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Which African country is worst at fighting insurgents?

Nigeria and Kenya get poor marks in new survey

Nigerian soldiers
Nigerian soldiers (Obi Anyadike/IRIN)

Public approval in Nigeria and Kenya for their governments’ handling of jihadist violence is low, and citizens have a poor opinion of the security forces that are supposed to protect them, according to a survey-based report released this week by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network.

Both Nigeria and Kenya are facing ruthless insurgencies, but only about four in 10 of their citizens back the counter-insurgency efforts. That score contrasts with high approval ratings in regional neighbours Niger (96 percent), Cameroon (81 percent), and Uganda (83 percent), which also face security threats.

The Afrobarometer surveys were carried out in 36 countries at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015 as face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent’s choice with a maximum +/-3 percent sampling error.

They not only reveal that citizens in Nigeria and Kenya are unhappy with their governments’ performance in dealing with Boko Haram and al-Shabab violence, but also expose significant levels of distrust in the security forces.

Out of all the countries surveyed, public confidence in the police was lowest in Nigeria (21 percent) and Kenya (36 percent) – compared to Niger, where almost nine in 10 citizens said they trusted their police.

When people were questioned on their perceptions of their armed forces, Nigeria’s military was again the worst performer, with only 40 percent of people saying they were trusted. In Kenya, the military enjoyed more confidence at 68 percent.

By comparison, 86 percent of people polled in Senegal regarded their army as reliable; in Tanzania it was 82 percent.

Big caveat

“Context really matters,” said report co-author Rorisang Lekalake. “At that time [of the surveys], there were large numbers of attacks in Nigeria and Kenya. In Nigeria, the situation was so precarious we couldn’t conduct the surveys in three northern states.”

Forty-five percent of Kenyans voted security as their number one concern, as did 39 percent of Nigerians. But the most concern was found in the middle-income island nation of Mauritius (48 percent), followed by Tunisia (47 percent).

By contrast, only 10 percent of Ugandans said they were worried, despite the country's long battle with al-Shabab in Somalia. Sierra Leoneans were positively sanguine; just three percent mentioned security as an issue.

There are large local swings in the survey results. Nigeria’s northern states, the home region of the Boko Haram insurgency, were more critical of the government’s efforts than the southern half of the country, said Lekalake. In one telling result, more than one third of respondents believed that “all” or “most” Muslim citizens support extremist groups (the north is predominantly Muslim).

Boko Haram was seizing and holding northern towns in 2014, and a badly led and under-equipped Nigerian army was demoralised and on the back foot. In the survey, Nigerians blamed government officials, parliamentarians, and the military – basically anybody in power – for Boko Haram’s success. 

Unsurprisingly, President Goodluck Jonathan was dumped at the polls in 2015 – the first time an incumbent lost an election.

It’s also political

In Kenya, support for the government’s counter-insurgency efforts is highest in its biggest political constituency of Central Province (79 percent approval). It’s weakest in North Eastern Province (12 percent), which borders Somalia, and which has felt much of the brunt of al-Shabab attacks and the security campaign.

Support for Kenya’s five-year military intervention in Somalia is well over 50 percent across the country (in Central it’s 80 percent). The exception is North Eastern, where only 31 percent of people approve.

The intervention was launched to halt cross-border raids, but cited by al-Shabab as a reason for their continued attacks – including those on the Westgate shopping mall and Garissa University that killed a total of 215 people. Yet two thirds of Kenyans said the intervention “has been necessary despite the terrorist problems resulting from it”.

So what do people want their governments to do?

In Nigeria, the survey found the priorities were a strengthening of the military response (44 percent); more job creation (34 percent); outreach to religious leaders (17 percent); followed by an array of approaches, including better governance and community engagement.

“Nigeria has a much longer history of violent extremism,” Lekalake told IRIN. “Even at the community level, people realise that the military response can’t be the only response, and is not necessarily the best response.”


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