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Pillar of west African security struggles to keep peace at home in Nigeria

In the not so distant past Nigeria’s armed forces claimed to be the linchpin of west African security, better equipped and better resourced than their peers and under the control of generals who took pride in their role as regional policemen.

Fifteen years after military rule ended and soldiers handed power back to elected civilians, Nigeria’s army and police force are struggling to keep the peace at home in the face of a widespread breakdown in law and order.

The army is deployed in 25 of the federation’s 36 states, according to security officials, who acknowledge that troops are thinly stretched and slow to adapt to evolving security threats. Those include a wave of deadly banditry across the predominately Muslim north, conflict over land and other resources at the centre, and a surge in kidnapping, armed robbery and oil theft in the south.

The most obvious threat, however, is in the escalating violence perpetrated by the extremist sect Boko Haram, the prime suspect in twin car bombings that claimed at least 118 lives in the city of Jos, northeast of the capital, on Tuesday.

It was one of the deadliest attacks yet in a five-year insurgency that has cost 12,000 lives, according to President Goodluck Jonat­han, and which gained international notoriety with the abduction on April 14 of more than 200 teenage schoolgirls at Chibok.

The Jos bombings appear calculated to reignite tension along religious and ethnic faultlines in a part of Nigeria’s “middle belt”, where thousands have been killed in communal violence over the past decade but where Boko Haram has not recently been active.

The bombs, and recent terrorist attacks in Abuja, the capital, and Kano, reasserted the al-Qaeda-linked group’s capacity to strike well beyond its heartland in the impoverished northeastern states bordering Chad, Cameroon and Niger. It also sent a defiant message to the foreign security experts lining up behind Nigeria.

“The military are not normally equipped to fight terrorists who abduct children and detonate suicide bombs. They are trained for conventional warfare,” said Olusegun Obasanjo, a former head of state who in the 1960s was a commander in Nigeria’s civil war. “They need to be specially trained and equipped.”

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