Northeast Nigeria has been mired in armed conflict for more than a decade, with civilians and local communities being hit the hardest. Considerable human and financial resources deployed to prosecute the insurgency in the region have yielded few results, raising the question of whether strategies adopted by previous administrations lacked a clear and sustainable vision that placed the lives of our citizens at the center of it.
About 2.2 million people have been displaced in the Northeast since the beginning of the insurgency in 2009. According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, more than 35,000 people have been killed. In addition, the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria reported in September 2022 that about 1,500 schools were closed and 2,295 teachers killed since the beginning of the conflict in the Northeast.
The former administration of President Buhari made promises to address the persisting insecurity in Northeast Nigeria and adopt measures to better protect civilians from armed groups and harm arising from military operations. But only a few of these promises have been translated into actions. Although security was a key deliverable in the agenda of the former government, the jury is still out as to whether Nigerians are safer today or not. Unfortunately, insecurity increased in several areas of the country under Buhari’s tenure undermining a major promise of the former government to protect civilians and improve security across the country. This is primarily due to the persistence of the insurgency in the Northeast and other frontiers of insecurity emerging as hotbeds of violence, such as in the Northwest and Central Nigeria.
The appointment of new Service Chiefs and other security heads by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu provides an opportunity for a reset. Charting the course for a secure and safe Nigeria can only begin with an honest and bold conversation among the communities that have been severely affected by years of insurgency. The current administration needs to spend time understanding the diverse dynamics of the conflict, assess the already recorded achievements—although meager—and acknowledge the missed opportunities.
Further, a holistic planning towards ending these conflicts depends on a plan that centers around the protection and well-being of communities. This is the time to ensure that these communities and, indeed, Nigerians receive a clear message that their lives matter and they should be involved in the design and execution of any plan to secure communities through effective civil-military relations.
Before the 2023 general elections, the Nigerian society was already fractured due to a number of issues related to ethnic and religious tensions, youth restiveness, and lack of effective social cohesion that impedes reconciliation and community survival.
To address the security challenges posed by the issues that have been identified, the following recommendations are proposed:
- There should be closer communication and consultation with communities in conflict to build trust and develop synergies of constructive exchange of information. Our experience working on community-based protection projects in the Northeast has shown how impactful this can be. For example, in Gwoza local government area of Borno State, members of the community protection committee addressed the issue of the military occupation of a government primary school which lead to an increase in the number of out-of-school children in the area. Through consistence advocacy from the community protection committee members, the military relocated from the school thereby allowing the children access to their learning environment.
- There is a need to review and adopt a holistic policy on the protection of civilians. The second National Security Strategy adopted in 2019 by the Buhari administration is due for review, although the implementation plan was never made public by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA). Conducting a mid-term review is necessary to evaluate the success of the implementation of the strategy and recalibrate. This would also make it easier for the Tinubu administration to develop a new strategy tackling existing gaps, including the protection of civilians in conflict. Some of the necessary changes to be made in the next national security strategy document should include the establishment of an effective tracking mechanisms of civilian harm during security operations, the need for accountability, civilian harm mitigation, compensation, restitution, community engagement, and improvement in military and security sector compliance with standards.
- There is a need to rebuild our national cohesion through dialogue, equal opportunity, inclusive governance and affirmative action. In addition, it is important that the administration develops a new model of working closer with the third sector to engage communities, support humanitarian aid and community level work with communities.
The conflicts in Ukraine, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, have shown the need for restraint in the use of explosive weapons in urban and populated areas. Although at a smaller scale, Nigeria also recorded its share of civilian casualties during the insurgency in the Northeast, mostly as a result of airstrikes. This makes it even more urgent for Nigeria to sign the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA). The participation of Nigerian delegates in meetings and negotiations over the final draft last year sent a positive signal. The Tinubu administration should now adopt and sign the declaration as a matter of urgency to serve as a commitment to protect Nigerian citizens. As the country with the largest population in Africa, Nigeria should lead by example.
It is encouraging to note that the last Federal Executive Council adopted the National Action Plan for the promotion and protection of human rights. While this is a welcome development, there is the need for the Federal Executive Council to adopt the Policy on the Protection of Civilians that looks specifically at the vulnerability of civilians living in conflict and the responsibility of the federal government towards their protection needs within the legal frameworks that apply to non-international armed conflicts.
In the fight against insurgents during the last few years, civilians have become regular casualties in air support operations targeting insurgents. This is due to lack of effective ground to air support. CIVIC has consistently called for impartial and transparent investigations to understand the remote and immediate consequences of the failed strikes that resulted in civilian casualties. While we welcome the decision of the former Chief of Air Staff to set-up a Board of Inquiry to investigate the air strikes that have impacted civilians, the conclusions of the Board should be made public and adequate amends and compensation paid to families of victims and survivors of these unfortunate incidents. Lessons must be learned from all involved actors and a clear commitment from the Federal Government on non-recurrence should be made.
The primary function of any government around the world, including Nigeria, is to protect its citizens. Statements of good intentions will not suffice this time. Immediate and meaningful action as well as ensuring consultative and inclusive decision-making processes with those affected by armed conflict can help Nigeria become a shining light on the protection of civilians for not only the region, but the whole of Africa.
Benson Olugbuo, PhD
Country Director, Center for Civilians in Conflict, Nigeria Program Office