About 23,000 residents in northwest Nigeria ravaged by violence have left the region to seek refuge in Niger Republic since April this year. This has raised concerns about the deteriorating security situation in the region, the United Nations Refugee Agency said on Tuesday. The number of people leaving the area and running to neighbouring Niger due to the nefarious activities of terrorist groups has almost tripled from last year when the agency reported the first influx of 20,000 people following an insurgency and banditry in northern Nigeria. The organisation reported that the latest influx of mostly women and children came after attacks by gunmen in Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states last month. The deadliest attack was said to have claimed 47 lives in Katsina State, prompting airstrikes by Nigerian security forces already stretched tackling a decade-long insurgency by Islamist group Boko Haram in the northeast. In Kaduna, gunmen killed 15 people at Gonar Rogo village in Kajuru LGA on Wednesday. The News Agency of Nigeria quotes local police as saying that five other people sustained wounds. The UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said they are working closely with authorities in Niger to relocate at least 7,000 refugees to safety as discussion are also ongoing to recognize on a prima facie basis the refugees fleeing the West African Country and arriving in the region. Nigeria had closed all land borders in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected over 4,600 people in the country with 150 deaths. It first shut parts of its borders last year to fight smuggling but people could still cross both ways. However, the refugees from Nigeria are being allowed to seek protection in Niger despite border closures with people in need of food, shelter and basic services including healthcare, the agency said.

Users of the Rivers and Onne Ports have complained about losses as a result of the arrest of port workers by the state COVID-19 task force on the orders of Nyesom Wike, the governor of Rivers state. Wike, who has imposed a 24-hour lockdown on Port Harcourt and Obi Akpor LGAs over the COVID-19 pandemic, refused to classify port workers as essential contrary to the guidelines of the presidential task force of COVID-19 which classified port operations as essential services. The FG had said that despite the lockdown, ports should remain open to trade so as to facilitate importation and delivery of essential goods, such as foods and medical supplies. In the last one week, many port workers, including staffers of the regulatory Nigerian Ports Authority, terminal operators, shipping agents and dockworkers have been arrested, and the vehicles conveying them to work impounded. Speaking with TheCable, Daniel Kalu, the MD of Africa Atlantic, said that a vessel transporting 4,500 metric tons of frozen mackerel fish has been unable to berth at the Rivers Port for about two weeks, a situation which he said could make his company lose the entire consignment. The same vessel had called in and discharged cargo at the Lagos ports before heading to Port Harcourt. In response to accusations of heavy handedness, Wike said his administration cannot be accused of any wrongdoing for among other things, demolishing two hotels in the state. In a state-wide broadcast on Sunday, he said his action was backed by law. The Governor had, after issuing an order recently banning hotels from opening their doors for business to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, repeatedly warned that any hotel caught violating the order would be demolished.

Ibrahim Gambari, 75, a professor of political science and Nigeria’s former permanent representative to the United Nations, was announced as the new chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday. He replaces Abba Kyari, who died from COVID-19 complications last month. Gambari, from Ilorin, Kwara, was minister of external affairs when Buhari was military head of state between 1983 and 1985. He is currently the founder/chairman of the Savannah Center External Link in Abuja, a think-tank for research, training and public policy debate on the nexus between diplomacy (conflict resolution), democracy and development in Africa. His last assignment at the United Nations was as the joint special representative of the Secretary-General and chairperson of the African Union Commission/Head of the UN and Africa Union hybrid mission in Darfur (UNAMID) from January 2010 to July 2012. During his tenure, UNAMID was the world’s largest international peacekeeping mission.

The Zambian government announced the closure of its common border with Tanzania as a spike in cases in its border areas weighs heavily on policymakers. On May 9, 76 new cases were reported in the border town of Nakonde. The president directed that with effect from Monday 11th May 2020, “there shall be no traffic in and out of Nakonde,” Health Minister Chitalu Chilufya announced at a COVID-19 press briefing on Sunday. The measure is to facilitate the roll-out of targeted interventions. During the time, immigration staff at the border will be trained and retrained on how to safely deal with the entry of persons and goods. Redeployments and reinforcements will also be undertaken, while Personal Protective Equipments and quarantine facilities and other key logistics will be reinforced with the view to protect the lives of officials and the people of the district, which is home to 75,135 people according to the 2000 Zambian Census. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) says lockdowns imposed to control the spread of the coronavirus is costing 42 African countries $65.7 billion monthly. In a new report, UNECA said the amount represents 2.5% of the continent’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). “This is separate from and in addition to the wider external impact of COVID-19 on Africa of lower commodity prices and investment flows,” the report read.

Commentary

  • Without a declared war, Nigeria has the seventh-highest number of IDPs in the world behind countries such as Syria, Somalia and Yemen, and more than countries such as Iraq and Sudan. The flow of refugees from Nigeria into the Niger Republic also highlights the porous nature of Nigeria’s borders, a porosity which is often taken advantage of by terrorist groups and criminal gangs, not just in Nigeria’s North-West, but across the country. For example, in the North-East, as refugees from Nigeria have flowed into the Niger Republic and Chad, Boko Haram have taken advantage of the ungoverned spaces in border areas to launch attacks from one country to the other. Along Nigeria’s border with Cameroon in Cross River state in the South-South zone, refugees from the Ambazonia crisis have flowed into Nigeria mostly unchecked. Nigeria has an unfortunate habit of allowing new conflicts metastasise while others are ongoing. We saw this with how the pastoral conflicts took over from the Boko Haram conflict in the number of casualties in 2017. These two conflicts are still ongoing. It is important to point out that killings have been going on in Kaduna despite the lockdown there. Kidnapping is still rife. Since Kaduna imposed a lockdown on 26 March, at least 15 people were killed by bandits prior to this incident at Gonar Rogo, and 24 people have been kidnapped. This banditry in the North-West though, has been poorly handled and can potentially eclipse both the Boko Haram conflict and the pastoral conflicts. It is proximate to regions in Mali, Burkina Faso and other Sahelian countries that have been conflict zones for years. Any long-lasting solution to Nigeria’s insecurity must incorporate enhanced border security measures in order to stem the flow of armed groups, weapons and other criminal activities. Meanwhile, the focus has to be on stopping the insecurity in those areas, which even the lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic has failed to do, before these refugees can be returned home. A more deliberate strategy beyond bombing raids is needed to deal with the issue. And it starts from looking at the poverty numbers – states in this region are the poorest in the country – and addressing the economic components fuelling this low-grade conflict.
  • There has been a remarkable variance in the quality and thoughtfulness of response to the COVID-19 pandemic amongst state governors, from poor responses as in Kano and Kogi, to better coordinated responses as in Lagos and Ogun. In general, Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been chaotic, meaning that the relatively low number of confirmed cases of the infection can be linked to several factors, including low testing (meaning a lot of infected Nigerians could be walking around unknowingly), cultural demands which inhibit the practice of social distancing and economic priorities that make self-isolation all but impossible for a majority of Nigerians. In Rivers, Governor Wike seems to be convinced that taking a bull-in-the-China-shop approach is the path to take – in the process, he is not only disregarding the framework the President laid down on essential services, but also carrying out activities of questionable legality such as demolishing non-compliant buildings without due process. This kind of approach, including such erratic moves as announcing a total lockdown, easing it for two days to allow residents to stock up, and then abruptly extending the eased lockdown, will only have the effect of creating more uncertainty about the state – one of the country’s five biggest economies – as an investment destination. There are fears that COVID-19 response may be used as an avenue by certain governments to go above and beyond what is lawful, and in the name of expediency trample on rights of citizens. This must be roundly condemned and Abuja must show strong leadership with unequivocal instructions to security agencies not to support such abuses.
  • The choice of Professor Gambari comes as a bit of a surprise because although mentioned, he was not among the frontrunners rumoured as a likely replacement for the late Abba Kyari. Mr Gambari has a prior relationship with President Buhari, having served him during Buhari’s dictatorship in the mid-1980s. He then served under dictator General Sani Abacha, including infamously defending the latter’s judicial execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. This blemish will hardly affect his job negatively and is more a proof of loyalty to his principal, something that is important to President Buhari. A key differentiator between Mr Gambari and other rumoured candidates is his lack of political ambition, having never run for, nor indicated interest in elective office, despite not having held any Nigerian government position since 1999 when his tenure as Nigeria’s Ambassador to the UN elapsed. It is clear that President Buhari prefers the familiar as well as the loyal for his top personal staff, and Mr Gambari’s first statement as Chief of Staff – to the effect that he reports to President Buhari and not the Nigerian people – is ample proof that the ship will not be rocked. While this may be true technically, we wonder at the need to publicly emphasise this point. In any event, since Mr Gambari left the government in 1999, he has mostly been involved in various capacities with foreign agencies, most notably at the UN until 2012. This gives him the advantage of having built a network with which to reach the international community at a time that Nigeria desperately needs international help. This network, if deployed properly, may save the Buhari legacy.
  • The closure of the border by Zambian authorities is a clear indictment of how Tanzania has handled the pandemic in its country considering that Zambia had not had any new cases outside of Nakonde in 24 hours before these cases were detected. Zambia has 267 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 117 discharges and 7 deaths. Tanzania, on the other hand, has 509 cases, 21 deaths and 183 recoveries, according to John Hopkins University tallies. Zambia’s annoyance is not surprising either as Tanzanian President Magufuli’s body language has been one of disputing the efficacy of testing kits and of lockdown measures. He has publicly said that religious services will not be stopped because of the pandemic as they are the answer to the ‘satanic’ virus. His handling of the pandemic can only be compared with how former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, mishandled the AIDS epidemic in his country. In the UNECA report, the body proposed seven exit strategies to bring African economies back on track. These include improving testing; contact tracing and mass testing; immunity permits; gradual segmented reopening; adaptive triggering; mitigation; and crucially, maintaining lockdowns until preventive or curative medicines are developed. This lockdown is sure to affect trade between the two countries estimated at about $114 million last year, with a trade surplus of $14 million in favour of Tanzania. In the grand scheme of things, this spat shows the need for synergy in how countries across the continent and sub-regions approach the pandemic so that gains in one country are not eroded by improper measures in another country.