How instability in Niger could hurt Nigerian war on terror
Nigeria may have led the world in condemning the coup in Niger, but the two countries are tied to the hip when it comes to fighting insurgencies.
Which is why some local officials, and security experts are banking on hope that Niger’s problems do not go beyond the coup and collapse the country.
On Tuesday, August 22, the Nigerien junta proposed a three-year transition timeline back to democracy.
The West African bloc, Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) rejected it, demanding it happens sooner. Ecowas has been proposing military intervention but has since been slowed by the African Union which wants to first determine the impact of such a move.
Read: AU goes slow on military intervention in Niger
Experts think whatever happens now must consider the traditional cooperation between the two countries, as well as cooperation with Cameroon and Chad, against an insurgency menace around the Lake Chad Basin.
Mr Aliyu Saulawa, acting chairman of Katsina Elders Forum, a local lobby for harmony, said the consequences of military intervention by the Ecowas in Niger may end up hurting Nigeria.
Days after the coup in Niamey, however, the initial hard stance by President Bola Tinubu and threats to attack Niamey in an Ecowas intervention force have cooled. The ‘standby force’ has since been sounded and Niamey’s junta leaders sanctioned.
Yet, there is realisation that any tension between them could cause a rise in terror merchants, taking advantage of broken communication.
The Nigerian military has been fighting separately, and jointly alongside the Multinational Joint Task Force comprising soldiers of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. They have been targeting ISIS West African Province (Iswap) but its presence beyond the borders, and even beyond the Lake Chad area, has made the war more complex. Iswap has also been targeting rivals Boko Haram with deadly consequences.
Read: Boko Haram fighters surrender to Nigeria troops
While any rivalry or even implosion between terror merchants can help security forces in some way, the toll in Nigeria and neighbouring countries where these groups operate has been horrid.
In Nigeria, since 2009, these insurgents are responsible for 68,000 deaths, thousands of kidnappings including of schoolgirls, and a decimated economic and social scene.
In Northeast region of Nigeria, there have been 2.1 million people displaced in the wake of Boko Haram and other groups, and decimation of schools and critical infrastructure, including telecom and electricity.
Boko Haram, meaning ‘Western Education is evil’, first struck in Borno State in 2009 as a revolutionary rejection of formal education with the group seeking to establish Sharia states in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.
This region has about 21 million people who share borders, culture and language relations with Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
The military initially won the battle against Boko Haram but when Iswap launched its version of terror, that victory was drained as dangerous groups simply spread beyond the initial Adamawa and Yobe states.
Boko Haram’s fortunes dwindled when its leader Abubakar Shekau blew himself up in May 2021 after being cornered by rival Iswap, according to an official intelligence account by the Nigerian military.
Shekau had taken over from spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in a police raid after the 2009 riot in Maiduguri, capital city of Borno state.
Experts think rivalry between these two groups has decimated their own numbers but has also hurt the civilian losses.
Read: Boko Haram kill Iswap fighters’ wives
Mr Zagazola Makama, a counter terrorism expert in Borno, says that Iswap are struggling to edge out Boko Haram and the clashes have led to the death of more than 12,500 men on both sides since 2021.
Mr Hamidu Alassan, a security expert who calls himself a reformed terrorist, said that Boko Haram and Iswap are fighting in the vast Sambisa Forest, in Lake Chad Basin, to control resources, including extortion.
Yet membership in these groups is also fuelled by poverty in the shared areas by these countries. Oba Ajibade Ogunoye, a traditional ruler in Southwest region of Nigeria, argues that poverty, illiteracy and unemployment has helped insurgents to establish cells there.
“Our youth want to survive by all means and there is high level of unemployment and poverty.”
Progress so far
The Nigerian government has also reported that the terrorists and bandits were attracted by enormous minerals, especially gold, which they mine illegally. But first, they need weapons. Any form of lawlessness can grant that avenue.
According to a special report of the United States Institute of Peace (Usip), there is no possibility, for now, of government officials engaging in dialogue with any of the groups. But the groups themselves, it says, are not homogenous as they are constantly seeking supremacy.
Read: OBBO: If states continue to neglect their armed forces they risk giving room to jihadists
“The group’s cell-like structure is open for factions and splits, and there would be no guarantee that someone speaking for the group is speaking for all of the members,” the report says.
That doesn’t mean the brutality against the group will eliminate it, however.
“Their (forces) reliance on extrajudicial execution as a tactic in dealing with any problem in Nigeria not only created Boko Haram and Iswap as they are known today, but also sustains them and gives then fuel to expand,” Usip reported.
Yet, for the military and its officers such as Maj-Gen Valentine Okoro, the General Officer Commanding (Goc) of 2 Division of the Nigerian Army, the result matters in whatever method adopted to curb terrorism.
“We are committed to provide safety and security to all Nigerians; that is a task that we must do; that is a task which we cannot afford to compromise.’’
All the 14 local governments hitherto in their command have been liberated, he argues.
The military reports that more than 120,000 insurgents, including their families, have surrendered since 2009.
The governor of Borno State, Prof Babagana Zulum, confirms that many of the terrorists that have surrendered and have undergone profiling, rehabilitation and integration into society.
“The pressure is mounting on the terrorists because many of them and their families are surrendering while many others have fled to other parts of Nigeria, especially in the Northwest and North Central,” he said.
Read: Activists: Africa’s insecurity weakening rights
The task force Spokesman, Lt-Col Abubakar Abdullahi, said the development was due to their intensified operations.
“In the wake of escalated kinetic and non-kinetic operations by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), coupled with a dwindling logistic supply to their hideouts, mass surrenders rattle Boko Haram and Iswap insurgents,” he said.
Yet the hydra-headed nature of the insurgents means a lapse on collaboration may allow new cells to re-germinate.