A vigilante sits with his gun in the northwest Nigerian village of Bakin Kogi, which was attacked by suspected Fulani herdsmen on 24 February 2017.
A recent Nigerian intelligence report has revealed that ISIS is making efforts to bolster its network and activity in the country. Security officials have disclosed that a unit of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) is launching assaults in Nigeria’s North-Central and South-South regions in a way that is calculated to intensify long-standing ethno-religious tensions. In response, Nigerian authorities and neighbouring countries need to make serious efforts to curb the influx of ISIS militants and ammunitions, and address the root causes of the tensions that the group seeks to exploit.
On 22 January, Nigerian newspapers published the findings of a security report showing that members of ISWA were operating as a unit in Nigeria. According to the report, the movement is using foreign terrorists and recruiting young Nigerians to fight and kill civilians to exacerbate tensions along the country’s ethnic, religious and regional fault lines. A presidency source said that “security officials now fear an influx of other ISIS members into many parts of the country”.
On 22 January, Nigerian newspapers published the findings of a security report showing that members of ISWA were operating as a unit in Nigeria.
The findings are damning in several ways. Firstly, this is the first report that confirms the operational link between ISIS and ISWA that was declared in 2015 by Boko Haram. That group has succeeded in spreading its tentacles from northeastern Nigeria to other parts of the north. Since the beginning of an onslaught by the Multi-National Joint Task Force against it in the last quarter of 2015, Boko Haram had been largely confined to the country’s northeast.
Secondly, the report confirms concerns expressed by experts that after the collapse of its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, ISIS may turn to Africa to exploit the continent’s vulnerabilities—such as aggrieved unemployed youths, ineffective governance, porous borders and vast ungoverned territories—to establish a stronger foothold and safe havens.
Thirdly, the report shows that ISIS has evolved another tactic in its campaign of terror and violence in West Africa. ISWA militants have orchestrated a series of attacks with the aim of exacerbating ethno-religious tensions between Christian peasants and mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen. ISWA seems to be succeeding in its goal. Immediately after the attacks, rhetoric between Christians and Muslims heightened. Social media platforms were flooded with vilifying comments, wild allegations and graphic pictures of supposed attacks by both sides.
The confrontation reached an alarming level when national leaders became embroiled in the rhetoric. Musa Asake, secretary general of the Christian Association of Nigeria, described killings by the herdsmen as a “legalised jihad” by “the Islamists of northern [Nigeria]”. For its part, the umbrella body of Muslims in northern Nigeria, Jama’atu Nasril Islam, blamed the Christian Association of Nigeria for hate speech and accused state governments of doing nothing when over 900 Muslims were massacred by Christian militias. The Christian Association of Nigeria, in turn, blasted Jama’atu Nasril Islam for supporting terrorists and lying.
Such moves risk aggravating ethno-religious hostility in a country already caught up in a decade-old conflict. To avert this, the Nigerian authorities need to take robust steps to curb ethno-religious attacks and reprisals, which are fast becoming the new normal in the country.
Such moves risk aggravating ethno-religious hostility in a country already caught up in a decade-old conflict.
The need for early response systems, including swift countering of rumours and false stories on social media, cannot be overemphasised. This is important because Nigerian youths in particular often rely on information they find on social media pages. Fabricated stories about attacks against ethno-religious groups, if not quickly countered with facts, can lead to vengeance. Early engagement would give security officials and community leaders an opportunity to learn about disagreements and take steps to resolve them before they turn violent. The Nigerian government should partner with local and international organisations to sensitise and empower security agents and community leaders in this regard.
In addition to prosecuting culprits, the federal government must quickly call the leaders of the warring parties to the negotiating table. Christian and Muslim leaders should discuss the nature of the violence, the underlying issues and how to tackle them, to build trust and lower tensions. Working together would also allow religious leaders to jointly condemn the bloodshed and hate speech. In the long run, authorities should, in consultation with the parties concerned, clearly demarcate farmlands and grazing reserves to lessen frictions between the areas’ two groups.
To achieve a lasting solution, governments at all levels must take steps to address the root causes of the ethno-religious tensions.
In collaboration with its neighbours, Abuja should beef up border security to curtail the flood of foreign fighters and arms. Governments in the region should strengthen their frontiers by installing modern surveillance equipment to curb irregular inflows of people and weapons. A robust border regime would make it harder for ISIS and other fighters to build safe havens in the region.
To achieve a lasting solution, governments at all levels must take steps to address the root causes of the ethno-religious tensions. Among these causes is increased competition for land, inflamed by climate change and growing populations. Dealing with these issues carefully and sensitively is essential for tackling the grievances and divisions that groups such as ISIS seek to exploit.