When Boko Haram faction leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the December 2020 mass abduction of more than 300 school boys in Katsina State, north-west Nigeria, he wasn’t taken seriously – not even by government.
This despite the fact that the proof-of-life video came from the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (JAS) faction, led by Shekau. People felt that since the abduction was carried out by bandits, especially in a region where Boko Haram was not thought to be present, the group’s claim could be propaganda.
Ongoing Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research shows however that not only did JAS participate in the abduction, but the link between the group and bandits pre-dated the incident.
Boko Haram, particularly under Shekau, has long been interested in expanding its base beyond Nigeria’s north-east. And its north-west and north-central regions are increasingly becoming its areas of choice due to deteriorating security and other conditions there.
The group’s interest in these regions, especially the north-west, can be traced to a 2014 internal ‘Message to Fulanis’ video. In it, Shekau is seen expressing ‘gratitude’ to fighters in Katsina State and other unspecified locations.
About six years later, in what appeared to be further confirmation of Shekau’s interest in the regions, Boko Haram fighters sent greetings to their colleagues in Zamfara and Niger states in a video released by the group. Three weeks later, the greeting was reciprocated by fighters in Niger State.
There are numerous reasons for Shekau’s forays into the north-west and north-central areas. These include the desire to create an Islamic state that goes beyond the north-east, recruitment and financial gains from ransom payments and other activities like illegal gold mining.
But another major reason is to create a diversion. Stoking security threats elsewhere removes or reduces security forces’ pressure on the north-east, particularly Sambisa Forest. This gives Shekau some breathing space from the military operations at his Sambisa base.
Former fighters who spoke to the ISS said that the constant military operations in Sambisa Forest had in the past made Shekau think of fleeing to the Mandara Mountains. But it would have been impossible to move his armaments without attracting security forces’ attention. Also, the military could cut his supply chains, and his fighters’ morale would be damaged by a move seen as cowardly. This could lead to a revolt and possibly another split.
It therefore makes sense that JAS instead used the insecurity in regions outside the north-east to create more trouble for security forces. And the presence of criminals in these regions offers him the platform to do so seamlessly without raising eyebrows.
The ISS research shows that a group of former Boko Haram members led by Adam Bitri – a pioneer member of the group and close friend of late founder Mohammed Yusuf and Shekau – was crucial in the alliance between bandits and JAS.
Bitri fled from government-provided accommodation in Kaduna State, north-west Nigeria, in 2019 while waiting to enrol in the deradicalisation programme. He teamed up with kidnappers in Zaria and Birnin Gwari, a hotbed of criminality in the state, and re-established a link with JAS.
Another important player in the alliance is Sadiku, a Fulani JAS commander. He was already familiar with the regions because he shuttled between the north-east and north-west while he was based in Sambisa. During one of his visits to the north-west in 2019, he planned the Bitri’s murder for allegedly betraying Shekau. Bitri had defected to the rival Islamic State West Africa Province faction and then accepted government’s deradicalisation offer.
Shortly after Bitri’s death, Shekau sent a delegation headed by Sadiku to ensure that his death wouldn’t jeopardise the burgeoning relationship with some of the bandit groups loyal to him. The delegation, which was to be permanently based in the north-west and north-central regions, facilitated a treaty between those groups loyal to Shekau and those not. The treaty prohibited each side from attacking the other or giving information about the other to security forces.
Violent extremist groups and criminals often use intelligence gathering in their activities. Security forces must find ways to keep a step ahead. They need to invest more time and resources in the painstaking work of intelligence gathering if they want to unravel the links between extremist and criminal groups and take effective action.
Like in other parts of the country, the main issues contributing to insecurity in the north-west and north-central regions include governance, particularly policing. Many communities don’t feel the presence of government, especially in the area of safety and protection.
This allows criminal groups to step in and take advantage by entering into social contracts with communities – not that these communities have any choice. For some, collaborating with violent extremist and criminal groups is all about survival and negotiating their safety.
Nigeria needs to address the huge problem faced by its police force. With a population of over 200 million people, Nigeria’s police-to-citizen ratio of 1:540 is below the United Nations recommendation. Despite this inadequacy, more than half of the country’s police personnel are employed by private individuals and organisations who have money to pay them.
In addition to the lack of funding for policing, other problems are corruption, human rights abuses and lack of training in modern policing techniques, among others. Nigeria’s government needs to prioritise all these problems, urgently.
Malik Samuel, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin
This article is made possible through funding from the United Nations Development Programme and the Government of the Netherlands.
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Image: Amelia Broodryk/ISS