Is Nigeria Heading for a New Civil War?

12 December 2014

Nigeria remains wholly unpredictable, but the future looks desperate.


Since I returned from Nigeria last year, I have become increasingly aware of the western media’s failure to represent the true extent of the humanitarian crisis that has enveloped the northern regions of the country. The horrific kidnapping of 273 girls from their school in Chibok received widespread attention. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There have been over 2000 abductions this year and the John Hopkins University’s Connect SAIS Africa Programme estimates that around 20,000 people have been killed since 2009 as a result of social violence.

What is clear is that the bloodshed is increasing at an alarming rate. In the first nine months of 2014 nearly 7000 people were killed. That is a third of the entire total for the last 5 years. Of these, Boko Haram was responsible for over 5000. This means that nearly half of the deaths attributed to the group since it became violent in 2009 have occurred between January and September this year. In the last few weeks alone, Boko Haram have killed 48 fishermen near the Chad border, dozens through explosions in Adamawa state and at least 81 in a raid on the city of Kano’s central mosque. Hassan John, an Anglican Canon in Jos in the middle-belt of Nigeria and one of HART’s partners, said in a recent message:

“The Boko Haram attacks are becoming more gruesome and many churches in the northeast region [have closed down]. We now [have] a lot of refugees flooding into Jos, some have walked for over 200km … Boko Haram seems to be modelling itself after ISIS. It is gruesome!”


Elections: An Opportunity for Boko Haram

On February 14th, 2015 the Nigerian general election is due to be held. Elections at all levels have regularly been catalysts for extreme civil unrest and communal violence. Boko Haram’s increasingly aggressive activities, combined with the people’s general disillusionment with the political system and longstanding tribal and religious contentions, suggest that the chances of the February elections passing peacefully are very slim.

If Boko Haram manage to seize the initiative in the fall-out from the elections, and take further control of the northeast, the result will be disastrous. Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader, has said “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill”. This has meant that Christians, Shia Muslims and anyone else who has refused to actively support the insurgency have been regularly targeted. If Boko Haram is able to establish a regime in the northeast similar to that of ISIS, massacres may be summarily implemented.


A Frustrated People

On top of providing an opportunity for Boko Haram, it is possible that the elections may cause the state of Nigeria to tear itself apart.

The frustration amongst local people is growing. They do not believe that the government can defeat Boko Haram and the military inspire fear rather than a sense of protection. Tales of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture and military assistance to the perpetrators of communal violence abound. During a few periods of brutal systematic repression, it has been suggested that the security forces may have killed as many Nigerians as Boko Haram. Consequently, numerous vigilante groups have sprung up. However, these are unaccountable, violent and often represent little more than opportunistic armed thieves.

Additionally, a large proportion of Boko Haram’s weaponry has come from military armouries and there are reports of soldiers referring to the north as their “cashpoint” because it is where they sell their equipment. Senior officials, including President Goodluck Jonathan himself, have affirmed that the military and other governmental organisations have been infiltrated by radical Islamist organisations.

In addition to the widespread distrust in the military, Nigerians’ anger towards corrupt officials is growing, as high levels of economic growth allow the wealthy ruling elite to become richer whilst 85% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. In the northeast, 71.5% live in absolute poverty and over half are malnourished.

An exemplary figure of Nigeria’s crony elite is Ahmad Sani Yerima. While he was governor of Zamfara state, he was indicted for corruption, and was accused of stealing state funds, and subsequently of allegedly trying to blackmail the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). In 2010 he came under criticism for marrying a 13-year-old Egyptian girl after paying a dowry of $100,000 to her parents. In 2013, he successfully ran a lobbying campaign to have the Senate overturn its decision to remove the loophole that allows for men to marry young girls. Despite these incidents, Mr. Yerima is currently a Senator in Nigeria’s Upper House.

It is little wonder that ordinary Nigerians are exasperated with the corruption and lack of accountability that defines their political system.


Political Factors and Figures

In February 2015, President Jonathan, a southern Christian, will probably be re-elected. Since the end of military rule in 1998, a pattern of alternation in presidential power between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south was established within the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The idea was that power would rotate every two terms. However, the northern President Yar’Adua died during his first term and Jonathan, his Vice-President, took over. Many northern Muslims saw Jonathan’s subsequent election in 2011 as an unacceptable break from the convention. Jonathan’s likely return to the presidential palace in 2015 would further exacerbate such feelings of injustice.

The north is characterised by the most extreme poverty, the rise of Boko Haram and a corrupt and heavy-handed military presence. The beleaguered residents demand a local president.

The polarising retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari is the most popular candidate across the twelve Sharia states in the north and amongst Muslims in the middle belt of the country. On Thursday, he secured his nomination as presidential candidate for the All Progressives Congress (APC), a coalition of the four largest opposition parties. Buhari was Head of State between 1984 and 1985 after a coup ended the previous period of civilian government. He has contested the last three presidential elections, coming second to Jonathan in 2011. Crucially, he is seen as being incorruptible. Indeed, during his 20 months in power around 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were imprisoned for being crooked.

However, his human rights record is not good and many saw his actions against “corruption” as little more than the forceful oppression of a dictator. Additionally, he reportedly made a series of inflammatory comments including: “God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the sharia in the country”, a suggestion that Boko Haram have been unfairly treated and a prophecy that if Jonathan is returned to power there will be, by the grace of God, a bloody revolution. Consequently, most Christians see him as a ‘power hungry Islamist’. As a result, he is fairly unelectable.


What might happen?

If the increasingly disliked Jonathan is, as expected, reinstated, Buhari would be the natural rallying point for disillusioned northerners fired up by the tense build-up to the election. It is impossible to make an accurate prediction about what might materialise, but rioting and extreme communal violence are likely. This would make it still easier for Boko Haram in the pursuit of their barbaric aims.

Neither a military coup nor a secession attempt by the northern states is impossible, although how they would manifest themselves in relation to the Boko Haram insurgency is guesswork. The history of Nigeria shows that anything can and does happen.

Ultimately, Nigeria is fed up with its corrupt politicians and the northern states want a northern President. Boko Haram is continuously gaining power and control, and the people have no faith in the Nigerian military. The Nigerian civil war, that ran for nearly three years between 1967 and 1970, left over one million people dead. It is clear that those who lived through it will not want to face an analogous situation. However, it is young men who are mainly responsible for the increasing violence and they do not have the memories of their parents to hold them back. Full-scale civil war is the worst-case scenario; a further increase in violence is a near certainty.


(The complexities of the situation in Nigeria are vast and it has not been possible to scratch the surface here. For a useful overview, I thoroughly recommend John Campbell’s situation report for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.)

Back to News

Help our local partners realise their vision of hope for their communities