John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Beyond Boko Haram: Nigeria’s History of Violence

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
May 6, 2013

People pray near the graves of victims of a suicide bomb attack during a memorial service at St. Theresa's Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital Abuja, December 23, 2012. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Tiffany Lynch, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission.

For almost two years, stories about violence in Nigeria have focused almost exclusively on Boko Haram’s attacks on churches and Christians; police stations and other government buildings; schools and politicians; and Muslim critics. Forgotten is Nigeria’s longer and more deadly history of religiously-related violence. Too much analysis of Boko Haram fails to take into account how Nigeria’s history of Muslim-Christian violence directly contributes to the Boko Haram phenomenon.

Since 1999, more than fourteen thousand Nigerians in the Middle Belt and north have been killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and thousands of churches, mosques, and other property destroyed in Muslim and Christian communal violence. However, lack of political will and jurisdictional disputes to prosecute perpetrators of the violence means that almost universally, those responsible for the violence remain free. In more than a decade, fewer than two hundred individuals have been prosecuted for their involvement in sectarian violence, despite available video and photographic evidence. Rather than prosecute, federal and state officials have repeatedly formed commissions of inquiry to review the causes of the violence and make recommendations to prevent further violence. But these recommendations are rarely implemented.

This failure to prosecute has created a climate of impunity with dangerous consequences. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I serve as senior policy analyst, has drawn attention to this in our recently released Annual Report on Nigeria. USCIRF found that a lack of consequences for violence gives a green light for future depredations. An incident sparking Muslim-Christian violence can trigger retaliatory ricochet riots in other areas.

Pour the gasoline of Boko Haram attacks onto this already burning fire and the consequences of religiously-related violence become even more dangerous. Boko Haram is using this culture of impunity as a recruitment tool—young Muslim men, angered by the government’s failure to address violence, respond to the call of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau to attack Christians in “retaliation.” They are joining Boko Haram to attack churches and individual Christians. In fact, many of Boko Haram’s most deadly and prominent church service attacks in 2012 occurred in cities with problematic Muslim-Christian relations and histories of sectarian violence: Bauchi, Jos, and Kaduna.

Policy recommendations to tackle Boko Haram have focused on addressing political and economic marginalization in the north and ending abuses by security forces. Yet, the U.S. and Nigerian governments should focus on ending impunity and addressing Nigeria’s problem of Muslim-Christian violence. Boko Haram is feeding off of and fueling Nigeria’s history of religious related violence, adding momentum to an already vicious cycle. The United States needs to press its ally to do more, so this cycle is interrupted and perpetrators are brought to justice.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Chike

    The main problem is Muslim/Christian violence, not Boko Haram. Long after Boko Haram is dealt with, Muslim/Christian violence might persist.

    This violence doesn’t fit neat categories like “Global War on Terror”, so it will attract very little Western interest.

    Statements like:

    “Boko Haram is using this culture of impunity as a recruitment tool—young Muslim men, angered by the government’s failure to address violence, respond to the call of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau to attack Christians in “retaliation.”

    Are extremely unhelpful, unbalanced and not even totally correct. Boko Haram main mission is to implement Islamic rule in Northern Nigeria and even if there was zero Muslim/Christian violence, they would have still attacked Christians.

    Secondly, it creates the impression that the only party with “genuine grievances” are Muslim. That is totally incorrect. The Christian community in Northern Nigeria has an even longer list of genuine grievances and they have been remarkably restrained in their response to Boko Haram.

    The US government cannot end the “culture of impunity” in Nigeria – that is a job for Nigerians and the Nigerian government. Understanding why ” a culture of impunity” exists in the first place is more important.

    Nigeria has long tolerated gross human rights abuses, this governing culture was carried over from the British colonists.

  • Posted by Mika'il Daya

    Quite a good piece but i will beg to disagree with the writers statement that; “they are joining Boko Haram in retaliation to attack churches and individual Christians”. In fact Muslims and security personnel’s are the most Hit. Notwithstanding i concur with the writers position on punishing perpetrators and implementing recommendations of committees of inquiries. No doubt we are in the worst of times but from the ashes of these Challenges, arise a Glorious and Peaceful Nigeria.

  • Posted by Chike

    I read the report. I think it is one of the better reports on religious violence in Nigeria because it touches on how Nigerians perceive these problems and what impact they are likely to have on politics and national cohesion.

    Many Western analysts see Northern Nigeria as existing in a vacuum, politically isolated from the rest of Nigeria. So they make recommendations that are unworkable in Nigeria’s context – sadly, this article falls into that category.

    I have heard recommendations for a “Ministry of Northern Affairs” from every one – from Ambassador Campbell to Ambassador Johnnie Carson to the serving US ambassador. What exactly does that mean?

    When Western commentators talk about “Northern Nigeria”, they seldom explain what that term means or whether it corresponds to a legally defined political entity. The same thing applies to the term “Middle Belt”.

    The only definition of “Northern Nigeria” that has any historical basis is the region extending from Oturkpo in Benue State to the border with Niger Republic. Creating a ministry to deal with that geographical area will be nonsensical (several states in that catchment area are closer culturally to the South East & South West than the Hausa/ Fulani/ Kanuri speaking areas).

    One also wonders why a “Ministry of Northern Affairs” is being suggested when a the “Niger Delta Ministry” (on which it would be modeled) is widely assumed to not have lived up to expectation?

    Another question that most Western analysts fail to address is this “where will the money come from”? Anyone who follows Nigerian politics will understand that this would be very difficult.

    Then there is the “poverty, alienation causes terrorism” thesis being advanced. The problem with this thesis is that it doesn’t explain why poor people respond differently to their poverty or produce concrete evidence that poverty is responsible for terrorism.

    There is always a laundry list of “what the Nigerian government should do”, but do we ever ask whether the Nigerian government has the capacity to do these things, why the capacity is lacking or why simply sending USAID to train selected government officials might not produce the desired results?

  • Posted by Johnson B.

    This is a fine analysis of conflicts within the country. Indeed, Nigeria’s history in nation-building revolves around these conflicts.
    However, I think that the categorization of the conflicts as ‘Muslim-Christian frictions’ affords a slightly narrow space for analysis of these ills. I think religious violence in the country is a part of bigger ethnic rivalries, reinforced by political elites who often fall back on their kinsmen for support or ‘defense’. One is likely to find that the lines of conflict are better revealed along ethnic lines than religion, which is only a subset of ethnic groups.
    Nonetheless, I believe that a look at the issues from a distinct religious respective is very important in the face of global terrorism fuelled by religious extremists, who revolt against wider cultural groups and states that do not align with their religious beliefs. Yet, if this strain of terrorism was removed, the ancient tensions of ethnic rivalry may remain- if they are not properly addressed and phased out alongside the religious tensions Lynch mentioned.

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