Guest post from Chris.B
Nigeria has been facing a recent surge of violence which has been encapsulated most clearly by the Christmas Day Bombings of 2011, the attacks of 5-6th January 2012 against Christian churches and businesses, and attacks last Friday against Police stations in the city of Kano, that were followed by seemingly random shootings around the city that resulted in almost 180 deaths and approximately 50 further woundings. We’re going to take just a brief look at this and how it could be of interest to the UK.
Nigeria is the third largest economy on the African continent (by GDP), has the highest population on the continent (7th largest in the world), and is considered by the investment bank Goldman Sachs to be one of its “Next Eleven” – countries that hold the promise of becoming economic powerhouses in the 21st century.
Much of this stems from Nigeria’s ties to the United States. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of October 2011 Nigeria was just slightly ahead of Russia as one of the top five exporters of Oil and Petroleum products to the United States (1. Canada, 2. Mexico, 3. Saudi Arabia, 4. Venezuela, 5. Nigeria).
Inward investment into the country has been reasonably significant (including Bedford motors) and it has experienced rapid growth over the years of its financial, legal, transportation, infrastructure, and tourist sectors. It also has significant mineral resources, which currently are massively underexploited.
The problem as far as Nigeria is concerned is that much of its wealth is concentrated in the south of the country. The Niger Delta is the focus of the countries hydrocarbon industry, while its financial, legal and corporate sectors are naturally centered on the largest city, Lagos (population; almost 8 million). By comparison the north of the country is relatively poor.
It’s at this point that we introduce the “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”, who are more commonly known by their Hausa name “Boko Haram” (“Western education is forbidden/sinful”). Boko Haram is a Salafist Jihadist group that has its roots in Northeastern Nigeria, but is by no means confined to this region, and indeed the group itself is divided into a few sub-factions.
While it’s official history only really began in 2002 with Mohammed Yusuf (who was killed by Nigerian security forces in 2009), underlying tensions in northeastern Nigeria that stem from the days of British Colonial rule have served as a backdrop that led to the rise of men like Yusuf, and there has been plenty of prior dissent in the region regarding issues such as religion and education.
Boko Haram is opposed to the secular style of government that currently serves Nigeria and seeks to replace it with an Islamic state that uses the Sharia system of governance. Generally speaking its ideology is roundly rejected and even mocked by most Muslims. Like many extreme groups – including ones here in the UK – their actions and opinions are considered non-representative of true Islam and detrimental to the wider image of Islam among those of other faiths and beliefs.
The key to Boko Haram’s recruitment is the subtle blending of Jihadist rhetoric with anti-government sentiment. Preying on the genuinely tough economic conditions of the north, including high levels of unemployment among young males as well as the acknowledged issues regarding corruption in the Nigerian government (sound familiar?), Boko Haram is able to create a narrative that demonizes the government and blames it for the hardships suffered by the people, while promising a better, more morally upright future for the country.
While at first the group was relatively quiet, increasing government suspicion eventually led to clashes with security forces starting in 2009, around which time Yusuf was killed. Early in the following year Boko Haram began conducting terrorist attacks which progressively became bolder, more complex, and more frequent with time, ranging from simple shootings to bombings and coordinated attacks on multiple targets, expanding their influence and notoriety further west and south.
And it’s here that Nigeria finds itself in 2012 with a new year bringing a fresh round of violence, just as the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan presses ahead with the widely condemned removal of the state fuel subsidy, an action that prompted massive, nationwide strikes between the 9th and 13th of January.
The president himself is aptly named, being that he originally came to power (from the position of Vice President) when his predecessor died of complications related to Pericarditis. Last April President Jonathan did win a democratic election, but in the aftermath there was significant violence in the north of the country among accusations of vote rigging.
All of this tension and trouble provides a potentially explosive mix that could cause serious problems for Nigeria in the year ahead and as result disrupt supplies of hydrocarbons out of the country (an OPEC member), with resulting knock on effects to the US and indeed the global economy.
As a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Nigeria retains reasonably strong diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom. We all know that the Foreign Office has a hard won reputation for the quality of its diplomatic work and I think Nigeria poses an interesting chance to test many of the governments ideas regarding “soft power”.
With a situation brewing in the north of the country that could potentially descend into a counter-insurgency campaign, the UK is poised with plenty of experience and support that it can offer the Nigerian government, doubtless in exchange for something further down the line, even if that just means a close friendship with one of the countries that could potentially be sitting at the table of a future G8 summit in the place of the UK.
Obviously there is the economic aspect, whereby the UK can assist Nigeria in funding projects targeted at the north of the country in those regions where Boko Haram has the most current influence. Of course, if the situation in Afghanistan has taught UK forces anything then it has to be that security is a key component of any bid to bring stability and growth to a distant province.
Thus there is also a military aspect with which the UK can lend a hand. Overt use of a large scale force – especially with operations in Afghanistan ongoing – is basically off the table, so a more subtle application of UK forces must be considered.
Naturally there are many avenues that this approach could take. From cooperation with Nigerian security forces in areas such as policing, to training and assistance in the more “traditional” military tasks such as intelligence gathering, offensive operations, hearts and minds work, logistics, engineering and maintenance.
A small, select task force made up of UK specialists in these areas could go a long way to helping the Nigerian government nip in the bud any chance of Boko Haram spreading to become a populist group. By aiding the Nigerians to control this Jihadist group and to ensure the ongoing security and stability of the country, a lasting alliance can be formed with one of Africa’s most promising nations.
There is also a wider view that needs to be considered here. Although current intelligence is sketchy and tenuous, there is a suggestion that Boko Haram has links to other terrorist groups on the continent such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia) and Al Shabab in Somalia, and then through them links to the wider Al Qaeda network.
Thus any operations against Boko Haram can also potentially yield results elsewhere, through intelligence gathered that leads back to members of other groups. It also brings to attention the risk that members of Boko Haram could be deployed abroad to conduct terrorist activities, or that Boko Haram could themselves become future hosts of terrorist training facilities, an attractive prospect to Al Qaeda given how vigorously the United States has pursed higher level members of its organization in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula.
All in all Nigeria poses some interesting if not always obvious problems for the future of the global commons. It at once has the potential for quite significant further economic growth over the course of the 21st century – growth which will naturally eat away at the strength and prestige of traditional powers – and yet at the same time it also has a sinister under current that threatens to undermine one of the worlds’ largest exporters of oil and provide a haven for Jihadist groups that seek to export terror across the globe.
To what extent the UK will lend a hand to the Nigerian government remains to be seen, but the potential to secure a very useful ally in both the near term and the future, as well as the opportunity to test and validate (or refute) future COIN concepts derived from the experience in Afghanistan is certainly a very tempting prospect and one that should promote considerable debate among the corridors of power in Whitehall.
And hopefully here at Think Defence.