Sectarian conflict in Nigeria: causes, prognosis and possible solutions


by Chinedu Ike, March 2019


Sectarian strife is a major contributor to the violent conflict afflicting Nigeria. Between May 2011 and January 2019, Nigeria - a former British colony and the most populous black country in the world – recorded 9,516 deaths connected to sectarian unrest. The trend suggests that the conflict is worsening as the number of recorded deaths associated with sectarian strife increased from 207 in 2017 to 2005 in 2018 [1].


Nigeria is a plural society having between 300 and 400 ethno-linguistic groups with three major ethnic groups, namely the Hausa-Fulani (30 per cent), Yoruba (20 per cent) and Igbo (17 per cent), dominating. Christianity, Islam and traditional African religion are the three major faith groups in the country with the Hausa-Fulani being predominantly Muslims, the Yoruba split between Christianity and Islam, and the Igbos largely Christians. The fact that religion is coterminous with ethnicity in Nigeria creates conditions that exacerbate identity differences and trigger sectarian conflict in Nigeria. For instance, any disagreement between the Igbo ethnic group and Hausa-Fulani ethnic group also immediately takes religious colouration given that the two groups are also of two different religious groups.


The root of sectarian violence is traced to colonial rule which amalgamated different territories into one entity but adopted a divide and rule strategy to ingrain primordial consciousness in the people. The promulgation of the Land and Native Rights Ordinance by the colonial state in 1910 segregated the southerners from northerners living in the north and laid the foundation for outbreaks of sectarian violence in the north such as the 1945 ethno-religious violence in Jos. Since the attainment of independence in 1960, even though Nigeria has prohibited the adoption of a state religion and ensures the right to freedom of religion [2], the frequency and intensity of sectarian violence has soared.


The remote driver of sectarian conflict could be traced to the neopatrimonial [3] character of politics which underpins the manipulation of primordial sentiments in the struggle for power and resources. The proximate drivers of sectarian conflict include factors that cannot be considered sui generis, such as election outcomes, struggle for land resources worsened by climate change, religious extremism etc. A major feature of these sectarian conflicts is that they are usually episodic and localized in different locations, particularly in the northern part of the country. Some of the notable outbreaks of sectarian conflict experienced in Nigeria include the February 2000 riots in Kaduna State, where an estimated 3,000 persons lost their lives as a result of the crisis that followed the introduction of Sharia law in the state. Similarly, in September 2001, a riot broke out in Jos and over 300 people were killed when the Islamic Brigade [4] reportedly attacked a Christian woman who attempted to cross a public highway barricaded by Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers. Again, there was the widely reported 2002 Miss World pageant crisis in Nigeria [5] which was triggered by an article published in one of the national newspapers, in which the author alleged that the Prophet Mohammed would probably have chosen to marry one of the contestants in the beauty pageant. [6] The 2011 general elections also triggered large-scale sectarian conflict following the victory of Goodluck Jonathan – a Christian candidate, over Muhammadu Buhari – a Muslim candidate.


The consequences of sectarian conflict have been far reaching: beyond the loss of life and property, it disrupts economic activities and engenders large scale displacement which usually triggers further conflicts. The government response to the sectarian strife has remained episodic and has failed to address the root causes. In most cases, government strategies have been ex post facto and focused on the mounting of road blocks by security agencies and setting up of a commission of inquiry.


In order to address the menace, I recommend that government should ensure that state policies treat all persons fairly and that resources are equitably distributed among the six geopolitical regions of Nigeria.


The state security agencies must emphasize intelligence gathering to identify and quickly decimate any sectarian group trying to launch an attack on members of another sect. Thus, there is a need for continuous training and retraining of security personnel in the act of intelligence gathering and assessing risk of sectarian violence.


I also recommend that civil society organizations (CSOs) should advocate for peaceful co-existence and support government peacebuilding efforts through evidence-based advocacy. This requires CSOs to identify youth groups, particularly the youth arms of religious bodies, and train them in religious tolerance and conflict resolution through dialogue. Religious leaders must also eschew hate speech and preach tolerance of other sects.


If all the above-mentioned efforts fail, there may be no other alternative than to consider the abrogation of the British colonial power’s 1914 Amalgamation Act that merged the different parts of the country under one government. By this I mean that the various ethnic groups may need to come together in a national conference to renegotiate their basis of existence as one united nation. Chinedu Cyril Ike obtained his Doctor of Philosophy from Universität Salzburg in 1990. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Nsukka. He teaches Peace and Conflict Studies; Nigerian Constitutional Development; Introduction to African Politics and Transborder Cooperation. He has published in many journals.


Chinedu Cyril Ike obtained his Doctor of Philosophy from Universität Salzburg in 1990. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Nsukka. He teaches Peace and Conflict Studies; Nigerian Constitutional Development; Introduction to African Politics and Transborder Cooperation. He has published in many journals.


[1] The Nigeria Security Tracker (NST)

[2] Section 10 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution (as amended) stipulates that the government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as the state religion. Section 38 guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

[3] Neopatrimonialism is a concept used to explain the primordialism, patronage, tribalism, factionalism and associated vices that character politics in Africa.

[4] Islamic Brigade is used to refer to a youth group set up to enforce law and maintain order, including mounting road blocks and maintaining traffic during Friday prayers in Muslim communities. The Brigade usually comprises young Islamic fundamentalists who may resort to violence in the course of carrying out assigned tasks.

[5] The 52nd edition of Miss World pageant was initially slated to be held in Abuja, but was instead held in Alexandra Palace in London on 7 December 2002 because of the riots that ensued in Kaduna.

[6] Isaac, T. S. (2012). Religious violence in Nigeria: Causal diagnosis and strategic recommendations to the state and religious communities. African Journal on Conflict Resolution (AJCR), 2012/1. Available online at