ColumnsNational SecurityNigeriaOpinionNigeria: Atrocity in the Northeast

Avatar PilotnewsDecember 3, 2020

In response to the latest atrocity—the November 28 killing of civilians working in rice fields in villages in the Jere local government area, which is close to the Borno State capital of Maiduguri—Borno State Governor Babagana Umara Zulum appears to be looking for Borno State and local entities to restore security. In a public statement, he did call on the federal government to recruit more troops, but his emphasis appears to have been on growing the Civilian Joint Task Force and civil defense forces. These are state and local forces, rather than federal, often with little coordination with the Nigerian army.

In the northeast, as federal security provision is breaking down, it is being replaced by state and local entities, as the governor signaled. This trend, to be seen elsewhere in Nigeria, does not bode well for national unity, which has been dependent on the Nigerian army. (Gov. Zulum is a member of President Muhammadu Buhari’s political party; the latter issued a statement condemning the atrocity, but despite domestic political pressure, he has thus far has not advanced a new security initiative in response to escalating attacks on civilians.) With some eight hundred casualties in 2020, the Nigerian army has withdrawn into fortified bases, thereby reducing their deaths but ceding control of the countryside to violent armed groups—mostly jihadi, but also criminal outfits.

Boko Haram warlord Abubakar Shekau claims responsibility for the killing of seventy-eight rice farmers. (Estimates of the exact number of those killed range up to 110 or even more.) Shekau, according to African media, states that the killing was revenge for local people turning over a Boko Haram operative to the Nigerian army. Boko Haram perpetrators resorted to a familiar form of terror: deliberate throat-slitting. The numbers killed guaranteed national and international media attention, perhaps Shekau’s goal. As in other atrocities, local factors unknown to the Borno State government—much less to the federal government and international media—played a role in the killing.


John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He was a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. He writes the blog Africa in Transition.  This article first appeared in CFR.

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