Nigeria is confronted by an unprecedented situation of a rapidly deteriorating security situation in virtually all parts of the country. About seven years ago, the then National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki drew the nation’s attention to numerous active security threats that have led the military to send troops to 34 out of the 36 States in the country. Since then, the situation has become much worse. There has been a massive increase of the circulation of small arms and light weapons in the country. These arms are used by insurgents, militants, criminal gangs as well as ethnic and religious bigots to attack, kill and maim Nigerians. In response, communities have been establishing numerous vigilante “self-help” groups from Civilian JTF to through neighbourhood watch groups to “Yan sa kai” to try and defend themselves. 

It’s a statement that Nigerians are fearful of and responding to the incapacity of the State and its agencies to provide for their security. Insecurity is further fueled by the rapidly rising level of hate and dangerous speech in the traditional and social media. Today, in many parts of the country, farmers can no longer go to their farms and there is a real threat of famine in the coming months. There is above all, a real challenge posed by the near total collapse of national and local governance, and the rapid and extensive growth of ungoverned spaces. The message everywhere is that citizens must rise to the occasion and devise strategies to provide for their own safety.

It was in this context that the Arewa Research and Development Project (ARDP) in collaboration with Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation (SABMF), Savanah Centre Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD) and the Joint Action Committee of Northern Youth Associations convened a two-day Northern Nigeria Security Conference in Kaduna on 1st and 2nd July to develop a survival strategy for the communities of the North and map out pathways for national survival. The Conference focused on what Northern communities can and should do to protect themselves and improve public safety. Concerned citizens and people with experience in security, logistics and intelligence carried out a thorough assessment and developed a thorough analysis of the security crisis in the country and declining State capacity and proposed a novel approach and action plan to address the rising state of insecurity in the country.

Conference worked through the syndicate system in which stakeholders with specialties worked with each other to develop cogent analysis and recommendations which they reported back to plenary on. The syndicates were on: The Boko Haram Insurgency, Ethno-religious conflicts, the Farmer-Herder Conflicts, Rural Banditry and Communal Conflicts, Kidnapping and Armed Robbery, Urban Youth Violence and Drugs and Regional Diplomacy towards our neighbors in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin Republics.

The Conference drew attention to the fact that Nigeria, and the North in particular is characterized by deep structural challenges that have created vulnerabilities that push towards conflicts and rising violence. Poverty has been growing and deepening over the past decade while inequality and conspicuous consumption of the rich, most of whom have stolen public funds, is creating anger among the people. Northern Nigeria has the highest population growth rate in the contemporary world with a fertility rate of over seven births per woman in the average. This has created a huge youth bulge confronted by unemployment and underemployment. These young people are fleeing urban poverty and migrating to urban slums, squalor and precarity.

The root of the current crisis is the breakdown of socialisation processes within the family. The family is in crisis and high poverty levels have created a significant push factor leading to poor families sending their boys out as almajirai and marrying their daughters out at a very young age – often, before their teenage years. This means families are abdicating their traditional roles of grooming the next generation to adulthood. The girls are married off too young, produce many children while often lacking the maturity to maintain their marriage while playing into male patriarchal notions of men having the right of frequent change of spouses. The result, serial polygamy and unstable families.

Still on the family, the rise of new religious movements has affected socialisation and religious education within the home. The younger generation moves into new religious movements and no longer receive religious education from their parents and traditional clergy within the community. This process opens the possibilities for the penetration of radical ideas, interrogation of parental and ultimately political authority. This process is insidious because it undermines the transmission of values within the community. It was in this context that with the Boko Haram insurgency, we see young men slaughtering their own parents as if they were goats. The scorched earth policy that has marked the rural banditry in North Central and North Western Nigeria is another marker of this tendency. Meanwhile, the disintegration of the family is essentially among the poorest section of society while elite families are able to invest in the provision of all-round quality education for their own children. Northern society is therefore deeply bifurcated and the ruling class is often unaware of the reality of life on the other side. At the same time, social cohesion and family life for virtually all families – elite and the masses are being torn apart by a serious and growing problem of drug addiction.

These dimensions indicate that the nature of the problem is much more than security and solutions must be all encompassing. Social issues must be addressed and the 13.2 million children out of school in Northern Nigeria must receive the education they need and deserve. The Almajiri system must be addressed and early marriage for girls must be discouraged, and access to school until they are 18 years is the best pathway. The medium-term approach to improved security therefore has a massive role for parents, religious and traditional leader.   

This year, the Boko Haram insurgency is a decade old, and while their forces has been, according to the consecrated word, been degraded, they are still doing a lot of harm. The military approach is simply insufficient and there is a risk that the conflict will linger for many more years if the “soft” elements of countering violent extremism such as improved religious education and control and development of counter narratives by religious authorities is not fast tracked. Improving civil-military relations and winning hearts and minds of civilians so that they become willing to share intelligence with security agencies is crucial. Security, is everybody’s business and communities must be inward looking also to work out what they can do to improve their own safety.  

One of the most serious challenges in the North, is that a lot of the violence and killings that do not have the drama of playing into the Christian/Muslim divide hardly get reported. Recent violence between Muslim and Christian belligerents in Taraba State for example got massive press reports. When the conflict turned to Christian Tiv and Jukun groups, the media lost interest. The massive killings in Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina States have also not had a lot of press coverage. It is therefore necessary for Northern communities to create mechanism for the documentation of the insecurity they live on a daily basis. This could be the basis of feeding into the implementation of a national programme of early warning and early response to violent conflict that must be developed.

The Nigerian Police Force is focused on the provision of VIP protection for those who can afford to pay. It is virtually absent in contemporary rural Nigeria, so the police are friends only to the elite. In this context, all communities must start considering the most effective modalities for promoting their security. The performance of security agencies must however be improved so that the trend of self-help and massive procurement of arms by civilians is curtailed. Nigerian communities must insist on a robust conversation with Federal and State Governments on creating synergy in promoting public safety, combating criminality and peace building.

Finally, we all have a collective stake in encouraging the development of responsive and responsible social media platforms and influencers to combat hate and dangerous speech and promote peaceful coexistence in the country.