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Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge
Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Nigeria’s newly elected President Muhammed Buhari gives a speech during a press conference, in Lagos, Nigeria, on 1 April 2015. Anadolu Agency
Commentary / Africa

Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge

The peaceful election in March 2015 of President Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general, raised hopes that some of Nigeria’s most pressing security problems could soon be tamed. One year later, the new government has struck at the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency. But Nigeria is sliding deeper into other difficulties.

At his inauguration on 29 May 2015, Buhari pledged he would defeat Boko Haram and deliver greater security. He attacked the insurgents and – with help from Nigeria’s neighbours – has forced them onto the back foot, though the group remains resilient and the fighting has caused a major humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin areas. Meanwhile, other security challenges are surging, particularly in the south east, Middle Belt and Niger Delta.

The government’s hard-fisted reaction has alienated more youth and boosted the agitators’ ranks.

In the south east, Igbo secessionist groups are more stridently demanding restoration of the short-lived Republic of Biafra (1967-1970). Decades-long Igbo grievances have been aggravated by popular misgivings about Buhari’s intentions for the region. Demonstrators have been driven off the streets by the government’s arrest and continued detention of some leading agitators, notably Nnamdi Kanu who heads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and the security forces’ killing of unarmed protesters. But Buhari has not addressed the roots of the unrest. Instead, the government’s hard-fisted reaction has alienated more youth and boosted the agitators’ ranks, threatening more troubles ahead.

Nigeria’s Middle Belt is suffering increasing violence, involving pastoralists, cattle rustlers, agrarian communities, rural bandits and community vigilantes. Recent pastoralist-farmer clashes over land and water resources have produced more casualties: hundreds were killed in Benue state in late February, with about 100,000 displaced across seventeen of the state’s 23 local government areas. These clashes have also spread south, including a 24 April attack by herdsmen in Nimbo, Enugu state, which left over 40 ethnic Igbo residents dead. This is unprecedented in the south east, further stoking Biafran secessionist sentiment. The conflict has also prompted the resuscitation of long-dormant Igbo ethnic vigilantes, notably the armed Bakassi Boys, threatening further violence.

The Niger Delta’s fragile peace is unravelling.

The Niger Delta’s fragile peace is unravelling, too. An earlier insurgency died down in 2009 thanks to a presidential amnesty offered to militants. As the government sought to arrest and prosecute ex-militant leader Government Ekpemupolo (better known as Tompolo) on corruption charges, armed groups notably the little-known Niger Delta Avengers, and the even more obscure Egbesu Mightier Fraternity, have resumed attacks on oil industry assets, cutting the country’s output to its lowest in two decades. Both groups have sent the government their lists of demands, mostly for local control of oil revenues, threatening even more crippling attacks if they are ignored. The government’s response – deploying more military assets and threatening an unmitigated crackdown – portend an escalation of the violence.

Insecurity has been aggravated by a wrenching economic situation. The National Bureau of Statistics reports that the economy contracted by 0.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the first time since 2004, and analysts do not expect the second quarter to be any better.

Faced with the precipitous decline in the price of oil, Nigeria’s most significant export, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has not delivered on its many pre-election promises of early economic relief. As of 30 April, 26 of the country’s 36 states owed some or all of their workers monthly salaries, some for up to eight months. In March and April, Nigerians suffered some of their worst automobile fuel shortages in recent memory and the government’s decision this month to address scarcity by ending price controls led to a jolting 67 per cent price hike. Furthermore, the electricity sector is still hampered by poorly utilised generation capacity, high transmission losses and frequent outages, intermittently plunging the entire country into darkness. Recent pipeline sabotage by Niger Delta armed groups has further depressed the electricity situation.

Unemployment is rising: a federal police advertisement of 10,000 vacancies has drawn over one million applicants.

Nigeria’s national currency, the naira, has depreciated by over 70 per cent since this time last year, leading inflation to soar to a near six-year high of 13.7 per cent in April 2016. With workers’ purchasing power diminished and many businesses unable to access foreign exchange for their operations, companies are shedding staff. Unemployment is rising: a federal police advertisement of 10,000 vacancies has drawn over one million applicants. Economic desperation could heighten social tension and insecurity.

Some of these challenges are the results of years of misgovernance and corruption; others, such as the oil price plunge, are beyond Buhari’s control. But as the administration enters its second year, it needs to embark on several short- and longer-term measures to reverse the country’s dangerous slide.

President Buhari should particularly show greater empathy with aggrieved groups.

In the short term, government needs to consolidate the gains of its counter-insurgency campaign in the north east, while firmly advancing humanitarian and rehabilitation efforts for many affected communities. It must also address the deadly pastoralist-farmer clashes through a combination of security measures and promoting dialogue between these communities. Such measures may not address the fundamental drivers of the conflicts, but they could calm the country while lasting solutions are explored.

Furthermore, the government needs to de-emphasise forceful responses and explore existing political mechanisms to respond to discontent in the south east, Niger Delta and elsewhere. President Buhari should particularly show greater empathy with aggrieved groups.

The federal government needs to urgently deliver sustainable improvement in electricity supply and create the millions of quick impact jobs it promised before the 2015 elections. State governments must also channel their governors’ so-called security votes (funds worth millions of dollars appropriated ostensibly to pay for discrete responses to security challenges but often pocketed by state governors) into constructive use. They must slash extravagant privileges senior state officials undeservedly enjoy, cut wasteful spending, eliminate payroll fraud and pay workers when due.

Unless the government pursues comprehensive reforms, its gains in subduing Boko Haram will be short-lived.

For the longer term, the government needs to recognise that much of the current violence and insecurity stem partly from the highly dysfunctional police, judicial and penal systems; and partly from fundamental flaws in the country’s federal system. It needs to formulate and implement comprehensive security sector reform. President Buhari also needs to pursue constitutional and administrative reforms that will guarantee citizens’ rights, curb corruption, improve transparency and accountability, and enhance service delivery. He can readily find elaborate guides in the submissions of various high-level national reform conferences held over the years.

Unless the government pursues comprehensive reforms, its gains in subduing Boko Haram will be short-lived and Nigeria could encounter even more deadly violence ahead.

Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus

While the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 moved the front lines in Azerbaijan’s favour, it has not brought peace. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage in humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and continue to engage diplomatically through the OSCE Minsk Group.

A brief second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from late September to early November 2020 dramatically moved the front lines in Baku’s favour. But it has not brought peace. The bloody six-week conflict is a cautionary tale, like the nearly 30 years of stalemate and skirmishes that preceded it. Both experiences warn that a future that does not address the grievances of both sides, integrate the economies of South Caucasus countries and bring real benefits to all who live there risks being a recipe for renewed instability and conflict. Russia, which brokered the 9 November ceasefire deal between Yerevan and Baku and has deployed peacekeeping troops to the region, will continue to shape relations among all concerned. Turkey, as Azerbaijan’s chief backer and the party holding the key to Armenia’s economic reconnection to the region, will also wield considerable clout. EU diplomacy and support, however, will be crucial in creating an environment in which the advantages of cooperation outweigh those of conflict. To engage effectively, Brussels will need to work closely with Moscow and Ankara. Unusual as such collaboration might be at a time when tensions are running high between the EU and both Russia and Turkey, it is necessary.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Undertake sustained humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ease suffering, whether it results from the late 2020 fighting, the longstanding conflict beforehand or the COVID-19 pandemic;
     
  • Stand ready to facilitate economic and infrastructure projects to reconnect the South Caucasus countries, including by road and rail;
     
  • Continue to engage diplomatically, through the traditional and still official Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group format for negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and other forums as appropriate. While efforts to resolve the core issues underpinning the conflict, notably Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, are unlikely to bear fruit so soon after the fighting, it is important that diplomatic channels continue to function for when opportunities do arise.
     
  • As soon as is feasible, resume efforts to build relations and trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis through direct people-to-people contacts and projects that facilitate cross-border visits for experts and journalists. 

A Ceasefire Short of Real Peace 

When the first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994, it left the region ravaged, with tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Armenian forces were in control of not only the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a region within Soviet Azerbaijan that its ethnic Armenian majority had unilaterally declared independent in 1991, but also seven additional adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Armenia was, in effect, under Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockade. Each side accused the other of war crimes and atrocities.

At the time, all involved hoped that with the fighting over, negotiations could bring a lasting deal. The OSCE established the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., to facilitate talks. But if the Minsk Group fostered some dialogue, peace grew more elusive with each passing year. As positions hardened, Azerbaijani and Armenian communities became ever more isolated from one another. Both sides built up their militaries, preparing for a rematch. For nearly three decades, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs tried to broker compromise but, as their attempts were rebuffed, gradually threw up their hands. Peacemaking efforts largely petered out. There was a nominal ceasefire, but violations were numerous, and on several occasions escalated into larger clashes. 

All-out war resumed in September 2020. After clashes on the front line, Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced and, over the course of six weeks, recaptured much of the territory lost in 1994. The fighting killed thousands. Most of the dead were male combatants, a great many of them young conscripts between the ages of eighteen and twenty. The war also displaced, albeit in some cases temporarily, tens of thousands, predominantly women and children, with many families separated for at least the duration of the conflict.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace. As a result of both ground offensives and the deal brokered by Moscow, Baku has regained control of the seven territories Armenia had held around Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as roughly one third of the mountainous enclave itself. The rest remains under Armenian control, patrolled by both Russian peacekeeping forces and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ security personnel. The disputed region’s long-term status remains an open question, as do the details of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate. Other Russian government personnel are offering aid and reconstruction assistance in Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is active in Azerbaijan, assisting with demining and reconstruction. The sides exchanged some prisoners of war in December, but Armenia is now angry at Azerbaijan’s stated plans to prosecute several Armenian soldiers whom it has in custody. Baku says its forces captured these soldiers after the end of hostilities, but they appear to have arrested at least one while the war was still raging. There are other troubling developments, including skirmishes at the new front line, which is much closer to civilian settlements than the old one. Only the Russian forces’ arrival halted the shooting. 

None of this bodes well for the long term. There is little risk that history, which is to say the pattern of military build-up, stalemate and eventual rematch of the last 30 years, will repeat itself exactly. But the past decades illustrate all too clearly the dangers that lie in festering resentment, the absence of meaningful talks aimed at addressing it and a region in which borders are closed and contacts among communities across front lines few.

A lasting peace does not require everyone to agree on everything from the start. Indeed, it would be premature to push the parties toward agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status so soon after the war. Reconciliation is only likely to take place gradually and only if all parties see it as in their interests. In support of a step-by-step approach, the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal calls for economic reconnection, an aspiration the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia reaffirmed when they met on 11 January in Moscow, promising to create a working group to define plans for new commercial ties and transport infrastructure. These plans could define a new and different way forward, one that creates real economic incentives to collaborate and eschew violence. But the plans will not work without broader international engagement – and here, the EU may have a special role to play. 

How the EU Can Help 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. One goal of this program is to improve transport links in the South Caucasus, which Brussels has helped do in Azerbaijan as well as in neighbouring Georgia. EU support for rebuilding railways and roads that once connected Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia would be in line with both its own goals and those announced at the 11 January Moscow summit.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses. Few other international bodies have the leverage and the moral standing in the South Caucasus to call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to fulfil their commitments to prisoner exchanges and to investigate past abuses adequately. 

Europeans can also help keep diplomatic channels alive, even if seeking a settlement on major issues does not make sense for now. Russia’s direct involvement and the relative disengagement of France and the U.S. has, at least for now, relegated the Minsk format to a less central role. Besides, many Azerbaijanis see France and the U.S. as having failed to deliver on peace plans since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. But the Minsk process remains relevant as the internationally agreed format for negotiations: it may be crucial to ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid in the near term and broad regional and global support for any future settlement.

The EU could consider bolstering the role of its own special representative for the region, by giving staff support to enable more active engagement, working both with the OSCE and independently. The EU should also support member state Sweden, which just assumed the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office for 2021, in fulfilling its mandate for keeping up OSCE contacts with Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian and Turkish leaders on the conflict. The EU can publicly acknowledge the importance of this mission and ensure that Sweden maintains a point role with regard to the conflict for member states. 

Past EU support in this region focused on building relations and trust between civil societies on both sides. Although it facilitated direct people-to-people contacts that would not otherwise have occurred, it increasingly involved the same people, and those less and less frequently, thus limiting its impact. A new approach should involve a broader group of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, including displaced and returning people, people living in border areas, and officials responsible for transitional justice and reconciliation. Brussels could also fund programs that facilitate cross-border visits for experts in a wide range of fields, which largely ceased in the 2010s, and journalists, a few of whom had started making trips prior to the 2020 war. 

The EU can also help mitigate the war’s effects, building on the humanitarian aid it provided during the fighting. Its funding of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross enabled them to deliver urgent assistance to war-displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Now, it can help fund reconstruction both in territories controlled by Armenians and those controlled by Azerbaijan. It could also consider programs in Armenian and Azerbaijani settlements along the border between the two countries. That border has grown longer as a result of wartime shifts in territorial control and towns have grown larger due to displacement. Such support would supplement Russian assistance, carried out in cooperation with the UN, near the border in north-eastern Armenia to build and light local roads and construct new schools, greenhouses and irrigation systems.

EU health-care assistance is also important. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels has sent basic medical supplies to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. EU support may become essential for effective vaccination and the regeneration of tourism, which was a crucial source of household income in both countries before the outbreaks of war and contagion. 

Aside from its direct effects, a strong EU role can build support for peace. It can reassure Armenians nervous about Turkey’s actions in support of Azerbaijan and both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, although beholden to Moscow for its engagement to end the conflict, recognise that its financial contribution will not match its military and diplomatic weight going forward. Brussels’ involvement would give the bloc an opportunity to cooperate with both Russia and Turkey. There are many areas of disagreement between Brussels and other EU capitals, on one hand, and Moscow and Ankara, on the other, but improving prospects for peace in the South Caucasus is one area where, broadly speaking, they have good reasons to work together.