Rising insecurity in northwest Nigeria: Terrorism thinly disguised as banditry

Police patrol inside the Government Science school in Kankara, in northwestern Katsina state, Nigeria December 13, 2020. Picture taken December 13, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

In spite of government efforts, the security situation in Nigeria is deteriorating. Indeed, the lingering conflict between herders and farmers in north-central Nigeria has been rated six times deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency. The recent abductions of schoolboys in Kankara community, Katsina State and in Niger State are more examples of the deplorable state of security in the country. Notably, the unprecedented increase in violent attacks is defying the sustained narrative among analysts that the northwest is relatively peaceful compared to the northeast—even though the northwest is poorer; worse governed in some areas; and has lower levels of human development.

The banditry-terrorism nexus in northwest Nigeria

The rising insecurity in the northwest—vicious attacks on local communities and kidnapping of people by criminal groups in the region—is being described by state officials as banditry. However, further evidence suggests that the government is simplifying the dynamics. In actuality, northwestern Nigeria has become the safe haven of increasingly active terrorist groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM); Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb; a splinter of Boko Haram popularly referred to as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP); and the Fulani herdsmen of West Africa once rated the fourth-deadliest terror group in the world.

The recent Kankara abduction bears the operational footprints of the Boko Haram group that has perfected the act through previous abductions of schoolgirls in Chibok and Dapchi in northeastern Nigeria. This incident gives credence to the jihadists’ perpetual attempt to forge an alliance with splinter terror groups in the northwest. While Boko Haram maintains a coordinating center in the Lake Chad Basin, ISWAP operates from southwestern Niger. These two centers of jihadism are separated by northwest Nigeria, increasing the likelihood of interaction and collaboration among these actors there.

Why northwestern Nigeria is vulnerable to incessant violent attacks

In addition to its location between these groups, the northwest region is highly susceptible to violent attacks by the various terror groups due to a combination of mutually reinforcing factors. Primary factors include:

Policy recommendations                

The policy solutions for the security challenges plaguing the northwestern states of Nigeria must be multipronged and include:

Better supported border security and stamping down on corruption. The federal government must collaborate with state governments to address the immediate challenge of border porosity. Concerted efforts to recruit, train, and post adequately equipped customs and immigration personnel to the region can boost surveillance and stem the tide of the free flow of arms into the country. Moreover, addressing corruption here is pivotal, because border patrol is a major racket for security forces and government officials. The ongoing military response must also be sustained through strategic coordination with the counterterrorism unit of the Nigerian police force, while the recent introduction of drone surveillance and anti-banditry bombardment is maintained.

Improved law enforcement. Furthermore, the federal government must prioritize law enforcement solutions in tackling rising insecurity in the northwest. Policing is critical to intelligence gathering in identifying and tracking the cells of criminal groups in the states and aiding community response to insecurity.

Collaboration with neighbors. Another effort toward border security is the creation of a bilateral joint task force between Nigeria and Niger to serve as a trans-border security force resourced and managed through the immigration and custom services of both countries. The joint task force should be matched with immediate and precise action to prevent wide-scale terrorist and bandit movements across the borders.

Strategic investments in human and infrastructural development. Such investments can work to solve the long-term, underlying challenges created by poor governance and deepening poverty that feed such insecurity.

Concerted local engagement. The federal and state governments must collaborate with the established religious and traditional institutions to build community resilience against terrorism.

Note: This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative.