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The Politics Behind Nigeria's State of Emergency

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Nigerian military forces are conducting security sweeps against Boko Haram fighters, aiming to restore order in northeastern Nigeria. Nigerian media report May 20 that some Nigerian forces have been withdrawn from international security operations in Mali to reinforce counterinsurgency operations at home. The counteroffensive against Boko Haram is being conducted following the declaration by the Nigerian federal government of a state of emergency in three states of northeastern Nigeria.

The government under President Goodluck Jonathan aims to stop attacks by Boko Haram that have persisted in the region and that have targeted civilians as well as private and government infrastructure such as banks, police stations and communications facilities. While restoring security is one objective, the Jonathan administration must also try to ensure that the countryinsurgency operations by Nigerian military and security forces are conducted with a measure of restraint and minimize civilian casualties.

Civil society groups -- notably, the Northern Elders Forum -- have accused the Jonathan administration of having declared war against northern Nigeria. In an effort to improve security and minimize casualties, the Nigerian government has floated promoting amnesty for fighters willing to disarm themselves. Criticisms of the politicization of militancy in Nigeria are not limited, however, to the Jonathan administration’s decision to deploy additional forces to the country’s northeastern region.

Officials and personalities in central and in southern Nigeria have accused northern Nigerians of supporting Boko Haram, to include that the Islamist militant group is the armed wing of northerner politicians whose objective is defeating Jonathan and returning political power to northerner hands. The Jonathan administration is not immune to coziness with or accusations of supporting militancy either. Asari Dokubo of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force has become the loudest pro-government critic, hailing from Jonathan’s Niger Delta region and threatening war against the rest of Nigeria should the president be blocked from another term in office.

The Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force was a militant group that, alongside the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (or MEND), attacked and destabilized much of Nigeria’s oil sector in the mid- to late 2000s. The Niger Delta militants had a co-dependent relationship with political elites in the region, fighting for their patron’s political objectives in exchange for securing patronage and being rewarded with financial incentives to fight when needed and disarm when no longer required.

The Niger Delta militants largely ended their militancy when Jonathan moved into the vice presidency -- and ultimately, the presidency -- when then-President Umaru Yaradua died of natural causes in 2010. The Nigerian military forces deployed against Boko Haram will be able to make incremental security improvements, such as protecting hardened locations. But as long as political relations in northern Nigeria remain deeply strained, there will be little active cooperation with indigenous supporters and enablers in the region necessary to acquire tactical intelligence on Boko Haram movements and its logistical train.