While Nigeria’s diversity, with its hundreds of ethnic groups and even more languages, contributes to the country’s rich culture and economic dynamism, it has also at times been the source of tensions over political influence and control of local resources. Nigeria’s practice, at the state level, of giving groups ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ to each region preferential treatment over ‘settler’ or ‘immigrant’ groups – many of whom may have been present for multiple generations – has at times contributed to inequality, competition and conflict between ethnicities.
However, it is the country’s ongoing struggle with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram that has generated most attention both in Nigeria and internally: with thousands of civilians killed by the insurgents, it remains a major challenge for the country and was a leading issue in the 2015 presidential, parliamentary and state elections, that saw President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, defeated by a strong opposition that brought to power Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader and Muslim northerner. One of Buhari’s first major steps after being sworn in was to move the military command centre for the fight against Islamist insurgency Boko Haram from the capital Abuja to the group’s birthplace in Maiduguri, Borno State.
Nevertheless, Bokom Haram continued to carry out a series of devastating atrocities against civilians after Buhari’s election, with a growing number of suicide bombings targeting areas such as markets, mosques and bus stations carried out by women and children. The violence resulted in an estimated 800,000 newly displaced in the short period between June and the end of August 2015. Similar attacks continued, including kidnappings, attacks against mosques and mass killings, triggering widespread displacement. Between April and September 2017 alone, according to reports, more than 380 civilians were killed by Boko Haram in various attacks. By the end of 2017, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was reporting that 1.7 million Nigerians were still internally displaced as a result of the conflict while some 200,000 were refugees in neighbouring countries.. Most internally displaced were living amongst host community families outside of camp settings with little or no assistance, and faced a humanitarian crisis and acute malnutrition in the north-east of the country. Over 5 million people in Nigeria’s north-east continued to face severe food insecurity due to large-scale destruction of infrastructure, disrupted services and forced displacement from the conflict, which had claimed an estimated 20,000 lives in the area over seven years.
After a reported split within the armed group and a number of successful military engagements by Nigerian forces, Boko Haram has recently appeared to have been on the defensive. One of the last Boko Haram strongholds was reportedly captured in December 2016 and a ‘safe corridor’ mechanism set up for the surrender of Boko Haram fighters. In May 2017, there was some good news when 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls were released in exchange for five Boko Haram leaders; they joined 21 others who had been released in 2016. In addition, discussions commenced about the demobilisation of local self-defence groups, formed to protect communities from Boko Haram.
There has long been a continued disparity between conditions in the south and the relatively less developed north, where the conflict between Christian and Muslim communities over issues such as land, local administration and religion. The intersection of ethnic and religious tensions has been especially evident in recent years in the Middle Belt, dividing the largely Muslim north and the largely Christian south, made up of Plateau and Kaduna states. ‘Non-indigenes’ in this region, generally Muslims from the Hausa group, are barred from competing for government jobs or academic scholarships, leading to resentment against ‘indigenes’, most often Berom Christians.
While ostensibly intended to protect traditional cultures, the policy has served to divide communities, fuel identity-based politics and deepen existing disputes, for example between herders and farmers around land access and use. Analysts indicate that over 10,000 people have been killed in inter-communal clashes among ethnic and religious communities since 1992. These tensions have been exacerbated by climate change-induced desertification, which has driven many Fulani Muslim nomadic pastoralists south in search of grazing for their herds, pushing them into conflict with ‘native’ sedentary farmers. As a result, this region remained prone to inter-communal clashes between herders and local farmers, with hundreds killed and thousands displaced in Benue state alone.
Another ongoing source of division within Nigeria, at times fuelling inter-ethnic conflict, is the inequitable allocation of oil revenues and the environmental damage associated with its extraction. Ogoni and other minorities based in the Niger Delta, in particular, have seen their lands devastated and their culture weakened by the impacts of soil and water contamination, making traditional farming and fishing impossible. Local communities have struggled for years to receive denied compensation, clean-up, their share of oil profits and a say in decision-making. Reports emerged in early 2017 accusing Shell of intentionally concealing evidence on the true extent of the health impacts of its oil spills on the Bodo community in the Niger Delta.
The Federal Republic of Nigeria, on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa, is bounded by Benin to the west, Niger to the north, Chad to the north-east and Cameroon to the east and south-east. The Niger River forms a large delta in the south, which is rich in oil deposits and characterized by mangrove forests and swamps. Forested plateau lies to the north of the Niger Delta, giving way to savanna grasslands, and finally the semi-arid Sahel region of the north.
Nigeria has been settled for millennia. After around 1000 CE, various kingdoms arose on the territory of today’s Nigeria. Hausa kingdoms in the north prospered on trade between the Berbers of North Africa and the forest peoples to their south. Around 1400 CE, a Yoruba kingdom in the south-west, called Oyo, lasted nearly 500 years and developed a sophisticated political system. Kanuri entered Nigeria from the central Sahara as Muslim conquerors in the fifteenth century, setting up a capital and subduing and assimilating the local Chadic speakers. Strategically located along the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade routes, the kingdom of Bornu reached its peak of influence during the sixteenth century, covering large areas of the central Sahara and many of the Hausa city states. In addition they imposed heavy taxes on their subjects. During the 19th century Bornu lost its western Hausa territories to the Sokoto Caliphate. The kingdom of Nupe reached its peak from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. It was conquered and converted to Islam by Fulani early in the nineteenth century. Bida, the Nupe capital, was the centre of highly specialized production and large-scale market exchange. Artisans worked in craft guilds at metalwork, glassmaking, beadwork, weaving, carpentry and building.
The slave trade had a profound influence on virtually all of Nigeria. Slaves were numerous among the Igbo, Yoruba and many other ethnic groups. Many ethnic distinctions, especially in the middle belt between north and south, were reinforced because of slave raiding and defensive measures adopted against enslavement. In the 17th century, Europeans began establishing ports to participate in the trade of many commodities, and especially slaves. The trans-Atlantic trade accounted for the forced migration of perhaps 3.5 million people between 1650 and 1860, while a steady stream of slaves flowed north across the Sahara for a millennium. Within Nigeria slavery was widespread with social implications that are still evident. Conversion to Islam and the spread of Christianity were intricately associated with issues relating to slavery and with efforts to promote political and cultural autonomy. The Fulani-based Sokoto caliphate that rose across today’s northern Nigeria and into Niger and Cameroon in the jihad of 1804-1808 had more slaves than any other modern country except the USA in 1860.
The spread of Islam, predominantly in the north but later also in the south-west, had begun around 900 CE. The great extension of Islam within present-day Nigeria dates from the nineteenth century. This helps to account for the dichotomy between north and south and for divisions within the north that have been so strong during colonial and post-colonial eras.
The colonial era was relatively brief in Nigeria, but it unleashed rapid and lasting change. Just the creation of arbitrary colonial boundaries themselves caused great disruption. For example, in the north-west, Britain, France and Germany divided the Bornu Empire between the four colonies of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The British and the French disrupted the profitable trans-Saharan trade, subjecting the Kanuri to the colonial economy. Expansion of agricultural production as the principal export earner and development of infrastructure resulted in severely distorted economic growth. Meanwhile, social change associated with the decline of slavery and the internal movement of populations caused the reassessment of ethnic loyalties. This has been reflected in politics and religion.
The British claim to lands in today’s Nigeria was internationally recognized in 1885. Initially administered as a concession of the Royal Niger Company, from 1900 Nigeria was a formal British colony, ruled as three distinct political units: the Northern Protectorate, the Southern Protectorate and Lagos Colony. In 1906 the Lagos Colony and Southern Protectorate were merged. In 1914 the three units were amalgamated into one nation: the ‘Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria’. Partly in recognition of the major ethno-linguistic differences between Igbo and Yoruba in the south, the Southern Protectorate was split in 1939 into Eastern and Western Provinces. This was given constitutional backing when in 1947 Nigeria was divided into Northern, Eastern and Western regions, a move which gave prominence to the three dominant groups: Hausa-Fulani in the north, Igbo in the east and Yoruba in the west. Each of the former three regions had minorities who formed themselves into movements agitating for constitutional safeguards against opposition from the larger ethnic group that dominated the affairs of the region. The minority ‘problem’ became a major political question when it became clear that Nigeria would adopt a federal system of government. Since each region was dominated politically by one ethnic group, minorities began to aspire to separate existences. This question was important in the 1954 federal and 1957 constitutional conferences. The north and east refused fragmentation, while the west supported the creation of a mid-western state if others did the same. Palliative measures included setting up the Niger Delta Development Board and the inclusion of fundamental human rights in the federal constitution to protect minorities.
Nigeria gained its independence in October 1960, and arguments over federalism continued. Ibibio-Efik and other smaller groups proposed creation of a new region between the Niger Delta and Calabar in order to end Igbo domination there, but proved unsuccessful for the time being. However, in 1963 Edo and Western Igbo were granted a separate midwestern region, reducing both Yoruba and Igbo dominance in that part of the country.
British protection of the Muslim north and their reliance on the authority of the traditional Muslim rulers, the emirs, created major problems after independence. Northern political power, a result of its large population, was combined with an underdeveloped economy and educational system. During the colonial era, Britain had given preferential educational opportunities to the largely Christian populations of the south, with northern Muslims relying to a great extent on Qur’anic education. Friction increased between Hausa and Igbo in the north, where many Igbo had moved as traders and business people and lived in residential areas set aside for strangers and ‘aliens’. In January 1966 Igbo carried out a military coup that brought reprisals against them in the north. As a result many Igbo fled to their traditional homeland in the south-east, and northerners were attacked in Port Harcourt. Six months later another coup placed General Yakubu Gowon, a non-Muslim northerner in command. Gowon replaced the four regions with twelve new states, attempting to lessen the power of the larger ethnic groups. In response, the Igbo, under the leadership of Odumegwu Ojukwu, attempted to secede as the republic of Biafra in 1967, leading to a bloody civil war and the death of hundreds of thousands of Igbo.
In 1976 the government further divided Nigeria, increasing the number of states from 12 to 19. For some minorities this proved a boon, while other groups resented the loss of territory under their majority control. For example, the Ibibio-Efik were granted two majority states: Adwa-Ibom with a majority Ibibio population, and Cross River state, with an Efik majority. However, the creation of Plateau State in the middle belt of Nigeria led to resentment by the Hausa and Fulani, who had previously controlled the area. The new state had a Christian majority and Hausa and Fulani have faced exclusion ever since.
Since independence in 1960 Nigeria has experienced a number of successful and attempted coups and a brutal civil war, let corrupt civilian governments siphon off the profits from the oil booms of the 1970s and 2000s, and faced economic collapse in the 1980s. When his favoured candidate lost in the presidential elections of 1993, Army Chief of Staff General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the results and imprisoned the winner, Moshood Abiola. Defence Minister General Sani Abacha seized power on 17 November 1993, and the country returned once more to military rule. Abacha’s junta, termed the ‘Provisional Ruling Council’ (PRC), marked its reign through severe repression of the opposition and media, corruption on a mammoth scale, and repeated broken promises to return the country to civilian rule. He locked up numerous opposition figures as well as military officials accused of plotting a coups in 1995 and 1997. Abacha died suddenly of a heart attack in June 1998.
Following Abacha’s death, General Abdulsalami Abubakar rose to the head of the PRC and promised to return the country to civilian rule. He released political prisoners, appointed a new election commission, and paved the way for elections. In February 1999, former General Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba and Christian from the south who had led a military regime from 1976-1979, was elected president. Obasanjo’s party won majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives that same year.
Obasanjo established a Nigerian Human Rights Commission, modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to investigate abuses committed by military regimes from 1966-1998. Its hearings, with testimony from over 2,000 witnesses, were broadcast on national television and sparked broad debate in Nigerian society about democracy, human rights and accountability. However, apart from Obasanjo himself, many former military rulers summoned to testify refused to appear. The panel presented its final report to Obasanjo in May 2002, but the Obasanjo’s government never publicly released its recommendations and there was no effort to bring former leaders to justice for crimes committed during their regimes.
Obasanjo was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2003 elections that were marred by voting irregularities. His opponent was Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Fula and Muslim who was also a former military ruler of Nigeria. Disputes over allegations of ballot-box stuffing, intimidation and other problems sharpened northern grievances against the Obasanjo government, despite its ethnic diversity.
Obasanjo’s tenure was scarred by inter-communal fighting with cost thousands of lives, including at least 10,000 during his first term. Beginning in 1999, 12 majority Muslim states in the north adopted Sharia law. Northerners, including minority Christians, have been subjected to restrictive interpretations of Islam, facing harsh penalties and even violence for social behaviour deemed inappropriate by males in the majority group. The Sharia codes are particularly restrictive for women. Harsh penalties include stoning to death for adultery, the amputation of hands for those convicted of stealing, and public beatings for consumption of alcohol. The adoption of Sharia, including in Kaduna State in 2000, sparked rioting and clashes between Muslims and Christians, leading to thousands of deaths and reprisal killings of Hausa in the south-east.
In 2001, inter-communal violence, especially between the Tiv and Kuteb communities, flared in the central Nigerian states of Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa. The unrest led to hundreds of deaths and the displacement of thousands. In the south-east and south, the Igbo and minority groups of the Niger Delta expressed deep frustration at continued marginalization under Obasanjo, with Delta groups in particular chafing at the pollution caused by the oil drilling in their midst. The failure of the government to invest in local development has caused increasing radicalization in the Delta.
Under Obasanjo, corruption continued to cripple Nigeria, preventing soaring revenues from oil production from being put to use for the benefit of average Nigerians. Most Nigerians continued to struggle in abject poverty while only a small elite prospered.
The tenure of Olusegun Obasanjo, at times hailed internationally as a reformer, ended on a less hopeful note. Civil society organizations and many of Nigeria’s peoples had long agitated for a national conference at which the country’s many problems could be hashed out – foremost among them, questions of federalism and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Obasanjo eventually dropped his opposition to the idea of a national dialogue and convened a conference in 2005, but civil society organizations and opposition politicians roundly criticized the format, seen to be overly controlled by Obasanjo. Five months of meetings by around 400 delegates proved inconclusive.
In 2006, Obasanjo manoeuvred to amend the Constitution in order to allow himself a third term in office. The idea was finally rejected in parliament in May 2006. However, international observers, the opposition and civil society organizations regarded the April 2007 elections that brought his party’s candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua, to power, as deeply flawed. Yar’Adua remained in power until his death in 2010. Replacing him in 2011, Nigeria elected its first civilian president from a minority ethnic group: Dr Goodluck Jonathan, a Ijaw from the Niger Delta region. In the April 2011 general elections, Jonathan defeated General Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and candidate of the opposition Congress for Progressive Change (CPP), which drew most of its support from the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups in the north. However, apart from its symbolism, the electoral victory of Jonathan did not change the fortunes of minorities in the country. In particular, Niger Delta minority communities – including Etche, Ijaw, Kalibari and Ogoni – continued to experience environmental devastation due to oil spills and gas flares. Decades of oils spills from multinational oil company operations, sabotage of pipelines and widespread gas flaring have left the Niger Delta heavily polluted.
Nigeria also struggled with religious and ethnic divisions between its Christian and Muslim populations. In November 2008, for example, more than 700 people were killed in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, when a political feud over a local election degenerated into bloody confrontation between Christians and Muslims. In Jos, the capital of Plateau State, in January 2010 rival mobs reportedly armed with guns, bows and arrows, and machetes killed at least 200 people, with another 5,000 estimated to have been forced from their homes. Violence spread to the town of Kuru Karama, 30 km away, where at least 150 Muslim residents were reportedly massacred by marauding gangs believed to be Christian. Some of the victims reportedly sought refuge in the local mosque. In March 2010, in what were said by police to be revenge attacks, several hundred Christians were reportedly massacred in the villages of Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Ratsat, 10 km from Jos. In this case the attackers were said to have been Muslim. Christmas Eve bombs in Jos reportedly killed at least 80 people, sparking more inter-communal violence. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that 200 people were killed in ongoing Plateau State violence in the first quarter of 2011. In 2014 around Jos, Plateau State, in the Middle Belt, violence continued between ‘indigene’ farmers of the Christian Berom group and Fulani Muslim pastoralist ‘settlers’, with more than 1,000 people killed in the first few months of 2014.
But while communal violence has therefore been a continuous issue in recent years, these divisions have been deepened by violence from the armed Islamist group Boko Haram since the group was formed in 2009. Attacks perpetrated by suspected members included the August 2011 bombing of the UN office in Abuja and increasingly targeted farming communities in perennial disputes with pastoralists. The ethnic and religious dimensions of the conflict appear to be overshadowing the underlying basis, which is competition over natural resources.
Since then, thousands of civilians have been killed in brutal attacks by Boko Haram militants, with the government focusing efforts unsuccessfully on its defeat. In December 2011 President Goodluck Jonathan declared a six-month state of emergency in the affected region. Boko Haram responded with a three-day ultimatum to southern Nigerians, most of whom are Christian, to leave the North. In the following six months, Boko Haram reportedly carried out more attacks and killed more people than during all of 2010 and 2011 together. The group appeared to be widening its range of targets, with attacks on churches, unoccupied schools and media outlets. Mourners at funerals of some victims were attacked, prompting further inter-ethnic retaliatory violence.
Meanwhile the security forces, granted emergency powers in April 2012, were accused of extra-judicial killings, torture and arbitrary detention against suspected militants and members of the public at large during raids in communities where attacks have occurred. HRW reported that abuses by Boko Haram could constitute crimes against humanity, while at the same time pointing out that the state security forces were implicated in very serious human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, which also need to be investigated and prosecuted.
While Boko Haram has targeted Christians, a minority in Nigeria’s largely Muslim north-east, the bulk of its victims have reportedly been fellow Muslims; the group is known for targeted attacks on moderate Muslims whose views conflict with its own. In 2014 Boko Haram continued its attacks on soft targets, often in urban centres, including bus stations, schools, churches, mosques and markets, as well as continuing to target moderate Muslim politicians and clerics. It also staged attacks outside the northern states most affected, including a bomb that killed 75 people in the capital Abuja in April. The most high-profile incident during the year, however, was the abduction by the militant group of 276 girls at gunpoint from their secondary school in the north-eastern village of Chibok, Borno State. In a video released by the group, its leader reportedly referred to the girls as ‘slaves’ and threatened to sell them ‘in the market’ or ‘marry them off’. A further less-publicised mass abduction of several hundred mainly children occurred in 2015 in the town of Damasak; Damasak elders submitted a list of over 500 missing children to the authorities.
Nigeria is extremely diverse, with hundreds of ethnic groups and even more languages governed through a federal system of 36 separate states, each with their own ethnic and religious composition. Though this has contributed to the country’s rich cultural life, it has also at times been the source of tensions between different groups over power and control of local resources. Nigeria’s practice, at the state level, of giving groups ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ to each region preferential treatment over ‘settler’ or ‘immigrant’ groups – many of whom may have been based for two generations in the areas – has at times contributed to inequality, competition and conflict between ethnicities.
Beyond the federal presidency, under the 1999 Constitution, Nigeria’s National Assembly is divided into a Senate with 109 seats and a House of Representatives with 360 seats. The judiciary suffers from political influence, corruption and a lack of resources.
The Constitution requires that government appointments reflect the country’s diversity, but the latter remains a matter of essential debate across the country. Beginning with the country’s 1979 Constitution, the concept of ‘indigeneity’ has been perpetuated in the current 1999 Constitution. This system categorizes all Nigerians as indigenes or non-indigenes (also labelled ‘settlers’) to a region based on where their parents or grandparents were born. The mechanism’s intent was to ensure ethnic parity in education and employment, as well as to protect traditional cultures. But in practice it has instead contributed to systematic marginalization of certain groups and encouraged ethno-linguistic identity politics that have fanned the ﬂames of inter-communal violence, even where the roots of many conﬂicts lie elsewhere or pre-date policies of indigeneity. The mere deﬁnition of which groups are indigenous to a region creates many controversies; disputed historical migration patterns and intermarriage often make clear delineations impossible. The policy has become a tool for indigenes across the country to exclude competing ‘settlers’ from scarce educational and employment opportunities, even if these are life-long residents of the community. Not surprisingly, this has led to ﬁerce resentment among the excluded. For example, in diverse Plateau State, indigeneity has at times been used by Christian politicians to maintain dominance through exclusion of Muslim Hausa and Fulani ‘settlers’. The Jarawa ethnic group is also classiﬁed as ‘non-indigene’, although it also fails to qualify for indigenous status anywhere in Nigeria. Out of sensitivity over issues of demographics, the 2006 census did not ask respondents about their religion or ethnicity.
Following the death of Yar’Adua, a northerner in 2010, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, from the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south of the country, was left to finish the final year of his term. The dominant People’s Democratic Party (PDP) named Jonathan as its candidate for the April 2011 elections, in spite of an informal arrangement whereby northerners and southerners alternate every two terms in the Presidency. Jonathan defeated General Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and candidate of the opposition Congress for Progressive Change (CPP), which drew most of its support from the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups in the north. By 2015 the presidency had been retained for 16 years by southerner Jonathan’s party, leading to some northern claims of exclusion. However, elections in 2015 saw President Jonathan in turn defeated by Buhari. This was the first time a Nigerian opposition leader had won an election and power had transferred peacefully between rival political parties.
- Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)
- Committee for the Defence of Human Rights
- Ethnic Minority Rights Organization of Africa
- Human Rights Africa
- Peoples Rights Organisation (PRO)
Updated January 2018
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