When people think of religious conflict in Nigeria, they often think of Boko Haram as an Islamist movement in the style of al-Qaeda, conducting a reign of terror across the north of the country. Or they think of the riots that swept the Middle Belt during the Miss World contest in 2002. They may even think of the militancy that is disrupting the flow of oil in the Niger Delta. What is often lacking is an understanding of the context of all of these phenomena: a culture saturated with religiosity, a deeply divided and conflicted national identity, and huge grievances over the inequitable distribution of the country's natural wealth. Such a context creates conditions ripe for revivalists, some of whom wish to reform the state by violent means.
Nigeria’s population is roughly evenly divided between Islam in the north, and Christianity in the south. Political power has previously been divided between these halves, but this system is breaking down.
Much unrest is centred on an equitable division of wealth, with dissatisfaction over the corruption of the elites. Many Islamic revivalist movements in the north are focused on justice for the poor.
Though such militant groups as Boko Haram or Ansaru would identify themselves as Sunni, if pushed to adopt an internationally recognised label, they are largely divided from one another on tribal lines.
Nigeria is divided, and religion is one aspect of that, but in a culture saturated by religiosity grievances are often understood through a religious and moral lens, writes John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Religious conflict in Nigeria is only one element in a polity divided by ethnicity, characterised by weak government with little regard for the rule of law, and a culture saturated with religiosity. Religious conflict is both a symptom and a driver of the current Nigerian national crisis.
Despite the relatively successful 2015 elections, national identity is underdeveloped and probably declining. Nigeria was cobbled together into a single political unit by the British only in 1914 and for matters of administrative convenience. That decision united people and territories with little in common. There was no uniform colonial administration across all territories and ethnic groups, no unifying struggle for independence, and there are no national heroes. Since independence in 1960, political life has been based on geographic regions and ethnic loyalties rather than on the nation as a whole. Family, ethnicity, religious, and regional identities supersede loyalty to the nation.
Whether under military or civilian government, competing and cooperating elites have run the country for their own benefit, with little reference to the Nigerian people. For most of the country's post-independence history, Nigeria has been ruled by the military; ostensibly civilian government was restored in 1999. In style, content, and in the isolation of government from its people, there has been remarkable continuity between military and civilian governance.
Nigeria's religious landscape changed dramatically in the twentieth century. In 1900, it is estimated that the territory that makes up Nigeria was 27 per cent Muslim and 2 per cent Christian. The rest of the population adhered to traditional religions. Islam has been practiced in what is now Nigeria for a millennium, and Muslims regard the Sahel, of which Northern Nigeria is a part, as a core component of the Islamic world. During the twentieth century, and especially after independence, Christianity grew explosively in the South and the Middle Belt, and there are Christian minorities now in the predominantly Muslim North, mostly the consequence of internal migration.
Nigerians often say they live in the "world's most religious country."
Nigerian Christians commonly believe they are now the majority religion, and many Muslims fear that they are right. Some Christian leaders resort to triumphalist rhetoric that unsettles Muslims, who by almost all social and economic indices are much poorer and less developed than their Christian compatriots. The country is probably currently evenly divided between the two world religions. The geographic fault line between the two world religions is similar to that in Ghana and Côte D'Ivoire, running from east to west across the middle of the country—the Middle Belt. Meanwhile, indigenous African religions have to some extent faded from view. Many Muslims and Christians continue such traditional practices as the use of spells and charms, or belief in witchcraft and curses.
Faith in Nigeria matters, profoundly. Nigerians like to say that they live in the "world's most religious country." Yet religious institutions are often as corrupt as any other, and some religious leaders are spectacularly rich. Both religions are in the midst of revival. Among Christians, revival often takes 'Pentecostal' forms, while among Muslims it is often 'Salafi.' (Technical religious terms – such as 'Salafi,' 'Sunni,' 'Sufi' or 'Pentecostal' – usually have specific meanings in the Nigerian context that are related to, but differ in nuance, from standard use elsewhere.) Both religious approaches are literalist with respect to sacred texts; both tend to set fixed boundaries between 'believers' and 'non-believers.' And their respective clergy are often authoritarian and judgmental.
Religion and Government
During the long periods of military government in post-independence Nigeria, religious conflict was noticeably less intense than it has become under civilian administrations. The military eschewed religious and ethnic identities, while civilian politics often involve appeals to ethnic and religious identities to build political coalitions and electoral support.
To serve as a brake on ethnic, regional and religious divisions, at the end of military rule in 1998, the competing and cooperating elites working within the ruling People's Democratic Party, established a pattern of presidential power alternation between the predominantly Muslim North and the mostly Christian South. That system was dismantled in 2011. Southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan successfully won the presidential campaign for re-election when many considered it to be a Northern Muslim's turn in the Presidential Villa. Jonathan's failure to replace the alternation system with a new balancing structure during a period of accelerating political appeals to ethnic and religious identities has been an important catalyst for the current wave of ostensibly 'religious' conflicts in the northern half of the country.
Islamist revolt in the north a direct threat to Muslim establishment
Though usually in the background, 'traditionalist' religions may sometimes violently assert themselves. In parts of the South, their adherents are occasionally credibly accused of human sacrifice.1 In the Middle Belt, a group called 'Ombatse'—the word means 'our time has come' in the Eggon language—seeks to expel both Islam and Christianity and win political power for the Eggon ethnic group. In a 2013 incident, they killed over one hundred police,2 and in another they displaced some 50,000 people by burning down their villages.3 In some periods, victims of 'Ombatse's' violence outnumbered those of radical Islamist jihadis.
Conflict in Nigeria's oil patch, the Niger Delta, is ongoing. That is a conflict over the allocation of resources and lacks a significant religious dimension, though certain warlords began to use anti-Muslim rhetoric in their threats, particularly in the lead-up to the 2015 presidential election. The population in the Delta is almost entirely, at least nominally, Christian.
Ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle Belt and 'traditionalist' violence does not pose a threat to the Nigerian state. By contrast, the radical Islamist revolt in the North, commonlycalled Boko Haram, is a direct threat to the traditional Islamic establishment led by the Sultan of Sokoto and the Shehu of Borno, and to the credibility of the Jonathan government. Boko Haram has tried to murder the Sultan and the Shehu; it also claimed responsibility for killing the Shehu's brother and bodyguards of the Sultan. The inability of President Jonathan's administration to control intercommunal and religious violence is often cited as a factor undermining government credibility, which contributed toward the ruling People's Democratic Party loss at the polls in the March and April 2015 elections.
Religion and Identity
Religious conflict is most complex in the Middle Belt, where the religious and ethnic boundaries coincide with disputes over land and water use. Is a victim murdered because he is Hausa, Muslim or a cattle herder? Or because he is all three? A result has been 'ethnic cleansing' reminiscent of the Balkans in the area around the Plateau state capital of Jos in which the Christian and Muslim populations are now segregated. The government in Abuja, the media and outside observers often label the region's conflicts as 'religious,' when in fact it is rooted in rivalries over land and water use. Unscrupulous local political figures also sometimes stir-up religious issues to advance a particular agenda. The national and state governments are too weak to suppress the conflicts or to address their underlying causes.
Within Nigeria's federal system, not all Nigerians are equal. Nigerian law differentiates between 'indigenes' and 'settlers.' The former, ostensibly 'indigenous' to a particular area, enjoy a variety of privileges. 'Settlers' come from somewhere else, even if generations ago, as is often the case. They may face social and economic restrictions. It is difficult to overcome 'settler' status. In the Middle Belt, 'indigenes' tend to be Christian, Barome farmers, while 'settlers' are often Muslim, Hausa cattle herders. The 'settler' population is perceived to be the more dynamic. It resents its 'settler' status, while 'indigenes' often feel threatened by 'settler' dynamism. The state government is dominated by 'indigenes.'
Religious and ethnic conflict in the Middle Belt is relatively diffuse and disorganised, though the numbers killed can be very high. The government has arrested, prosecuted, tried, convicted and punished only an insignificant number of perpetrators. In the Middle Belt and elsewhere, ethnic and religious violence in effect has no government-imposed penalty. But, none of these parties seek the destruction of the Nigerian state.
Religious conflict in the North differs in that it is associated with a particular radical Islamic movement called Boko Haram. In the North, Boko Haram (and other, similar organisations) is attempting to overthrow the Nigerian state and establish a pure Islamic state organized according to Islamic religious law, called sharia. Between August 2014 and January 2015, Boko Haram had some success at seizing and holding territory in parts of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states, even going so far as to declare a caliphate in those areas. This is reminiscent of the caliphate declared by Islamic State Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in July 2014, and with which Boko Haram formed an alliance in March 2015, the details and significance of which are obscure.
In the North, there is a multifaceted Islamic revival underway, incorporating elements from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Pakistan, as well as Iran. The context is increasing poverty, especially in relation to the growing prosperity of other regions in Nigeria, and a general perception of the political marginalisation of the North within the Nigerian federation. The twelve northern states have extended sharia to the criminal domain, but there is widespread dissatisfaction that its harsh penalties apply to the poor man stealing food while the rich man who steals millions through manipulation of government contracts gets off free. A theme of the reformers (non-violent as well as violent) is justice for the poor.
General trepidation over encroaching Christianity is widespread in the North. Radical Islamists look to expel the Christian population that is often from other parts of Nigeria. In general, traditional society, not just radical jihadis, discriminates against Christians, and the few Fulani converts to Christianity may be murdered, often by members of their own families.
Religious conflict frequently takes the form of a civil war within Islam. Radical reformers in what is now Nigeria have long taken a takfiri approach to Muslim leaders they deem un-just, declaring them 'non-Muslim' even when the individual rulers themselves claim to be Muslims. Hence, 'Salafi' reformers pit themselves against 'Sufis' who dominate the traditional Nigerian Muslim elites. Some 'Salafi' reformers wish to establish a pure Islamic state characterised by the strict application of sharia. This has potent appeal in a period of increasing personal and communal poverty at the grassroots while the traditional elites prosper from connections with the federal government and its oil revenue.
In the North, there is also an important ethnic dimension. The Fulani ethnic group (in the west) and Kanuri (in the east) both identify themselves as 'Sunni' if pushed to apply an internationally understood label. But, Boko Haram is associated more closely with the Kanuri in the northeast. The government and the media usually labels radical jihadis in Fulani areas as Boko Haram, even if they have few direct links with its leader, Abubakar Shekau. As a practical matter, the distinction between 'Sunni' and 'Shia,' so important in other parts of the Muslim world, in Nigeria is largely that the former receive assistance from Saudi Arabia while the latter from Iran. There is, indeed, a small Shia community in the proper sense of the word in Nigeria; the traditional Islamic establishment is hostile to it.
An aspect of the Islamist revival has been a rejection of working within the established structures of the secular state. Often charismatic imams (Muslim scholars) or malams (Muslim teachers) organise communities that withdraw as much as possible from secular life. Usually, such groups are quietist, even pacifists. However, at times they can turn violent, usually in response to the secular state's heavy handedness. The emergence of Boko Haram follows this pattern.
Key Players and Groups: Boko Haram
Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic malam, organised his followers into an isolationist community at the railroad mosque in Maiduguri around 2003. Yusuf's teachings were centred on a rejection of the secular state and the rigid application of sharia toward the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. From its inception, the group was hostile to and rejected Western education as un-Islamic. The name members apply to the group in English means, 'People of the Ways of the prophet for Proselytisation and Jihad.' The more widely known name 'Boko Haram' is a label first used by the government and media and comes from its rejection of western education. The group was generally non-violent, though not pacifist, until 2009.
That year, there was a series of altercations over local issues, likely manipulated by politicians, which resulted in Yusuf launching an insurrection against the state. During its suppression, the police murdered Yusuf.4 The crime was captured on film and went viral on social media. Several hundred of his followers were also extra-judicially killed, and the movement went underground, only to re-emerge in 2010 under a new leader, Yusuf's more brutish deputy, Abubakar Shekau. However, the leadership of Yusuf's followers remained fluid. Shekau has not been seen in public since 2009, and the security forces have claimed several times that they killed him.' Abubakar Shekau' may refer to a collective leadership that includes the 'real' Abubakar Shekau.
Most of Boko Haram's several thousand victims have been Muslims
No longer peaceful after Yusuf's death, Boko Haram added to its ideology elements of jihadism, whereby it became acceptable, if not compulsory, to overthrow through violence the secular Nigerian state and its compromised Islamic establishment. Shekau has called for the replacement of the Sultan of Sokoto – the premier Islamic political and religious leader – by a council dominated by Boko Haram and situated not in Sokoto state but in Yobe state. Illustrating the interplay between religion and ethnicity, Sokoto is Hausa-Fulani in population, while Yobe is Kanuri and traditionally under the authority of the Shehu of Borno, whose authority Boko Haram also rejects. When Boko Haram began seizing territory in August, fighters captured Gwoza local government area, executed its emir, and designated the town as its capital.
Boko Haram also seeks the expulsion of Christians from the North and there have been documented instances of forced conversions. However, while it has killed Christians, most of its several thousand victims have been Muslims. The government's response to Boko Haram has been to see it as a terrorist movement without popular roots and allied with international jihadi networks, and has reacted with severe repression. The government's seemingly indiscriminate killing of Boko Haram members and many others simply in the wrong place at the wrong time appears to be a driver of popular support or acquiescence for Boko Haram.5 During some periods of particularly brutal security force repression, the security forces may be responsible for as many Nigerian deaths as Boko Haram.6 Boko Haram has also increased its numbers through forced recruitment and conversions to Islam.
The government and the media misleadingly attach the label 'Boko Haram' to almost any Islamist episodes of violence in the North – whether or not it was carried out under orders from Shekau. 'Boko Haram' is a highly diffuse and decentralised grassroots revolt against the Nigerian political economy. Shekau's Boko Haram makes up only a part.
The size of Shekau's Boko Haram is unclear. In January 2015, Amnesty International estimated that Boko Haram has at least 15,000 fighters.7 The group has mounted operations reportedly involving over one thousand operatives, implying several thousand members and affiliates. It is also likely that some attacks attributed to Boko Haram, especially those not directly claimed by Shekau, are carried out by semi-autonomous of independent cells, or even unrelated criminal actors. In addition, much larger numbers appear to acquiesce to what Boko Haram is doing, even if they do not support its violent methods.
Other recruits are former prisoners, converted to radical Islam in prison and released through Boko Haram jailbreaks. Others still are members of families already in Boko Haram. Very high levels of youth unemployment – estimated at more than 50 per cent – also provide a ready pool of recruits. And some operatives have been criminals hired by Boko Haram to participate in specific operations. In 2014, there was an upsurge in Boko Haram kidnapping of both adolescent women and men, and there are reports that from mid-2014, Boko Haram increasingly struggled to gain willing recruits and resorted to forced recruitment of men and women.
Jihadi violence in Northern Nigeria is overwhelmingly local in its causes and its focus. It is driven by bad governance, failure to promote economic development and the often-brutal behaviour of the Nigerian security services, especially the military. Nevertheless, the rise of international jihadi organisations and franchises, especially al-Qaeda and ISIS has led to networking between different groups that varies greatly in substance and strength from simply sharing a common ideology to linking two organisations together. Throughout most of its history, Boko Haram has acted independently of any connections to international jihadi networks, concentrating on local grievances and aspirations. In March 2015 however, Shekau released a video forming an alliance with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in turn acknowledged and accepted the alliance, renaming the group 'Islamic State's West African Province.' Despite this, there is no credible evidence that the alliance has yet been a substantive benefit to either group.
Key Players and Groups: Ansaru
Ansaru is a smaller radical group with a base in Kano and Kaduna, rather than in Borno or Yobe. Its full name in English means 'Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa.' Its spokesmen claim the group split from Boko Haram because of the latter's frequent killing of Muslims. However, it has been silent for many months, leading to speculation that it has rejoined Boko Haram. In the wake of recent offences against the latter however, Ansaru may reform in the space left by Boko Haram retrenchment.
Ansaru's ideology is more closely aligned with al-Qaeda's focus on non-Muslims and the 'far enemy.' Its attacks differ from Boko Haram in that it avoids Muslim casualties and actively attacks Christian churches. It appears to try to provoke a Christian backlash against Muslim minorities in the South, presumably to promote the break-up of the Nigerian state. Thus far, that effort has been unsuccessful.
Ansaru introduced into Northern Nigeria tactics more commonly associated with the Sahel, especially kidnapping for ransom and, possibly, the use of suicide bombers, which were previously unknown in West Africa and anathema to traditional and Muslim beliefs.
Boko Haram and Ansaru glorify violence. In one of his videos Shekau says, "I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill".8 Both are bitterly opposed to democracy. Shekau has said, "I swear by Allah that there will be no democracy in Nigeria. We are going to rise against it and we shall soon defeat it. The concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people cannot continue to exist. It shall soon, very soon, be replaced by government of Allah, by Allah, for Allah."9 President Jonathan has claimed it also destroy symbols of state authority, such as the national flag.10
Elsewhere in the North are other groups about which outsiders – including the Nigerian government – appear to know little. Their grievances and the focus of their violence are usually local, though they will use the Islamist rhetoric associated with Shekau. Presumably, many have a criminal or a political dimension – or both – as opposed to purely religious motivation.
Wider Aspects of the Conflict
Funding for Boko Haram and other radical groups comes from bank robberies, kidnap ransoms, theft of weapons from government armouries, and, especially in the case of criminal groups, from smuggling, including narcotics. Remittances from overseas appear to play no role. None of the groups has moved to set up a credible alternative state structure, nor do they levy taxes on the local people. Even in areas under its control in the second half of 2014, Boko Haram appeared to have instituted only very limited governance. This was mostly in the form of harsh punishments for perceived sharia infractions. The group did not move to establish an alternative government.
It should be noted that terrorism in northern Nigeria is cheap. Explosives – and knowledge about them – are widespread, not least because of an indigenous mining industry. In an October 2014 attack on a cement plant in Gombe state for example, survivors testified that Boko Haram was after dynamite and also demanded to know where any foreign employees were; they had already fled the area. Automobiles, used for suicide attacks and car bombs, are usually stolen. The large number of weapons in radical hands that come from government armouries implies that radical Islamic groups have infiltrated the military and other institutions of government. Senior military officials and even President Jonathan have affirmed this.
Religion in Local Contexts
Especially in the North, religious language is commonly used to express grievances that do not necessarily have a religious foundation, but are nonetheless understood through a religious and moral lens. Hence the use of religious vocabulary is an important dimension of conflict that may have a variety of roots. Professor Andrew Kakabase at the UK's Cranford School of Management observes, "In Nigeria, the Christian-Muslim thing is the tip of the iceberg. What's underneath the water is a much more complex sociopolitical situation, which cannot be explained just in terms of the religious divide. You have a recipe ripe for conflict, and it just so happens to be Christian-Muslim."
Grievances are commonly seen through a religious and moral lens
Throughout Nigeria – not just in the Middle Belt and the North – there is widespread popular anger against those who benefit from the current oil-based political economy.11 The people are poor – and getting poorer. Yet the country has high rates of economic growth, making the rich richer. The spiritual saturates all aspects of public and private life. Material protests are framed in a spiritual and moral rhetoric, and religious tenets are the foundation for the ideal society.
Moreover, the cooperating and competing elites, who have run Nigeria since independence, usurp these deeply embedded religious sentiments for their own purposes. There was a concerted effort by rights groups to limit the use of religious mobilisation and rhetoric during the 2015 election campaigns, but there were still numerous instances of politicians and their supporters resorting to divisive religious language. Individuals and groups protesting against the elites equally draw on religious language and sentiments to frame their rejections of the status quo, and to promote their own vision of Nigeria's future.
Hence, in a highly significant way, religion shapes the way Nigerians define the good life – and protest a system that by and large denies it to them. It also provides justification for the use of violence – often murderous – against adversaries who are also defined in religious terms. Hence, Muslims and Christians will kill each other, and Muslims will kill other Muslims, and radical Muslims will murder representatives of the secular government in Abuja—all in the name of establishing God's kingdom on earth and justice for the poor.
Northern Nigeria's borders are highly porous and essentially artificial – they were determined by the British and French governments without reference to the local people. Hence people of the same ethnicity and sometimes even the same community live on opposite sides of national borders. Islamic movements tend to start in the east, especially Khartoum, and sweep west to Senegal, with borders being fundamentally disregarded. In this environment, not only is the nation state weak, it is remarkably irrelevant to most people.
While the majority of grievances and conflicts remain locally focused, this context has facilitated the encroachment of Boko Haram and other extremist groups into neighbouring countries. There is anecdotal evidence that some members of Boko Haram and Ansaru were present in Mali after Sahelian jihadi groups occupied much of the north of that country in 2013. Equally, Boko Haram has found safe haven from Nigerian security services across the borders into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, and escalated its attacks in those countries in 2014 until economic and security threats necessitated a more regional response to the threat. Following the sacking of the regional military headquarters in Baga on the Nigerian shores of Lake Chad in January 2015, and the murder of possibly thousands in the neighbouring fishing town, as well as several high casualty attacks in the border regions of Cameroon; Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin began operations into Nigeria to assist the national military in re-taking the areas Boko Haram had captured in 2014. This re-energised campaign succeeded between January and March 2015 in evicting Boko Haram from most towns, but the destruction of the group itself remains elusive.
The American and British governments designated Boko Haram and Ansaru as terrorist organisations in 2013. The US Treasury placed a reward for information on the location of Shekau and a few other radical leaders. The Jonathan administration sought to involve Washington, London, and Paris in its anti-terrorist campaign against Boko Haram. Boko Haram, in turn escalated its hostile rhetoric toward the West, especially the United States and France in the aftermath of the latter's intervention in Mali.
Following the March 2015 elections, president-elect Muhammadu Buhari indicated his willingness to re-engage with international training programmes with the United States and a number of his campaign pledges centred on tackling Boko Haram militarily as well as addressing the underlying conditions and issues that incubate or encourage religious tensions and violence in the country.
This situation report was originally published on 10 February 2014 and updated on 5 May 2015.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.