Opinion: Can the innovative measures taken to address COVID-19 be applied to Nigeria’s security crisis?


The emergence of the coronavirus epidemic this year created problems for every country. For some, however, it was an additional crisis on top of an existing crisis.

Nigeria, which was already dealing with the insurgency of Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa, was forced to both slow down a pandemic and provide treatment to the sick while terrorist groups continue to undermine its control of swaths of the country.

Despite Nigeria’s economic strength, abundance of natural resource wealth and human capital, deep fissures have divided the thirty-six states that comprise the young country, having only reached independence in 1960. Our recent African Youth Survey indicates for example that 43% of Nigeria’s youth identify themselves by tribe over country of citizenship. There are over 500 different tribes in Nigeria, causing a beautiful diversity of cultures however also a clash of opinions and political leanings which no doubt create a fragility which can hinder the nation’s collective socioeconomic and even industrial development.

This diversity has been historically difficult to manage by Nigeria’s governance, a scenario which has allowed Boko Haram to penetrate the societal discourse, destabilize the country’s security and subvert governmental authority and ability to chart a stable course of growth.

President Muhammadu Buhari has focused on defeating Boko Haram since his election in 2015. The number of civilians murdered by Boko Haram sharply decreased in the first few years of Buhari’s administration, from over 5,000 the year before, to less than 1,000, according to data tracked by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. However, 2020 has no doubt seen a spike in fatalities.

Two million civilians have had to flee their homes, and ten million required humanitarian assistance. In the Lake Chad Basin and northeast overall, some 240 000 Nigerians were forced by Boko Haram’s violence to flee to neighboring countries, including Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.

The situation, particularly grave in the northeast’s Lake Chad Basin, was compounded by the region being a hotspot of concern for the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus).

When coronavirus cases began being reported in Borno State in April, it was soon after in May labeled as “one of the largest centres of the virus” by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. There were further worries that Boko Haram would interfere with pandemic control.

On coronavirus, however, Nigeria’s policies have resulted in a marked decrease in transmissions. Since July, new daily cases have declined by close to 90 percent. The severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the northeast has also been stabilized.

A variety of tested and innovative measures, including a two-week-long lockdown and shared intelligence-driven technologies implemented at the regional level, have succeeded in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. In the first week of September, there was not a single confirmed case of coronavirus reported in Borno State.

With the same decisive action and careful planning, could the Nigerian government also get violent extremism under control? The challenge may seem herculean, but there are reasons for optimism.

First, one must understand what drives Boko Haram. It has always been a radical Islamic group with a Salafist agenda and a goal of establishing a state governed by Sharia Law. It did not always engage in terrorist acts, but it has had an extremist political steer from its founding in 2002.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was right when he said that this insurgency is based on the idea of African Islamisation, and he was right to denounce it as a movement of global organised crime far beyond violence; the sect is in fact fueled by the tragically lucrative quasi-industries of “…human trafficking, money laundering, drug and false medicine trafficking, gun trafficking, illegal mining and regime change.”

Boko Haram’s founders were explicit about their ideology. It rejected secularism and rejected claims to knowledge not grounded in the teachings of Islam. Founder Mohammed Yusef said in a 2009 interview that, “…there are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam.”

Another division which Boko Haram has capitalized upon is the wealth gap. It is not a contradiction to suggest that poverty helps Boko Haram recruit.

While vast gulfs exist in Nigeria between different regions, its northeast is one of the country’s most impoverished. Longstanding farmer-herder and ethnic conflicts have been exacerbated by land degradation, droughts and food shortages, regrettably and perhaps necessarily worsened by imposed travel restrictions so as to avoid coronavirus infection; a complicated yet perfect storm in causing conditions of extreme poverty. Factors such as these have been proven to foster the indoctrination of individuals and whole communities into militant organisations. Yobe and Gombe states, which border Borno, rank as the poorest and second poorest states when measured by GDP per capita, and Borno itself ranks in the bottom half of states.

With the established knowledge of terrorism’s unique exportability, Nigeria and its allies on the continent and around the world, should maintain an unrelenting assault on the leadership of Boko Haram and the terrorist foot soldiers engaging in brutal acts of violence against civilians.

These international partners, alongside West African militaries, naval forces, air forces, border-patrol units and customs and immigration enforcement agencies, must also seek to find greater inroads to intranational collaboration, methodologies proven to control, in similar fashion, infectious disease outbreaks not unlike coronavirus. One can point to the Interagency Collaboration on Ebola, spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO), where public and private-sector partners shared intelligence and leveraged cutting edge technologies to tackle the Ebola crisis and prevent it from what could have been a Pan-African epidemic.

These partners must also embrace technological innovations, such as the use of readily-available situational awareness, communication and reconnaissance technologies; these are proven techniques in detecting individuals using fraudulent travel documents and ensuring greater security where it has been proven terrorist sects gather before they traverse into urban environments and indeed targets, such as the Sahel region. This is a geographically-transnational pressure point, a theatre often isolated rife with high-risk conditions.

We’ve witnessed how intelligence sharing with a broader focus on the region at large has tamped down what could have been a national health epidemic in Nigeria. If properly applied to the as yet unrelenting threat of extremist terrorism, Nigeria, a jewel of opportunity within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) could safeguard its citizenry and its resources, fuel stability and propel autonomous growth for generations.

At the same time, kinetic measures should be accompanied by humanitarian measures and a continued ceaseless push towards development and greater access to education. The strategies work hand in hand to eliminate the immediate threat while also eliminating those factors that would drive one to radicalism.

“Complementary approaches should be explored alongside existing counter-terrorism measures,” Dr Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), recently stated. Community voices must take the lead on dialogue.

The threat of Boko Haram is indeed a very complex issue and cannot be viewed through the simplistic lens of the Western world. It is not just about fundamentalism, or just about terrorism, or just about poverty. Like COVID-19, Nigeria’s security challenges are multi-layered and constantly evolving.

I have spent significant time in and throughout Nigeria – I’ve witnessed firsthand its citizens’ commitment to their communities, and to realizing Nigeria’s great potential. Insurgencies like Boko Haram and pandemics may hold the continent back, but Nigerians have shown the world that they have enormous resilience and creativity, a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to succeed; an unbridled determination to play a lead role in West Africa and across the continent.

Ultimately, while the path towards a long-term cessation of hostilities rests in the hands of the Nigerian people, the concerned people of the nation and each neighbouring region, must do all it can as a concerned, engaged international community to ensure this bastion of opportunity can find the lasting change necessary to realize its great potential and fortify Nigeria’s status a socioeconomic power-player in Africa and in the world.

Written by Ivor Ichikowitz, Group Chairman of Paramount Group and originally published in New African Magazine.