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Non-International Armed Conflict in Nigeria

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Nigeria is involved in a non-international armed conflict against the non-state armed group Boko Haram. Since 2014, the Multinational Joint Task Force – which includes troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria – has intervened in the conflict in support of the Nigerian Government, thus leaving unchanged the qualification of the situation as non-international.

A non-international armed conflict is taking place in Nigeria, involving different actors.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question of whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria for organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.

The first armed confrontations between Boko Haram and the Nigerian Government took place in July 2009 and resulted in five days of intense fighting. Between 2011 and 2014, the attacks conducted by the armed group increased in terms of number, intensity and duration. S. Arraf, ‘Nigeria: A Focus on the Boko Haram Insurgency’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights,  2018, p 102. Specifically, Boko Haram has staged suicide bombings against governmental armed forces, civilians and United Nations headquarters alike. C. K. Ekeke, ‘Suicide Bomb Blast at Abuja Police Headquarters – Our Nation’s Moral Dilemma’, Sahara Reporters, 23 June 2011; S. Murray and A. Nossiter, ‘Suicide Bomber Attacks U.N. Building in Nigeria’, The New York Times, 26 August 2011. Thanks to the success of these attacks, the group extended its military control over significant parts of Northeastern Nigeria. S. Arraf, ‘Nigeria: A Focus on the Boko Haram Insurgency’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 103.

As a reaction, in June 2011 the Government of Nigeria established a Joint Task Force (JTF) to ‘restore law and order’ in the regions affected by Boko Haram.  P. Mbah and C. Nwangwu, ‘The Counter-Insurgence Operations of the Joint Task Force and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Nigeria, 2011–2013’, 4 Journal of Educational and Social Research 5 (2014), 73. With the civilian population being the most affected by the armed conflict, vigilante groups started emerging in 2013. Soon after their inception, the government realized their potential in terms of local knowledge, intelligence and manpower. Accordingly, it put them under the supervision of the JTF. Since then, they have been known as the Civilian Joint Task Force and have played a significant role in the fight against Boko Haram. International Crisis Group, ‘Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram’, Africa Report no 244, 23 February 2017.

In light of the worsening of the conflict and the increasing strength of Boko Haram, and following spillover attacks conducted by the armed group in neighbouring countries, a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was created in January 2015, which includes military units from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin. For further information, see the section on ‘International interventions’ below. The international intervention succeeded in weakening the group and regaining substantial parts of the territory under its control. International Crisis Group, ‘Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram’, Africa Report no 241, 16 November 2016, p 28; W. Assanvo, J. E. A. Abatan and W. A. Sawadogo, ‘Assessing the Multinational Joint Task Force Against Boko Haram’, Institute for Security Studies, West Africa Report 19, September 2016, p 2. Specifically, by the end of 2015 Boko Haram remained present in limited areas, such as the Sambisa Forest, the Mandara Mountains and a number of islands in the Lake Chad. R. Carayol, ‘Terrorisme: Boko Haram, monstre blessé’, Jeune Afrique, 22 June 2015.

Since then, the attacks conducted by the armed group have changed in nature, relying predominantly on guerrilla warfare strategies and suicide bombings. Yet, its strikes still constitute a significant challenge for the Government of Nigeria and have had devastating effects on civilians. S. Arraf, ‘Nigeria: A Focus on the Boko Haram Insurgency’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 108. In 2017, suicide bombers targeted markets, universities and displacement camps. Most notably, on 25 July 2017 the group ambushed an oil exploration team from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation in Magumeri (Borno State), killing at least 69 people. Human Rights Watch, ‘Nigeria: Events of 2017’, World Report 2018.

Suicide bombings and attacks continued in 2018, targeting both Nigerian armed forces and civilians. For instance, on 1 May 2018 coordinated suicide bomb attacks at a mosque and a market in the northeast city of Mubi resulted in the death of dozens of people. ‘Dozens Killed in Nigeria Suicide Bomb Attack’, The Guardian, 1 May 2018. More recently, Boko Haram’s insurgency has gained intensity. While the Government of Nigeria affirmed that it has destroyed several Boko Haram camps, armed attacks by the group have not decreased. Notably, it has been reported that Boko Haram ‘launched a series of attacks, including on military targets in Borno.’ International Crisis Group, ‘Averting Violence around Nigeria’s 2019 Elections’, Commentary / Africa, 25 October 2018.

The Nigerian Government has purchased a significant amount of military equipment in order to fight Boko Haram. Specifically, in July 2017 it purchased $593 million worth of military equipment from the United States, such as Super Tucano A-29 surveillance and attack planes. Y. Kazeem, ‘The US Just Sold Half a Billion Dollars Worth of Military Gear to Nigeria’, Quarts Africa, 29 August 2017. More recently, on 4 April 2018 the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, approved the purchase of $1 billion worth of weapons in order to fight the armed group. E. Bala-Gbogbo, ‘Nigeria’s Buhari Approves $1 Billion for Weapons Purchase’, Bloomberg, 4 April 2018. On the other hand, Boko Haram’s military equipment and weaponry includes AK47s, improvised explosive devices, petrol bombs and Hilux vehicles. See T. McCoy ‘Paying for Terrorism: Where Does Boko Haram Get Its Money From?’, The Independent, 6 June 2014. Furthermore, it has been reported that Boko Haram also uses rocket-propelled grenades and may have the capacity to manufacture weapons. ‘Nigeria’s Boko Haram Reveals Rocket-Making Factory’, BBC, 2 November 2015.

The intensity of the conflict is further illustrated by the number of casualties and displaced  individuals. Since 2009, Boko Haram has killed more than 30,000 people. O. Lanre, ‘About 20 Nigerian Soldiers Missing After Boko Haram Clash: Sources’, Reuters, 16 July 2018. Furthermore, thousands of women and girls have been abducted. See Amnesty International, ‘‘Our Job Is to Shoot, Slaughter and Kill’: Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror in North-East Nigeria’, Amnesty international, 14 April 2015. Currently, 1.7 million people are internally displaced and nearly 200,000 refugees are in neigbouring states such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger; almost 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the northern Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), ‘About OCHA Nigeria’; Human Rights Watch, ‘Nigeria: Events of 2017’, World Report 2018.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

Boko Haram (Hausa for ‘Western education/civilisation is forbidden’), also known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), is a non-state armed group which operates in Nigeria in particular and in the Lake Chad Basin region in general, notably in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. See International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)’, Armed Conflict Database; International Criminal Court, Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2013, November 2013. In 2015, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. ‘Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?’BBC, 24 November 2016. Furthermore, it has strong links with other Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist groups fighting in Mali and al-Shabab. International Crisis Group, ‘Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency’, Africa Report no 216, 3 April 2014, p i.

The leader of Boko Haram, the Amir, is the head of the Shura, namely the council of elders. The council has seven members, and each one of them leads a ministry across the administration of the group. Commanders have executive powers and sub-commanders direct and lead foot-soldier operations, called maaskars. See Amnesty International, ‘‘Our Job Is to Shoot, Slaughter and Kill’. Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror in North-East Nigeria’, 14 April 2015.

After the death of its founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in July 2009, Boko Haram started splintering into different factions. In 2014, International Crisis Group reported that there were six different factions of the group. International Crisis Group, ‘Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency’, Africa Report no 216,  3 April 2014, p 22; S. Arraf, ‘Nigeria: A Focus on the Boko Haram Insurgency’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 107. Following the crucial loss of territories, there was a further leadership split  within Boko Haram. In 2016, when the Islamic State group claimed Abu Musab al-Barnawi was the leader, Abubakar Shekau refused to acknowledge the change and claimed that this was an attempted coup against him. It has been reported that the two factions engaged in  military controntations in the following months. See A. Withnall, ‘Boko Haram descends into in-fighting as reports emerge of deadly clashes between rival Islamist factions’, Independent, 8 September 2016;  ‘Boko Haram in Nigeria: Split Emerges Over Leadership’, BBC, 4 August 2016. Nevertheless, these episodes of violence remained sporadic and there is no record of further fighting within the armed group. As of 2018, the two main factions are led by Shekau, on the one hand, and by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, on the other. See ‘Boko Haram’, Counter Extremism Project. While there is no sufficiently clear and reliable information on Boko Haram fractions to conclude that it can still be considered as one armed group, arguably the conflict remains a single non-international armed conflict in light of the absence of fighting between Boko Haram’s factions.

Over the years, Boko Haram established control of a significant amount of territory in northeastern Nigeria. This area was declared to be a caliphate, and was used to launch military operations against targets in Nigeria as well as in neighbouring countries. ‘Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?’, BBC, 24 November 2016. Although the group has suffered crucial losses in terms of territorial control, it still retains control over a small portion of Nigerian territory, notably the Sambisa Forest, the Mandara Mountains and the islands of Lake Chad. Human Rights Watch, ‘Nigeria: Events of 2017’, World Report 2018; S. Arraf, ‘Nigeria: A Focus on the Boko Haram Insurgency’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 107.

International interventions

Since January 2015, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has been supporting the Nigerian Government in the fight against Boko Haram. The MNJTF is composed of units from countries of the Lake Chad Basin, notably Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin. See Communiqué of the 484th Meeting of the PSC on the Boko Haram Terrorist Group, 29 January 2015 [PSC/AHG/COMM. 2(CDLXXXIV)], which authorized the deployment of the MNJTF. The MNJTF operates under the authorized African Union Peace and Security Council mandate with the aim of eliminating Boko Haram, and is supported by the United Nations Security Council. See ‘Mandate of the Multinational Joint Task Force’; United Nations Security Council, S/RES/2349 (2017), 31 March 2017. During one of the latest operations, the MNJTF and the Nigerian Government succeeded in rescuing  more than 1,000 Boko Haram captives, mainly women and children, together with a number of male individuals who had been forced to fight for Boko Haram. S. Busari, A. Cardovillis and B. Adebayo, ‘Nigerian Army Says It Has Freed 1,000 Boko Haram Captives’, CNN, 8 May 2018. As the MNJTF has intervened in Nigeria with the consent of the Nigerian Government, its involvement does not affect the classification of the conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

  • Boko Haram (Hausa for ‘Western education/civilisation is forbidden’), also known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), is a non-state armed group which operates in Nigeria in particular and in the Lake Chad Basin region in general, notably in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. See International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)’, Armed Conflict Database. In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. ‘Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?’, BBC, 24 November 2016. Furthermore, it has strong links with other Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist groups fighting in Mali and al-Shabab. International Crisis Group, ‘Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency’, Africa Report no 216, 3 April 2014, p i. As of 2018, the two main factions are led by Shekau, on the one hand, and by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, on the other. See ‘Boko Haram’, Counter Extremism Project. While there is no sufficiently clear and reliable information on Boko Haram fractions to conclude that it can still be considered as one armed group, arguably the conflict remains a single non-international armed conflict in light of the absence of fighting between Boko Haram’s factions.
Last updated: Monday 4th February 2019