Outside observers have largely been dependent on Nigerian military statements for news about the operation of the state of emergency and Abuja’s struggle with the Islamist insurgencies lumped under the moniker of “Boko Haram.” There is little media presence in Borno, Yobe, or Adamawa, and cell phone service was largely suspended. Predictably the military is saying that its campaign is successful and that civilian casualties are few or non-existent.
However, with respect to security service abuses, a different story is starting to leak out. On June 1, al-Jazeera posted a video of an interview with a Nigerian soldier who said he had seen 3,000 corpses, many of whom were women and children. Adam Nossiter published on June 6, a follow-up to his earlier New York Times piece on civilian casualties. On June 1, the Washington Post ran a long article under the headline “At frontline of Nigeria’s extremist fight, foes disappear while region’s challenges remain,” on the struggle in northern Nigeria that made reference to civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement denouncing Boko Haram but calling on the security forces to show restraint and avoid civilian casualties. Up to now, military spokesmen have strenuously denied all reports that they have inflicted extensive civilian casualties.
The Islamist fighters and the general population in northern Nigeria appear to be thoroughly co-mingled. “Boko Haram” operatives kill soldiers and police whenever they have the opportunity, which is hardly conducive to security service restraint. So, the struggle poses difficult challenges for the Abuja government.
There is nothing new about security service brutality in Nigeria. Soldiers and police are poorly paid, under-trained, and under-equipped. In addition, official policy has always been to station military and police away from areas dominated by their particular ethnic group, region, and often, religion. In practice this means there is often little or no bond between those in the security services and those they are supposed to protect. As ethnic and religious differences harden and violence increases, security service personnel may show contempt for populations whom they do not know or understand.
Nigeria’s security services clearly need reform, more easily said than done during a major insurrection. Further, for most of Nigeria’s post-independence history the central government has been a military one. Though there has been significant progress, a “culture” of security service subordination to civilian political leaders is still establishing itself. Security service abuses are almost certainly fueling popular support in the North for the Islamists. The dilemma is that security service reform takes time; and time seems to be running out.