President Muhammadu Buhari, on 18 March, admitted that despite his administration’s recent closure of land borders, arms and ammunition continued flowing illegally. He attributed the problem to the situation in Libya, saying that once the country remains unstable, illegal arms and ammunition will continue to flow across the Sahel region. According to a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, the President spoke at the Presidential Villa, Abuja while receiving in farewell audience the outgoing Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohammed Ibn Chambas. In a statement, Buhari was quoted as saying that “We closed our land borders here for more than a year, but arms and ammunition continued to flow illegally. “As far as Libya remains unstable, so will the problem remain”. He described Chambas, who spent many years in Nigeria in different capacities, from ECOWAS to UN, as “more of a Nigerian than anything else.” He wished him well in his future endeavours.

Following the outbreak of violence in Ekiti when gunmen killed at least three persons participating in the Ekiti East 1 State Constituency bye-election on 20 March, the Independent National Electoral Commission has suspended the vote indefinitely. This was contained in a statement by INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye. The statement partly read, “The commission made adequate arrangements for the election. Personnel and materials arrived on time in all the 39 polling units spread across five wards of the constituency for the 23,670 registered voters to exercise their franchise in a free and fair process. “However, no sooner had the voting commenced than unidentified gunmen unleashed mayhem at some polling units, thereby disrupting the process. “Unfortunately, some innocent voters were shot dead, while a policeman, some INEC regular and ad hoc staff who sustained gunshot injuries during the melee are receiving medical attention. “The situation is unacceptable. In its avowed commitment to electoral integrity, the commission has suspended the election indefinitely. To continue with the process will amount to rewarding bad behaviour. The security agencies are aware of this unfortunate situation and have commenced an investigation. “The commission commiserates with the innocent victims of this dastardly act and affront to our democracy.”

An ethnic militia, the Fulani Nationality Movement (FUNAM), has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack on Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State. Gunmen had on 20 March attacked Ortom’s convoy at Tyo Mu along Makurdi/Gboko road. The governor was on his way to Makurdi when the gunmen opened fire on his convoy but were repelled by his security men. Ortom said, “You know today is Saturday and is normal as a farmer, I usually go to my farm, so I went to my farm along Gboko road and on our way back, we started hearing some gunshots and we discovered people who were dressed in black and from experience, we now discovered that these are Fulani militias and I do not want to take things for granted because a few days ago the media were awash with a statement from [the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association] who met in Yola, the same place they met in 2016 where they decided that they will take Nigeria and that every other person is a slave that was when they started infiltrating the entire country.” He added, “My lawyer is going to make a petition against the leadership of MACBAN because they came out to target me and behind the scene, they are planning to eliminate me on my own land. If I can’t go to the farm as governor with entire security around me then who else can go to the farm? You can imagine the pains that we have here in Benue State. I appreciate the security personnel attached to me; they were able to repel them and they could not have access to me,” Ortom said.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed confirmed for the first time on 23 March that troops from neighbouring Eritrea entered the northern Tigray region during the five-month-old conflict, the first such acknowledgement after months of denials. In a parliamentary address, he also acknowledged for the first time that atrocities like rape had been committed during the fighting, and promised perpetrators would be punished. Fighting erupted in Tigray after forces loyal to the then-governing party there – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – attacked army bases across the region overnight and in the early hours of 4 November 2020. The attacks initially overwhelmed the federal military, which later mounted a counter-offensive alongside Eritrean soldiers and forces from the neighbouring region of Amhara. The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018, has long been an archenemy of Eritrea. Abiy said Eritrean troops had crossed the border because they were concerned they would be attacked by TPLF forces, but the Eritreans had promised to leave when Ethiopia’s military was able to control the border. The TPLF repeatedly fired rockets at Eritrea after the conflict began. The governments of both Eritrea and Ethiopia repeatedly denied Eritrea’s involvement in the war, despite reports from rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which documented the killings of hundreds of civilians by Eritrean soldiers in the holy city of Axum.

Commentary

  • Mr Buhari’s comments will be easily interpreted as an attempt to shrink from taking responsibility for the country’s insecurity. While the instability in Libya has all but guaranteed a steady flow of illegal arms, underwritng the rise of jihadist militias and instability in West Africa and the Sahel, it is important to note that weak governance in the countries affected have also been an important factor. In Nigeria’s case specifically, the problem has been that weak to non-existent border security, frail intelligence gathering, hollow law enforcement systems and poor conflict resolution mechanisms, which have provided the perfect habitat for violent non-state actors. These, in many ways, apply to other severely affected countries such as Mali, which has seen political instability and insecurity since 2012, necessitating a UN peace mission, and being a net exporter of instability to neighbouring countries. This being said, the AU and ECOWAS need to show more interest in ensuring political stability in Libya, which has effectively become a geopolitical battleground among Qatar and Turkey who on the one hand back the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA); and Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates on the other, who back the Khalifa Haidar-led Libyan National Army. To Nigeria, notwithstanding the President’s casual framing of the border closure, a policy that was catastrophic to the economy and which has driven food inflation to record highs, the President has openly stated that one of the key reasons for the policy was not achieved. There are two important lessons here: firstly, policymaking in Nigeria does not care about impact; it is simply executed based on the leader’s beliefs and no real post mortem is carried out to assess policy success or failure in order to influence future policy-making. This is a gap that desperately needs to be filled by well-funded think tanks. Secondly, the situation in the Sahel is quite instructive. It is going to take concerted regional effort to deal with the issues of insecurity, poverty, political instability and small arms. African governments must realise that it is their responsibility to deal with these issues, as no amount of foreign aid, rhetoric or goodwill will properly address it. African problems, in the end, require African-led solutions.
  • The violence that took place during the Ekiti bye-election is a reflection of the atrocious do-or-die attitude to Nigerian politics, where actors aim to secure political power by all means. It is also a reflection of the level of insecurity caused by weak governance, a lack of economic opportunities, and weak law enforcement. It bears noting that in 2018, the Ekiti governorship election passed without any violence. When contrasted with what happened on Saturday, it indicates a political dynamic in Ekiti and the wider South-West that is in a state of flux. The factors for this include the rise of Sunday Igboho’s aggressive regionalism as well as factionalism within the PDP in the state. It is not known when a new election will take place and more importantly, if the political environment in the state will have improved by then, but if current trends hold up, it could have wider implications for the governorship election next year, and indeed for the general election the following year.
  • The claims of responsibility by FUNAM is the third public statement from the group in three years where it has claimed responsibility for an attack. Little is known about the group, its president, Badu Salisu Ahmadu, or Umar Amir Shehu, who signs the group’s press releases. This points to the failure of intelligence agencies for their inability to unmask the group and its leaders, while its claims of responsibility for attacks continue to inflame passions in the country along ethnic and sectarian lines. It is worth noting that none of the two Miyetti Allah groups has dissociated itself from FUNAM, effectively consenting to being lumped in the same category as the group. While Governor Ortom and the Fulani groups continue their war of words, the federal reaction has been inaction save for the customary statement of condemnation from President Buhari. If the security agencies fail to make any headway in investigating and arresting specific persons behind the attack on Governor Ortom, and/or behind the FUNAM group, more people will take it as gospel that they have taken sides. It is that simple.
  • The u-turn by Abiy Ahmed is possibly in reaction to recent announcements by the United Nations that it will work with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray as well as the United States’ description of the conflict as ethnic cleansing. It is also worth noting Mr Abiy’s careful choice of words. He is content to admit that Eritrean troops were solely involved in the border area – a contention which is open to interpretation, and not the main Tigrayan towns, despite numerous reports of Eritrean troop sightings in towns and villages across the region, as well as their abuses against the civilian populations. Nonetheless, his limited admission leaves Asmara in a bind as it had also denied its troops’ involvement in the conflict. We wait to see if Mr Abiy will make good on his promise to hold any soldier involved in human rights abuses accountable, but his popularity could take a hit as Ethiopians still have bitter memories from a devastating 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea and subsequent conflicts in 2007 (twice), five times in 2008 and once each in 2011, 2012 and 2016. Considering that a peace agreement signed in Algiers between both countries has only been in force since 2018, Mr Abiy’s delicate rhetoric comes as no surprise. Peace remains a volatile quantity in that part of the country and with a quiet calm gradually coming to fruition, now is not the time to inflame wounded passions that hark back to a bygone and violent time.