CHIANGI M. AONDONA, Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, explains how Covid-19 is affecting counter terrorism efforts in Nigeria.
How is COVID affecting counter-terrorism efforts in Nigeria?
Pretty much! Just as the impact of Covid-19 is felt in other parts of the world, so also is Nigeria battling with the economic implications of the pandemic which has now extended to cover every other aspect of life in Nigeria. The pandemic caused the fall in oil prices at the global market and oil happens to be the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. Thus, Nigeria had to review her annual budget which was prepared on the estimation that oil prices would remain stable or would even move up. This also affected the defence budget which had to be reviewed downwards and this meant that there was going to be a shortfall in everything. When the Coronavirus eventually entered Nigeria, the government became confused as to whether it would concentrate on tackling the spread of the virus or deal with the already fragile security environment. In the meantime, the rate of crime increased astronomically; kidnaps for ransom, armed robbery, banditry and cybercrimes were becoming rampant. Meanwhile, since the Nigerian agencies have become overstretched it became difficult to deal with the rising security challenges in the wake of the covid-19 crisis. At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic between April and July 2020, security agents were deployed to enforce compliance with lockdown restrictions and to transport medical supplies from one part of Nigeria to another.
In the meantime, the Boko Haram continued to attack and kill innocent people in the name of Islam. The group ambushed and killed more than seventy soldiers, executed abducted aid workers and attacked and massacred travellers Borno state. The attention of the Nigerian security was divided and the group decided to take advantage of the vacuum and cause further damage. While the security of Nigeria was considered to be of paramount importance, the Health of ordinary Nigerian citizens and security officers were equally considered important. Thus, there was confusion which the group exploited to carry out attacks on Nigerian citizens. At the peak of the pandemic, the leader of the Boko Haram released a statement in which he described the outbreak of the pandemic as "God’s punishment for Nigeria’s evil behavior and refusal to embrace Sharia". He also described the safety measures including the cancellation of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia as an attack on Islam.
On the other hand, the coronavirus increased the threats of food security in Nigeria and since the Boko haram appear to be in control of most of the villages where the displaced peoples’ sources of income is domiciled, they had to pledge allegiance to the group in order to be allowed to access their farmlands. This development adversely affected counterterrorism efforts in Nigeria as and more people were joining the group in order to survive the hardship occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, Nigeria’s de-radicalization program continues to graduate the so-called “repented” Boko Haram militants and had graduated 601 of them at the peak of the pandemic in July 2020. The programme has been flawed for various reasons and most importantly, fears have been entertained that the return of these people to their communities poses serious security threat as they would sooner or later be abducted and taken back to the battlefield by the Boko Haram or even killed for betrayal.
How is the situation now?
I must state that, sincerely, the situation is quite calm now in some major parts of the North East unlike in the past, when it was almost difficult for people to go out without fear of having to contend with bomb blasts or even mass shootings. The towns that were captured and renamed by the group have all been recovered. The militants have now retired to the countryside where they now attack villages and abduct captives. The Nigerian Military has also sustained its offensive against the Boko Haram and has pushed them further into the Sambisa forest with the help of the Multinational Joint Task Force comprising of the soldiers from Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. The group has now resorted to asymmetric attacks on villages and military facilities. Their bases are being destroyed by aerial bombardments by the Nigerian Air force. But, even though the military has advised villagers to return to their homes, in truth it is not really safe because the villages are still being attacked.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram has now been split into two factions and this division has further enhanced the lethality of their operations. One of the factions is headed by Abubakar Shekau and the other by Abu Masab Al-Barnawi the son of the late founder of Boko Haram Mohamed Yusuf. It could be recalled that in 2016, ISIL recognized Al-Barnawi’s faction as Islamic State West of Africa Province (ISWAP) while Shekau’s faction retained its original name Boko Haram. Since then, the impact of the ISWAP group was not felt as much as it was at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. These factions have combined to wreak more havoc and create more fear and complications in the operational strategy of terrorist in Nigeria. While Al-Barnawi’s faction is more focused on asymmetric attacks on military targets other than civilians and has orchestrated raids on military facilities in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, Abubakar Shekau uses any means including suicide bombing to send hid message. Al-Barnawi is also said to have more members than the other factions because his modus operandi does not result in as many casualties to his fighters than Shekau’s Boko Haram.
What will be the next actions of Boko Haram for the rest of the year?
We can only imagine what the group’s next trends would be because their modes of operation were unknown in Nigeria many years ago. Nonetheless, there is a common pattern in Boko Haram’s operation in Nigeria since its inception sometime in 2009 and the goal is always to create intense fear and spread propaganda. The group tries to ensure that its attack is so lethal as to generate public outcry both locally and internationally. Thus, with the splitting of the group into two factions, one can only imagine what the magnitude of the groups’ attacks would be especially given the experience had over the years of their operations. It could be recalled that in August 2020, the US government alerted the Nigerian Military that Al-Qaeda insurgent group has started penetrating the North-Western part of Nigeria and warned that the organization was taking advantage of Africa’s ineffective management of the coronavirus pandemic to advance their goal in vulnerable societies including Nigerian and other African states. So we can only imagine the mayhem that the combination of Al-Qaeda, the Boko Haram and ISWAP would unleash on innocent Nigerians if it is not nipped in the bud.