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Special Report II
Last Updated: 02/02/2011
Nigeria’s Vulnerability to Terrorism: The Imperative of a Counter Religious Extremism and Terrorism (CONREST) Strategy
Freedom C. Onuoha

As the Nigerian people anticipate possible change through the April 2011 elections, there is growing concern over internal violence and insecurity. Onuoha proposes a strengthened governmental response to reducing violent conflict in the country, with a specific focus on countering religious extremism and terrorism.

In just a decade of democratic rule, Nigeria’s internal security landscape has deteriorated in fundamental ways. Old security threats have remained or even assumed worrisome dimensions while new threats have emerged. Some of the old threats that assumed new dimensions include small arms and light weapons (SALWs) proliferation, sea piracy, armed robbery, assassination, human trafficking, kidnapping, and ethno-religious conflicts. It was reported that Nigeria witnessed at least 187 ethno-religious conflicts between May 1999 and April 2009.[1] Threats considered to be relatively new in Nigeria, though not without precedent, is the outbreak of violent extremism evidence in the growing audacity of the Boko Haram sect and the spate of bomb blasts across the country, which have now assumed a terrorist dimension.[2] The state of insecurity in Nigeria has become a prominent source of concern for the hapless citizens, the government, and indeed the international community.

Notably, wilful attacks on innocent citizens and public infrastructure in Nigeria, whether undertaken by known radical Islamist groups or politically hatched by unknown faceless groups are fast becoming headline news in local and international media, with damaging consequences on Nigeria’s image. On July 2009, for instance, the country witnessed its most serious anti-government uprising, provoked by the Boko Haram. In the aftermath of the revolt, over 3 500 people were internally displaced, more than 1 264 children orphaned, and over 392 women widowed. In addition, 28 policemen and five prison warders, as well as an undisclosed number of soldiers, had been killed. Properties destroyed include 48 buildings, three primary schools, more than 12 churches and a magistrate court. A year after, precisely on 7 September 2010, members of the sect again organized a jail break in Bauchi Prison to free its members who had been incarcerated following the 2009 revolt. Over 700 inmates of the Prisons including the sect members escaped from the prison. In addition, over five people including a soldier, a policeman, two prison warders and a civilian were killed during the attack.[3]

Particularly worrisome is the spate of bombings in the last few months in Nigeria. The 50th Independence Day (1 October 2010) twin bomb blasts near the Eagle Square in Abuja killed at least twelve people and injured several dozen others. While bomb blasts and killings in Jos and Maiduguri on Christmas Eve[4] and the explosion on New Year Eve at the Mami market near the Mogadishu Barracks in Abuja, claimed more than 109 innocent lives within a month.

These and other related incidents in the last few months point to Nigeria’s growing vulnerability to extremism and terrorism; a situation that calls for urgent and more concerted response from the Nigerian government. It is in this light that attempt is made here to signpost the enabling and contributing factors to Nigeria’s growing vulnerability to violent extremism, with a view to proffering some recommendations that could help in addressing the problem.

Terrorism Conceptualised

As far as the study of terrorism is concerned, the subject of definition remains problematic. Terrorism can mean different things to different people in different contexts. Suffice it to state that this definitional debate will be overlooked in this paper. Radu, for instance, defines terrorism as ‘any attack, or threat of attack, against unarmed targets, intended to influence, change or divert major political decisions’.[5] Similarly, Wardlaw views terrorism as ‘the use, or threat of use of violence by an individual or a group, whether acting for or in opposition to established authority, when such action is designed to create extreme anxiety and, or fear including effects in a target group larger than immediate victims with the purpose of coercing that group into acceding to the political demands of the perpetrators’.[6]

In this context, terrorism is defined as the premeditated use or threat of use of violence by an individual or group to cause fear, destruction or death, especially against unarmed targets, property or infrastructure within a state, intended to compel those in authority to respond to the demands and expectations of individuals or group behind such violent acts. Their expectations may be for a change of status quo in terms of the political, economic, ideological, religious or social order within the affected state or for a change in the (in)actions or policies of the affected state in relation to its interaction with other groups or states.

Four elements form the essential features of terrorism or terrorist act. First, the act must be violent; whether premeditated or instantaneous. Second, the direct targets of such attack are usually non-combatant; usually without a direct relation or influence on the real motive behind the act. Third, the act took place largely in an environment of relative peace, but sometimes could involve conflicts situation. Finally, the ultimate motive for the resort to violence is to cause fear (in the psyche of the public) in order to influence those in political authority to respond to the demands or expectations of the individual or group behind the attack.

Enabling and Contributing Factors to Nigeria’s Vulnerability to Terrorism

Familiarity with security trends in Nigeria suggests that several factors manifest and interplay in different ways to engender Nigeria’s vulnerability to extremism/terrorism. These include, among others, governance failure, porous land and maritime borders, increased proliferation of SALWs, widespread poverty and unemployment, growing Almajiri population, existence of radical Islamic sects, poor security situation awareness or consciousness, and ineffectual national security system.

First, governance failure is the main factor implicated in the rising incidence of violent extremism in Nigeria. Governance failure is indexed by the manifest incapacity of public institutions to deliver critical public goods, such as water, electricity, roads, healthcare, job opportunities, and non the least, security. Average Nigerians lack access to these basic services important to lead a healthy, satisfying, and productive life in a society. This contributes to the emergence of large number of frustrated population, especially young people. The key challenge here is not the lack of sufficient public resources. Rather it is the problem of widespread corruption especially in the public sector which compounds other governance and development deficits bedevilling Nigeria.

Second, pervasive poverty as a result of governance failure further contributes to Nigeria’s increasing vulnerability to extremism/terrorism. In 2007, it was estimated that over 70 per cent of Nigeria’s 140 million people survive on less than a dollar per day, with 35 per cent living in absolute poverty. Available statistics show that the existential condition of the vast majority of the inhabitants of northern Nigeria is the lowest in 2007. While the prevalence of poverty (in percentages) in the South-South was 35.1; the South-East stood at 26.7; the South-West 43.0; that of North Central was 67.0; North-West was also high with 71.2; and North-East was the poorest with 72.2. The three northern zones were reported to have an average poverty incidence of 70.1 percent as compared to 34.9 percent for the three southern zones, leading to the conclusion that “very high level of poverty is essentially a northern phenomenon”.[7] This may account for why the northern region has remained a hotbed of violent conflicts and extremism.

Third, the environment of widespread poverty, especially in northern Nigeria, in turn contributes to the growing population of Almajiris (Street Children or Child-Beggars) in Nigeria. The term Almajiri in Nigerian refers to someone who leaves his home in search of knowledge in Islamic religion. It is a system whereby children are sent to live and study under renowned Islamic teachers in Nigerian cities such as Kano, Zaria, Kaduna, and Maiduguri among others.[8] Although the Almajiri phenomenon is a popular and old practice, these children unfortunately live and study in a very appalling condition. They are cramped into shacks and left with little or no food, forcing them roam the streets as beggars. A 2010 survey indicates that the population of Almajiris in Nigeria stood at 9.5 million. The North-west zone hosts 4.9 million, North-east zone 2.6 million, North-central zone 1.1 million, South-west zone 8, 700, South-south and South-east zones constituted 22, 327 thousand.[9] Denied of parental care, they form the majority of recruits of extremists, desperate politicians and disreputable Islamic teachers. Boko Haram in Borno State and the Kalla Kato in Bauchi State are fundamentalist Islamic sects reportedly involved in recruiting former Almajiris for use as tools in religion-based violence.[10] Analysts believe that the Almajiri syndrome is breading future terrorists; a situation some believe is already playing out.

Fourth, large number of youth without any means of legitimate livelihood compounds the environment of insecurity in Nigeria, which feeds into the overall vulnerability question. Nigeria’s youthful population is estimated to be close to 70 to 80 million, about 55 to 60 per cent of the entire population. Yet a significant segment of the youth population remains unemployed, underemployed or unemployable. Official statistics show that more than 80 percent of the youth are unemployed while about 10 percent are under-employed. The estimated 10 percent in employment are inundated with demands from immediate and extended family members. Consequently, growing frustration and disillusionment that accompany long-term unemployment and poverty underlie their gravitation to crimes, making them more vulnerable to recruitment by criminal cartels, extremist and terrorist groups.[11]

Fifth, the existence of ineffectual national security systems contributes to Nigeria’s vulnerability to terrorism. The problem of weak national security system compounds the threat of illegal cross-border migration and arms trafficking across the nation’s borders. The porosity of Nigeria’s land borders, especially in the northern part, has serious security implications given the activities of transnational jihardist such as the al Qaeda in the Land of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahel region of West Africa.[12] Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal are situated in this region, and are known to have porous borders. Given her weak security system and porous land and maritime borders, Nigeria is estimated to host over 70 percent of about 8 million illegal weapons in West Africa.[13] With this volume of SALWs circulating in an environment of worsening poverty and porous borders, it is not surprising that the nation is witnessing the outbreak of violent crimes and extremism.

Sixth, the existence of radical fundamentalist sects exemplified by the activities of the Boko Haram and Kala-Kato, further raises the vulnerability bar. Although these sects, especially the Boko Haram, have been able to launch low-scale attacks in the past, the greatest challenge now stems from the emerging alliance between the Boko Haram and established transnational jihadist, particularly AQIM.[14] This bonding has the potentials of increasing their capacity to field more devastating attacks in the near future than they could otherwise.

Lastly, poor security situation awareness among the citizens adds another dimension to Nigeria’s vulnerability to terrorism. Security is one of the basic pre-occupations of any individual, community, organisations, and government. The idea of security presupposes a concern with ‘what’ is the source of danger, ‘who’ or ‘what’ is to be protected from the danger and what ‘means’ are available for addressing the danger. Thus, security is too important a value to be left alone to a nation’s security agencies to guarantee. Yet, it has been consistently noted that an average Nigerian, including security agents, displays very poor habit of security awareness.[15]

According to Stewart, security awareness is the act or habit of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it. Being observant of one’s surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more of an attitude or mindset than it is a hard skill.[16] Therefore, security awareness is not just an act or practice that is restricted to well-trained agents or specialized security forces; it can also be adopted and employed by any individual. The idea of security awareness requires a habituated practice of being in a state of mind (relaxed awareness) that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress associated with being on constant alert. As noted by Burton and Stewart, “it is far easier to make the transition to a state of heightened awareness than it is to jump all the way from complacency to heightened awareness”.[17] The habit of security awareness reduces the vulnerability of an individual to any planned attack, if s/he maintains a culture of alertness or consciousness over the surrounding environment.

In this light, poor habit of security awareness may have contributed to success rate of past attacks, including in the level of casualty recorded. With referent to the New Year eve bomb blast in Mami market near Mogadishu Barracks, for instance, it was reported that the first and worst victim of the blast was a young man who picked up the bag containing the explosive. He was announcing that someone has forgotten the bag at the shop when the bombs exploded. In other climes in Europe and America where citizens evince high level of security awareness, the likely action by the suspecting individual would be to alert the police. Unhealthy habit of security awareness amongst Nigerians denies them of the contributions they could make in assisting security agencies to prevent and combat crimes in the society or to minimise their vulnerability to imminent criminal attacks. With all these factors playing out in Nigeria, it becomes easier to appreciate Nigeria’s deepening vulnerability to extremism and terrorism.

Addressing Nigeria’s Vulnerability to Terrorism: Some Recommendations

The following recommendations, though hardly exhaustive, would contribute to addressing Nigeria’s growing vulnerability to extremism and terrorism.

First, the Nigerian government needs to adopt a strategic response to the problem through the evolution and implementation of a robust Counter Religious Extremism and Terrorism (CONREST) Strategy. Few months before the Christmas Eve and New Year Eve bombings, I had recommended the adoption of a CONREST Strategy to address Nigeria’s gradual decent to extremism and terrorism.[18] In a forthcoming publication, I have developed the framework of such a national CONREST Strategy, which is depicted in the figure below.


This strategy provides for an institutionalised approach rather than the episodic and reactive response adopted by the government at the aftermath of attacks. This will help prevent ad hoc responses which have the potential of pushing terrorist cell underground and making the threat difficult to address in a more robust and sustainable manner. As part of institutionalisation, specialised law enforcement units equipped and trained to combat religious extremism and terrorism should be formed. I am aware of the existence of an Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) in Nigeria, but its present capacity remains highly doubtful. Also, it is obvious that the nation’s multiple security agencies at present operate an ill-equipped and outdated crime prevention and management strategies incapable of curbing an unconventional and technology-enabled crime such as terrorism.

Furthermore, the Strategy provides for the creation of a CONREST Unit within the Presidency, headed by the National Security Adviser (NSA), or a Presidential Adviser on Terrorism (PAT) as the Presidency recently announced it will establish. The core mandate of the CONREST Unit will include, among others, the conduct of research and investigation into emerging and changing terrorist trends with particular attention on Nigeria, West Africa, Africa and the world (in this order of priority); networking and exchange of information and lessons learnt with similar agencies within and beyond Africa; provision of informed regular and on-demand briefs for the President; partnering with other institutions and agencies in promoting security situation awareness; release of alerts regarding terrorists plots and possible actions to take by the citizens; and collaboration with security/intelligence agencies in furtherance of its objectives. The CONREST Unit will contribute to the implementation of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Legislation, when eventually passed.

There is the urgent need to overhaul and strengthen the nation’s security systems through conduct of comprehensive and sincere inquest to ensure that the various security agencies have not been infiltrated by extremist sympathisers and other criminal elements; delivery of capacity building programme and refresher courses for security personnel on the principles and practices of protective intelligence and security situation awareness; and provision of adequate and functional equipment and logistics.

The National Orientation Agency in collaboration with security agencies, civil society organizations, and the media should mount public enlightenment programmes that emphasize the value of security awareness/consciousness on the part of the citizens in furtherance of national security. Such enlightenment programmes will inculcate on Nigerians the right attitudinal disposition and behaviours that are proactive rather than reactive to crimes. Strategies to achieve this would include i) integrating the value and principles of security awareness in school curriculum; ii) packaging of television and radio drama series that counter extremist ideology; and iii) producing a national Security Information and Response Sticker (SIRS) containing contact phone numbers of security agencies (police, FRSC, NSCDC, SSS, NIS, NCS, and NPS, among others) to be placed on all vehicles and public buildings to make it easier for citizens to get in touch with the appropriate agency as the situation demands. In this regard, a unique dedicated phone lines and desk officers will be established within the security agencies to effectuate rapid response and intervention in crime or accident scenes. Most Nigerians do not even know the line to call in a situation of emergency. Thus partnership between the government and telecommunications providers will be critical in achieving this.

The implementation of border security arrangements through effective collaborative mechanisms between security agencies and border communities to enhance information sharing as well as intra- and inter-state collaboration among security/intelligence agencies in the maritime and land borders to ensure effective tracking and interdiction of illegal migration and trafficking in SALWs.

Adoption of a national arms control strategy (NACS) to guide the mopping up and prevention of high circulation of SALWs. The proposed establishment of National Commission on the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (NatCom) should be fast-tracked to lead in this effort, involving collaboration with civil society organisations, NATFORCE, and other stakeholders.

The Nigerian government should fund appropriately the National Council for the Welfare of the Destitute (NCWD) to enable the agency formulate and implement robust rehabilitation programmes for over 11 million destitute children (including Almajiris) in Nigeria. Designing and implementing effective programmes to peel off these street urchins from opportunistic politicians and disreputable Islamic teachers will help whittle down the influence of power mongers and extremists in Nigeria. In this regard, government at all levels (federal, state and local) should partner with credible civil society organisations and donor agencies to reconnect these street children with their parents and thereby effectively reintegrating them into the society.

Furthermore, the Nigerian government should deal with the underlying factors that causes frustration, such as widespread poverty, unemployment and socio-political exclusion, that make people favourably disposed towards violence. It should embark on effective poverty alleviation and human capital development programmes through a massive planned investment in public works like power, rail and road rehabilitation and construction, and large-scale farming. The government should take the lead in the development of small- and medium-sized industries by means of a well-designed micro-credit scheme that would create jobs and alleviate poverty in the country. The revitalisation of the country’s ailing industries is equally critical in creating job opportunities for the large numbers of unemployed youths.

Finally, the Federal Government should initiative a dialogue series on extremism and terrorism (DiSET), involving security agents, academics and security analysts to share knowledge and best practices that would enhance government efforts at better combating the scourge.


As Nigeria heads for the much awaited April 2011 general elections, it is important that Nigeria’s political leaders factor in the issue of the country’s growing vulnerability to terrorism in their quest to secure power at all cost, by shunning the do-or-die mentality to elections. If the 2011 general elections make a new Nigeria, as many hope it will, by producing credible leaders, then we may begin to reverse the ticking hands of the terrorist clock in Nigeria. If however the elections mar Nigeria either in the form of post-election violence or the generation of another set of inept political leaders, it is safe to conclude that the hands of the terrorist clock in Nigeria would tick faster than expected. Either way, the challenge now is for Nigeria’s political leaders to close their ranks – and early too – for enduring political stability and security of a once great nation, now passing through a terrible phase of its political evolution.

[1] Anza Philips “ Jos Crisis is more than Religious”, Newswatch, 19 April 2010, p.26.

[2] Thisday, “The Rising Wave of Terrorism [Editorial]”, 10 November, 2010, p.18

[3]Freedom C. Onuoha, “The 9/7 Boko Haram Attack on Bauchi Prison: A Case of Intelligence Failure”, Peace and Conflict Monitor, (2 November 2010),

[4] The radical Islamic sect, Boko Haram, claimed Responsibility for the bombing in Jos; see Imam Imam and Seriki Adinoyi, “Jos Bombings: Group Claims Responsibility”, Thisday, 27 December 2010

[5] M Radu, ‘Terrorism after the Cold War: Trends and Challenges’. Orbis, A Journal of World Affairs,46., No. 2, 2002, p 275.

[6] G Wardlaw, Political Terrorism: Theory, Tactics and Counter-Measures. London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.3.

[7]M. Lukman, “The North and Poverty Phenomenon”, Thisday, 6 February 2007.

[8] West Africa Insight, “Almajiris ‘Street Children’ and Sectarian Conflicts in Northern Nigeria”, Vol.1, No. 3, March 2010, p. 7.

[9] Yushaú A Ibrahim, “FG to build 100 Tsangaya schools”, Daily Trust, 13 December 2010, P. 11

[10] West Africa Insight, (2010), p. 7.

[11] Freedom C. Onuoha, “Youth Unemployment and Poverty: Connections and Concerns for National Development in Nigeria”, International Journal of Modern Political Economy. Vol. 1. No. 1, 2010, pp. 115 – 136.

[12] See C. Nna-Emeka Okereke, ‘al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Question of Security in West Africa, African Journal for the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, Volume 1, Number 1, (June 2010), esp. pp. 65-67.

[13] Abdullahi Bello, “70% of illegal arms in West Africa are in Nigeria –NATFORCE boss,” Daily Trust, 9 November 2010, p.29

[14] Freedom C. Onuoha, “The Islamist Challenge: Nigeria’s Boko Haram Crisis Explained”. African Security Review Vol.19, No.2 (2010), pp. 54 - 67.

[15] Reported in Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) News 24: ‘The News as Six’, 5 October 2010.

[16] Scott Stewart, “A Primer on Situational Awareness” Stratfor, 10 June 2010,

[17] Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, “Threats, Situational Awareness and Perspective”, Stratfor, 22 August 2007,

[18] Freedom C. Onuoha, “The 9/7 Boko Haram Attack on Bauchi Prison: A Case of Intelligence Failure”, Peace and Conflict Monitor, (2 November 2010),

Freedom C. Onuoha is a Research Fellow at the African Centre for Strategic Research and Studies (ACSRS) of the National Defence College, Abuja, Nigeria. He is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His broad research interests include resource conflicts, security studies and disaster management, with particular focus on human security. He has contributed on a wide variety of subjects in both local and international journals and books on the subjects of piracy, Islamic fundamentalism, militias and organized crimes.