from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Nigeria on the Brink

Recent Flare Up in Violence Across Northwestern Nigeria

Nigerian military personnel, pictured here on February 16, 2019, securing an area after a man was killed by suspected militants in Maiduguri, have been stretched thin, and are deployed in almost every Nigerian state.
Nigerian military personnel, pictured here on February 16, 2019, securing an area after a man was killed by suspected militants in Maiduguri, have been stretched thin, and are deployed in almost every Nigerian state. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

June 3, 2020

Nigerian military personnel, pictured here on February 16, 2019, securing an area after a man was killed by suspected militants in Maiduguri, have been stretched thin, and are deployed in almost every Nigerian state.
Nigerian military personnel, pictured here on February 16, 2019, securing an area after a man was killed by suspected militants in Maiduguri, have been stretched thin, and are deployed in almost every Nigerian state. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
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Some five hundred "bandits" attacked a village (or perhaps several villages) in Katsina State in northwest Nigeria over May 30 and 31. They made off with "thousands" of livestock, presumably cattle, and killed eighteen villagers and a local headman. The bandits (as the Nigerian police are calling them) were mounted on motorcycles and armed with "sophisticated" weapons, including assault rifles. 

This episode seems to be part of a slew of attacks across Nigeria’s northwest region, which is made up of Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara states. While levels of violence in Zamfara have long been high, it appears that violence is spreading throughout the region. Across the northwest, an employee of the well-regarded International Crisis Group estimated that about 550 people, comprising villagers, bandits, and police were killed in such violence in May. From 2011 to 2020, the Nigeria Security Tracker recorded 8,500 deaths related to political violence across those seven states. Crisis Group reports similar numbers. Thousands have fled their homes. 

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Refugees and Displaced Persons

Boko Haram

Sub-Saharan Africa

Questions abound about this and other attacks. How did bandits mount such a large operation? If they indeed numbered five hundred, their attacking force would be far larger than almost any mounted by Boko Haram to date. How did bandits procure so many motorcycles? Where did the "sophisticated" weapons come from? If this was only a cattle-rustling operation (now common in the northwest and the middle belt), it appears to have been exceptionally well-resourced and organized.

Finally, who exactly is responsible for the many recent attacks? Possibilities include criminal syndicates, jihadi militants, aggrieved farmers or herders, or perhaps some combination. Conflict between farmers and herders over water and land has been intensifying in Katsina and the northwest during Nigeria's coronavirus lockdown. Perhaps this particular episode was a farmer revenge attack on herdsmen, or vice versa? In Katsina, conflicts over water and land do not usually have a religious dimension; the populations is mostly Muslim, except for the minority that live in the Sabon Gari, or "strangers quarters," neighborhoods and towns. Hence there is less media attention than in the middle belt, where conflict often has an ethnic or religious dimension and grabs the attention of the mostly southern and mostly Christian media. Whatever the answers to these questions, the northwest seems to have become almost as insecure as the northeast, where Boko Haram has been active for a decade.

More on:

Nigeria

Rule of Law

Refugees and Displaced Persons

Boko Haram

Sub-Saharan Africa

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