Shock and outrage reverberated globally in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria. Such kidnappings have unfortunately persisted in recent years and, indeed, worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, some 150 students were kidnapped near the northwest city of Kaduna, and more than 1,000 students have been abducted across Nigeria since December 2020. The security situation in Africa’s most populous country is increasingly precarious. Communities in several regions of Nigeria that our global organization, Mercy Corps, works with report living with not one but “two worrisome pandemics” — COVID-19 and conflict.
While the Boko Haram insurgency tends to dominate headlines, it is hardly the only active armed group competing for political, social, and territorial control. Lockdowns, border closures, and movement restrictions have contributed to increased armed group activity and worsening insecurity. The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has clashed with Boko Haram and stepped up its attacks against Nigerian security forces in recent months. Since Boko Haram’s leader reportedly killed himself by detonating a suicide vest earlier this year, it remains unclear how many new recruits ISWAP will gain as that conflict evolves.
Recent reports also suggest that Biafran separatists in Nigeria and Anglophone rebels in Cameroon may be forming an alliance to coordinate their respective movements. Gangs of “bandits,” as they are known, have also proliferated in Nigeria, leading to a relentless rise in kidnap-for-ransom, extortion, cattle raids, theft, and looting. The tactics of these criminal gangs have evolved as the pandemic offers them time and opportunities “to strategize and plan worse attacks,” according to one community member in the Katsina region of northern Nigeria.
Amid this violence, the pandemic and response measures have caused severe economic hardship and have exacerbated existing scarcity of basic resources, affecting communities in both urban and rural areas. As a community member in Plateau State in central Nigeria recalled, “The hunger people went through, as a result of the economic hardship they faced during the pandemic, forced many to resort to criminal means of generating income.” Food insecurity steadily increased in the last few years in Nigeria but almost doubled between 2019 and 2020, with more than 10 million people estimated to be facing crisis-level food shortages currently. Of those, 4.4 million are concentrated in the northeast of the country, where more than 2.7 million people are displaced from their homes by violent conflict.
Aid Falls 80 Percent Short of Need
Despite the staggering humanitarian need, international donors have committed only about 20 percent of an outstanding $1 billion appeal. The American Rescue Plan that Congress adopted in March 2021 and President Joe Biden signed into law commits $11 billion in U.S. foreign assistance to address COVID-19. But when – and the extent to which — these funds will reach Nigerians in need remains unclear.
The World Bank predicts Nigeria’s GDP growth will lag that of other sub-Saharan countries both this year and next. The average economic growth predicted across Sub-Saharan Africa is 3.4 percent in 2021 and 4.0 percent in 2022, but for Nigeria it is 1.9 percent and 2.1 percent respectively. Lost or dramatically reduced wages have at once heightened the risks of corruption and the temptation of joining criminal enterprises to generate income, which in turn feeds people’s sense of insecurity and fuels the potential for violence.
Over the course of the pandemic, growing evidence points to fraying social bonds within families as well as reduced trust amongst communities, both of which have contributed to disputes that often turn violent between and within groups. The rise in social tensions in Nigeria is consistent with a rise in the “temperature of politics” and growth of confrontational politics observed in many parts of the globe, a trend that predates the pandemic but seems to have accelerated during it.
The frustration of youth with the status quo is particularly evident in mass protests across Nigeria, including last year against abuses by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The dissatisfaction also shows up in burgeoning digital activism. As a woman in Kaduna explained, “People used social media to express their concerns and grievances more. People that were previously not on social media quickly joined the bandwagon.”
However, in early June 2021, the government imposed an indefinite Twitter ban amidst pandemic-related curbs to public gatherings. Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recently barred the Nigerian government from prosecuting Nigerians and companies for trying to tweet using more secure Virtual Private Networks, the Twitter ban remains in place. Declining trust in government not only has the potential to be a boon for recruitment by armed opposition groups but also may hamper an effective pandemic recovery.
Vaccinations in Single Digits
As the Delta variant spreads rapidly, Africa is in the midst of another COVID-19 surge, yet only about 3 percent of all global COVID-19 vaccine doses to date have been administered to Africans. In Nigeria, less than 1 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, while underreporting of positive cases and related deaths makes it challenging to establish the full extent of the pandemic.
Leaders at the recent G7 summit in the U.K. pledged to donate 1 billion vaccine doses globally within a year, particularly for poorer countries, with the U.S. committing half of that total. There is no indication, however, how many of those vaccines will be allocated for Nigeria and its neighbors in the wider sub-Saharan region or when they will arrive in-country. Until then, it will be imperative to build confidence in vaccines and vaccine providers among local communities in order to overcome distrust, which has proven a significant challenge to preventing disease spread, especially in areas affected by violent conflict. At the local level, another promising avenue to contain the disease is the use of contextually sensitive digital campaigns to track rumors, counter disinformation, and raise public awareness.
International donors, including the United States, should take into account how COVID-19 and efforts to contain it – such as lockdowns, border closures, and movement restrictions – in the absence of vaccines have intensified economic hardship, widened gaps in security, and frayed social relations, thereby amplifying the risks of instability, criminality, and conflict. This will be key to alleviate poverty, reduce fragility, and bolster good governance as part of pandemic relief and recovery efforts.
Policymakers and practitioners should be sure to listen to and support local communities in Nigeria. Only then can they work cooperatively to ensure pandemic-related humanitarian assistance and development efforts are not only context-sensitive but also address the varied specific needs of those struggling the most with the dual contagion of coronavirus and conflict.