Col. Mohamed Toumba, Zone 4 Commander, Forces Armees Nigeriennes, or FAN, does a pass and review of the Nigerian detachment participating in Flintlock 2018 in Tahoua, Niger, April 11, 2018. Credit: US Africa Command

Can Justice and Accountability Solve Nigeria’s Security Challenges?

On June 5th, armed men attacked worshipers at a Catholic Church in the city of Owo, Nigeria. Scores of people were reportedly killed and many more injured.

My guest today, Idayat Hassan, is director of the Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria. We kick off discussing this church attack as well as another high profile recent attack on a train in northern Nigeria. Idayat Hassan then describes how these attacks fit into broader patterns of insecurity in Nigeria.

The increasing insecurity in parts of Nigeria today comes less than a year ahead of major national presidential elections scheduled in February 2023. But as Idayat Hassan explains the candidates are not emphasizing getting to the root cause of insecurity — which she forcefully argues stems from a broken judicial system.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is the state of terror in Nigeria? Is the Boko Haram still active in Nigeria? 

Idayat Hassan [00:02:33] What we do know for certain is that these attacks were coordinated by men, and they bought explosives and guns. The gun power was very, very sophisticated. It was a […], not commonly used by cult groups or even petty criminals in Nigeria. So, this was possibly perpetrated by terrorists. And in Nigeria, currently, we have at least four terror groups, if not more and by these terror groups, I’m talking of jihadist. So, we have the Islamic state in West African province, which in the last one month has claimed a lot of attacks in places where they normally do not operate in Nigeria, but all still in the north of Nigeria. They claim attacks on a beer parlor where people, of course, a beer parlor in Nigeria, parlor means where people go to drink and eat. It’s a relaxation point, really. Now, they’ve bombed those places. They’ve also attacked in Taraba. So, they’ve had a horrific state of attack since Ramadan in Nigeria and in places which was not their usual enclave. At the same time, we still have the Boko Haram aligned to the late leader Abubakar Shekau. They’ve been decimated following the death of Shekau with over, at least according to official figures, 30,000 of them have surrendered to the state government. But we do know that some of them, instead of surrendering, continue to fight while some have moved to other parts of Nigeria. So of course, that means they will have gunmen still available to be called upon. We also do have the Ansar who are linked to the al-Qaeda. And […] splinter groups within this set as formidable jihadist groups operating in Nigeria. Many people do think that this attack is actually perpetrated by jihadis. And why will we think this? One, of course, is that the men who are being suspected to do that do not have a history of using explosives. Then the pattern of the attack previously is always in a rural area. So, you talk about communities on the road, these kinds of attacks, this is what their Modus operandi really has been, but we cannot take it with the fact that it could be some of these bandits aligned to jihadists who have perpetrated this attack. But it is very gory, very worrying, and it’s, again, taking the conflict beyond its normal nodes, especially when you think about this being the terrorists attack into southern Nigeria previously not impacted by terrorism.

Who is responsible for the church shooting in Nigeria in early June?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:04] So the circumstances of this attack, as you said, suggests strongly that it was a jihadist group. Is it odd, therefore, that no jihadist group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack? Typically, when churches in particular are attacked, groups brag about it.

Idayat Hassan [00:06:29] Yeah, really, that’s what we are actually waiting for. Like most of us analysts are waiting to see the next edition of the al-Naba, which of course is the Islamic State propaganda machinery, where the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP) have claimed they have previous attacks. Then also there is a likelihood, if it’s done by others, to come into view in the coming days. But I will also not be so surprised if we do not get an acknowledgment because the train attack, for instance.

What occurred in the violent train attack in Nigeria?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:07] Explain the train attack that was very deadly and horrific for the victims, but also terribly embarrassing for the government as well. Can you explain what happened?

Idayat Hassan [00:07:18] Yes, I think the Kaduna train attack also gives an example in terms of who perpetrated such an attack and if they actually claimed it. The Kaduna train attack, of course, happened at the tail end of March of 2022 and here explosives were used to blow out the tracks and kidnap passengers, over 167 official passengers in the first-class cabins and other cabins but emphasis on the first-class cabin of the train moving from Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, to Kaduna, which is actually the seat of power in modern Nigeria as well. So, it’s okay for all the elite to have a home.

What is the banditry problem in Nigeria?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:09] And the government had advertised this train as being the safer alternative to driving overland from Abuja, the capital, to Kaduna, the seat of power in the north.

Idayat Hassan [00:08:20] Yes, actually, this train is still one of the achievements of the Buhari administration. But beyond it being the achievement of Buhari administration. In the last four years, it’s been the only safe means of movement into Kaduna from Abuja, which ordinarily used to be a two-hour drive, which I do myself just to go for video programs. These days, this has become really impossible. It’s really become impossible, and the train is the only source, but this train was attacked, and even ahead of the train attack, the weekend of the train attack, the airport was also attacked, leading to a complete grounding of movement into Kaduna from Abuja except the brave can drive in it. But I think what is fascinating about this attack that when it happened, many of us actually thought that the attack was perpetrated by the bandits but later on we discovered that while there might be bandit elements in the attack, the mastermind were the jihadists and this jihadist up till now, except in times of negotiation, like almost two months after, are just coming forward to make demands. They never in any way issued a statement claiming this attack. So, if you look at the varied numbers of groups, their modus operandi: the fact that there are new entrants and there is actually a desire to be heard by these criminal groups, a desire to make a statement, which I think they were able to make with the other attack. And, of course, with this train attack, it’s very worrying and it feeds into the multiple nodes of insecurity plaguing Nigeria from northeastern Nigeria, where we have actually been battling the Boko Haram insurgency since 2009, more than 12 years after this insurgency is yet to have beat it, even though there has been an official declaration that it is over, a proclamation of victory. At the same time in northern Nigeria, there has also been a heightened level of insecurity in what we call locally a banditry problem. So, ages ranging from eight years old to the oldest among the bandits just being in the mid-forties […] they are wielding sophisticated weapons and in groups of up to a hundred or more operating on sacking villages. It’s not just an ungoverned space, but they seem to be the lord in those ungoverned spaces itself. And this has led to more than a million out-of-school children in the region where they have the highest number of out-of-school children. There has been an inability to plant or harvest crop during this period. So, looming before us is a food security crisis because the food basket of Nigeria is northern Nigeria actually, the peppers, the onions, the beans. Most of what is actually ate in all the parts, in southern Nigeria, is planted in the northwest of Nigeria. In the same vein, the herders, and farmers conflict in the north central or what we call the middle belt area, is also heightened. In southeastern Nigeria, we have a secessionist agitation led by the independent people of Biafra under the banner of the independent people of Biafra and this group has now fragmented into five different tendencies, and they have even created their own security forces, which they call the Eastern Security Network.

What are Nigerian presidential candidates, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, planning to do about security and terrorism in Nigeria?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:40] You’re painting a very complicated and dire security situation, not just in the northeast of the country, which has been the center of the insurgency, but in many other regions as well. And it seems that this seemingly worsening security situation in much of Nigeria is coming at a key political inflection point in Nigeria as well. We have elections coming up next year in Nigeria, next February, I believe, major elections in which we have two new candidates that will vie for the presidency with the current president Buhari stepping down, having been term limited out of office. Presumably security will be top of the agenda in these candidates’ campaigns. I’m interested to learn from you how, if at all, the two major parties and their candidates — on the one hand, Bola Tinubu, the all progressive Congress, which is the ruling party, their candidate, and on the other hand, Atiku Abubakar, who is the People’s Democratic Party candidate — what are they saying they will do about the security situation? And are there major differences in how various parts of the political spectrum approach security challenges in Nigeria?

Idayat Hassan [00:14:16] I think that really for now following the killing on Sunday the Atiku campaign has come out to outline what their response will really be. The Tinubu campaign is yet to be clear. Everybody campaigned based on addressing security, but I think the problem with Nigeria is it thinks there is no understanding of the causes of this insecurity and attempt to address this conflict. Previous administrations have focused more on the enemy centric approach, which is getting all this fighter jets from the United States, the Toscano planes, getting orders from Turkey, Russia, anywhere you can actually buy weaponry, but the problems are not the problems of actually that can be addressed using the kinetic approach only. It needs a lot of non-kinetic approaches. And when you look at one of our publications at the Center for Democracy and Development, we call it multiple nodes of conflict, common causes, and this is so hard just to describe that either from the south of Nigeria, the north- west, the north-central, the Northeast, or the South-West, South-East or South-South, while the conflicts are different, the causes are the same. It talks more about the issue of justice. They have sense of the states, and the heavy-handed approach of the security agencies in terms of addressing this conflict, land use issues as some of the causes. All of this is not properly addressed. In terms of the response of these candidates to addressing insecurity: to address insecurity in Nigeria, you’ll have to deal with the justice issue. Justice should not be delayed. Justice delayed is justice denied to the people.

How is Nigeria’s justice system related to the terrorism and insecurity in the country?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:25] Could you explain or cite an example of how justice delayed has resulted in increased violence or insecurity in a particular example?

Idayat Hassan [00:16:40] So if I take the example of one of the notorious warlords in northwest Nigeria, Turji Bello, Turji could be said to be playing to emotions but when you listen to his story, which resonates with all the other bandit lords, it comes to the issue of cattle. According to Turji they had a conflict and within this conflict with their neighbor over grazing, they lost a thousand cattle. But it’s not the losing of the thousand cattle, they were in court for seven and a half years trying to resolve issues over these cattle and it’s in the guise of being in court for seven and a half years that they eventually lost all their cattle and led them to actually take up arms against the state. If you go to this northern Nigeria, the northeast of Nigeria as well, and you look at one of the causal factors for the Boko Haram insurgency, it was the extrajudicial killings of over 700 of Mohammed Yusuf followers and Mohammed Yusuf himself. And within the space of time, when you look at the demand of this jihadist group then, they only wanted to see justice to be done to the perpetrators of this hurt. Eventually, justice was done. Well, how many people and was it well communicated as well? It’s the same where the leader of the IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra), Nnamdi Kanu, has been held. He was extradited back to Nigeria even though he was with his British passport. He has now been pursuing this case since sometime last year. We are talking about over eight months.

What is the IPOB, the Indigenous People of Biafra? And why is their leader Nnamdi Kanu in prison?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:42] And what’s the IPOB? What is that?

Idayat Hassan [00:18:43] That’s the Indigenous People of Biafra, which is actually leading the secessionist agitation in the Southeast.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:50] So he was a secessionist leader who was in the UK, was extradited back to Nigeria, and is now languishing in prison without trial.

Idayat Hassan [00:19:01] He was in the U.K., he paid a visit to Kenya, and he was extradited from Kenya to Nigeria. And he has been imprisoned for this period for like eight months. He has been going to court sometimes. For like three months he was not brought to court, which led to rumor and the rising violence in the South-East because people believed he was killed before he was brought to court in November. But since this November, this case was brought to court and the case has not really progressed in the way you expect a case that has implications on national security, national unity, and if properly handled could lead to a dousing in the tension in that part of the country, which is now more restive than any other parts of the country, where the casualties on a weekly basis are higher than even where we would say that we are in a war in northern Nigeria. But somehow this justice, this slow wheel of justice, is impacting really and beyond the will of justice, people really need just the means to get justice. Justice shouldn’t just be for the rich or the privileged. Justice should be for the poor. Because when the poor do not get justice, then they take up arms, harm themselves, and become law unto themselves. And this we have seen a lot of times doing field work, talking to actors in different parts of the country. It’s been the reason violence is growing and mutating.

Why are violence and terrorism rising in Nigeria?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:50] And so you’ve just identified a very profound link between improper applications of justice, the slow pace of the justice system in Nigeria and the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks and other forms of banditry and violence and organized violence by a panoply of armed groups across Nigeria. But you’re not seeing anything from either candidate thus far or really much conversation about this connection by Nigerian political leaders.

Idayat Hassan [00:21:27] Exactly. It’s like this connection is not happening. People only think about, yes, we are going to provide jobs. Jobs are important because poverty is also one of the root causes. Yes, but it’s not just poverty. The issue of justice is just one out of several issues that we really need to deal with in terms of addressing insecurity. It’s not just about the guns. It’s not just about building the schools to the people. You need a judicial system that works.

How can the Nigerian justice system improve to decrease terrorism in the country?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:02] What can the foreign policy community writ large, those who listen to this podcast, those who work in think tanks and governments around the world outside of Nigeria do to support the cause of strengthening the Nigerian judiciary. Is there anything that outside players can do, any influence that outside players can wield?

Idayat Hassan [00:22:24] Well, there is a lot to do in terms of strengthening the administration of justice system in Nigeria. It has to be both, what do you call it, human resources are also a very important one. The numbers are too many, and the materials available are very outdated to them. At this point in time some of the states are still doing the handwriting in cases. The courts, the courthouses are very dilapidated. You can’t compare Lagos State, for instance, to some of our states, not just in terms of the law, but in terms of the facilities that is actually available to administer the law. So, the facilities are one way to actually support, and training is another way to support but most importantly is pushing Nigeria to have the political will to address the criminal justice system in a bigger and better way and pushing for accountability at all levels will become very important. Accountability for crimes committed.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:37] Well, Idayat, thank you so much for your time. This conversation took an unexpected but very interesting turn for me with your identification of the link between the improper justice system and slow justice in Nigeria and the recurrence of armed violence. Thank you.

Idayat Hassan [00:23:57] Thank you so much.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:00] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Idayat Hassan for speaking with me. And I will return to politics in Nigeria in the run up to these February 2023 elections. These are very big elections. Nigeria is by far the largest democracy in Africa. It has a recent history of the peaceful transition of power and the current president Buhari is term limited out of office so there will be a new president. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!