Author: Melissa Dalton
Site of publication: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: July, 2020
Nigeria’s security forces have confronted armed non-state actors in northeast Nigeria for over a decade, and local civilians are caught in the middle. Violence has intensified in recent months, including multiple terrorist attacks in Felo, Monguno, and Nganzai in June 2020 that killed at least 120 people and targeted a UN humanitarian facility. According to UN estimates, 1.8 million people have been displaced due to violence, and more than 7 million people depend entirely on humanitarian aid to survive. Furthermore, 1.2 million people live in areas controlled by non-state actor groups, largely inaccessible to humanitarian assistance. Moreover, necessary public health restrictions enacted due to Covid-19 have affected humanitarian aid supply chains and the delivery of assistance.Addressing Nigeria’s conflict drivers and attending to humanitarian needs will require a multi-faceted strategy that is not limited to the use of the Nigerian security forces. However, Nigerian security forces’ conduct will shape civilian perceptions of the legitimacy of the Nigerian state as it seeks to reassert control and will directly impact civilian security and access to humanitarian aid. Elevating civilian protection as an objective in Nigeria’s approach to the northeast to address these challenges will require changes in both Nigeria’s use of its security forces and U.S. and other donor relationships with Nigeria.
Civilians in the Crosshairs
In northeast Nigeria, civilians of all ages, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and genders have experienced a wide range of harm caused by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province over the last 12 years. In addition, violent herder-farmer conflicts in the middle belt-region contribute to instability and put civilians at risk. Security providers, including the Nigerian military, police, and community-based militias, seeking to extend control over contested territories, have also been implicated in civilian harm. Civilians have been killed, and others face sexual exploitation and abuse, unlawful detention, restrictions on freedom of movement, family separation, and repeated displacement from armed actors.
Roles and Conduct of Nigerian Security Forces
The military, police, and community-based militias comprise Nigeria’s security forces. All have been implicated in serious civilian harm, even as they combat insurgent groups that also commit atrocities against civilians. Civilian authorities do not always maintain effective control over the military and police. Governors do not have supervision or authority over the military and police in their state. In addition, it is a preferred practice to deploy non-indigenes to conflict zones. If there is insecurity in a particular region, governors can receive additional federal funding, known as a “security vote,” which they use for legitimate and illegitimate purposes. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 human rights report, Nigerian authorities did not file charges in some of the significant allegations of human rights violations by security forces and in cases of police or military extortion.
In the first years of the conflict, the military and police were slow to mobilize to the northeast. Since then, they have struggled to meet the multiple security missions across the country, including participating in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), countering terrorism, enforcing maritime security, countering narcotics trafficking and other criminal networks, and peacekeeping. Police forces are viewed as oppressive and ineffective, thus putting more burden on the military to assume internal security missions. Additionally, Islamic State West Africa Province has directly targeted military logistics and supply hubs, constricting the military’s ability to maneuver across the region.
Civilian authorities do not always maintain effective control over the military and police. Governors do not have supervision or authority over the military and police in their state
As the Nigerian military continues its offensive operations, civilians have suffered casualties and loss of life from airstrikes as recently seen in April 9, 2020, in Damboa. In contested areas in the northeast, the military has clamped down severely on humanitarian access. In “garrison towns” such as Pulka and Gwoza controlled by the Nigerian military, critical humanitarian needs such as health care, clean water, shelter, and protection are unmet, although in many cases, civilians are dependent upon humanitarian aid to survive. In Pulka, civilians are unable to move beyond the military-enforced town perimeter for fear of being attacked by non-state armed groups or by being perceived as part of the armed groups by the Nigerian military.
Steps to Address Civilian Harm
Nigeria will not succeed in addressing the root causes of conflict in the country if its civilians do not trust state security institutions to protect them. Despite continued abuses and lack of accountability of security forces, the Nigerian government has taken some important steps to address civilian harm resulting from its presence and operations.
According to UN estimates, 1.8 million people have been displaced due to violence, and more than 7 million people depend entirely on humanitarian aid to survive
From 2016 to 2017, the Nigerian government, in partnership with civil society organizations, developed a draft policy on protecting civilians and mitigating civilian harm, still under consideration. Nigeria would be one of the few countries in the world, and the first in Africa, to adopt such a policy.
However, even if the government adopts this policy, given tenuous civilian control of the security forces, the Nigerian government will have to work with international donors and civil society on parallel efforts to incorporate civilian protection into training, doctrine, exercises, and operations of the security forces. The Nigerian military has, with the help of partners, integrated civilian harm mitigation into a number of its military training curricula. Brigades and battalions in the northeast are regularly engaging with community structures in a number of localities to improve the protection of civilians. Notable examples include providing firewood and farming patrols to protect civilians from abduction, harm, or death resulting from opposition group attacks. It will also need to strengthen independent justice institutions to hold violators accountable.
Despite continued abuses and lack of accountability of security forces, the Nigerian government has taken some important steps to address civilian harm resulting from its presence and operations
Despite international condemnation of security forces’ abuses, increases in international donor security sector assistance over the last three years have sent mixed messages to the Nigerian government. While abuses and a lack of accountability have subjected specific units—such as the CJTF—to restrictions under the Leahy Laws, and earlier in the conflict, the United States did withhold assistance as a policy matter following a pattern human rights abuses by Nigerian military units, it has been more willing to overlook these concerns in recent years. U.S. security sector assistance has increased under the Trump administration. The Department of Defense notified Congress of over $16 million in training and equipment support (10 U.S.C. 333) in FY2018 and FY2019 for Nigeria and has moved forward with the delivery of 12 Super Tucano light attack aircraft despite civilian casualty concerns in the conduct of Nigerian air operations.
Even with increased security sector assistance, U.S. in-country military presence is limited, and training is neither regular nor widespread. While Nigeria is an important security partner on the continent, the U.S. military lacks the presence and access required to oversee partner forces effectively, nor does it have the influence or degree of cooperation to overcome deficits in Nigerian capacity or conduct. As a result, the approach to mitigating civilian harm in Nigeria will have to include a range of measures that calibrates to the degree of leverage that outside donors like the United States can bring to bear.
Still, working in close collaboration with government and civil society actors, donors like the United States can take several concrete steps to help improve civilian protection in Nigeria. Establishing clear expectations for donor partnerships should include elevating the role of civilian protection, adherence to international humanitarian law, and respect for human rights. Encouraging the Nigerian government and security forces to adopt and implement the draft national policy on civilian protection should highlight the strategic benefits of mitigating civilian harm for improving the legitimacy of state control and be linked to technical assistance to the Nigerian military. Calibrating security sector assistance to account for specific risks and opportunities based on the past conduct of units within the security forces and actual security requirements will complement the implementation of the civilian protection policy. This could include a positive conditionality approach, linking new types of security sector assistance to concrete changes in behavior that the U.S. or other donors would like to see.