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Terrorism experts have long feared that parts of the Sahel beyond the control of any government could become nurseries for radical Islamic terrorism that would focus on Western interests and security. This fear at least partly compels the United States to provide limited military assistance to the states in the region, notably Niger, and to sell military equipment to Nigeria. However, lawlessness is not confined to the Sahel, nor is it always associated with Islamist terrorism. There has been a wave of recent killings in the Middle Belt and in northwestern Nigeria, regions where Boko Haram does not routinely operate. The killings are often the result of quarrels over land use, referred to as “herder-farmer conflicts,” cattle rustling and other criminal activity, and reprisal attacks. A recent episode, reported in the New York Times, involved “bandits” killing some forty-five in the village of Gwaska in Kaduna state, located in the Middle Belt. The number of reported deaths was later increased to seventy-one.
The “bandits” in that incident have not been further identified. The Kaduna state police commissioner has credibly described the incident as a reprisal attack for earlier vigilante attacks on hideouts in an adjacent national park by residents of the affected village. After the carnage and horror, the bandits were driven away from Gwaska not by the police or other official law-enforcement agencies but by local armed vigilantes. The nearest police station is far away, and the police arrived hours after the attack. In the case of Gwaska, the local community sees to its own protection without reference to government authority. Whether at the national or state level, government authority rarely appears to be exercised in the region, making Gwaska and the surrounding area an “ungoverned space." There is no evidence that the “bandits” were radical Islamists or were otherwise affiliated with political groups. Instead, their activities appear to be entirely local.
Nigeria has national elections in February 2019, and incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is running for reelection. When he was first elected in 2015—the first opposition leader to win a credible election—he campaigned primarily on a platform of restoring security and reining-in ubiquitous corruption. Then, the electorate’s security focus was mostly on Boko Haram. Though that movement has been increasingly contained in the far northeast, violence and insecurity has worsened elsewhere in the Middle Belt and in northern Nigeria. Far more people are killed in those regions now because of “bandits,” reprisal attacks by vigilantes, and quarrels over land use than in the northeast by Boko Haram. Discontent about the state of security in Nigeria could prove to be a significant factor in the upcoming national elections. But the Buhari administration faces challenges with respect to the security services: the police and the army are over-stretched, under-manned, under-funded, and under-trained. Further, they have been credibly accused of a vast array of human rights abuses and are rarely, if ever, held to account. The attack in Gwaska was especially grisly and has attracted widespread attention in other parts of the country, but Gwaska is by no means the only Nigerian village far away from a police station.