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Playing politics with Nigeria’s insurgency risks civil war

Boko Haram illustration

'Boko Haram' AK Rockefeller under a Creative Commons Licence

Unlike in Iraq, there is no civil war in Nigeria. But it can have one if it wants one.

Boko Haram, whose insurgency is concentrated in the northeast of the country, is a dangerous but fringe movement. It is not a popular northern insurrection.

It has little support either among the people or, for the time being, the northern élite. Its appeal to northerners is limited because of its violence against Muslims. The dominance of the Kanuri ethnicity in its ranks also undermines its appeal to the Hausa-Fulani – the biggest and most powerful ethnic group in northern Nigeria.

But things can change quickly. Nigerians should look to Iraq, where a fringe band of fanatics in the form of ISIS have suddenly united Sunni tribes against the Iraqi state.

Boko Haram does not presently have the capacity to threaten the integrity of the Nigerian state. But as politicians continue to play politics with the insurgency, they risk a broader conflict that could do just that.

The upcoming presidential and National Assembly elections in February 2015 present a moment of danger for Nigeria.

Tensions between north and south have been simmering for some time. Ever since President Jonathan decided to stand again for the presidency, the north has felt locked out of power. In Nigeria, there’s an unwritten rule that the presidency should rotate between a northerner and a southerner. Jonathan, from the south, has broken it.

Now he wants to run once more.

There are rumours the government won’t allow people in the three northern states most affected by the insurgency – Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe – to participate in the elections. The reason commonly given is security concerns, but some fear the real motive is to deny the opposition party critical votes in part of its northern stronghold.

Already shut out of the presidency, many northerners may soon find themselves shut out of the election.

The Nigerian state is already loathed in the north. Seventy-two per cent of northerners live in poverty. The people there look to the prosperous and oil-rich south and the extravagances of the wealthy élite, and they see the state is failing them.

They live in fear of Boko Haram, which the government has been unable to defeat. Instead, and far too often, they’ve suffered atrocities at the hands of Nigerian soldiers. When the governor of Adamawa State spoke out against the excesses of the army, he was promptly impeached and removed from office.

Everything is seen through the lens of the elections. And in the febrile world of Nigerian politics, everything is fair game for politicization. Are people angry and disinclined to vote for the governing party because of poverty and conflict? Disenfranchise them. Is an opposition governor complaining about the excesses of the army? Remove him from office.

The latest casualty is the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party. Some in the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have started to accuse the APC of actually supporting Boko Haram. They imply the APC is just a front for a radical and violent Islamist agenda.

The aim is to confine the APC’s appeal to the Muslim north. But the more Nigeria’s politics becomes solely about north versus south, Muslim versus Christian, the more likely it is that the north will start to draw battle lines. The more northerners are denied their part in the political process and their share of power, the more they will turn against the already unpopular state.

The nightmare scenario is that Boko Haram is superseded by, or transformed into, a broader northern insurrection. This isn’t just fanciful thinking. The recipe is there – the poverty and inequality, the human rights violations, the political exclusion. All that’s needed is the fuel to light the fire.

It’s not just the governing PDP who risk playing politics with conflict. The APC have have spent too much time accusing the PDP of causing the insurgency and not enough time offering constructive solutions.

A few days ago, the National Assembly refused to grant President Jonathan a $1 billion loan to fund the notoriously under-equipped army. The APC criticized the loan, accusing the government of corruption. Corruption there certainly is, but the army still needs resources if it’s going to stop Boko Haram’s territorial gains in the northeast. Denying the loan was irresponsible politicking.

The government may gain from painting the opposition as Boko Haram sympathizers and denying northerners the vote. The opposition may also gain from highlighting the government’s failure to halt the insurgency. But the biggest winner will be Boko Haram itself.

While politicians have been busily throwing accusations at each other, the insurgents are making alarming gains. They are reported to have thrown the army out of the town of Damboa in Borno State and hoisted their flag. Now they threaten the state capital, Maiduguri.

The insurgents have also renewed attacks on Nigeria’s middle belt. This includes a string of bomb attacks in Abuja, and an assassination attempt on former military ruler and likely presidential contender Muhammadu Buhari in Kaduna.

Even more troubling is Boko Haram’s first successful attack in Lagos, Nigeria’s sprawling commercial capital. A few weeks ago a female suicide bomber blew herself up next to a petrol tanker. At first the authorities claimed it was an accident, but now it seems clear Boko Haram was responsible.

But the country’s leaders are distracted. A disturbing electoral haze has appeared before their eyes, blinding them to the gains made by Boko Haram, to the need to equip the army for battle, to the immense dangers of further alienating the north.

There are some voices who give us hope. The Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, has spoken of the need for depoliticization. In June he said of Boko Haram, ‘Our political leaders, irrespective of their party affiliation, must now band together to defeat what is clearly our common enemy… Politicizing the war against Boko Haram is causing a lot of trouble.’ Some APC leaders, too, have called for a national unity conference to agree on a plan to tackle Boko Haram.

We need to hear more of these voices, and they must speak louder. Otherwise Nigeria will pay the price for politicization – an insurgency strengthened and emboldened, and a country tearing in two.

Andrew Noakes is a counter-terrorism expert and Co-ordinator of the Nigeria Security Network (NSN). He tweets @andrew_noakes

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