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Nigeria: Sectarian violence and the threat of civil war

13 Jan 2012 | 11:32

A sustained campaign of violence attributed to, and claimed by, Islamist sect Boko Haram in which many Christians have been killed, has triggered retaliatory attacks against Muslims in the south, and given rise to fears of civil war in Nigeria.  

The terrorist threat has this week been combined with civil unrest over the abolition of fuel subsidies, leading to violent street protests in some areas, and escalating insecurity.


1. Boko Haram attacks
Attacks are focused mainly in the North-East, where the Igbo minority ethnic group are mostly Christian. The group frequently fire on open-air bars, and an attack on a hotel in Gombe in late December left 15 people wounded.  Recent attacks, however, have targeted worshippers inside or leaving church. Multiple bombings on Christmas Day, of which the most severe targeted a Catholic church in Abuja, killed at least 49 people.

This was followed by “a three-day ultimatum to the southerners living in the northern part of Nigeria to move away." The Boko Haram spokesman also called on Muslims “to come back to the north because we have evidence that they would be attacked.” However, there are signs that this has also been interpreted as a threat of violence against those who choose to remain in the South.

Since the ultimatum expired, at least 37 people have been killed by gunmen at churches in Adamawa, Gombe, Borno and Yola states.

Northerners flee Anambra over fear of reprisal
Vanguard 06/01/2012

Nigeria: Boko Haram Issues 3-Day Ultimatum to Southerners
The Moment 02/01/2012

Christians flee attacks in northeast Nigeria
Reuters 07/01/2012

Blasts rock Nigeria’s north as Islamist ‘ultimatum’ expires.
Agence France-Presse


2. Reprisals by Christians
Reports of retaliation against Muslims are increasing. On Tuesday in Benin City, EDO State, a group broke away from a fuel subsidies protest to set alight part of a mosque.  They subsequently targeted Hausa neighbourhoods. Five people were killed, but Nigerian police claimed not to have received a report on the attack. An Arabic school in Sapele, Delta State, has also been bombed, wounding 6 children and one adult.


3. The risk of civil war
Describing the current situation as “a certain dismal watershed in the life of [the] nation,” Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka has expressed concern that the exchange of violence could develop into full sectarian conflict or civil war.

These fears have been echoed by political, religious and community leaders. Both former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Christian Association of Nigeria have appealed for calm, and urged people to refrain from retaliation.

In contrast, the former leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force has rejected the possibility of negotiation, stating that only respect for the President has prevented the people of the Niger Delta from taking up arms.

A former State Governor also called on both Boko Haram and Christians to end the violence. However, he went on to say that if Christians continue to be targeted, “we shall no longer turn the other cheek, but shall demand an eye for an eye”.

Meanwhile, the militant group Movement for the Liberation of the People of the Niger Delta (MLPND), in a statement critical of the measures taken by the national government to defend Christians in the south, has threatened to take “drastic” unilateral action, with attacks to begin by the end of January. Targets identified included oil installations and military bases.

Thus there seems to be a credible risk that if state authorities are not able to bring a quick resolution to the current violence, militia groups will take action themselves.  

Interview: Ex-warlord warns of S.Nigeria backlash at Boko Haram
Reuters, 02/01/2012


4. Authorities’ Response
The state authorities have been criticised for failing to bring an end to the Boko Haram attacks. A state of emergency was declared on 31st December in Borno, Niger, Yobe and Plateau states. In addition, the borders with Cameroon have been closed. Nevertheless, attacks continue.

One of the major challenges for the security services is the group’s splintered structure and diverse objectives – the group has “varying factions with differing aims” making the threat itself unpredictable.

Support for the extremists is thought to pervasive, though discreet. President Goodluck Jonathon told press that the current threat is worse than the civil war, because sympathizers could be found in government, the judiciary and in security services. Soyinka also cited youth indoctrination as a contributing factor for recruitment to the group, as well as religious intolerance.

At the same time, the group’s capabilities and tactics have become more sophisticated, and there are thought to be links to Al Qaeda’s North African branch.

EISFAlert: Nigeria: A new extremist threat on the rise?

Terrorism in Nigeria: A dangerous new level
The Economist 03/09/2011

Nigerian leader meets security chiefs on spiralling violence
Agence France-Presse  30/12/2011


5. Broader security concerns
The attacks are part of broader context of civil unrest over the government’s January 1st abolition of the fuel subsidy, which caused the price of fuel to more than double. A nationwide strike called by the Nigeria Labour Congress has been implemented to varying degrees across the country for the past four days, leading to widespread disruption.

Despite a government order on Tuesday 10th which declared the strikes illegal, protests have continued, and oil unions have threatened to halt production on Sunday if the subsidies are not re-instated.

In some areas protests have been peaceful, in others reports of unrest range from harassment to shooting.  Government offices were torched in Minna, and police stations were attacked by groups of up to 100 youths. Strikes have also affected international flights, as unions blocked access to airport terminals.

The police response has also been violent, firing tear gas and beating protesters in Kano, and killing two protesters in Ogun State in the South-West.

Nigeria’s Double trouble: nationwide fuel strike and ‘ban’ on Christians
Christian Science Monitor 09/01/2012


6. Humanitarian implications
On Tuesday 10th, the Secretary General of the Nigerian Red Cross placed the number of IDPs at over 10,000.

The same day, an anonymous aid worker quoted by Reuters estimated that around 3,000 Northerners resident in Edo state have fled. According to a Hausa community leader in Benin City, 7,000 more people are also seeking protection at army barracks and police stations.

In Damaturu, the figures are higher. Authorities identified a major challenge in the provision of water, sanitation and medical supplies, particularly for children.



7. Beyond Nigeria
In a development in Cameroon, authorities reported this week the arrest and detention of 10 men, thought to be Boko Haram militants. If the arrests are shown to have been well-founded, this would be a significant advance in regional cooperation to act against the group. However, little is known about the circumstances or grounds of the arrests, with the men being held incommunicado, and their whereabouts unknown.

There are further indications that Boko Haram are active outside Nigeria, and bringing supplies across the border. Greater Accra Police this week arrested two men and impounded a truck headed for Nigeria, filled with ammunition and guns. 

10 Suspected Boko Haram Militants Arrested in Maroua
Cameroon POSTline, 10/01/2012


8. Political Insecurity
The leader of the Ijaw Youth Council in the Niger Delta, claimed at the weekend to have information of a plot to assassinate the President and senior security staff. The alleged conspirators were said to include retired and serving military officers, businessmen and “corrupt and disgruntled politicians”. The vaguely-worded statement can be found here.

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