Nigerians are preparing to head to the polls to either re-elect incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari or replace him with Buhari's lead challenger, Atiku Abubakar. The Feb. 16 presidential election has thrown the country into a state of political flux, risking the relative stability Nigeria has achieved since returning to multiparty democracy in 1999. But in addition to having direct political implications, growing unrest across the country also creates an environment for Nigeria's many regional and sectarian security threats to fester and spread leading up to and following the election. With the Islamic State insurgency in the northeast, the resurgence of militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south and sectarian clashes over land rights in the country's center, Africa’s most populous country is in for a turbulent few weeks.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will compete against challenger Atiku Abubakar as he tries to secure his second term in the first round of Nigeria's presidential election Feb. 16. The many diverse threats to Nigeria’s security environment, including political unrest and insurgency, could flare up during the election and throughout the transitionary period in the following weeks.
Opposition in the South
The religious rift between Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north and its predominantly Christian south is one of the oldest and most significant conflicts in the country. In recent decades, Nigerian leaders have avoided major conflict through an informal agreement to alternate control of the presidency every two terms (or every eight years). Under this agreement, the presidency still belongs to the north for the next four years. And indeed, both presidential candidates are northerners. But that doesn't mean regional tensions won't threaten the peace.
A current trial involving Nigeria's chief justice and prominent southerner, Walter Onnoghen, will be a major point of contention heading into the election. In January, Onnoghen was dismissed from office after being charged with multiple corruption-related crimes — a move many southern Nigerians took as a governmental attempt to reduce their regional influence on national policy. The event has already resulted in disruptive demonstrations in Abuja and across the south. Onnoghen’s court date is just three days before the presidential election. And while his trial is not directly linked to the election, its timing — combined with its undertones of regional divisions — could spur more protests that would overlap with the election, exacerbating political unrest.
An additional challenge linked to Nigeria's divisive regional politics is the enduring threat to national oil production in the Niger Delta. Accounting for about 9 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP) and 85 percent of exports, oil is Nigeria’s most valuable natural resource. However, it also happens to be geographically concentrated in southern Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, giving a handful of southern states a disproportionate level of influence on the nation’s economy and during disagreements over control of oil revenue.
Over the past decade, militant groups in the south have essentially extorted both foreign oil companies and the Nigerian government for a greater share of oil wealth using attacks against oil installations and personnel. Attacks in 2009 and 2016, in particular, took hundreds of thousands of barrels per day out of production — threatening not only the revenue of foreign oil companies and the local government, but the lives of personnel. The maze of creeks that make up the Delta and the area's lack of infrastructure make security operations in the region expensive and ineffective. The landscape also favors guerilla warfare, and the sprawling networks of pipelines and pump stations are notoriously difficult to defend.
Since 2016, the current Nigerian government's policy of either paying off past militant leaders or hiring them to secure the oil industry in the Delta region has largely kept oil (and revenue) flowing steadily. And as a result, the area has been relatively quiet. But this strategy is unlikely to provide a solution for much longer, as signs emerge that new militants are becoming active in the Niger Delta. In January, a group calling itself the Koluama Seven Brothers claimed responsibility for a minor pipeline attack. And while the attack appears to be an isolated incident, the transition following the election could still lead to an increase in militant activity by testing the political status quo.
Violence in the North-East and Central Regions
Meanwhile, in the North-East region, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has put Nigeria on the map of the international jihadist movement. Formerly known as Boko Haram, the long-running insurgency has survived years of Nigerian military efforts to push it back: The al-Barnawi faction continues to launch deadly attacks against security forces, while the Shekau faction has focused more on soft targets. Kidnappings are also regular occurrences, frequently targeting international aid groups.
ISWAP has a strong interest in breaking out of the northeast and conducting more attacks in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, though it has struggled to do so in recent years. Abuja was a fairly regular target of deadly ISWAP bombing campaigns from 2011 to 2015, including attacks against a UN building, shopping centers and transportation hubs. But since then, the Nigerian jihadist organization has struggled to overcome the distance between its geographic base and the centrally-located capital — much less the distance to Lagos on the polar opposite side of the country. However, the desire to attack higher profile targets outside the North-East remains, and militants continue to threaten attacks in Abuja.
The upcoming election gives ISWAP an opportunity to inflict political damage by undermining the democratic process that the Islamic State ideology opposes. The fact that ISWAP attacks have persisted — despite claims from the Nigerian military that the group has been defeated — has become a political liability for Buhari, and it will remain a burden regardless of who wins on Feb. 16. Even a modest attack on Abuja would be enough to undermine the next administration.
Finally, the deadliest current conflict in the country is the combination of violence and land disputes between predominantly Muslim herders and Christian farmers in Central Nigeria. Though clashes between the opposing sides are more geographically isolated and less threatening to national security than the actions of Niger Delta militants, Islamic State insurgents and general political protesters, the conflict does bring collateral damage and is a major threat to anyone traveling through the states of Benue, Taraba, Plateau or Kaduna. (The region is also rife with kidnappings by ransom gangs.)
Threats to Major Cities
When it comes to Nigeria's major metropolitan areas, protests and political rallies surrounding the election will likely pose the biggest and most direct threat to those in Abuja and Lagos. If the election is delayed (as was the case in 2015 when election materials were not ready in time) or ends up being too close to call, or if the results are disputed due to irregularities, the risk of violence will increase. However, most violence will target opposing political parties and government offices, meaning individuals and organizations who are not directly implicated in election disputes should be able to stay safe by keeping a low profile and avoiding major public gatherings.
In the southern oil-producing region of the Niger Delta, emerging threats such as the Koluama Seven Brothers have not demonstrated the kind of sustained, frequent attacks that have caused significant disruptions in the past. However, the oil industry remains a pressure point that southerners can push if they take issue with the election results — or, more likely, the trial of suspended Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen. Following the election, any attempts to change up the current informal peacekeeping political arrangement could also trigger a resurgence of attacks against oil infrastructure and personnel.
Islamic State fighters are all but guaranteed to carry out attacks on election-related activity in the North-East, but a true test of their capabilities will be whether they can break out of the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno, Gombe and Adamawa and strike in urban areas like Abuja. ISWAP has not proven to have a significant network of operatives outside the northeast that can support regular attacks, meaning militants must risk long treks by land with their weapons to strike against other targets. This mode of operating gives authorities and civilians ample opportunities to recognize and confront unusual activity, such as pre-operational surveillance, in order to stop an attack in the making.
Regardless of which candidate wins the presidency on Feb. 16, a climate of political instability in Nigeria will persist after the votes are tallied and the final results are announced. And during this time of transition and uncertainty, the fragile factors that have kept Nigeria’s diverse threat environment at bay in recent years will be put to the test.