An Eventful Start to 2015 for Nigeria
In my role as Emerging Conflicts Coordinator, my focus is to find countries at risk of mass atrocities. All too often, this risk becomes a reality. While Nigeria’s position is still far from ideal, recent events have been a welcome point of optimism. Nigeria is now much closer to stopping a mass atrocity than it was just a few months ago. To explain how Nigeria got to this moment, I will rewind the clock to the beginning of 2015.
Boko Haram terrorizes northern Nigeria
The radical Islamist group Boko Haram has caused chaos in northern Nigeria for years. It enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the areas it controls and has little hesitation to use brutal force on anyone considered an opponent to their goals. The Nigerian government, on the other hand, is based in the primarily Christian south, while the north is largely Muslim, poor, and has largely been neglected by the government. In its early years, Boko Haram gained some traction by feeding on common grievances in the north. However, despite common discontent with the Nigerian government, Boko Haram’s extensive violence against civilians has also ruined almost all possible political support it could have acquired there. Further, Boko Haram sees itself not as a resistance movement representing northern Nigeria but as part of a struggle for global jihad.
Over the course of 2014, Boko Haram gained unprecedented strength. April marked the infamous kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Chibok, the subject of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign. In the wake of the kidnapping, many said the Nigerian government took far too long to respond to the kidnapping, as it has to most Boko Haram attacks. The government further angered Nigerians when it announced it had successfully negotiated the release of the girls, only to backtrack when it became clear no such deal had been made. Ultimately, while some girls managed to escape, 219 were never returned. Boko Haram made further progress as it captured a number of towns in Borno state, bombed locations across Nigeria, and even began launching frequent attacks into Cameroon. By the end of 2014, Boko Haram had killed over 6,000 civilians. Nigeria’s army was poorly organized, underpaid, and under-equipped, and suffered frequent defeats to Boko Haram forces. It has also committed extensive human rights abuses against Nigerian civilians.
The situation at the start of 2015 already looked bad, but on January 3, things took a turn for the worse when Boko Haram seized a military base and attacked the nearby town of Baga. Death tolls were initially placed upwards of 2,000 people. The Nigerian government claimed only 150 people were killed, while it was likely somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people. Ongoing conflict makes it extremely difficult to get accurate information out of northeastern Nigeria, although there was undoubtedly extensive destruction to Baga.
Nigeria’s presidential election was originally scheduled for February 14. The election placed the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, against former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, who lost the previous election. Jonathan, a southern Christian, took massive hits to his popularity as a result of corruption scandals, the falling price of oil, and his failure to deal with Boko Haram. Many even speculated that he saw the success of Boko Haram as an electoral opportunity, as Boko Haram’s advance made it more difficult to vote in overwhelmingly Buhari-supporting parts of the North. Buhari’s chances suffered from his past as a military dictator–although he now claims to be a reformed democrat–and the fact that Nigeria had never had a challenger defeat an incumbent president in a democratic election. Buhari did, however, have stronger credentials to fight Boko Haram and benefited from Jonathan’s large unpopularity.
On February 8, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) announced that the election would be delayed until March 28th, citing disruption caused by Boko Haram and difficulties in registering voters. However, it was not clear that the situation with Boko Haram would improve in six weeks, and some speculated that the move was designed to give Jonathan time to gain popularity.
Boko Haram Beat Back
At the beginning of February, Nigeria’s neighbors Chad, Cameroon, and Niger began sending in troops to combat Boko Haram. They were motivated in large part by a fear of Boko Haram’s insurgency spreading and a lack of confidence in Nigeria’s ability to defeat them. While the details of the operation are not entirely clear, Nigeria also began hiring mercenaries to combat Boko Haram. The mercenaries may have even taken a leading role in combat operations, although the Nigerian government states that they were only acting as advisors. These new operations made major progress against Boko Haram, recapturing 17 of 20 local government areas that had been controlled by the militant group.
Elections Take Place
On March 28, elections finally began. Polls placed the candidates neck-and-neck going into the election. The head of INEC, Professor Attahiru Jega, had led extensive preparations to ensure a fair election. For the most part, voting went smoothly, and even internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Borno state were able to vote. However, in certain locations voting was pushed back to March 29, and there were some claims of attempts to falsify vote counts. Boko Haram, which had made clear its staunch opposition to elections, killed 41 people in an attack aimed at disrupting the election.
Votes were counted over the course of a few days, and on March 31 Buhari claimed victory. There were many fears of post-election conflict similar to that following the 2011 elections, when approximately 800 people were killed. However, Jonathan quickly conceded the election to Buhari and urged his supporters not to respond with violence. Buhari ultimately won with 15.4 million votes to Jonathan’s 13.3 million. Buhari gained support well beyond the north, with many former Jonathan strongholds swinging to Buhari or suffering from low voter turnout.
Compared to what could have happened, and what many expected, recent events have been very successful for Nigeria. After years of military defeats to Boko Haram, Nigeria achieved huge victories over the course of just six weeks. The strength of Nigeria’s democracy far exceeded expectations, leading to a calm, organized election and a peaceful turnover of power.
Still, many potential potential pitfalls remain. Buhari’s presidency is far from a sure success, and it remains to be seen whether democratic norms will be respected. Additionally, though Boko Haram was defeated in several locations, there are few indications that Nigeria’s military has improved, and it is undetermined whether or not human rights abuses were committed by Nigeria’s allies in their efforts to defeat Boko Haram. Even after recent defeats, Boko Haram’s violence against civilians remains one of the world’s gravest mass atrocities. However, recent events provide long-awaited good news for Nigeria. If they can serve as a stepping stone for further progress, the horrors Nigerians have suffered may finally be nearing their end.
Timmy Hirschel-Burns is a sophomore at Swarthmore College and STAND’s Emerging Conflicts Coordinator. Follow him on Twitter at @TimH_B