In Nigeria, Politics and Militancy Go Hand in Hand

11 MINS READAug 31, 2018 | 17:38 GMT
An aerial photograph from February 2017 shows a burnt village, believed to have been attacked by Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria.

An aerial photograph from February 2017 shows a burnt village, believed to have been attacked by Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria, between Maiduguri and Monguno district in Borno State. The Nigerian air force has constructed a makeshift runway as part of military tactics to counter the Boko Haram insurgency and to accelerate distribution of relief materials by donor agencies to internally displaced people in northeastern Nigeria, where the conflict with Boko Haram has killed at least 20,000 people and left more than 2.6 million homeless in its six-year insurgency.

  • Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, whose political coalition and party have suffered dozens of defections in the National Assembly, will face a significant election test in February, when he hopes to win a second term.
  • The country's main opposition alliance will select a northern presidential candidate to match Buhari; the two sides could split votes in the northwestern areas, making competition elsewhere the deciding factor.
  • Militancy will play a critical role in next year's elections as Nigeria's various stakeholders try to exploit the country's insecurity for political gain.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments to watch in the coming quarter.

Elections scheduled for February will come into focus as Nigeria enters the final quarter of 2018. President Muhammadu Buhari will be running again, though dozens of defections from his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party to the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, have altered the balance of power within the National Assembly and will test his re-election plans. And in Nigeria, politics and militancy go hand in hand, and the country's leadership at times has tacitly backed, exploited and used insecurity as a political weapon. The close connection between politics and militancy certainly will be a key factor in determining whether Buhari, a former military head of state turned civilian president, will be able to earn a second term.

The Big Picture

Nigeria will be focused on upcoming national and state elections over the next six months. And that means the country's diverse ethnic groups and regions will try to spin the elections in their favor. Exploiting, manipulating and using Nigeria's insecurity is a key part of that process, which makes the country's security situation over the next six months especially important.

Politics and Militancy

More than 190 million people are crammed into Nigeria, which is roughly twice the size of California. Although Africa's most populous country is commonly described as being split roughly in half between the Muslim north and Christian south, this oversimplification ignores the significant divisions between the Kanuri and Hausa ethnic groups in the north and the Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw ethnic groups in the south. For a nation-state artificially created in its colonial past, managing these divisions — north-south, east-west, Christian-Muslim — has proved difficult. Between 1966 and 1993, the government was overthrown eight times and several political and military leaders were killed in coups, countercoups and coup attempts as military officers of different backgrounds sought to control and exploit the country for their respective constituencies.

There has not been an attempted coup in Nigeria since it changed to civilian government in 1999. Since then, its political elite has followed an unwritten rule that power should rotate among the country's diverse population. Nigeria has been effectively split into six geopolitical zones: the North-West, North-East, North-Central, South-West, South-East and South-South. Each region more or less represents a key ethnic group or stakeholder, such as the Yoruba (South-West), Igbo (South-East), Ijaw (South-South), Hausa (North-West) and Kanuri (North-East). Power rotates among these six zones while oscillating between the larger north and south. The vice presidency also rotates among the zones in a way that prevents the north or south from having the presidency and vice presidency at the same time. In theory, this setup ensures that neither the north or south can monopolize power and that each of its eight zones — over the course of 48 years — would control the presidency for eight years and the vice presidency for eight years.

This arrangement has allowed Nigeria to manage some of its flashpoints and allowed for political power to be more balanced. But the country has consistently faced insurgencies and insecurity that various politicians and tribal elders have exploited as they jockeyed for influence and power within this structure. A critical example occurred when Goodluck Jonathan (from the South-South) assumed the presidency in May 2010 after the death of Umaru Yaradua (from the North-West). He and his allies used the Niger Delta insurgency, led by groups like the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and backed to a degree by local politicians, to help secure his term as president in January 2011. Jonathan successfully argued that he, as a son of the Niger Delta, could bring peace to the region through a negotiated settlement and amnesty program.

Buhari's Rise to Power

Buhari had a similar message when he defeated Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election. Jonathan had been criticized in the north and South-West for disrupting the balance of power by running for a second term — for seeking, in effect, more than eight years in office, including his succession after Yaradua's death. At the same time, the rise of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly and commonly known as Boko Haram, offered the north an opportunity. As the coalition around Jonathan fell apart over his controversial run, most of the northern branch of the PDP allied with Buhari, who promised to defeat Boko Haram and end the corruption that plagued the government run by Jonathan and his Niger Delta allies.

Buhari won the presidency with an alliance between the north and the South-East, but his coalition has proved to be flimsy for several reasons. First, while his anti-corruption campaign has produced some high-profile successes, his critics have accused him of using it to target political opponents, particularly Christian ones in the south. Second, the economy under Buhari has stagnated as his economic team has struggled to respond to lower oil prices, which fell precipitously as he took office in 2015. Third, he has been accused of pursuing a policy of "northernization" by putting his northern allies in charge of key portfolios and industries, such as the energy sector. Fourth, Buhari's heavy-handed strategy against militants has come under scrutiny this year, particularly thanks to a resurgence by Boko Haram. Finally, the 75-year-old president has spent considerable time in London for health reasons — including two weeks in August and more than three months in 2017 — generating concern that he will not be able to complete a second term.

For these reasons, Buhari's alliance has fractured. Beyond the defections within the National Assembly, the opposition PDP leads the Coalition of United Political Parties, a collection of more than 30 opposition parties allied for February's presidential election. Perhaps most importantly, it looks like the PDP will also be zoning the presidency to the north, and most likely the North-West where Buhari is from. This will blunt Buhari's advantage throughout the north and likely allow the PDP to remain strong in the Niger Delta region, where the APC has struggled to break through.

The reorganization of the political scene means that different politicians will try again to exploit the security environment to gain electoral advantage. Thus far Buhari's strategy with militants has balanced between sticks and carrots, but he has opted for a military response when in doubt. There are four key areas of insecurity — the North-East, South-East, Niger Delta and Middle Belt — that will be pivotal areas for the next year's elections.

North-East: Boko Haram's Resurgence

While ISWAP is no longer a threat to control large swaths of territory in Nigeria, the terrorist group has successfully conducted attacks and the risk of such attacks has increased in 2018. ISWAP militants have had no problem getting financing, weapons, ammunition and explosives by raiding military convoys and bases and extorting money through kidnapping. Today ISWAP is split into two factions. The first is led by Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram after the death of founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. This faction primarily targets civilian sites such as mosques, schools and refugee camps. The second faction, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of Yusuf, has been growing in its capabilities this year and has recently attacked military bases and security forces, though it has not targeted civilians as much (the main reason for the split).

A graphic mapping violent incidents in Nigeria involving ISWAP.

Buhari's promise to solve the Boko Haram problem earned him near-universal support in the north in 2015. With the PDP now likely pitting its own northern candidate against him, Buhari needs more than promises to win support there. He initially found success against ISWAP by launching a heavy offensive against the group when it held territory, but he has not been able to solve many of the underlying reasons why ISWAP continues to attract recruits in the North-East.

The area, which does not have the economic weight of the North-West, always has been one of Nigeria's more neglected parts. The Kanuri ethnic group also pales in size to the Muslim Hausa population. Boko Haram originally was able to take advantage of Kanuri marginalization to attain a steady flow of recruits, and while it has widened its ideology to bring more Hausa into its fold, it continues to use the North-East as a recruiting ground. Buhari simply cannot solve the region's economic problems without taking economic spoils — mainly generated from oil revenue — from elsewhere in Nigeria. It's a zero-sum game.

Niger Delta (South-South)

Despite Jonathan's losing the presidency three years ago, the Niger Delta — a former hotbed of militancy — has remained relatively quiet for much of Buhari's term. This is in stark contrast to the late 2000s when the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and other groups enjoyed widespread tacit political support and conducted frequent attacks. In fact, with the exception of some common local-level sabotage, there has not been a major attack on Nigeria's oil and gas infrastructure since 2016, despite continued threats by new groups such as the Niger Delta Avengers.

A couple of reasons explain the quiet. First, Ijaw tribal elders and many of the state governors and militants from the 2006-09 peak of Niger Delta militancy have not supported a return to arms. The government offered many of the region's militant leaders lucrative contracts to protect certain facilities, and many rank-and-file members signed up for an amnesty program that began under Jonathan. Thus a younger generation of Niger Delta militants have not found the same political space in which to operate as their predecessors.

Second, Buhari has maintained a heavy military presence in the region to protect some key facilities. Nonetheless, the APC and PDP will be squaring off politically there, which is likely to remain a PDP stronghold because the APC has struggled to make inroads. Violence is not likely to increase significantly ahead of next year's elections, but should Buhari's campaign become more aggressive and discontinue some of the concessions he has made, such as security contracts, the Niger Delta could become active again if he wins re-election.

Biafra Movements (South-East)

To the Niger Delta's north sits the South-East geopolitical zone. The region was home to Biafra secession and an unsuccessful war for independence in the 1960s. Since Buhari took office, the South-East has seen a resurgence in the Biafra independence movement, particularly from the Igbo ethnic group, after the Jonathan government attempted to appease them through concessions. There are several different factions of the Biafra movement, but the most significant one is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

IPOB, along with other Biafra movements, continues to back secession as a possibility. Buhari's response has been heavy-handed, and the military has conducted several exercises in the region over the past three years. One exercise in September 2017 led to the disappearance of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu, who has not been seen or heard from since. Thus far, IPOB and the other movements have pursued nonviolent actions, organizing strikes, sit-ins and stay-at-homes.

While there is a young population of Igbos backing secession, the movement's capabilities are limited, and many tribal elders and political leaders recognize that an independent state of Biafra is not realistic. Instead, they are likely to attempt to exploit the Biafra movement's resurgence in Nigeria's rotational power structure. To date, the South-East zone has yet to hold the vice presidency or presidency. The area's leaders eventually will seek to exploit the violence in their state and their ability to appease it to try to ensure that when power rotates back to the south, it will go to a person from the South-East.

The Middle Belt (Primarily North-Central)

Perhaps the region where conflict could be a challenge is in the Middle Belt, or roughly its North-Central geopolitical zone. Conflict here has been overshadowed by the Niger Delta, Boko Haram and the Biafra independence movements, but the region is no less important. Much like the South-East, the Middle Belt has been neglected politically when power rotates north. Violence in the North-Central states of Plateau and Benue has been between herders, who are mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulani, and farmers, who are primarily Christians. More than 500 people are estimated to have been killed in 2018.

Given the Middle Belt's position between the north and south, it is a critical point of balance that could decide next year's presidential election if the north is split between the APC and the PDP and the south remains divided between the pro-APC South-West and pro-PDP Niger Delta. This puts Middle Belters in an important position, and Buhari has been accused of overlooking the region (just like Jonathan did). The timing is perhaps not right for the Middle Belt to demand the presidency, but it doesn't mean that both sides of Nigeria's political equation won't hunker down and try to offer the region their own solutions.

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