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Reuters Foundation: Nigeria violence: Violence and corruption plague a vast nation

Since military rule ended in Nigeria in 1999, at least 14,000 people have been killed in sporadic outbursts of violence across the country and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

70 percent of population live on less than $1 a day
World’s eighth-largest oil exporter
High risk of unrest ahead of 2007 elections

Conflict often flares up along religious and ethnic lines, but in many cases the root causes lie in unequal access to power and resources, including land and oil wealth.

Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter. Oil has helped fuelled corruption, and Nigerians continue to suffer from high levels of poverty and inequality.

Economic, political and social tensions, especially among jobless youths, can quickly spill over into violence.

Analysts warn there is a heightened risk of unrest in the run-up to elections in 2007.

key facts

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), calculating the number of Nigeria’s internally displaced people (IDPs) is “very problematic” due to a lack of systematic registration. Hence estimates vary widely.

Number of IDPs 500,000 (Nigerian Government)
200,000 as of November 2004 (U.N. Humanitarian Appeal for West Africa, 2005)
Undetermined (IDMC, 2006)

Total population 131.5 million (U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, 2005)
Population under age 15 44.7 percent of total, 2003 (UNDP, Human Development Report 2005)
Number of ethnic groups About 250
Largest ethnic groups (percentage of total population) Hausa/Fulani (29 – mainly in the north)
Yoruba (21 -mainly in the southwest)
Igbo (18 – mainly in the southeast)
Ijaw (10 – mainly in the Niger Delta)

Population living on less than $1 a day 70.2 percent (1990-2003 average)
Share of income/consumption, poorest 10 percent 1.6 percent (2003) 
Share of income/consumption, richest 10 percent 40.8 percent (2003)
(UNDP, Human Development Report 2005)

Transparency International ranking (1=least corrupt, 159=most corrupt) 2005: 152 (joint)
2004: 144

In detail

Violence and corruption plague a vast nation

A Nigerian soldier keeps watch over displaced people in Lagos, Jan. 28, 2002.
REUTERS/George Esiri Outbreaks of violence in Nigeria have killed at least 14,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of people since the country returned to democracy in 1999, ending 16 years of military rule.

Analysts now fear that the run-up to elections in 2007 could provoke further unrest and displacement.

In May 2006, the Nigerian Senate threw out a bill to amend the constitution that would have allowed President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has been in power since 1999, to stand for a third term in office.

Former military ruler Obasanjo has never publicly said he wants a third term, but National Assembly sources say he expressed support for changing the constitution in private meetings.

The rejection of the amendment by the Senate dealt a severe blow to Obasanjo’s aspirations. But analysts say he could try other tactics, such as fomenting civil unrest or confusion around the elections as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency and keeping a grip on power.

The notion of another term for Obasanjo upset the political elite in the predominantly Muslim, Hausa-speaking north, who ruled Nigeria for three decades following independence from Britain in 1960.

Obasanjo is an ethnic Yoruba from the Christian and animist southwest, but the north backed his presidency in 1999 because they saw him as a moderate who would not harm their interests.

However, northern leaders are now eager for a turn in power, and strongly resisted the constitutional amendment that would have allowed Obasanjo to run again.

The ethnic Igbo in the largely Christian southeast were also opposed to a third-term campaign by the president.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, in his 2006 Annual Threat Assessment, singled out Nigeria’s spring 2007 election as “the most important election on the African horizon”.

While Obasanjo’s decision not to stand for a third term has allayed the international community’s worst fears for now, there remains a high risk of politically driven violence in the run-up to the election.

In March 2006, police arrested several opposition politicians from the north who were participating in a peaceful rally, raising fears of worse to come.

Observers have warned that Obasanjo could target two men who have already laid claim to succeed him: Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who accused his boss of trying to subvert the constitution against the popular will, and former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, who also spoke out against a third term for Obasanjo.

Nigeria’s first census in 15 years, conducted in March 2006, also heightened tensions in some regions. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with population estimates varying between 120 million and 150 million.

Previous censuses provoked unrest between Nigeria’s main ethnic groups, which have tried to use numerical superiority to claim a larger share of oil revenues and political representation. The results of several counts were discredited or even annulled.

To reduce the risk this time, questions on faith and ethnic background were excluded. Nonetheless, at least eight people died in the southeast, where a separatist group, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), tried to stop people from being counted.

MASSOB campaigns for southeastern oil-producing states to secede – as they attempted to do in 1967, sparking the bloody three-year Biafran War. The region is dominated by the Ibo ethnic group and MASSOB argues that the Ibo should not be counted in the census as they are Biafrans.

Violence and further deaths were reported in several other regions, mostly due to boundary disputes between rival ethnic groups hoping to use the count to stake claims to land and property.

Complex causes

Analysts agree that understanding violence in Nigeria means looking beyond superficial labels of religious and ethnic conflict. As the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) observed in a February 2005 report, “the reality is usually more complex.”

Often conflict erupts over an issue such as access to scarce resources or political tension, but polarises along Muslim/Christian or ethnic lines. It is then described as ‘religious’ or ‘ethnic’, masking the underlying economic, social and political factors.

According to the IDMC, one of the key causes of communal conflicts in Nigeria lies in divisions between those who consider themselves indigenous to an area and those regarded as settlers. Where resources are scarce, this can lead to a build-up of resentment between the groups, in some cases, spilling over into violence.

One of the worst recent examples of this type of conflict occurred in 2004 in the buffer region between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south, known as the Middle Belt.

This area was originally inhabited and controlled by tiny animist tribes that survived by farming. For centuries, Northern nomadic cattle herders have moved through the region and progressively settled there, in some cases establishing economic and political control, and taking land and power away from indigenous peoples.

As pressure on resources and poverty, and the influence of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity have grown, relations between the two groups have become increasingly polarised.

Large-scale internecine killing began in Plateau state in 2001, and the conflict simmered for two years until an escalating series of tit-for-tat tribal militia attacks in 2003 and 2004.

In May 2004, Christian militia attacked Muslim Fulanis in the town of Yelwa, killing more than 600 according to the Nigerian Red Cross. The attack was followed several days later by deadly reprisals against minority Christians in the northern city of Kano.

A state of emergency was declared in Plateau and the state governor was replaced by a former army general. Some observers believe the governor was made a scapegoat because of his allegiance to Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a powerful northerner set to be a key contender in the 2007 elections.

Against this background, a peace conference held in Plateau was little more than a “token gesture”, according to Claudia McGoldrick, senior country analyst at the IDMC. “Meetings such as this and the national conference on constitutional reform are intended to solve supposed ethnic and religious differences, but they are really about Obasanjo’s political ends,” she said.

Economic exclusion and oil

A local woman dries a basket of cassava beside the flames from an oil flowstation near Otu-Jerenvwi in the volatile Niger-Delta region of Nigeria, Jan. 17, 2006.
REUTERS/George Esiri Another key factor behind civil unrest in Nigeria is the country’s high level of poverty – 70 percent live on less than a dollar a day and one-third live below the national poverty line.

Unemployment runs high, particularly among young men, whose frustrations and anger are easily manipulated by politicians and religious leaders aiming to boost their power bases.

This may have helped fuel a series of clashes sparked by the introduction in 2000 of harsh sharia punishments handed down by Islamic courts in northern states. While a majority of the population in the north is Muslim, the region is also home to several minority tribes which are predominantly Christian.

Non-Muslims argued that the sharia court decisions created an atmosphere of intimidation and undermined the country’s secular legal system. Disagreement over this issue was the pretext for unrest across the north in which thousands of people died. But commentators said economic hardship among young northern men was also likely to have fanned the flames.

Nigeria’s position as the world’s eighth-largest crude-oil exporter has contributed little to alleviating poverty, even in the southern Niger Delta where the oil reserves are located.

According to a briefing by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, few Nigerians have benefited since oil exploration began in the 1970s because the distribution of oil funds has been undermined by corruption and mismanagement. Nigeria ranked joint 152nd out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2005.

In 1995, the Nigerian government executed the writer and human rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Ogoni ethnic community from the southern Niger Delta. They had campaigned against environmental damage by the oil industry and called for economic and social rights for the Ogoni people.

Their deaths caused international shockwaves and led the European Union to impose sanctions on Nigeria. Yet according to Amnesty International, a decade later, “exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta continues to result in deprivation, injustice and violence.”

Since the beginning of 2006, a group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, whose members belong to the region’s dominant Ijaw tribe, has abducted a number of foreign oil workers and stepped up attacks on oil facilities. Western multinationals operating in the area, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total and Royal Dutch Shell, are on a heightened state of alert.

The government has branded the militants “rascals” and oil thieves, but the Ijaw movement rejects this, arguing that it is fighting for justice. Its demands include the demilitarisation of the delta, basic services for local communities, the release of jailed activists and compensation for oil pollution.

The crisis in the Niger Delta is rooted in corruption and neglect by federal, state and local governments. They have collected billions of dollars of oil revenue but failed to provide basic services to the population.

Attempts by ordinary people to siphon oil illegally from pipelines have frequently ended in tragedy. In mid-May 2006, more than 150 people were killed when a high-pressure pipeline exploded in a Lagos suburb, allegedly during an attempt to tap into the pipeline. At least 2,000 people have died in similar incidents in recent years.

Yet instead of addressing popular disenchantment by improving services, the government has militarised the Niger Delta region to protect oil exports and overlooked routine human rights abuses by its soldiers.

Western oil companies have been targeted by local militia because of their association with the government. Some human rights groups have called on the oil industry to help improve the situation by boosting transparency surrounding their payments to the government and providing direct benefits to local people.

Analysts say the key to solving the crisis will be improved governance, free and fair elections, and public provision of services such as water, electricity, roads, public transport, schools and small business development.

Hidden displacement

Nigerian militant youth walks past a dead body in Onitsha, southeastern Nigeria, Feb. 22, 2006.
REUTERS/George Esiri One of the most serious – and largely hidden – consequences of Nigeria’s ongoing violence is the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

In a March 2006 report, the National Commission for Refugees (NCR) put the total of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at more than three million over the past seven years. It said the problem was getting worse and now appeared to be a permanent feature of society.

However, the true number of IDPs in Nigeria is disputed. The IDMC declines to give an estimate, describing the issue of numbers of IDPs as “very problematic”. The main reason is the absence of a registration system, and thus a lack of data.

In April 2006, the special assistant to the Nigerian president on migration and humanitarian affairs, Moremi Soyinka-Onijala, put the number of IDPs in the country at about 500,000.

The picture is further confused by complex movement patterns. Many displaced Nigerians seek refuge with their families, friends or communities of the same ethnic group. Once violence has subsided, some return home or resettle nearby but others move to different areas, making it hard to distinguish between those fleeing violence and economic migrants.

Another feature of displacement in Nigeria is that it is often short term. In late February 2006, a wave of sectarian violence erupted in mainly Muslim towns in the north and in the southern city of Onitsha, fuelled by global controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper.

This resulted in over 100 deaths and the displacement of as many as 50,000 people. But many of the displaced took refuge in police and army barracks on a temporary basis, and are now likely to have returned home.

IDMC’s McGoldrick told AlertNet that the national refugee commission statistics may be skewed due to ongoing political wrangling between this body and the National Emergency Management Agency over responsibility for IDPs.

While she said it was impossible give an accurate IDP figure, “with numerous outbreaks of communal violence, it is fair to say that hundreds of thousands have been displaced in the past few years.”

A new Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs is being planned, and it is hoped this could improve coordination between different government agencies and focus greater attention on the plight of IDPs.

One of the largest recent movements of people was seen after the violence in Plateau state in 2004, caused by conflict over land between Muslim nomads and settled farmers.

Estimates put the number of IDPs stemming from this crisis at between 200,000 and 260,000. Although the majority were taken in by host communities, around 60,000 sought refuge in camps in neighbouring Bauchi and Nassarawa states.

Humanitarian assistance

In the wake of the 2004 Plateau state crisis, the Nigerian government appealed to the United Nations for financial support to deal with displacement. Several U.N. agencies set up a joint task force to work with state governments to address short-term needs.

The Nigerian Red Cross Society was the first organisation to reach Yelwa, the scene of the worst violence, and is widely regarded as the country’s most efficient humanitarian body. Overall, the international response was limited, because most donors did not regard the situation as a real humanitarian emergency.

According to IDMC’s McGoldrick, while the Nigerian government does have the financial resources to deal with such crises, in the Plateau case, the response was “completely muddled”. Thus she argues that donors should support training to improve the state’s operational capacity to tackle internal displacement.

IDMC also highlights the need for sustained support to help IDPs return and reintegrate – not only in terms of rebuilding homes and infrastructure, but also peace and reconciliation initiatives.

“All too often in Nigeria, once an outbreak of conflict has died down, humanitarian assistance to those displaced becomes virtually non-existent,” its 2005 report stressed.

Despite the relatively low level of international humanitarian engagement in Nigeria, several international NGOs have worked on alleviating the consequences of displacement, including medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). After the Plateau state crisis, MSF provided emergency medical treatment and other aid to people in camps, and went on to offer basic healthcare services in Yelwa.

Catholic Relief Services also responded, providing food and household items to affected families in Kano and devising a multi-faith, inter-agency emergency response and training programme.

A current priority for international NGOs operating in Nigeria is HIV/AIDS. Some 3.5 million Nigerians are infected with HIV, amounting to 5.4 percent of the population (at the end of 2003).

Nigeria’s 2004 U.N. Development Report warned that the government’s limited capacity to respond could lead to an infection rate of 15-25 percent by 2010, and urged measures to stop the spread of the virus among young people.

The United Nations Development Programme in Nigeria has four key programme areas: governance and human rights; poverty reduction; energy and the environment; and HIV/AIDS.

It is also co-ordinating donor funding for the 2007 elections. This will be channelled into support for voter registration and education, as well as capacity building for electoral operations.


Violence and corruption plague a vast nation

1960 – Independence from “indirect rule” by Britain. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leads a coalition government.

1962-63 – A controversial census stokes regional and ethnic tensions.

1966 – Balewa is killed in a coup. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi leads a military administration until he is killed in a counter-coup and replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon.

1967 – The secession of three south-eastern states as the Republic of Biafra sparks a bloody civil war.

1970 – Biafran leaders surrender and former Biafran regions are reintegrated.

1975 – Gowon is overthrown and replaced by Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed.

1976 – Mohammed is assassinated in a coup attempt and replaced by Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo, who introduces a presidential constitution.

1979 – Elections bring Alhaji Shehu Shagari to power.

1983 – Shagari is re-elected amid allegations of irregularities.

1983 – Major-General Muhammad Buhari seizes power in a bloodless coup.

1985 – Ibrahim Babangida seizes power in a bloodless coup, and cracks down on political activity.

1993 – Preliminary election results show victory by Chief Moshood Abiola, but the military annuls the election.

1993 – General Sani Abacha seizes power and suppresses the opposition.

1995 – Writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned against environmental damage by the oil industry in his Ogoni homeland, is executed following a rushed trial. In protest, the European Union imposes sanctions.

1998 – Abacha dies, and is succeeded by Major-General Abdulsalami Abubakar.


May – Parliamentary and presidential elections. President Obasanjo takes office. Fighting flares between ethnic Ijaws and Itsekiris in the Niger Delta over a local government headquarters, with up to 200 killed.

Nov – Paramilitary police quell riots in Lagos after clashes between immigrant Hausas from the north and Yorubas kill more than 100.

2000 – Thousands of people are killed throughout northern Nigeria as non-Muslims opposed to the introduction of Islamic sharia law fight Muslims who support its implementation.


Sep – Violence flares in the city of Jos between Christian and Muslims, with churches and mosques set on fire. According to a report by a panel set up by the Plateau state government, at least 915 people are killed during days of rioting.

Oct – At least 200 people are killed in two days of Muslim-Christian fighting in the northern city of Kano, sparked by Muslim protests against U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan.


Feb – At least 100 people are killed and 430 wounded in four days of fighting between ethnic Hausas and Yorubas in a suburb of Lagos.

Jul – 250 unarmed Ijaw women storm a Chevron-Texaco facility in the Niger Delta and hold 700 employees hostage until the company agrees to invest in the local area.

Nov – Nigeria abandons the Miss World contest in Abuja. At least 215 people had died in rioting in the northern city of Kaduna after a newspaper suggested the Prophet Mohammad would probably have married one of the beauty queens were he alive today.


Apr – First legislative and presidential elections since the end of military rule. President Obasanjo is elected for a second term and his People’s Democratic Party wins a parliamentary majority despite EU observers citing irregularities.

Aug – Leaders of rival ethnic groups declare a ceasefire in the oil city of Warri after days of clashes over oil wealth and political power. The Red Cross says nearly 100 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured.

May – The government declares a state of emergency in Plateau State after at least 600 people, mostly Muslim Fulanis, are killed by Christian militia in the central town of Yelwa. Nine days later, Muslim and Christian militants fight bloody street battles in the northern city of Kano.


Aug-Sep – Troops crack down on clashes between gangs in the oil city of Port Harcourt. Amnesty International cites a death toll of 500, while authorities say about 20 died.


Feb – Soldiers from the Joint Task Force, an army-led unit, fire on protesters at the Chevron Escravos oil terminal on the Delta State coast killing one demonstrator.

Jul – Paris Club agrees to write off two-thirds of Nigeria’s $30bn foreign debt.


Jan-Feb – Militants in the Niger Delta attack oil facilities and kidnap foreign oil workers, demanding greater control over the region’s oil wealth.

Feb – More than 100 people are killed in religious violence in mainly-Muslim towns in the north and in the southern city of Onitsha, following global controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper.

Mar – Nigeria’s first census in 15 years is carried out. Disputes between rival ethnic groups over claims to land and property lead to several deaths, and at least eight people are killed in the southeast, where a separatist group tries to stop people from being counted.

May – The Nigerian Senate throws out a bill to amend the constitution, bringing an end to a campaign by President Obasanjo’s supporters to let him stand for a third term in the 2007 elections.

Links (for working links click on the URL at the foot of the article)

Violence and corruption plague a vast nation


The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has a country page on Nigeria with news and analysis of displacement, as well as maps and links to other sources. Here you can also find IDMC’s February 2005 report ‘Internal displacement in Nigeria: a hidden crisis’.


The Council on Foreign Relations website has a background Q&A looking at security and politics in Nigeria.

The Human Rights Watch section on Nigeria contains documents on security-sector issues and human rights.


This Amnesty International report covers injustice and violence in the Niger Delta. And for a first-person account of the impact of the oil industry in the Niger Delta, take a look at this 2005 Chatham House report, released as part of the think-tank’s Armed Non-state Actors Project.

In August 2006, International Crisis Group released a report calling on the Nigerian government to reform its approach to sharing oil revenues, and on oil companies to involve community-based organisations in their development efforts.


The United Nations Development Programme country page for Nigeria contains information on its activities in the country, as well as links to Human Development Reports:

The website of the Nigerian Red Cross contains some information about humanitarian crises in the country:


This Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources web page provides links to a variety of Nigerian media and other media sources in Nigeria

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