haram operates, which has been in place since a state of emergency was imposed in 2013, there are complaints by army members. These soldiers have often claimed that their budgeted allowance for dangerous field duties are shaved off by commanders, leaving them with less than 50% in some cases.
After protests by some aggrieved soldiers in Maiduguri, the army spokesman attributed their complaints to the absence of a commander who was away on training. The soldiers were dismissed as mutinous, and handed to a military court. Yet, the reality is that troops endure horrific conditions – they often lack tents or sleeping bags, many must scavenge for firewood to cook and they live a destitute life – hardly the motivation or replenishment required to fight a violent and constant aggressor.
Despite glaring corruption, politicians brush aside these issues and continue to bicker over the pending national elections. Many citizens believe there is complicity by the highest levels of the Nigerian state and ruling elite to allow these killings for political reasons, particularly in the runup to the 2015 polls.
The recent deployment of thousands of troops and equipment to protect ballot boxes during the Ekiti state gubernatorial elections is testament to the idea of complicity. Forces blocked opposition party members from campaigning before the election, yet did not apply similar support elsewhere, within more fragile parts of the country.
Regardless of who is attacking whom, there is no doubt that state security in Nigeria is a contentious issue that undermines trust in the government. It is a matter that is excluded from Nigeria’s freedom of information law and entwined with ongoing corruption. With this deeply entrenched culture, the likelihood of ending Nigeria’s insurgencies seems like a distant prospect.
Philip Ikita, a Rotary peace scholar at the University of Bradford, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies