A surge in Boko Haram attacks in the northeast of Nigeria is threatening to throw preparations for presidential elections, slated for 16 February, into disarray, Haitham Nouri reports.
The terrorist group’s violence is not the only challenge to President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second four-year term. Clashes between farmers and nomadic herders over dwindling arable land in Nigeria’s central states, tensions in the oil-rich Delta in the south, and accusations of corruption by rights groups are threatening Buhari’s stay at the helm.
An official from neighbouring Niger said Boko Haram killed six people in the group’s latest operation on the border between the two countries. The militant organisation, that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) a few years back before splitting, has become a regional concern after its attacks crossed Nigeria’s borders.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is religiously forbidden”, executed its first operation in 2009 and has since killed a total of 27,000 people, mainly in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
Those four countries, in addition to West African Benin, built a joint force of thousands of soldiers to eliminate the world’s bloodiest terrorists of Boko Haram.
Buhari was elected in 2015 on a promise to restore security and destroy Boko Haram during his first tenure. To this day, however, the terrorist group is a deadly threat to Nigerians, two million of whom were displaced because of Boko Haram attacks.
Amnesty International (AI) reported that Boko Haram killed 60 people in the northeast Nigerian town of Rann on 28 January, a day after it was abandoned by the military. It published a report saying it “analysed satellite imagery which shows hundreds of burned structures in the town. Many of the destroyed structures only date back to 2017, suggesting they were shelters for internally displaced people who came to Rann seeking protection.”
Rann has become home to thousands of Nigerians who have set up displacement camps there to flee from Boko Haram attacks.
The Nigerian army posted on its Facebook page Monday that “Amnesty International claims on Rann [were] untrue.”
“It is most unacceptable and unfair for AI to make such outlandish and unverified claims that troops abandoned their deployment a day before Boko Haram attack on the location, thereby exposing the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to a deadly attack.
“This claim is not only bereft of truth, but in its usual mannerism, is another futile effort by AI to portray the Nigerian military as incapable, as well as project the Nigerian government as not protective of her people in the eyes of the global community.”
The attack on Rann is “one of the group’s bloodiest”, said Reuters Sunday. “It came two weeks after Boko Haram had overrun the same town, driving out Nigerian soldiers and signalling its re-emergence as a force capable of capturing army bases.”
The two attacks on Rann resulted in the fleeing of 40,000 Nigerians from their homes. Some 30,000 of these headed to Cameroon.
Amaq news agency, affiliated to the Islamic State West Africa Province, an offshoot of IS, last week claimed responsibility for killing 30 Nigerian soldiers in Borno state in the northeast.
With Boko Haram’s expansion of terrorist operations into Lake Chad Basin countries, millions of people are enduring the horrors of terrorism in a region that comprises some of the African continent’s poorest countries, such as Niger.
The United Nations office in Niamey, Niger’s capital, stated Saturday that more than 10 per cent of Niger’s population, approximately 2.3 million people, will become in need of humanitarian assistance in 2019.
The displacement of hundreds of thousands of villagers, coupled with drought that has hit a number of Sahel countries, has exacerbated the food crisis in Niger.
Some 300,000 people fled to Diffa Camp, northeast of Niger and close to the border with Nigeria, to escape Boko Haram attacks.
In the western region along the borders with Mali, 52,000 people have been displaced as a result of Islamist attacks. Moreover, 57,000 Malians were displaced after the 2012 Malian coup d’état that divided the country until France announced it was going to intervene.
The government tried to return the displaced to their homes, but some relief agencies and rights group said they were sent back against their will. “Many of the newly displaced say soldiers dropped their weapons and fled when Islamic State or Boko Haram arrived. Some said the insurgents killed soldiers they discovered fleeing with civilians,” Reuters reported.
Come election time, it looks like Nigerians in conflict zones will not maintain the same allegiance they displayed to Buhari in 2015. Despite the president’s efforts to curb corruption and eliminate Boko Haram, Nigeria remains in a poor state of affairs.
Another factor comes into play, a scenario feared by old-guard politicians like Buhari and his main rival, businessman and former vice- president Atiku Abubakar, and that is millions of youth will vote for the first time since democracy found its way to Nigeria in 1999. The young people of Nigeria are not familiar with military dictatorships that ruled the country for over half of its independent history.
Because the youth are more educated and “acquainted with the 21st century world”, they aspire to more than the previous generations settled for, said Fadl Abdel-Razek, professor of mass communications at Kano University.
Statistics show that 60 per cent of the population, or 190 million Nigerians, are below the age of 30, and more than half of them are less than 18 years of age.
Whatever the elections result may be, it is going to be the last contested elections for Buhari, 76, and Abubakar, 72, and their supporters like Olusegun Obasanjo, 81, and Ibrahim Babangida, 79. And this can mean only one thing: a new generation of politicians is about to emerge in Africa’s most populous and oil-richest country.
Nonetheless, Abdel-Razek worries that the new generation will have the old guard’s same interests and orientations, in which case Nigeria’s form of democracy will not be able to offer a quick solution that saves the country from repeated crises.
The 16 February presidential elections are the sixth suffrage for Nigerians since the instatement of democracy after the sudden death of the country’s last dictator, General Sani Abacha. Nigerians voted for Obasanjo, who ruled from 1999 to 2007, and Buhari, who was also Nigeria’s military ruler for 20 months in 1983-84.
Nigeria has 109 senators and 360 members in its House of Representatives. The legislative elections resulted in the rise of an amalgamation of military personnel, businessmen, tribal leaders and religious figures, who left little room for modern forces of change made up of professionals and the country’s middle class and working-class strata.
As if the country’s host of political and economic crises and national integration problems are not enough, Nigeria has to grapple with Boko Haram’s deadly attacks and the displacement of millions of its people.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Terrorism haunts Nigeria’s elections