Insecurity, Displacement, and Mistrust in Northeast Nigeria

As the summer winds down and my internship with USIP enters its final two weeks, I am wrapping up my memo on insecurity and displacement in Northeast Nigeria. This project, my main assignment for the summer, required me to gather and organize a variety of sources to produce a clear picture of the ongoing challenges facing the region. As I noted in my first blog post, one particularly relevant and timely aspect of my research was its focus on the relationship between security forces (military, police, community vigilantes) and civilians. While the U.S. and nations around the globe have grappled with institutional racism and police brutality, so too has Nigeria been forced to confront the harsh reality that relations between civilians and their protectors are characterized by mistrust, fear, and a lack of accountability.

This blog is not an adequate medium in which to convey all of the findings recorded in my memo, but I would like to use this post to highlight at least some important pieces of information. Who knows, you may even read these notes and decide to follow-up on further reading to continue your own education on the subject. At the very least, this post should give a simplified answer to the following questions:  What is occurring in Northeast Nigeria? What threats do internally displaced persons (IDPs) face in the Northeast? And what issues have made relations between civilians and security forces in Nigeria so tense?

Without further ado, here are some key findings from my research:

  • Since the beginning of open conflict with Boko Haram in 2009, over 36,000 Nigerian civilians have been killed in the Northeast states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY). Today, there are nearly 1.9 million IDPs in the BAY states, while 7.9 million Nigerians require humanitarian aid. Another 800,000 civilians are located in “hard-to-reach” areas with little to no government presence.
  • Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in insecurity has occurred. Across Nigeria, incidents jumped from 192 in March to 256 in April and 312 in May. Furthermore, the diversion of resources and forces from camps to handle the COVID-19 outbreak has left those most vulnerable even more susceptible to attacks by JAS and ISWAP, the two most prominent Boko Haram factions. One ISWAP attack in June left 81 dead, more than the total lives claimed by the coronavirus in Borno State.
  • IDPs face further insecurity from the forces meant to protect them. A variety of human rights abuses committed by security forces have been documented, including burning down homes to prevent Boko Haram capture,  extortion, and use of live bullets and tear gas on protestors. Torture and extrajudicial killings are common, with at least 92 civilians reportedly killed by police between March 2019 and February 2020. Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) remains a significant threat with 717 reported cases of rape recorded between January and May 2020. In and around camps, some forces are reported to have sexually exploited IDPs in exchange for life-saving supplies.
  • With military-protected garrison towns (or “super camps”) gathering thousands of IDPs into one area, rural communities have been largely abandoned to attacks. IDPs unable to reach a garrison town receive weaker humanitarian aid in host communities . Furthermore, political pressure to resettle IDPs in their homes too soon only serves to perpetuate the cycle of displacement, insurgency, and death within the BAY states. Camp congestion and dependency on humanitarian aid have been intensified by COVID-19, leaving IDPs particularly vulnerable to the virus.
  • Youth are particularly vulnerable, with many having no option but to join the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) or another vigilante group to avoid suspicion from the military. Without investing in education, youth engagement, infrastructure, and resource allocation, the government is unlikely to address the root causes of poverty, extremism, and insecurity in the Northeast.
  • Insecurity is exacerbated by long-standing lack of trust between security forces and community members. IDPs are more likely to trust traditional and religious leaders than security forces. The lack of accountability among security forces is a major source of tension and mistrust. Despite at least 20 inquiries to examine human rights abuses committed by forces between 2009 and 2018, no prosecutions were pursued. Unlawful detention, particularly of children fleeing Boko Haram territory, is accompanied by a lack of transparency and inaccessibility for observers to ensure just treatment.
  • The overall ineffectiveness of security forces in combatting insurgency further undermines community-security relations. The government’s approach to the crisis has been military-centric, and yet the nation spent only 0.5% of its GDP from 1999-2018 on defense. The military has conducted over 40 different operations since 2015, but, with no clear goals and little change to the security situation, the campaigns are just empty names. In a country of 200 million, the current police force of 370,000 is stretched too thin. While downplaying defeats, the government has wrongly claimed that Boko Haram has been removed from all areas and IDPs can resettle their homes.
  • Even with some successes against Boko Haram, military checkpoints and roadblocks have cut off or delayed essential humanitarian supplies. Failure to coordinate the various security actors and humanitarian organizations has led to duplicated efforts and confusion, while an unclear framework for managing camps has turned IDPs into political pawns. A lack of access and transparency has made it difficult to hold the appropriate people accountable or reach the most vulnerable civilians. Repeated attacks against journalists also hinder essential reporting of the ongoing security situation.
  • Amidst tense community-security relations, there have been many calls for reform. One of the most common ideas is community policing, which has gained steam in several parts of the nation. There are concerns that community policing will remain largely centralized, rather than locally driven, and will lack adequate training and funding. Regional security forces or state-run forces could provide greater connection to local communities, but some fear they could become instruments of ethnic oppression by governors. Others have called for the integration of local militias into the formal security structure. These informal forces can serve as a trusted bridge between civilians and police, but concerns about past human rights abuses could make the vetting process challenging.

Ok, so maybe this summary wasn’t quite so brief, but I do hope it at least provides you with an initial understanding of the displacement and insecurity crises facing Northeast Nigeria. I have learned so much this summer and look forward to continuing my research in these final two weeks and beyond.