Deadly attacks by various organised political and religious groups as well as a rise in violent crime has created a febrile climate of fear hanging over most of Nigeria. With the media hyping up emotions with often exaggerated coverage, the situation seems to be heading towards a dangerous explosion. Ejiroghene Barrett, in Lagos, writes that the country’s leadership needs to de-escalate the situation and rein in the media.
A news report in one of Nigeria’s leading dailies reads “Nigerians are under siege by bandits, terrorists and other criminal elements…”. This may be a bit exaggerated, but such headlines capture the wave of public concern that has been stirred by media reports, and which needs to be addressed.
The current security situation presents a paradox. Amidst the scars of a 14-year insurgency by the Islamist Boko Haram and its associate group, the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), life in Maiduguri, capital city of the country’s Northeastern state of Borno, the state hardest hit by the Islamist insurgency, is slowly picking up pace once again.
In contrast, security forces are grappling with new challenges emerging in other theatres across the country. A spate of violent attacks and kidnappings by ‘bandits’- a blanket term used by the country’s media to describe all new actors in this complex security maze, has created another battlefront for the government.
This new phase in Nigeria’s security conundrum is a complex one. Much like the Northeast, the country’s Northwest has become a major theatre of conflict.
A problem that started in 2011 and was initially confined to communal disputes between two of Nigeria’s main ethnic groups, Fulani cattle herders and local Hausa farmers, over access to land, has morphed into a national and regional security threat unleashing a wave of robberies and kidnappings across vast areas in Nigeria and neighbouring countries.
This previously contained conflict now has serious political implications that will undoubtedly shape the debates leading up to the 2023 elections.
In the country’s Southeast, resurgent calls for secession by some members of Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group, the Igbos, originating from claims of political marginalisation, have evolved into violent confrontations between members of the outlawed pro-Igbo separatist group, the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), and the country’s security forces.
A report by International Crisis Group (ICG) in 2020 indicated that since late 2019, ISWAP and Ansaru, a splinter group of Boko Haram that was active in the Northwest between 2011 and 2014, have started taking credit for attacks in the region – similar to what happened with the Tuareg rebellion in Mali.
The report notes that in October 2019, ISWAP claimed responsibility for an attack on Nigerian troops in Sokoto, a state in the Northwest of the country.
On 12 February, 2022, members of ISWAP carried out an attack on the railway line linking the country’s capital, Abuja, with Kaduna, the second- largest city in the entire north, killing eight passengers and abducting 61.
There have been three other major security breaches around Abuja since the February attack, raising worries about an alarming build-up of terror groups close to the nation’s seat of power.
One of these was an attack claimed by the same ISWAP on one of the country’s largest correctional facilities, the Kuje prisons, situated within the Federal Capital Territory, freeing about 900 of the prison’s 994 inmates, including incarcerated members of the Islamist group, according to government officials.
In spite of major successes recorded by the military against the different terror groups, including exterminating many of the insurgent groups around Abuja and Kaduna, the casualty figures from terror attacks are still worrying.
The Nigeria Security Tracker (NST), a project of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), reports that the insecurity has resulted in no fewer than 5,000 deaths in Nigeria between January and June, 2022. Although there was a decline in the numbers by about 650, the figures still present a serious challenge.
A major cause of the conflict in the Northwest – and resurgent questioning of Nigeria’s continued existence as a unified state – is the evolving dispute over cattle grazing rights and the incendiary consequences of cattle encroachment on communal farmlands across the country.
The reasons are obvious; two important factors seem to have played, incidentally, into the hands of a well-coordinated public campaign during the 2015 elections that portrayed Buhari’s candidacy as a grand scheme for Fulani political dominance and the Islamisation of Nigeria.
One is the growing migration by cattle herders from encroaching desertification in both the Sahara and the Sahel in search of new grazing lands to avoid famine and wars.
These migrants have been infiltrated by marauding bands of outlaws, making it difficult to draw clear distinctions between simple nomads and villains. These infiltrations have been buoyed by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons across West Africa from persistent conflicts, including from post-Gaddafi Libya.
The other factor is a reluctance by successive Nigerian governments to regulate the activities of cattle herders over the years.
There is also a conspiratorial angle to the current situation that has become popular. Many within and outside the government believe the insurrections are too well organised to be random, insisting that there are political undertones.
Nigeria’s former army chief, General Buratai, once claimed that the government possessed strong evidence identifying some politicians as sponsors of rural banditry.
These are strong claims but they are reinforced by the unusual origins of some of these subversive forces. IPOB’s insistence on secession is not new to the Southeast, but the group and its leader, British-born Nnamdi Kanu, suddenly emerged on the political scene about the same time as Buhari won the Presidential elections in 2015.
Some pundits have expressed suspicions that the group may have been set up intentionally as a disruptive force against the government.
IPOB remains a major threat to functional governance in the Southeast, where its members have claimed responsibility for several violent attacks on government establishments and against members of the Fulani and Hausa ethnic groups, stoking ethnic tensions.
How the media reports the events
Nigeria’s mainstream media organisations have gained a reputation for themselves as purveyors of sectional sentiments in the ongoing crisis.
The media has taken full license in inventing terms and choreographing public reactions to the events as they unfold. One example is the manipulation of defining terms.
The terms ‘herdsmen’ and ‘bandits’ have become synonymous with all violent gangs operating along Nigeria’s highways and rural communities, encouraging the oversimplification of a complex identity construct.
The media’s narratives about insecurity have been described by many as sensational and been blamed for echoing the ethnic and religious stereotypes that dominate public discourse, downplaying other factors that have been responsible for the security challenges.
Radio stations allowing callers to misinform listeners, providing a platform to freely accuse a particular ethnic group of killings and kidnappings without evidence, present a potential threat to peace.
There have been several calls for censoring media reports to avoid inciting sentiments that could lead to escalation on the scale of the Rwanda genocide.
One such voice is that of the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari. He urges the media to address the “tone, content, and standards of reporting into security and safety measures”.
Nigeria’s defence chief, Major-General Lucky E. O. Irabor, has also spoken up, emphasising the need to implement a press code for responsible journalism that would include the development of guidelines for reporting stories of conflict and terrorism.
Presenting a workable solution
The debates about Nigeria’s security structure will be prominent in the campaigns. Political alignments will obviously weigh heavily over a rational conversation on the ways to address the current insecurity.
The candidates in the 2023 Presidential race will need to present practical strategies that would address the issue of insecurity and find lasting solutions to the contentious debates over grazing rights.
The struggle to successfully spread its influence across the country means the federal government would need to relinquish some of its functions to its federating units.
One such major function is the federal government’s exclusive control of the country’s police. The growing demands for states to establish their own police forces is a topic that has pitched the central government against the states for a long time and remains of major concern for many Nigerians.
The media’s incitement of sectional sentiments has diverted the spotlight from core concerns that need to be addressed; this includes coverage of serious proposals for investment in training and equipping the country’s police to ease the responsibilities placed on the armed forces currently.
On the Southeast issue, some commentators say the government would do well to hold back from violent suppression of the demands for secession and rather, commence a process to reassess Nigeria’s federal structure.
On the opposite side are those who consider the demand for a reassessment unnecessary and who see the country’s unity as non-negotiable. These diverse opinions will feature significantly in public debates.
During the forthcoming elections, being able to presenting clear plans on how to stem the current tide is likely to determine who gets voted in or booted out of government.
The election campaigns will also have to adequately address perceptions formed by the prevailing media narratives. How these messages will be received will largely depend on what side of the fence one is standing on.
The menace posed by insecurity is the big elephant in the room, with many politicians and public figures skirting around it or the media using it to sell their wares, but it requires sober, expert and wide-ranging discussion to find not only solutions but the methodology to carry out the strategies. Insecurity is a flame that is gaining momentum and left unchecked, it could consume the whole country.