Nigeria, a country on the edge?

20 December 2016
Hamadu Husseiny, 28, searches for beans that have fallen during food distribution at a camp in Monguno, Nigeria, on Sept. 27. Washington Post

Nigeria is a country of deep contrasts. Proclaimed Africa’s largest economy two years ago and currently second to South Africa’s, Sub-Saharan’s Africa’s most populated country has indeed experienced considerable economic growth with the help of its oil revenues in the past few years. The country is also considered one of the few Sub-Saharan states to transition into a democracy successfully, with the 2015 Presidential elections running smoothly without a previously expected outbreak of violence. However, according to the latest Global Terrorism index the country is the third most terrorised in the world, and it would be impossible to argue that all Nigerians had experienced the benefits of the country’s growth in wealth.  Instead in Nigeria we find a country operating on the brink of numerous catastrophes. With challenges from the infamous Boko Haram, armed Fulani herdsmen and those who would prefer an independent Biafra (a former secessionist state in the east of the country) it is evident that Nigeria teeters on the edge with many civilians already facing the brunt of these conflicts and clashes. It is of vital importance to recognise these ongoing conflicts, the latter two which so often go overlooked, and therefore understand Nigeria is very much in a state of instability.

Boko Haram

2016’s second most deadly terrorist organisation may indeed be on the retreat, but there is little evidence that this has dramatically reduced the toll of suffering induced by the group. The United Nations recently released a stark warning that 400,000 children were now at risk of famine in the northeast of Nigeria. Add to this the more than 3 million displaced and isolated by the conflict and the makings, if not the realities, of a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions become evident. Worryingly, Nigerian President Buhari appears intent on downplaying the scale of the crisis, with a spokesman stating the President did not “see the reason for the theories and hyperbolic claims being made ostensibly to draw donor support by some of the aid agencies.”  Couple this with recent concerns raised by an Oxfam representative – at an All Party Parliamentary Group conference on the issue in late October – that the Nigerian military is exacerbating the consequences of the crisis and a worrying image emerges of an ineffectual government unwilling to face the realities of the crisis.

In addition to this governmental apathy, part of the reason for the exacerbated crisis is down to its previous under-estimation by the UN and major aid organisations. The UN previously had only a small number of staff operating in Nigeria’s northeast and have openly stated they did not realise the scale of the disaster.  Aid organisations and rights monitors were also severely hindered by the inaccessibility and safety concerns on the north east. When they did finally manage to gain access to previously besieged areas of Borno they were shocked to find people eating grass and locusts with about half of all children found to be malnourished. Aid organisations now face a race against time to identify severe needs and raise and allocate funds to try and mitigate the fallout of this humanitarian crisis. The scale of this crisis alone illustrates Nigeria is a country functioning on shaky ground, so indeed the two other ongoing conflicts that shall now be discussed demonstrated these are worrying times indeed for the country.

The Fulani Herdsmen Conflict

A Funali herdsman escorts his cattle with a gun on his shoulder. BBC

A lesser heard of conflict, but one that cost Nigeria an estimated $14bn in the three years up until 2015 (MercyCorps), the volatile confrontations between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and arable farmers raises numerous alarm bells. The consideration that the various groups of armed Fulani herdsmen who have inflicted atrocities such as the Benue massacre last July – which left 80 people dead – are not centralised or ideologically driven in the same way as Boko Haram makes these clashes ever more complicated.

Much blood has indeed been shed at the hands of armed Fulani militants, but it is perhaps the volatile and rapidly emerging sectarian divides that such conflicts are enhancing that creates long term concerns for the future of a cohesive Nigerian society. The primary cause of the conflict is a hotly disputed issue with some claiming it is purely a war over scant resources and others affirming the conflicts are routed in ethno-religious divides. This grey area in what is truly motivating the armed militant Fulani groups does not however prevent many in Nigeria to persist in affirming the latter as concrete fact. 51 year old Paul Odiegwu, an elder at a church in Nimbo that was attacked last summer, stated “The Fulanis are against Christians. They see us as slaves”.  Although these conflicts may not indeed be sectarian in nature such examples of inflammatory language demonstrate the growing irrelevance of this as the conflicts are already viewed in this way.

This is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of the clashes do in truth occur between the Muslim Fulani and Christian farmers.  As the Fulani nomadic herdsmen continue to move south into more Christian territories this year more than 350 people have been killed (most of them believed to be Christian).  Although this could be chalked up to the demographics of the South of Nigeria being predominantly occupied by Christian Nigerian this does little to quell the anger of the survivors left behind.  The fractured nature of Fulani insurgents does create the likelihood that some may indeed be operating with a religious agenda, but equally indicates many operate for an array of other reasons born out of the severe reduction in land and resources. In either case their classification as a singular terrorist organisation or movement is very problematic and not useful.

Much of the rural Fulani have also disputed the claims that the conflict is entirely one sided. Sanusi Baffa, chairman of an association of Fulani herdsmen in the state of Kano, refuted such claims stating “Our cattle is regularly stolen and killed. We are being persecuted even more because our land is restricted and the government have created this crisis for us.” With little being done to tame the ongoing clashes it is likely that this conflict will only continue to become more volatile and possibly increasingly sectarian in nature.

Clampdowns on Pro Biafra Protests

The brutal government suppression of pro Biafra protests also raises considerable cause for concern. The separatist movement, calling for the independence that formerly made up ‘Biafra’ in the late 1960s, has attracted significant support from some young Nigerians who identify as Biafrans in recent years. There was a considerable spike in tensions between protestors and governmental forces since the arrest of the Indigenous People of Biafra group’s leader Nnamdi Kanu in October last year. Kanu’s ongoing trial and the denial of his bail has additionally instigated the prolonging of the protests.

Pro Biafra Protester. BBC

However, it is the Nigerian government’s reaction to these protests that raises the most severe cause for concern. The right to peaceful protest is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and this right should not be subverted.  In November, Amnesty International reported the security forces had killed more than 150 peaceful protestors since August 2015. It is believed that the military forces used live ammunition and some of the protestors were attacked with acid. The very fact the security force are willing to resort to some extreme measures in the face of what has been largely peaceful protests exemplifies two things.  First, that the Nigerian government are willing to side step the basic fundamentals of human rights law for even the very mildest of security fears. Secondly, that the government officials view the secessionist movement as a very real and present threat.

These three areas of conflict and catastrophe might suggest a country on the precipice of unfolding into all-consuming war. The latter two discussed areas of tension demonstrate that tension in Nigeria cannot be considered purely isolated to the Boko Haram held areas of conflict in the North East. The UN and numerous aid organisations have shown considerable transparency regarding their under-estimation of the humanitarian crisis in the northeast. It is with great hope that the fallout of the latter two conflicts do not result in the same delayed reaction.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

If you would like to find out more about HART’s work in Nigeria, please click here.

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