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In Nigeria, Ongoing Mass Killings Threaten Civilians as Concerns of New Violence Mount

On March 11, Nigerian officials announced that a coalition of West African security forces had occupied 36 towns in northeast Nigeria previously held by Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group. Earlier the following week, Nigerian security forces also claimed control of Bama, a town in northeast Borno state strategically located along the road between Maiduguri, the state capital, and the Nigeria-Cameroon border. The coalition’s territorial gains are the latest display of military strength by troops that, until recent months, have been unable to stem Boko Haram’s attacks against civilian and military targets in northeast Nigeria, northern Cameroon, and southeast Niger.

News of the early victories of the coalition, which comprises forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Benin, follows days of attacks in Borno state, including multiple suicide bombings in Maiduguri. While Boko Haram leaders have not claimed responsibility for the attacks, reports suggest they “[bore] the hallmark” of Boko Haram’s violence. Additionally, Boko Haram has organized targeted massacres against ethnic Arab civilians in Nigerian towns near the Chadian border, in alleged retribution for suspected collaboration with Chadian troops.

The persistence of Boko Haram’s attacks despite new West African counterinsurgency operations underscores the uncertain future of mass killing in Nigeria. Nigerian civilians currently confront two ongoing episodes of mass killing, according to the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessment: the first, by Nigerian security forces, has its origins in the government’s response to the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria; the second, in the actions of the insurgency itself. Nigeria also remains on the Early Warning Project’s averaged list of top 15 countries most likely to experience a new episode of mass killing.

While the coalition may achieve its limited territorial objectives—dislodging Boko Haram fighters in major towns and transit routes across the Lake Chad Basin and dismantling the group’s training camps in northeast Nigeria and northern Cameroon—it is possible that Boko Haram will continue to target civilians in areas previously affected by the group’s violence.

Officials in Abuja have stated they hope the coalition’s early gains against Boko Haram will reverse the Nigerian government’s poor fortune in time for the country’s national elections in late March. The leadership in Abuja has struggled to control the country’s northeast region since Boko Haram’s most recent major territorial victories last September, and the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan used the violence in Borno state, a stronghold of Jonathan’s electoral opposition, as a pretext to postpone the polls, originally scheduled for February 14. A successful counterinsurgency operation would demonstrate the Jonathan administration’s political strength and military savvy, a rare description of the incumbent’s security operations in areas affected by Boko Haram’s violence. To that end, the Nigerian government has aggressively courted the collaboration of the regional allies that make up the current coalition. The Jonathan administration has also enlisted a corps of South African private security contractors to assist the coalition effort, according to international media reports.

But Nigeria experts suggest Boko Haram leaders are aware of the symbolic resonance of a successful counterinsurgency by the Nigerian government and its West African allies, and are keen to prevent it. “If the group [Boko Haram] can show it is capable of causing significant violence in [northeast] Nigeria, it will show the [Nigerian] government is unable to ensure the security of its citizens,” said Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for red24, a London-based crisis management firm, when asked about the logic of the group’s recent attacks in Maiduguri.

Cummings also cited an operational logic behind Boko Haram’s violence. This interpretation of the group’s abuses mimics the logic described in “elite threat” models of state-sponsored mass killing:Boko Haram, a nonstate actor, uses large-scale attacks on civilians in northeast Nigeria to undermine threats to its territorial and political authority. Retributive violence in areas occupied by the group, like Boko Haram’s attacks against ethnic Arab communities near the Nigeria-Chad border, discourages civilian collaboration with coalition forces and local community militia, whose anti–Boko Haram activities have made them an important line of defense against the militant group.

These recent events occur amid the changing character of the Boko Haram organization, a stubborn puzzle for even the best-informed Nigeria observers. Cummings described Boko Haram’s emphasis on urban attacks as a symptom of the group’s recent territorial weakness; absent territorial control, Boko Haram fighters revert to urban attacks to demonstrate the strength and sophistication of their insurgency. Experts also cited Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s recent pledge of allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the militant group currently occupying large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, as an indicator of Boko Haram’s organizational composition. The pledge, which IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted, “may inspire Boko Haram to coalesce as an organization,” said Chika Oduah, a Nigerian journalist based in Abuja.

Cummings suggested that Boko Haram’s process of ideological and political consolidation has already occurred. “The declaration of allegiance may have more to do with expressing internal cohesion than with ensuring external solidarity with IS,” he said. While Boko Haram’s allegiance with IS likely will not directly impact the group’s operations, case studies of mass killing find the cohesiveness of an armed group is an important indicator of the intensity and scale of its violence.

In addition to ongoing violence by Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, the country remains at risk for increased violence against civilians. However, that violence may not reach the Early Warning Project’s threshold for a mass killing episode, which requires deliberate actions by specific agents that result in the deaths of at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians. Last month, International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda released a public statement underscoring international concerns about the risk of new mass killing and warning potential perpetrators of possible prosecution for acts of electoral violence. By Bensouda’s reasoning, upcoming elections may provide a window of opportunity for new violence against civilians by groups affiliated with either of Nigeria’s primary presidential candidates or with state or local candidates for political office.

But no experts interviewed for this post suggested large-scale violence is a likely consequence of Nigeria’s upcoming polls. Indeed, quantitative studies of electoral violence suggest upcoming polls are generally a weak indicator of a new or escalated mass killing episode. High death tolls have accompanied every national election since Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule in 1999; over 800 people died in the aftermath of the most recent election, in 2011. However, electoral violence often occurs as a series of local, dispersed killings by discrete political actors, as in Nigeria’s previous election years. In political environments like Nigeria’s, incentives for electoral victory vary by state or province, and the political actors that instigate violence possess different incentives for targeting civilians.

If this violence does occur, even at a smaller scale than full-fledged mass killing, it will likely align with the elite threat model that motivates both sides in the Nigerian government’s fight against Boko Haram. During Nigeria’s upcoming elections, both national and state-level contests will prove contentious. Poll numbers place Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, the primary opposition candidate for the Nigerian presidency, in close competition. Additionally, candidates from the ruling People’s Democratic Party and the oppositional All Progressives Congress will compete for coveted governors’ seats, which exercise significant influence as a result of Nigeria’s federal governance model. Across Nigeria, violence also tends to occur along the political fault lines of ethnicity, often in the form of citizenship or land disputes between so-called “indigene” and “non-indigene” groups. This violence is especially common in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, where disputes between diverse groups, including electoral opponents, sometimes result in brief periods of large-scale violence against civilians.

Both the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessment and the Project’s expert opinion pool continue to forecast the risk of a new episode of mass killing in Nigeria, suggesting, at the very least, the presence of significant factors that may contribute to future mass killing. The statistical risk assessment finds the average likelihood of new mass killing in Nigeria is 2.2 percent, while the expert opinion pool—as of March 19—assesses a higher likelihood, 8.2 percent. Though the Early Warning Project’s statistical assessment suggests a low risk of new mass killing, Nigeria will likely remain among the top 15 countries of concern for members of our expert opinion pool as its national elections approach.