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How Civil Wars Start And Lessons For Today’s Nigeria

‘Civil wars ignite and escalate in ways that are predictable; they follow a script,’ writes author Barbara F. Walter. How close are developments in Nigeria to this time-tested script?

For decades, social scientists have researched factors which, combined, best predict that a country will experience civil war. Nigeria ticks a lot of the boxes.

Wars are often thought of as spontaneous. The result of a spark that could not have been foreseen. Not just any spark too; one that erupts in the right environment. But with her book, Barbara F. Walter shows us that, through an extensive study of past wars, we can tell when a country is drifting dangerously towards disaster and guide it back to safety.

‘How Civil Wars Start’ was released by the international relations professor last January. Though it is generally a warning about growing militancy, political instability, and domestic terrorism in the United States, its lessons can easily be applied to the experiences of people across the world.

Walter points out that modern civil wars often do not involve “a single, regimented, and hierarchical fighting force in official military uniform using conventional weapons” as Nigeria witnessed in the decade following independence, but rather feature armed militias “who take violence directly to the people” and who rely on guerrilla warfare and organised terror.

The book dedicates different chapters to explaining the various factors that exacerbate civil war. This article will be following the same order.

I: Not quite a democracy, not quite an autocracy

Walter shares an interesting observation in the first chapter, which is that the countries most likely to descend into civil wars are not those with the highest rates of poverty, income inequality, or even cultural and religious differences. They are not those that are devout democracies or even those committed to authoritarian rule, but rather those countries that float in between these two extremes. This is because of the instability, lawlessness, weak governance structures, and sense of uncertainty that characterise such regimes. 

The author points out one example: Iraq. A huge war did not break out during the 24 years that Saddam Hussein ruled with an iron fist, but after he was overthrown and the occupying U.S. forces tried to rapidly democratise the country. On the other end of the spectrum is Ukraine where there was a decline in democracy and the government became significantly autocratic with the administration and ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. 

In fact, the wave of civil wars flowing across the world seems to accompany the emergence of new democracies after the second world war. 

“In 1870, almost no countries were experiencing civil war, but by 1992, there were over fifty. It turns out that one of the best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy.”

B.F. Walter

Experts have come up with a name for countries in this grey area: anocracies.

There are various standardised measurements of anocracy and one of the most influential is the Polity Score produced by the Centre for Systemic Peace. Countries scored between +6 and +10 are considered full democracies, those scored between -6 and -10 are autocracies, while those scored between -5 and +5 are considered anocracies.

‘For a decaying democracy, the risk of civil war increases as it becomes less democratic,’ Walter tweeted on March 22, 2022. ‘As a democracy drops down the polity index scale—a result of fewer executive restraints, weaker rule of law, diminished rights—its risk for armed conflict steadily increases.’ Illustration credit: Twitter/@bfwalter

During the years of military rule, Nigeria’s polity score was -7 and then it rose by 15 points in 1992 when then military leader Ibrahim Babangida was preparing to conduct elections that would have allowed for a transition to civil rule. In 1996, following the infamous judicial execution of activist Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others by General Sani Abacha, the score dropped to -6 and only picked up again following the return to democratic rule in 1999. 

It hovered between 5 and 6 for the next nine years and then dropped in 2009 when the Boko Haram insurgency broke out in the Northeast, and returned to the middle ground between 2011 and 2017. The score rose two places in 2018, apparently situating the country outside the danger zone, and has been silent about the years that followed.

A lot has happened since then though suggesting that Nigeria’s score would have worsened if an updated ranking was released. This includes state-sanctioned extrajudicial killing during the End SARS demonstrations, the crackdown on religious freedom, an unprecedented seventh months-long Twitter ban, and several attempts to restrict digital freedoms. Again, between 2018 and 2022, Nigeria’s score on the global press freedom index reduced by over 25 per cent.

There are other datasets that measure a country’s system of governance too. So how does Nigeria fare with them? 

When it comes to internet freedom as well as access to political rights and civil liberties, Nigeria is ranked partly free by the research non-profit, Freedom House, alongside countries like the Philippines, Singapore, and Zambia.

V-Dem Institute’s latest Democracy Report similarly places Nigeria within the bottom 40 to 50 percentile, its score worsening compared to a decade earlier in 2011. The institute also noted that, in 2021, Nigeria became an electoral autocracy, joining the same league as the Central African Republic, Iraq, Russia, Serbia, and Uganda. In these places, “there are institutions emulating democracy but falling substantially below the threshold for democracy in terms of authenticity or quality.”

The security situation can easily get out of hand because of weak governance in such countries. The authorities become incapable of providing basic services like affordable food, healthcare, and insecurity. At the same time, they are unable to effectively crush uprisings. People become anxious about their future and survival. Public discontent grows and, eventually, armed violence.

II: Splinters and their sharp edges

Citing the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s as one example, Walter demonstrates how ethnic conflicts can set in and degenerate into violence big enough to engulf a country. Slobodan Milošević was able to stir nationalist emotions among the Serbs and, within a few years, a once-united country became notorious for conflicts that led to the death of an estimated 140,000 people. The term “ethnic cleansing” was, in fact, first popularised during these events to describe what befell the Bosniak and Croatian citizens. 

People who have lived together for decades if not centuries could gradually turn against each other, not because of class inequalities or ideological differences but due to ethnic and/or religious rivalries — which, studies show, have inspired more civil wars in recent history. Afghanistan. Ethiopia. Iraq. Lebanon. Myanmar. Rwanda. Sri Lanka. Sudan. Syria. Ukraine. Yemen. The pattern repeats itself.

In Nigeria, there are about 400 ethnic groups.

The problem is, however, not the sheer number of ethnic groups present within a country but how they organise politically as well as their relative levels of access to power. Walter calls this factionalism and summarises it with two questions: “Did political parties in a country break down along ethnic, religious, or racial lines, and did they try to exclude one another from power?” 

After anocracy, factionalism (unyielding, identity-based politics) is the best way to predict where war is likely to spring up. It gets worse when the people lose confidence in their leaders and feel uncertain about their future. So they become easily manipulated by ethnic entrepreneurs like Milošević who promise to protect their interests and traditions, especially from rival groups allegedly plotting against them. The fault lines become even more volatile when ethnic groups are roughly divided along religious, geographic, and economic lines as well.

To some extent, this rings true for Nigeria where different ethnic groups are generally identified with certain religions, especially the Hausa-Fulani in the North and the Igbo in the Southeast. Within specific states too, the followers of different religions often cluster together in different regions.

The political system is, however, possibly not as divided as it was, for example, in the First and Second Republics. And this is why party defections, or “cross-carpeting” as Nigerians call it, are extremely common. Generally, politicians do not feel tied to certain parties simply because of their ethnicity but join whichever platform offers them better chances of clinching or staying in power.

There are regulations that have helped to quieten regional political agitations too. 

Political parties are lawfully required to be open to every Nigerian who may want to join, must be headquartered in the federal capital, and must have members and offices in at least two-thirds of all the states. The party’s branding can also not be associated with an ethnic group, religion, or person. 

Currently, the two major political parties in the country are transethnic. Back in 2007, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had executive power in 31 states, having dominance across the country except in the Northeast where the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) had equal influence. Now the tide has turned in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which emerged in 2013 after a merger of three opposition parties. The APC controls 22 states and the PDP 13, especially in the South-south and Southwest.

III: When sons of the soil start losing grip

This part of the book helps us to understand why some ethnic groups are likelier than others to take up arms. There may be hundreds of different tribes in a country or tens of religions and only a few will ever breed ethnoreligious militias. Scholars find that the reason is often a fall from grace of sort.

When conflict broke out in the Mindanao region of the Philippines in the late 1960s, it was under a set of familiar circumstances: President Ferdinand Marcos had weakened the democratic institutions and ruled as a dictator, the country was deeply factionalised, and the Muslim-majority Moro people felt their influence slipping away as Christian Filipino settlers outnumbered them and gained more access to land resources and administrative power.

The same can be said about the Serbs of old Yugoslavia or the Sunnis of Iraq.

“The ethnic groups that start wars are those claiming that the country ‘is or ought to be theirs’,” notes Walter. “Human beings hate to lose… People may tolerate years of poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. They may accept shoddy schools, poor hospitals, and neglected infrastructure. But there is one thing they will not tolerate: losing status in a place they believe is theirs.”

There are several examples of this dynamic playing out in Nigeria as well.

Within just six days in the second week of Sept. 2001, over 1,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of others displaced in Jos, North-central Nigeria. The locals, comprising a Christian majority and Muslim minority, had coexisted so peacefully in the previous years that one resident had observed in shock: “If this can happen in Jos, nowhere is safe anymore.”

The conflict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “stemmed from a longstanding battle for control of political power and economic rivalry between different ethnic groups and between those labelled ‘indigenous’ or ‘non-indigenous’ inhabitants of the area.”

The last straw was the controversial appointment of a Hausa Muslim politician, Mukhtar Muhammad, as the poverty eradication coordinator in Jos North — signalling to the original inhabitants that they were fast losing control and influence.

The trend of indigenes treating settlers with suspicion is not new in Nigeria. In one interview granted by former Premier of the Northern region Ahmadu Bello in 1964, for instance, he emphasised that it was important to him for all important civil service positions to be held by Northerners. “If we can’t get a Northerner, then we take an expatriate like yourself on contract,” he told a British journalist. “If we can’t, then we can employ another Nigerian but on contract too.”

On a national scale, a cursory look at a list of Nigeria’s past heads of state shows that many ethnic groups have not been well represented. There is the added problem of people from minority tribes being perceived as representing the majority ethnic groups they share most semblance with.

So, it’s logical to assume that if voting patterns change in a way that favours underrepresented groups in the future, this could worsen tensions in the country.

While countries like Tanzania alternate their presidency and prime ministerial office between the Muslims and Christians, in Nigeria what we have are only unenforceable and sometimes disregarded party zoning policies. What the law provides for is the federal character principle which regulates appointive public offices.

Towards the end of the chapter, Walter states that there’s hardly any correlation between income inequalities per se and conflicts. But then it is still important to pay attention when a group of people complain of economic discrimination.

“Sons of the soil tend to be disproportionately affected by these tectonic shifts [of modernisation and globalisation]: They frequently live in rural areas, far from a country’s economic, cultural, and political centres. They also tend to be poorer and less educated, and so more vulnerable to competition … As the world moves on without them, they feel forgotten and ignored.”

B.F. Walter

We see a classic example of this in the raging herder-farmer crises as well as the rise of Fulani militias. As the country develops and industrialises, the nomadic herder does not have access to the same number of opportunities as the average Nigerian and this is one of the grievances fueling the conflict.

“The reason [I went into armed violence] is that we have been neglected,” one of the militia leaders told journalists last year. “This country is rich with natural resources, but we [the Fulani] have not been educated, we are not protected, we get killed, but we are always reported as the aggressors. We are never considered in anything … They stopped looking after the Fulani. Their forests and grazing areas were taken over.”

IV: Pushed to the wall

We travel back in time to 17th-century northern Ireland when British colonialists encouraged Scottish Protestants to settle in an area dominated by Irish Catholics. By the final decade of that century, the population tide had turned in favour of the new settlers. Soon, the Protestants were the prominent faces in government, schools, industries, the justice system, and so on. 

Eventually, with Ireland gaining independence outside of this region in 1922, the Irish Catholics of Northern Ireland became a minority group in their own land. They became systematically marginalised and were treated like second-class citizens. All the major conflict triggers were present: “partial democracy, competing identity-based factions, and a deeply rooted native population that was excluded from politics.”

But the war did not really break out until the Catholics saw that the British government was not particularly keen on improving their conditions and when it did intervene, it was with a show of force that further victimised them.

Walter points out that with the loss of hope in the political system comes the rise of extremists who offer alternatives, and such hopelessness often comes after failed peaceful protests or when a downgraded ethnic group loses an election. Similar public disillusionments had preceded the outbreak of wars in Syria and Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Looking for examples of protests that have been met with excessive brutality in Nigeria’s recent history? There are plenty. 

Between 2015 and 2016, Nigerian soldiers killed at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters, according to Amnesty International, “including at least 60 people shot dead in the space of two days in connection with events to mark Biafra Remembrance Day”. Four years later, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) launched a militant arm that has since wreaked great havoc in the region.

The government has responded with force too to several demonstrations by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) since 2015 when 347 members of the group were extrajudicially killed and their leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, was arrested. The crackdowns following the initial massacre are said to have led to over one hundred deaths as of 2018. The following year, the government banned the movement, unpopularly classifying it as a terror group — just as it had done for IPOB in 2017.

Perhaps the government crackdown most vivid in the minds of Nigerians is the one that took place in Oct. 2020 following anti-police brutality ‘End SARS’ demonstrations. Soldiers had fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll-gate in Lagos. Estimates of deaths range between 10 and 20. A government panel later confirmed that nine people were killed, four presumed dead, and 35 others injured.

In all these cases, including the 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests during which 17 people were killed, no one has been held responsible for the murders. 

This pattern of highhandedness and unwillingness on the government’s part to dialogue with aggrieved citizens has only succeeded in promoting an atmosphere of despair. One survey released this year showed that 95 per cent of Nigerian youth thought the country was moving in the wrong direction — the worst out of the 15 countries featured. Last year, seven out of 10 Nigerians said they wished to emigrate and 41 per cent said they no longer believed in the country’s future. 

Infographic credit: BBC

“Citizens can absorb a lot of pain. They will accept years of discrimination and poverty and remain quiet, enduring the ache of slow decline,” says Walter. “What they can’t take is the loss of hope. It’s when a group looks into the future and sees nothing but additional pain that they start to see violence as their only path to progress.”

V: Social media as a fuel

If you need an example of how much havoc the internet can cause when abused, Walter tells us to look no further than Myanmar. 

Between 2011, when the ruling junta handed over to civilian authorities, and 2015, internet penetration had gone from a mere 1 per cent to 22 per cent. Facebook became a sensation, but it also became a way for Buddhist nationalists to target the minority Muslim population and share hateful, inciteful, and sensational posts. It became a new battleground for a century-old conflict. Before long, violence broke out.

More people gained access to Facebook when it became virtually free thanks to a new phone company and then the situation got worse. But, for a long time, Facebook turned a blind eye to how its platform was fuelling violence in the country. 

Ultimately, thousands of Rohingya Muslims were killed, thousands of women and children were raped, and nearly a million became refugees.

Because of the algorithms that sustain them, social media platforms seem to promote false and outrageous posts far more than accurate ones, and this is why they contribute to escalating crisis situations.

“As social media penetrated countries and gained a larger share of people’s attention, a clear pattern emerged: ethnic factions grew, social divisions widened, resentment at immigrants increased, bullying populists got elected, and violence began to increase,” observes Walter.

“Open, unregulated social media platforms turned out to be the perfect accelerant for the conditions that lead to civil war … This is, of course, because myth, emotion, and the politics of grievance — all of which drive factionalism — make for incredibly engaging content.”

At the beginning of this year, there were over 109 million internet users in Nigeria — more than half of the population. Of those, there were about 33 million social media users. But, two decades ago, only 1 per cent of the population had access to the internet. A decade ago, only 16 per cent.

Already, we are seeing how social media platforms in Nigeria are spreading misinformation and hate speeches to bigger audiences and how this can lead to increased violence in already troubled places. A 2018 BBC report showed how misleading pictures shared on Facebook led to retaliatory attacks in Gashish, Plateau State, leading to the death of 11 people. “As soon as we saw those images, we wanted to just strangle any Fulani man standing next to us,” a Berom youth leader said to the news outlet.

Other pieces of misinformation shared on the internet have the potential to trigger similar results, such as this one about hundreds of Igbo travellers being burnt alive in Jos or this one about people being forcefully converted to Islam in Niger or this one that claims Nigeria is the country with the highest number of people killed because they are Christian.

“Violence often springs from a sense of injustice, inequality, and insecurity — and a sense that those grievances and fears will not be addressed by the current system.”

B.F. Walter

What else are we missing?

Though Nigeria is home to different conflict situations, they may not necessarily qualify as civil wars. A civil war, according to the European Union Institute for Security Studies, is different from isolated acts of terrorism, riots, civil unrest, genocide or a revolution and requires a minimum level of coordination. 

It could also be that the authorities are reluctant to use the expression because of the broader political and military implications.

Asides from the issues mentioned before, there are other developments in Nigeria that leave a bitter taste in the mouth, especially for people studying conflict patterns. Jihadi terrorists’ expansion beyond the Northeast. Separatist agitators waging war and conducting not only well-planned attacks but also an impressive propaganda campaign. Increasing calls for civilians to own firearms. And upcoming general elections with candidates who seem desperate for votes and victory.

The numbers are scary too. According to surveys conducted by the World Bank and the Credendo Group, Nigeria is both the 10th most politically unstable country and the country with the 19th highest risk for political violence.

It is as if the government’s lukewarm approach to addressing the problems is rooted in the illusion that it is impossible for Nigeria to fail or that the country is immune to ruin. As former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, puts it in his book, it’s like “Nigerians have mastered the art of dancing on the precipice without falling over.”

“Many of the elite are still convinced that Nigeria is ‘too big to fail.’ Such a view encourages the elites’ unwillingness to address the issues that so trouble the country and may even promote their irresponsible behaviour, such as the manipulation of ethnic or religious conflict for their own narrow political ends, over which they soon lose control.”

John Campbell, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink (2010)

Meanwhile, in her closing chapter, Walter leaves the reader with a comforting statistic, which is that less than 4 per cent of the countries that tick all the boxes for war actually descend into armed conflict in any given year.

“But where they do happen, they tend to repeat themselves,” she adds grimly. This, she says, is what’s known as the conflict trap, countries going through a cycle of multiple civil wars. 

Thankfully, there’s a solution: working towards more transparent and participatory political environments and reinforcing institutional restraints on the power of the executive arm.

It is simply impossible to compress the wisdom of this book into an article of only a few thousand words. There are countless other warnings and observations made by the author that seems to mirror the reality in Nigeria and in other parts of the world. 

If more people read its contents, it becomes easier for us to hear the warning bells of war so we can prevent catastrophe before it grows big enough to consume us.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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One Comment

  1. Lovely piece. One of the more complete analyses I’ve read in a long time. I’d say that these problems stem from the fact that outside certain paradigms (sports/entertainment) there isn’t really such as a Nigerian.
    A bunch of multi-layered and shape shifting ethnoreligious groups and interests looking for a payday. You think it would still exist by 2060 ?

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