Nigeria’s Encroaching Radicalism
Islamic State of West Africa Province Strangles Region
This is Toge, an aging and sprawling shantytown just off the highway near Nigeria’s modern capital, Abuja. It’s dusty and hot, a sweltering swirl of humanity isolated from the gleaming metropolis. Urban officials intend to keep it that way; they’re vigilant about freeing the nation’s seat of government from squatters and other visible signs of poverty. A visitor to Toge is a curiosity, an event that draws many generations of families from their mud-packed and scrap metal homes, wearing a vivid mix of tribal markings, local fabric and faded Goodwill donations. For decades, this ever-growing encampment has lived without fresh water or electricity. There are no schools, no formal health services, and no expectation that anything will change with this week’s national elections.
Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari hoped to convert the 2019 presidential campaign into a public rally for his triumph over Boko Haram, the radical Islamic insurgency known for kidnapping and sexually enslaving girls as young as those cradled in this mother's arms. But after a decade of displacing millions, the group is now dwarfed by a far more disturbing development: the homegrown Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Building a base by engaging fighters from the very territory it claims and taking its cues and funding from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISWAP controls mileage that reaches from Nigeria into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. It is violent and punishing, and Buhari avoids engaging voters on ISWAP because he knows he cannot beat it back. He avoids talking about poverty for the same reason.
Unlike the Middle East, in this part of West Africa, there are no outsized foreign militaries, no raging wars impeding Islamic State’s expansion. It is the poor, frustrated, and desperate residents of Toge along with the staggering 47 percent of Nigerians existing on $1.90 a day who fit ISWAP’s target profile. Their communities are breeding grounds for discontent channeled into radical rage. ISWAP already controls the massive resource-rich Lake Chad Basin in the northeast, and that includes the movements of fishermen, farmers, traders and truckers. When IS trained its focus on Africa, it started with the most populous nation, and converted Nigeria’s major liability—weak governance—into an ISWAP strategic asset. Elected officials here have long been emasculated by bribery, which is de rigeur. Everything is up for grabs, including power. The get-it-while-you-can culture is no match for overwhelming security challenges: pirates in the Niger Delta, energy pipeline poachers down south, religious battles over farms in the central region and intensifying radicalization in the Northeast. The country’s corruption, epic by any standard, corrodes efforts to address larger problems and fend off threats.
Buhari has spent four years trying to keep the country from unraveling. But Sub-Saharan poverty is persistent, profound, and Nigeria is mired in it, eclipsing India with the greatest number of people living in extreme poverty, worldwide. This, despite the enormous wealth endowed to the nation by the continent’s largest oil and gas reserves. Nigeria’s deep areas of upheaval have forced 2 million people from their homes and pushed 6.1 million more into queues for humanitarian aid. While the numbers are reducing, HIV/AIDS infection rates are still epidemic in the country. Big debts and crumbling infrastructure make any practical solution seem impossible. The uneasy democracy that’s taken hold in the quarter century since Nigerians rejected reckless military rule is challenged on so many fronts, it’s near total disintegration.
How can you help change the equation? Start with Nigeria’s economically marginalized youth. It’s Africa’s largest under-30 population and at grave risk for radicalization. Families release children to human traffickers who promise more than the hunger and squalor they leave behind. Local police demand payoffs from parents brave enough to report abductions. Nigerians represent the greatest percentage of trafficked people in continental Europe. The theft, enslavement and sale of children is a robust industry that creates child soldiers, the adolescent sex trade and disease. Grassroots groups like Youth Empowerment and Development Initiative work with students to reduce the stigma around HIV-AIDS and boost health awareness in a country where most of the rural residents are dirt poor. At 200 million today, Nigeria’s census is expected to nearly double by 2050, positioning it as the world’s fourth most populous nation. Examine the country’s escalating challenges through the Afro Centre for Development Peace and Justice.