Policy Briefs

Selonnes Consult Policy Brief 61/19: Is Nigeria Bedeviled By The “Ungoverned Space” Syndrome?

Ejeviome Eloho Otobo and Oseloka H. Obaze

 Ungoverned space is a new concept applied to an old problem, namely the lack of effective government presence in parts or places within its territory. Ungoverned space is a direct reflection of the inability the state to effectively perform its minimal statutory functions: exercise of monopoly of use of force; full territorial control; and provision of basic social services. Many analysts think of ungoverned space in strictly security terms.

In reality, however, ungoverned spaces are also marked typically by significant absence or limited provision of basic social services, making such places vulnerable to the control of criminal networks, radical extremists or other groups that offer alternatives to state authority by addressing, or spearheading agitations against, long held political, economic or social grievances of particular communities. Contrary to popular belief, ungoverned spaces occur as much in a national context as in sub-regional or regional context. Indeed, the so-called ungoverned sub-regional spaces are nothing more than an aggregation of ungoverned national spaces. When such spaces lie in contiguous border areas between countries, it exacerbates the challenges of ungoverned spaces.  

Experts have identified six drivers of violent conflicts, which are also pertinent to ungoverned space. These include lack of quality governance and transparency, ethnic rivalry, religious extremism, mismanagement of land and natural resource, declining economic conditions and proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Grappling with the manifestation of the ungoverned space syndrome in Nigeria, warrants acknowledging that effectiveness of state presence or lack thereof makes all the difference.

 Four clear manifestation of ungoverned space currently pertain to Nigeria. The first is banditry and kidnappings, which have extensively taken hold in various parts of the country. Indeed, besides the well-known kidnap of the Chibok Girls and Dapchi Girls, very few parts of Nigeria are exempt from menace of banditry and kidnappings. The second is terrorism; over time, Boko Haram and its affiliates have successfully plotted and carried out suicide bombings and military-style attacks in Nigeria, notably in the Northeast. Such attacks are aimed at, but are not limited to soft targets like motor parks, churches and mosques, restaurants and schools. Military and other government installations are also targeted. Whatever progress has been made in curtailing Boko Haram’s atrocities is periodically undermined by spasmodic attacks.

The third is herdsmen and farmers clashes. Violent clashes between cattle herders and crop farmers remain a major source of conflict and insecurity in Nigeria. Well over 4000 lives were lost between 2010 and 2019 from herdsmen and farmers clashes. Whereas the festering clashes are generally attributed to conflict of interests over scarce resource such as land and water, ambiguous policies and inaction on the part of the government are perceived as exacerbating the crisis. The cumulative effect of Boko Haram and herders attacks have led to huge internal displacements, estimated at two million internally displaced persons (IDPs).

 The fourth is piracy and militancy. Insecurity within the Niger Delta region and Nigeria’s continental shelf remains a cause for concern due to piracy and militancy. Of the recorded fifty-three incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in 2016, thirty-four occurred with Nigerian territorial waters. In 2017, fifty-six Mariners were kidnapped off the coasts of the Niger Delta. These numbers exclude foreigners and Nigerians kidnapped for ransom in the oil-rich Niger Delta.  

The resort to military response seems to be the preferred intervention method for addressing conflicts in ungoverned spaces. This choice of force over dialogue overlooks unwittingly, expert warning that “failure to appreciate the way these areas are governed can lead to flawed policy choices.” Yet ungoverned spaces do not occur because of lack of military presence. They persist because of lack of well-functioning institutions that can promote dialogue, foster reconciliation, adjudicate economic, social and political disputes; and provide basic services to various communities.

This prevailing lacuna explains the paradox of several military operations, for example, Operation Crackdown, Operation Lafiya Dole, Operation Pulo Field, and Operation Crocodile Smile existing alongside pockets of ungoverned spaces. While the military may offer “hard power” security, they are not equipped or trained to undertake or play the “soft power” role that other institutions can provide, including civilian police problem solving duties.

Is Nigeria bedeviled by the “ungoverned space” syndrome? This is no longer a rhetorical question. Ungoverned space does not imply absence of governmental authorities at various levels. Instead, it suggests that various tiers of government are unable to fulfill the full spectrum of state functions. The manifestations of ungoverned spaces in Nigeria underscore an important fact: a clear nexus exists between the state’s inability to protect and to provide for constituent communities and the emergence of ungoverned spaces in Nigeria.


*Otobo is a Non-Resident Senior Expert at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels.

 Obaze is a public policy expert and Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer Selonnes Consult, Ltd. Awka.

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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