Nigeria: How COVID-19 is impacting peace and conflict
In northern Nigeria, uninterrupted conflict during the COVID-19 pandemic reflects how little influence a public health crisis can have in slowing down violence. Armed jihadist groups, such as Boko Haram, have rejected any notion of a ceasefire with the Nigerian government. Since 2018, jihadi violence has been increasing in the Lake Chad Basin in the form of targeted, high-profile attacks against military personnel. During the pandemic, armed groups have purposely disrupted the public health response, including spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Meanwhile, in northern Nigerian states worst hit by the Boko Haram insurgency, “mysterious deaths” have been reported, indicating a likelihood that there are COVID-19 cases in these regions that are unaccounted for.
For Boko Haram, as we have seen with other armed groups in other conflict-fragile countries, COVID-19 is seen as an opportunity. One faction, known as the People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad (JAS), encouraged people to gather together—against precautionary measures—to end the outbreak through community prayer. This and other statements have fed widespread skepticism that social distancing is necessary. An affiliate of ISIS in West Africa (ISWAP) celebrated the economic downturn caused by the virus, hoping it would divert government attention and increase fragility. In reality, however, the pandemic has yet to bring any significant aid to the jihadist movement.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that “COVID is essentially irrelevant” to the security environment in Nigeria. He argues that, as cases remain low, COVID will have little long-term effect in the trajectory of the state. Violence in the Lake Chad Basin and economic turmoil have plagued Nigeria long before the pandemic and it seems COVID-19 may have little impact in relieving violence.
While violence in Nigeria seems to be unchanging during COVID, the pandemic has caused economic shocks that could have a longer-term impact on the fragility of the country. COVID deaths and transmissions have stayed relatively low in the country, but the biggest burden coronavirus has brought are the demand and supply shocks in the oil market. Nigeria is oil-dependent; crude oil makes up 10% of its GDP and 86% of its export revenue. Recent shocks in the oil market have led to a contraction of the Nigerian economy by 3.4% and fears of food insecurity and a worsened humanitarian crisis. The World Bank estimates 5 million people in Nigeria will be pushed into poverty during the pandemic.
Although food insecurity is a longstanding issue in Nigeria—it ranks 93rd out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index—economic disruptions from COVID should not be ignored. Lockdowns have affected the food supply chain, leading to higher prices on staple foods such as rice and wheat. Food insecurity from the pandemic is most likely to effect the already vulnerable populations in the north, where more than 75% of impoverished Nigerians live, further driving fragility in this region.
The case of Nigeria suggests that the UN’s call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic was optimistic. If anything, armed groups, such as Boko Haram, rely on instability and a distracted government to gain territory in their struggle. In all, the relatively small outbreak of COVID in Nigeria suggests that it could be a small blip in the greater trajectory of Nigeria’s security future.