Escalating Violence Is Putting Nigeria’s Future on the Line

In Brief

Escalating Violence Is Putting Nigeria’s Future on the Line

Nigeria is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in everyday violence, including abductions, religiously motivated attacks, assaults by armed gangs, and police brutality. Authorities are failing to contain the chaos, risking the future of Africa’s powerhouse.

What’s behind this uptick in violence?

It’s driven by several factors. First is the intensification of political competition ahead of next year’s nationwide election. Because the political stakes are high and confidence in the legal system is low, political actors tend to seek resolution outside official channels, leading to a marked increase in violence. In a 2020 poll, two-thirds of Nigerians surveyed said that they lack confidence in the judicial system, while 88 percent believe it is corrupt. Across Nigerian society, the same distrust of the law largely explains the recourse to mob action to settle disputes. Nearly four hundred people are estimated to have been killed in close to three hundred cases of mob justice since 2019.

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The heightened activity of gunmen and armed nonstate groups owes itself to degraded state capacity and weakened law enforcement. The country’s kidnap-for-ransom industry has surged: between January and March this year alone, 1,484 people were abducted. In some cases, security agencies have been accused of complicity with criminal groups.

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In addition to ethnoreligious tensions, attacks by herdsmen on farming settlements seem driven by desertification, compounded by intensified drought due to climate change. Between 2017 and 2020, herdsmen reportedly killed 2,539 people in as many as 654 attacks. As much as 60 percent of land in Nigeria is under pressure of desertification.

How is it different from previous patterns of violence in Nigeria?

The country has been grappling with high levels of violence over the past decade, but current patterns seem different in at least three ways. One is the increase in random violence. This looks to be the case in the country’s southeast, where what started as a legitimate agitation for self-determination by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) seems to have unraveled into free-for-all violence. The Nigerian government designated IPOB a terrorist organization in 2017, and its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, is currently in detention as he undergoes trial for terrorism and criminal conspiracy.

The rise of such baseless violence is perhaps connected to the changing fortunes of self-determination groups and social movements, many of which have succumbed to internal wrangling and external pressure from the state. In the aftermath of their fragmentation, members of such groups disperse across different communities, often taking with them their arms. Nigeria currently accounts for 60 percent of all small arms across the West African subregion.

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A corollary is the state’s increased reliance on outside groups, which could be called nonstate entrepreneurs of violence, to enforce its agenda. For instance, officials in the southwestern states of Lagos and Ondo have been accused of interfering in the affairs of the national transport workers’ union and directing resources toward their preferred factions. Suspected diversion of resources toward nonstate groups deepens division and fans the flames of violence.

Residents carry their belongings as they leave Kukawa, in northern Nigeria, after their houses were burnt down in an attack by bandits.
Residents with their belongings leave Kukawa, in Nigeria’s Plateau State, after their houses were burnt down in an attack by bandits in April 2022. AFP/Getty Images

What role does religion play?

Religion plays a complicated role in the spread and intensification of violence in Nigeria. For instance, the Boko Haram insurgency—which has killed an estimated thirty-five thousand people across northern Nigeria since its start in the 2000s—has an undeniable religious motif; but it is not only about religion, since targets have included churches, mosques, schools, and police stations. In Nigeria, religion intersects and dynamically interacts with ethnic identity, region, class, and profession. Farmer-herder conflicts across the country’s northern and Middle Belt states also epitomize this complexity.

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Muhammadu Buhari

Defense and Security

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

There is violence with exclusively religious motivation, such as the recent spate of so-called blasphemy killings. Last month, twenty-two-year-old Deborah Yakubu was beaten to death and burned by a mob of her fellow students at a college in Sokoto. On June 4, thirty-year-old Ahmad Usman was stoned to death and incinerated in Abuja for allegedly blaspheming Prophet Mohammed and Allah. (The perception that authorities lack the appetite to prosecute those involved in such killings could be a factor in their increased frequency.) The next day, dozens of Catholic worshippers were killed at a church in the southwestern city of Owo, an attack Nigerian officials believe was masterminded by the Islamic State’s West Africa Province.

What can the government do?

Authorities at various levels have been scrambling to stem the tide of violence, but their efforts have yielded minimal results. The federal government’s recent purchase of a dozen A-29 Super Tucano aircraft from the United States to combat insurgents and armed bandits is perhaps the most prominent example.

In the past, the stick has often been combined with the carrot. Under President Goodluck Jonathan (2010–15), for example, an amnesty program allowed for militants in the Niger Delta to trade their arms for cash awards, education, and vocational training. The Muhammadu Buhari administration could consider a similar approach to pacify aggrieved groups, especially in the country’s southeast.

The rise in violence is ultimately a function of degraded state capacity, mistrust of law enforcement, and erosion of the rule of law. The immediate restoration of law and order is urgently needed as next year’s general election approaches, and the African Union and partners such as the United States and the European Union should combine efforts to help Nigeria overcome what increasingly looks like a challenge to its very existence as a nation. The Nigerian government could begin to build trust by showing a willingness to open the state to reform, though the likelihood of this happening is low. Any such actions should be followed by long-term interventions led by local civil society organizations to rebuild these institutions.

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