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Timeline: Nigeria’s Brutal History Of Violence And Deaths

For many years since it gained independence, Nigeria has recorded many cases of insecurity and political violence on a large scale. Because of this, many generations of Nigerians  are more familiar with conflicts than peace.

Nigeria is ranked 147th out of 163 countries on the 2020 Global Peace Index. The Institute for Economics and Peace has stated that the country continues to face challenges with safety, security, and ongoing conflict.

Over the last year, it noted, Nigeria “has recorded further deteriorations in Militarisation and Ongoing Conflict and an overall deterioration in peacefulness of 0.8 per cent”. 

The country has likewise been ranked by the same institute as the third most terrorised country between 2015 and 2019.

The United Nations General Assembly in 1981 designated September 21 as the International Day of Peace to raise public awareness on the subject. In 2001, the assembly further marked out the day for a ceasefire across the world between warring parties.

“This year, it has been clearer than ever that we are not each other’s enemies. Rather, our common enemy is a tireless virus that threatens our health, security and very way of life. COVID-19 has thrown our world into turmoil and forcibly reminded us that what happens in one part of the planet can impact people everywhere,” the UN recently observed.

In commemoration of this day, HumAngle takes a look at some of the major violent events that have shaken the country or parts of it, to its roots since independence in 1960. Nigeria has also experienced shorter incidents, such as riots and massacres, that led to the death of hundreds of people at a time.

Civil war (1967 – 1970)

For nearly three years, between July 1967 and January 1970, a civil war dragged on between the Nigerian government and secessionist forces representing the Republic of

Biafra. The death toll was at least over a million people and, according to some estimates, there were about 100,000 military casualties and between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died from starvation and other causes during the war.

The war started as a rivalry among major ethnic groups within the army. The military coup of January, 1966 that led to the assassination of former Prime Minister

Tafawa Balewa and Sardauna of Sokoto,  Ahmadu Bello, was interpreted as a war against northerners. It triggered a counter-coup as well as anti-Igbo riots in Northern Nigeria, which led to the death of about 30,000 people and the displacement of others.

The secession was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who declared Biafra’s independence in May 1967, while the Nigerian government was headed by Lieutenant- Colonel Yakubu Gowon.

Many have continued to advocate for the independence of Biafra till today. Separatist organisation, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was formed by Nnamdi Kanu in 2012, and has continued to make the demand despite having been proscribed by a court order in 2017. Similarly, the  less-confrontational Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was established in 1999 for the same purpose.

Maitatsine riots (1980 -1985)

These riots are considered the “first major wave of religiously-inspired violence” in northern Nigeria. The movement of Maitatsine (Hausa for someone who condemns) was led by Muhammadu Marwa, a Cameroonian who lived in Kano but who opposed the Nigerian state. His extreme ideologies are echoes by the present-day Boko Haram.

According to Harvard Divinity School, “He was also notable for his vociferous condemnation of Western culture, education, and technology, and was known to refer to anyone who sent their children to a state school as an ‘infidel’.”

Thousands of people died during the riots which broke out in different states . The first one started on December 18, 1980, in Kano State and led to the killing of 4,177 people, including Marwa.

Another riot broke out in October, 1982, in Bulumkutu, Borno State, and caused the death of 3,350 people. Between 500 and 1,000 people died in Yola, capital of then Gongola State, in 1984, and the next year, about 100 people lost their lives in a similar incident in Gombe, Bauchi State.

Musa Makaniki who succeeded Marwa as the movement’s leader, fled to Cameroon and was arrested in 2004.

Niger Delta militancy (1990s to date)

The activities of militants in the Niger Delta have rendered the region very  unsafe for decades. The United States government currently warns its citizens against travelling to the coastal areas of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross Rivers, Delta, and Rivers “due to crime, civil unrest, kidnapping, and maritime crime”. UK citizens are told to avoid all travels to the riverine areas of the  five states and to only travel to the non-riverine areas of Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers if it is essential.

Conflict in the region is against the backdrop of the uneven distribution of wealth from oil exploration and environmental degradation that has caused inhabitants to lose their sources of livelihood. The crisis features frequent incidents of kidnapping, piracy, and economic sabotage through attacks on oil exploration facilities.

Numerous militias sprang up, including the Mujahid Asari-Dokubo-led Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Niger Delta Vigilantes (NDV) led by Ateke Tom.

Other major ones were the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Niger Delta Liberation Front (NDLF).

In 2009, under the presidency of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the Federal Government started an amnesty programme for militants that required them to surrender their arms in return for economic empowerment, including training. The programme, which has recorded some successes, caused a sharp decline in violence and kidnappings in the region.

However, in 2016, new militias,  including the Niger Delta Avengers and Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, emerged and threatened to blow  up oil pipelines.

Farmer-herder crisis (2000s to Date)

Increasingly dwindling resources and the proliferation of small arms have fuelled tensions with farming communities and  herders in Nigeria for many years. Some of the triggers include climate change and desert encroachment, reduction in available grazing land, less space for farming. The International Crisis Group described the conflict as “Nigeria’s gravest security challenge” in 2018.

A research by Amnesty International, stated that at least 3,641 people were killed as a result of the crisis between January, 2016 and October, 2018. The most affected states included Benue, Adamawa, Plateau, Zamfara, Taraba, Kaduna, and Nasarawa.

“In all these communities, members of farmer communities said they had lived in peace with members of herder communities, who are Fulani. The Fulani herders also said the same thing about living in peace with the farmers,” the international organisation reported. 

“In some communities, farmers said problems started over the destruction of their crops due to the animals of the herders grazing on their farmlands, while in other communities, they could not explain the reasons for the attacks… The Fulani herders blamed farmers for trying to chase them out of their communities by rustling their cattle and attacking them,” the organization stated.

Boko Haram insurgency (2009 to Date)

More commonly referred to as Boko Haram, the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād emerged in 2002 under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf, an Islamic cleric in Maiduguri, Borno State. In 2009, with the killing of Yusuf while in police custody, the mantle of leadership passed to his deputy, Abubakar Shekau, and the group’s mode of operation soon became more violent.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, since May, 2011, the Boko Haram insurgency has caused the death of over 37,500 people and displacement of 2.5 million in the Lake Chad Basin. It was ranked by the Global Terrorism Index of 2019 as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world after Taliban, the Islamic State (IS), and the Khorasan Chapter of IS.

While the Nigerian government has repeatedly claimed to have “technically defeated” the terror group, it still launches attacks against civilians and continues to exercise control over “some villages and pockets of territory”.

In August, 2016, a faction of Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) broke off after Shekau refused to recognise the leadership of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who was appointed by the Islamic State after the former pledged allegiance to it.

Saskia Brechenmacher, an associate fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, noted that the regional dimension to the crisis has made it even more complex. 

“Effectively addressing the root causes of insecurity will require a regional approach, particularly in order to ensure the reintegration of low-level Boko Haram members and affiliates, support the return of basic services and trade to the rural areas surrounding Lake Chad, and tackle environmental degradation and resource conflicts,” she suggested.

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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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