Last September 8th, fighting broke out between Boko Haram militants and Nigerian government supported vigilantes in northeast Nigeria. Thirteen members of the vigilante group and five Boko Haram members died during the clash. Six days later at another incident, a vigilante was shot by the police. According to the victim's colleagues, they were stopped for driving in the wrong direction in a one-way lane by the police. They explained they had just arrested a Boko Haram suspect and and dared not to use the right track.. In response “the policeman opened fire, killing one of our members," a vigilante said afterwards. Angry youths reacted with violence; killed a policeman and threatened to burn down the police station.
A spokesman of the 7 Division of the Nigeria Army said that his division, once fully formed, will replace the vigilantes in the struggle against Boko Haram. But this will not make the situation less chaotic, as the Nigerian armed forces have become part of the problem. First of all because they are using extreme violence causing innocent civil victims. Second because Boko Haram has its influence in the armed forces as well. On the 16th of September the Nigerian Guardian reports that the army court sentenced 18 soldiers to death and jail terms because of links with Boko Haram.
Recently the Nigerian air force bombed Boko Haram encampments. Sabena Technics, a company with Belgium origin, is supporting the Nigerian Air Force by overhauling and retrofitting its Alpha Yets (Light attack jet and advanced trainer aircraft) and Hercules-130 transport planes. Questions may be raised how Sabena's activities relate to the EU arms export regulations forbidding exports to countries involved in internal conflict.
Arms from Libya for Boko Haram
Boko Haram is a well-organised group of an unknown size, but it is more than a small terrorist group, as can be concluded from the havoc it is causing and the one thousand arrests made within three months this year. The group wants to impose Islamic law in the northern part of Nigeria. Since 2009, 3.500 people have died because of the violence connected to the group. August 2013 alone, the organisation was linked to 160 deaths. This war comes on top of many existing unsolved problems in the neglected north, such as corruption, nepotism and poverty.
Boko Haram has no problem getting its arms. Control of the Nigerian border is weak. Custom officials are often corrupt and 1499 illegal passages (compared to 84 regular) exist in the mountainous regions and jungles surrounding the border. Control is even more difficult because of close connections between ethnic groups and families living on both sides of the border. Observers see the easy access to arms from Libya as one of the major sources of weapons for the organisation. Many of those weapons went first to Mali. And consequently not only Libyan, but also Malian rebels have easy access to arms and can exchange them for money to finance their activities. Aniebo Nwamu, a Nigerian journalist, wrote that: “Guns from Mali, Libya, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East have already flooded Nigeria. There is nothing to expect but mayhem. (...) If armed robbers and other terrorists could purchase an AK-47 for just N10,000 [€46], where lies the hope of restoring peace to this country?”
The link between Libyan/Malian arms and Boko Haram is also shown by the fact that the French intervention in Mali led to less weapons finding their way to Nigeria. According to Prof. Agwu, senior Research Fellow at Nigerian Institue of International Affairs (NIIA), "it is not a coincidence that the leaders of Boko Haram in Nigeria began to consider the idea of a cease fire at the point when there support base in Mali had been destroyed".
That may be a bit optimistic. The support is not fully destroyed: “With the persistence of Boko Haram insurgency, hundreds of weapons including RPGs, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missiles, and AK 47 rifles have been intercepted by security operatives in various locations in north-eastern Nigeria. It is widely believed that these weapons found their way to Nigeria from Libya and Mali,” wrote F. Onuoha September 2013 in a study for Al Jazeera. The same study mentions three recent seizures of large quantities of sophisticated arms.
Not only Nigeria is affected by the war, but the whole subsaharan region. In Jeune Afrique, June 10 2013, Chad's President Deby said, “…the war in Mali comes from Libya and it is regrouping in Libya and this is a matter for the entire international community because the connection can be quickly made between Boko Haram in Nigeria and the groups in northern Niger. This is not encouraging and we are not prepared for this type of situation. Terrorism can strike when it wants, even in Chad.”
The answer to the problem should be (besides addressing the social and economic problems causing the conflict) better and more skilled customs and cooperation on border controls throughout the region. This will be difficult because regional cooperation is not embedded in multi-national structures. Nigeria and the Niger belong to ECOWAS, Chad is a member of ECCAS, Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS and Algeria is in the Arab-Maghreb zone). But “all the countries are willing to work in a more coordinated manner” wrote the UN Security Council in a report published January 2012.
The warning of the Northwest African countries in November 2011 was right. The effects of the spread of the uncontrolled Libyan arms will be felt for a long time.
Martin Broek, September 17, 2013
This article is part of a series on the spread of Libyan arms throughout Africa and the Middle East funded by Fonds Vredesprojecten.