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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
Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines
Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines
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.

Police cordon off the site where twin bombs exploded two days ago, in Jolo town, Sulu island on August 26, 2020. AFP/ Nickee Butlangan
Commentary / Asia

Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines

Two August bomb explosions in the southern Philippines’ Sulu archipelago highlighted how militant networks may be splintered but are deeply entrenched. To keep the long Bangsamoro transition to peace on track, the government should strengthen outreach to local elites and improve cooperation between security services.

This article originally appeared in The Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute under the title: Violence in southern Philippines highlights resilience of militant networks.

On 24 August, two explosions in Jolo, a city in Sulu province in the southern Philippines, killed 15 and injured 74—a chilling case of déjà vu in a region that has suffered repeated attacks in recent years. The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence. The explosions also reheated familiar media tropes of Islamic State’s perseverance amid the coronavirus pandemic and seemingly ceaseless lawlessness. But it’s important to move beyond this narrative to grasp the structural foundations of the turmoil Sulu finds itself in.

While some details remain murky, initial information put forward by authorities suggests that the perpetrators may be linked to Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a key figure in the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)—a loose collection of small networks in the Sulu archipelago. Sawadjaan’s group was most likely behind the Jolo cathedral bombing in early 2019 and has a history of harbouring foreign fighters. Sawadjaan himself, whom Philippine security forces might have killed  in an operation some weeks back, was allegedly proclaimed as the new emir of IS’s East Asia province in 2019.

The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence.

His group, increasingly backed by another ASG commander, Radullan Sahiron, has also been the most lethal challenge to government forces in Sulu in recent years. Small kinship-based cells rooted in local communities make up the ASG. Some are primarily operating as kidnap-for-ransom outfits, others as militant groups opposing Manila’s authority and military presence in the majority-Muslim area. A few fulfil both roles.

At the BARMM’s fringe, Sulu has been a traditional bastion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first ethno-nationalist resistance movement in Muslim Mindanao, founded by Nur Misuari in 1972.

Over the decades, the MNLF splintered several times and entered politics at the provincial and municipal levels. It is currently divided into two factions: Misuari’s wing and forces loyal to Yusoph Jikiri, a rival leader. Both are political–military organisations with hundreds of men still under arms. A majority of local elites who dominate various Sulu towns are ex-MNLF commanders who have been co-opted by the state from the late 1970s onwards, and who themselves control private armies.

Because the ASG was established by disgruntled MNLF commanders, its resilience until now has been fostered by blood ties with MNLF personalities and politicians. This intricate web allows room for cooperation while facing a common enemy, such as the military, and while pursuing economic benefits, such as revenue generated by kidnappings.

Sulu mayors publicly denounce the ASG, but they often lack incentives to counteract its presence because of kinship ties or don’t have the capabilities to do so because of weak governance. This in turn gives ASG commanders such as Sawadjaan ample opportunity to draw on a base of young and deprived individuals for new recruits. The governance vacuum also allows the ASG to promote its ideology unimpeded, even if it’s directed at an external audience.

At the outer edges of the Sulu archipelago, violence has declined in recent years. But the largest island in the chain, Jolo, has remained the centre of gravity for continued conflict.

Since late 2018, Sulu has hosted an infantry division of the Philippine army with over 10 battalions that bear responsibility for a population of around half a million. Yet, despite the heavy military presence, the ASG, after several presidential announcements of operations and deadlines to eliminate it, hasn’t been defeated and continues operating from the mountainous town of Patikul and environs. Moreover, bad blood between the military and police has recently contributed to a schism within the local security apparatus, lowering trust in the national government.

In recent peace processes in the southern Philippines, Sulu was more of a bystander than a key participant. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF splinter that emerged as the main guerrilla force in Bangsamoro after the MNLF entered politics, signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. That process culminated in the creation of the BARMM in 2019.

The MILF has been leading the Bangsamoro Transition Authority since March 2019 but has only a miniscule presence in Sulu and limited soft power to shape governance. Sulu’s governor, Abdusakur Tan, the province’s kingpin who controls most local elites, initially opposed the province joining the BARMM but has since adapted to the new situation.

Still, a year and a half into the transition, the cooperation could be smoother. Historic competition for political dominance of Muslim Mindanao between Maguindanaons (those hailing from Maguindanao province who lead MILF and dominate the Bangsamoro Transition Authority) and Tausug (who hold sway in Sulu and command the MNLF) still lingers.

Moreover, various political dynasties that control Sulu’s municipalities are deeply entrenched, and it will take time for the transition authority to navigate the tensions between instituting necessary governance reforms and accommodating Tan’s leadership.

The Philippine army initially proposed imposing martial law in response to the bombings, but locals in Jolo—traditionally wary of the military—were sceptical about that option and army chiefs withdrew the proposal. Governor Tan also rejected martial law, yet he didn’t offer concrete proposals of his own for how to prevent further violence.

A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations

Sulu is facing one of two likely scenarios in the aftermath of the bombing: a more intensified campaign by government forces against militants, or a business-as-usual, short-term security response without strategic vision. Either response, however, will need to supplement possible military or police action with measures outside the security toolbox, such as working with local governments and creating economic opportunities.

A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations as well as complementary efforts in intelligence sharing between the two services. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia should also foster stronger cooperation to tackle cross-border flows of militants that feed into the ASG’s networks and to prevent its maritime renaissance.

Security institutions would need to distinguish between the objective of merely dismantling insurgent cells and the broader goal of curbing the power of clan-based networks that fuel the resilience of the ASG. Stronger political engagement by Manila with both MNLF factions could help enlist their support in that task. In addition, leaders in Sulu and the BARMM should increase their cooperation.

Sulu could also learn from the experience in neighbouring Basilan, where provincial elites and government security forces changed the status quo over the years by building a broad coalition against the ASG network. For now, it is unclear whether the fresh violence in Jolo will drive change in a similar direction.