On 28th November, an horrific attack on farmers in Borno State (north-east Nigeria) shocked the world. While rice farmers tended to their fields, fighters aligned to the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram lured dozens to the village of Koshebe, where they systematically slit their throats. Alongside these executions, a group of women were also kidnapped.
One could view the brutal killings as simply the latest in over a decade of violence since the group began their current insurgency against the central government of Nigeria in 2009. Yet part of the horror involves the uncertain nature of the attack. First of all, the initial reporting was ambiguous: 43 bodies were recovered on the day of the massacre but as time went on, this number began to rise dramatically. The UN have since claimed that at least 110 civilians have been killed. Edward Kallon, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, named it the most violent attack of the year, re-invigorating the severity of the conflict.
However, the attack’s implications stark when considering President Muhammadu Buhari’s claims that Boko Haram are already “technically defeated”. Considering much of his success in the 2015 presidential election relied on his insistence that his administration would wipe out the terrorist organization, one cannot help but wonder if this so-called “defeat” is merely a façade, obscuring a more sinister reality. In truth, there is a growing consensus that Boko Haram hold less territory than they did only a few years ago, yet their activities have not diminished, and their capacity for violence has not been eliminated. To what extent Buhari can claim this to be a political victory remains to be seen. But considering many are already calling for his resignation, he seems to be on the backfoot.
The attack also serves as a redefinition of civilian safety in the unstable north-east region. In Borno State, farmers were typically unaffected by Boko Haram’s insurgency. As long as they did not collaborate with the Nigerian military, the terrorist organisation would leave them unharmed. Undoubtedly, this sense of security informed the willingness of local farmers to follow the militants to Koshebe. However, both sides of the conflict have recently begun to perceive the farmers to be cooperating with the enemy, something which inevitably places them in insecure positions. In October, 22 more farmers were killed by the terror group. Indeed, these attacks may end up becoming the new normal. The wholesale massacre was most likely a result of Boko Haram militants punishing what they thought were traitorous farmers, endangering them through helping the Nigerian government.
Yet Onyekachi Adekoya, director of the security firm PR24 Nigeria, has posited a far more complex series of motivating factors for the killings. Indeed, he identified the massacre as taking place in the Kanuri ethnic region of Borno State, implying communal and religious identity conflicts alongside the more general war against Lagos. Villagers who do not fight for Boko Haram are deemed “infidels” by former family and community members, thus making violence against them more personal than external reports may imply.
Buhari will undoubtedly face a growing crisis of confidence if he is unable to stem the tide of violence, and fulfil his promises to defeat Boko Haram, something made worse considering other violent episodes from other armed militias. Only last Saturday, bandits kidnapped 400 secondary school students in the President’s home state of Katsina in the north-west of the country. Alongside the attacks last month, a narrative is forming of a Nigerian state out of control and descending into local violence. Unless Buhari regains a grip on power, civilians will likely pay the price.
Image: BScar23625 on Flickr