State Fragility and Human Security: A Vicious Cycle Revealed by Boko Haram in Northeastern Nigeria

Analysis carried out by Attah Jephthah Okekwu, Excel Botigan, Mélina Froidure, Natalie Grande, Ragnheiður Matthíasdóttir and Solji Oh for their Global Politics course, as part of their Masters in International Humanitarian Action at University College Dublin.

© Photo by The New Humanitarian /Ashley Hamer


This report examines one of the deadliest terrorist groups operating today and the impact on their targeted region through the combined lenses of state fragility and elements of human security. While much discourse surrounding Boko Haram tends to observe through a singular lense, we draw direct connections between dimensions of macro state fragility and the impacts on individual protection, revealing a vicious cycle where terrorism feeds off of and furthers a failing state. 

This report aims to provide an overall background for humanitarian and government workers to better understand systemic impacts of an exploited fragile state.


Sub-Saharan Africa, with over one billion citizens, is the world’s largest free trade area, having the potential to yield inclusive growth and eradicate poverty in the region (World Bank, 2020). The region consists of countries with different income levels, 18 of which are fragile or conflict-affected (World Bank, 2020). The continent of Africa has experienced many conflicts and crises. In recent years, attacks of Islamist militant groups have emerged and spread across the continent. 

Nigeria, the first African economic power and the “African Giant”, hosts the biggest population in the continent. Its cultural and soft power influence is flourishing.

While Nigeria played a crucial role in uniting Africa against colonisation, it also exemplifies of African post-independence states. Weak states are confronted with several challenges, including weak institutions. Their inability to deliver adequate services to their populations leads to political unrest and – in some cases – religious extremism. Boko Haram’s insurgency illustrates the latter phenomenon, falling within the broader trend of salafi-jihadism and the “revival of true islam in an era of decay”. Boko Haram’s emergence has been enabled by peculiar socio-political conditions in Nigeria. The humanitarian crisis generated by the terrorists’ actions has exceeded national boundaries, reflecting complex emergencies of a globalized world.


History of Boko Haram

Boko Haram formed in Maiduguri town, Borno State, in Islamic northern Nigeria (Cook, 2011). Broadly, Nigeria’s population is divided between Christians in the South and Muslims in the North. British colonial rule consolidated ethno-linguistic societies to form the region’s borders. This division resulted in wealth inequality between regions,growing tensions between Muslims and Christians (Fong, 2015).

Boko Haram existed since 1995, but came to public attention in 2002 after being locally called “Nigerian Taliban” (Walker, 2012). Leader Mohammed Yusuf expanded into Bauchi, Yobe and Niger states. The group constructed a “state within a state” including a cabinet, religious police, and religious complex (mosque and Islamic school). They attracted members through offering food, shelter, and social services, appealing to poor Muslim families nationwide by enrolling children in Islamic school (Walker, 2012). The initial goal opposed Western corruption, education, and civilization, taking a violent turn in 2009 when the group launched military operations to establish an independent Islamic State, with Islamic schools becoming a jihadi recruiting ground (BBC News, 2016). In 2018, Nigeria was the 3rd country most impacted by terrorism. 

Timeline of Significant Events

Ideology and Goals

Boko Haram is a salafi-jihadist sect adopting a radical and totalitarian vision of Sunni islam with the ultimate goal of establishing an islamic state (“khilafah”) around Lake Chad (Counter Extremism Project, 2020). To achieve this, a holy war (“jihad”) must be waged against disbelievers (“kuffars”). 

Boko Haram translates to: “Western education is sacrilege”, revealing the group’s goals (Adibe, 2012). However, the notion is not limited to Western-style schooling. Rather, it encompasses a wide range of “western” elements, including democracy, secularism, and constitutionalism. The group opposes all “social and political ills that result from Western domination of Nigerian state and society” (Thurston, 2016). 

The organisation criticizes “decadent” aspects of Nigerian society; members “portray themselves as a vanguard of true Muslims within wayward society” (Thurston, 2016) with a purification mission. Boko Haram opposes all other value systems, including “rival interpretations of islam” (Thurston, 2016). The group shares exclusivist worldviews framing alterity as the enemy. This “us vs them” ideology requires “true Muslims” to confront surrounding evil: “piety alone is insufficient […] loyalty to islam does not just apply to the realm of worship” (Thurston, 2016).

Finally, Boko Haram’s ideology hinges on a victimhood narrative. Its violence “responds to what it sees as a decades-long history of persecution against Muslims in Nigeria” (Thurston, 2016). The authorities crackdown against the sect fuels this internal narrative. Boko Haram is convinced that the Nigerian state collaborates with Christians to target Muslims, and therefore seeks revenge (Thurston, 2016).

Problem Statement

The Non-State Armed Group (NSAG) Boko Haram created a serious humanitarian crisis in Northeastern Nigeria, leading to massive displacement and violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws. Over 300,000 Nigerians are forcibly displaced into neighboring states, and over 2 million are internally displaced (UNHCR, 2020). The conflict has additionally threatened the security of neighboring states Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.

In 2019 alone, over 473 civilians were killed and 327 injured as a consequence of present military and NSAG activities. Most incidents involved attacks without distinction or by collateral damage (OCHA, 2020). Boko Haram is regarded as the “4th deadliest terrorist group in 2018” (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2019).

Food insecurity and displacement are the highest drivers of need. 3.8 million people in BAY states are projected to be food insecure in 2020 (OCHA, 2020). Endemic diseases in the region, such as Malaria and Cholera, increase child mortality risk, particularly among malnourished children (OCHA, 2020). Additionally, 1,947 children were reportedly recruited and used by armed groups as child soldiers in 2018 (DTM, 2019).

IDPs face serious risks to safety, security, and basic rights in camps. 23 attacks on IDP camps were reported in 2019, leading to 12 deaths, 23 injuries and 26 abductions (OCHA, 2020). Civilians in IDP camps are under threat of sexual exploitation, abuse, and gender-based violence. (OCHA, 2020).

Humanitarian space has been significantly threatened. Humanitarian workers grapple with access constraints and security-related incidents that hinder effective humanitarian responses in the BAY states. Aid workers are increasingly the targets of NSAGs. From 2011 to 2020,  132 humanitarian workers became victims of violence in Nigeria, of which 55 were killed, 56 were wounded, and 21 were kidnapped (Aid Worker Security Data, 2020). According to OCHA, insecurity and access constraints restrict humanitarian organizations’ capacity to deliver assistance to populations outside main towns in Borno State. The Nigerian military imposed restrictions on humanitarian workers’ type and mode of assistance as well as areas of operation – humanitarian workers are prohibited from operating outside of government-controlled areas or in areas of suspected NSAG operation. This worsens the situation, creating inaccessible areas.

Limitations of the Report

  1. There is a need for further analysis on the Nigerian state’s legitimacy failure and its impact on the rise of Boko Haram.
  2. This report is merely a preliminary document to outline the connections between a fragile state and its citizens’ security. A more expansive study could compare Boko Haram with similar situations, such as Al Shabaab in Somalia, to further conceptualize the connections of macro-level failure to individual threats.


Our report examines state fragility in Nigeria contributing to the conception and prevalence of Boko Haram’s threats to human security and connections to further state failures, revealing a vicious cycle.

State Fragility

  • The lack of political will and capacity of state structures to provide basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development, and safeguarding security and human rights of its population (UNDP, 2020).

Elements of Human Security


State Fragility

“Fragility” involves failure to achieve normal growth conditions from factors like weak governance, persistent conflict, corruption, insecurity (Zoellick, 2018). In 2020, Nigeria was ranked 14th in the Fragile States Index. In the context of fragile states, a weak state is one with significant gaps in security, performance and legitimacy (Maitra, 2020). Hence, Nigeria in the Boko Haram conflict is considered a weak state for this report.

Authority Failure

Authority Failure is failure of the State to protect its citizens from violence, characterized by significant organized violence or civil war and periodic high levels of violence resulting in death. “For most of its history, Nigeria has witnessed sporadic episodes of insecurity; a phenomenon traditionally manifested in political, electoral, religious and ethnic violence, and, more recently, terrorism” (Seiyefa, 2020). According to the US Overseas Security Advisory Council, “crime is prevalent throughout Nigeria”. The state is “prone to substantial levels of uncontrolled criminal activity”, a symptom of authority failure (Maitra, 2020). Moreover, “state authority does not extend to portions of the country”. In 2014, Boko Haram gained enough territory to proclaim a caliphate over the controlled region. Although the group lost substantial territorial control, some areas remain inaccessible to Nigerian authorities, clear indications of authority failure.

Service and Legitimacy Failure

Service failure is  the inability or unwillingness of a state to deliver effective services to its citizens, observed when “the services provided do not meet minimum standards” (Maitra, 2020). High degrees of inequality and social exclusion reflect service failure. Post-independent Nigeria failed to adequately provide services like “democratic dividends, health care, education, infrastructural development, social amenities and security” (Badmus, 2017). Prolonged military rule affected public service quality and public servants’ political culture (Badmus, 2017). Nigerian administration is poisoned by underfunding and corruption – “an emblematic symptom of state failure” (Afoaku, 2017). Such factors lead to “woeful service delivery performance” (Ndaguba et al., 2018).

Nigeria witnesses high poverty and unemployment rates – particularly affecting youth (Oko et al, 2018). In 2017, Nigeria recorded the 8th highest infant mortality rate globally (The World Factbook — CIA, 2020). In 2018, literacy rate reached 62%, even lower than the average rate in conflict-affected settings (Worldbank, 2018). Moreover, “Nigeria’s total spending on social assistance programmes is 0.28% of GDP and covers only 7% of the population” (The Conversation, 2020). This is low compared to nearby Benin and Ghana (The Conversation, 2020).

Substantial inequalities persist between Northern and Southern Nigeria (Campbell 2014). Northern Nigeria has higher rates of poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and food insecurity (Moss, 2018). Nigerian authorities face criticism in their security response. Lack of resources and personal interest undermine security forces’ efficiency (Afoaku, 2017). The scale of security failure is observed in the creation of a Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), established in response to the state’s inability to protect citizens from terrorist threats and emerging as the military committed civilian abuses (Campbell, 2014).

A strong correlation arises between service failure and Boko Haram’s emergence.  According to Dan Suleiman (2014), socio-political realities gave rise to Boko Haram. Hill further states that Boko Haram is “a response to the government’s failure to provide Nigerians with public goods” (The Conversation, 2020) as evidenced by unemployed youth making up the majority of the sect’s membership, allured by consistent meals and social recognition (Oko et al., 2018). Social inequalities played crucial roles in the organization’s rise, fueling narratives of discrimination and persecution against Northern Muslims (Campbell, 2014). Service failure additionally explains persistence: “the operational success of Boko Haram rests on the continuing inability of the Nigerian state” to provide adequate security that ensures “national prosperity” (Oko et al., 2018).

Service failure contributes to legitimacy failure and authority failure. “Nation-states fail because they can no longer deliver positive political goods to their people”, leading to “loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens”, entailing “intense and enduring violence, usually directed against the government” (Oko et al., 2018). Contrastingly, good service delivery positively impacts a state’s legitimacy, strengthening its institutions and authority.

Human Security

There are direct connections between dimensions of macro state fragility and impacts on individual protection, primarily human security. We examine how Boko Haram affects aspects of security, exploring conditions of state fragility exacerbated by authority, service, and legitimacy failure, creating the perfect storm to violate and disrupt human securities.

Personal Security

According to the Human Development Report (1994), individuals’ security from physical violence is of primary importance. Globally, individuals are increasingly threatened by sudden unpredictable physical violence; different types of threats are indicated on the right hand figure.

Boko Haram distinctly threatens civilian personal security. Their operating tactics affect innocent individuals, resulting in mass civilian death and displacement. Attacks are indiscriminate (targeting both Muslims and non-Muslims), increasingly lethal, and target a wide geographical area. It’s estimated that since 2011, 39,552   individuals have died in the conflict (CFR, 2020).

Boko Haram’s tactics are gender discrepant. Since 2012, they have abducted women, mainly teenagers (Zenn and Pearson, 2014). Reports of forced marriages of teenage girls to combatants were reported in the region in 2012. Attention didn´t reach international media until 2014, when 276 female school girls were kidnapped, resulting in massive coverage and campaigns to  #BringBackOurGirls (UNICEF Nigeria, 2016). Boko Haram engages women and children in other roles, including suicide bombing. Additionally, women are forced to convert to Islam before being forced into marriage. Sexual violence is on-going; hundreds of women and girls have been raped and enslaved by fighters. When women and girls are returned to communities, they face marginalization, rejection, and discrimination by familes and community from existing cultural and social norms associated with sexual violence, as well as being the perceived threat that they were radicalised while captured. Women are victims, but are considered a direct threat, including their unborn children conceived from sexual violence belived to become the next generation of fighters (UNICEF Nigeria, 2016). Boko Haram’s demographic profile is unique among terrorist groups in its unusually high proportions of women and children (Global Terrorism Database).

Political Security

The Boko Haram conflict threatens political stability, State integrity, and undermines Nigeria as a sovereign political territory. The government’s inability to contain the group raises concerns from within and outside the State. Fasakin (2017) argues that leaders’ ability to establish mutuality with followers in any situation is imperative to achieving a secured State. However, since the ascent of President Muhammadu Buhari, authority failure has exacerbated the uneven distribution of revenue, increased poverty, high corruption levels, and violence in the Middle Belt region, posing significant security challenges.

Several media reports emerged noting poor Nigerian military funding levels. Occasionally, military bases were attacked and decimated by the sect, with surviving soldiers testifying to the sophistication of Boko Haram’s ammunition to that of the military. This apparent sophistication suggests their level of funding. It appears they are mostly funded locally, although Al-Qaeda affiliation may provide foreign donation benefits (FATF, 2016).

Subsequently, against public outcry, the President instituted policies to de-radicalize and reintegrate repentant Boko Haram members into society. The policy faced public outcry as supposedly repentant members now serve as spies feeding information to the group. These security gaps and governance questions the State’s performance and its contribution to protracted conflict. With the country divided across ethnic, religious and political lines, authority failure undermines the State’s political security. Concurrently, many citizens are vocally discontent with the state of the country, expressed through mass protests in October 2020 under the #EndSARS movement, seeking to end Police brutality and overhaul governance. Retrospectively, federal authority silenced these voices through actions and policies that infringed human rights and freedom of speech; indicating systemic human rights violation reinforcing authority failure.

Community Security

Community security “operationalizes human security, human development, and state-building paradigms at the local level” (UNDP, 2009). Boko Haram’s violence destroys houses, churches, mosques, health care centers, and schools, placing many communities in insecure states (Amalu, 2015). According to CSW UK, over fifty unreported attacks occurred in 2020. In Borno and Adamawa, 34 villages are deserted after repeated Boko Haram attacks (CSW UK, n.d.).

Religious institutions are heavily attacked. The EYN Church of the Brethren in Nigeria stated that “only seven out of 60 District Church Councils were not directly affected by these insurgencies” (CSW UK, n.d.). Health institutions were also violently attacked, with over 23 attacks on health facilities in 2017 ( One attack in Adamawa state destroyed the town hospital, depriving inhabitants of their sole health facility (Sani, 2017). Lastly, schools were unspared. The UN estimated around 1,500 schools were destroyed with over 1000 teacher and student casualties from 2014-2016 (, n.d.). This data indicates Boko Haram’s extreme  scale and community security threats.

Economic Security

Economic security of Nigeria significantly depleted through Boko Haram. Nigeria ranked 157 out of 189 countries on the 2018 Human Development Index, well below sub-Saharan African average. Over a decade of armed conflicts exacerbated economic security in the northeast, expanding the economic gap between regions. The conflicts between Boko Haram and government military forces resulted in an estimated US$8.9 billion damage to the regions’ infrastructure and their capacity to deliver social services (World Bank, 2016).

Individual economic security was affected in agriculture, the major pre-crisis means of livelihoods.

The limited access to farming and grazing land forced populations to flee insecure regions and many households missed up to five years of planting seasons. The BAY states lost $3.73 billion of internal agriculture revenue (World Bank, 2016).

Infrastructure collapse coupled with forced displacement eroded employment and livelihood opportunities, causing higher vulnerability levels, economic insecurity and multidimensional poverty in the northeast. In 2018, BAY states recorded a staggering increase in unemployment rate, compared to the national average 23.1% (World Bank, 2016).

Northeastern Nigeria recorded the second highest poverty rate of 44% compared to other regions. Approximately 50% live below the poverty line; above the national average of 33%, demonstrating little assurance of publicly financed or other safety nets (World Bank, 2016). The economic situation of the region has deteriorated by the relapse in insecurity and the 2019 closure of Nigerian-Cameroon land borders, impeding trade (OCHA, 2020).

Food and Environmental Security

Boko Haram takes advantage of and furthers climate-related insecurities. Nigeria offers a clear study of conflict-food security nexus, whereby conflicts impact food security conditions by destroying agricultural production, distribution chains, hindering growth, and increasing unemployment levels. The depletion of resources likewise exacerbates conflict: limited sustenance and pervasive poverty drive ordinary people to seek basic necessities in more violent and disruptive manners (Otaha, 2013). The nexus can be observed by measuring how households adjust their food preferences, dietary variety, and meal portion sizes, and if they go a full day without food (George, 2020). Findings indicated that while households will rarely skip days without food, they will settle for less diverse diets and smaller portions to withstand conflict shocks (George, 2020). This indicates that while short term impacts are moderated, moderating techniques are not sustainable.

Co-occurring environmental crises allow Boko Haram to take advantage of lowered food production. Lake Chad shrunk by 90% from the 1960s to 1990s, due to climate change and misuse of resources (Gao, 2011). This interacts with regional conflict drivers, including livelihood insecurity, weak governance, poverty/underdevelopment, and migration (Skah, 2020). Economic hardship brews tension and resentment, contributing to Boko Haram’s recruitment strategies exploiting societal stress from lack of water, food, and other resources. The availability of freshwater, grazing lands, and vegetation that 80% of the population rely on for sustenance and income are continually depleted (Gao, 2011). The demographics of the region cause further strain; the Lake Chad Basin population has quadrupled since the 1960s (George, 2020). Traditional livelihoods no longer sustain local communities. Indicators of the vicious cycle emerge as conflicts overlap with climate-related shocks, acting as a threat multiplier, exacerbating livelihood insecurity, weak governance, and migration, jeopardizing climate-related securities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underlined in its 2014 report that human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes. Climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier for Boko Haram, aggravating already fragile situations.



  1. Boko Haram significantly affected the overall security situation in Nigeria and the Chad Lake basin. The group jeopardizes all dimensions of human security.
  2. Women and girls face specific persecution.
  3. The emergence of a terrorist group is context-specific. Although Boko Haram is part of a broader salafi-jihadist momentum, its rise was nurtured by sociopolitical grievances in the Nigerian context.
  4. Human security and state fragility maintain a cyclical relationship. State fragility in Nigeria contributed to the rise and persistence of Boko Haram’s threats to human security, which in turn increases state fragility.
  5. Service failure is a main explanatory factor of Boko Haram’s rise and persistence. Three particular key elements: poverty, social inequalities, and inadequate security provision.
  6. Service failure affects the state’s legitimacy as well as authority. Failure to deliver adequate services hamper the state’s legitimacy, often leading to violence.

Implications for the humanitarian sector:

  1. Greater attention to social inequalities and developmental issues in Northeastern Nigeria is needed. Humanitarians should try to bridge the gap between humanitarian aid and development. Greater coordination efforts are needed to address the triple nexus.
  2. Particular focus should be given to social dimensions including age and gender as the group targets youth and women. Projects should be gender-mainstreamed.
  3. Food aid and strengthening of livelihoods are vital for protecting and further preventing the vulnerable populations from being instrumentalized by Boko Haram.
  4. Rehabilitation of communities is essential for repatriation of IDPs and refugees. This includes reconstruction of key infrastructure as well as greater livelihoods support.
  5. Humanitarian organizations should reinforce their security policy to work in BAY states of Nigeria due to limited humanitarian space and are recommended to work with local partners.
  6. Humanitarian actors should seek to strengthen national as well as local infrastructures and capacities.



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