Introduction by Dr John Eibner, May 2019
Welcome to Nigeria Report, a project of Christian Solidarity International (CSI). This is an internet platform for informed discussion of the various aspects of sectarian violence in Nigeria, and for the presentation of policy recommendations aimed at ending it. CSI’s intention is to provide space especially for the perspectives of Nigerian civil society representatives, regardless of tribal or religious identity. Such voices are currently only faintly heard outside Nigeria.
Respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a foundational pillar of CSI. Conversation on this platform will be conducted in the spirit of that international instrument. The views expressed are those of individual authors and are not necessarily those of CSI.
Why is there a need for this website? Because sectarian violence in Nigeria is far more complex than the simplistic, de-sectarianized narratives that are currently so fashionable in the western think tanks and media organs with the closest links to governmental agencies. They often portray Boko Haram in the northeast as an isolated terrorist gang on the run, and the widespread Fulani violence in the Middle Belt as merely a local “herdsmen vs. farmers” conflict. Religious-based political ideology is often misunderstood or absent altogether.
Escalating sectarian violence is victimizing ever greater numbers of Nigerians, weakening the fragile bonds of the federal state, threatening the stability of Nigeria’s neighbors, and opening the door still wider for international terrorist networks. Africa’s most populous country, rich in natural resources, multi-ethnic and roughly evenly divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south, is edging closer to failed state status, with dreadful consequences for the people of West Africa and beyond.
"Escalating sectarian violence is victimizing ever greater numbers of Nigerians, weakening the fragile bonds of the federal state, threatening the stability of Nigeria’s neighbors, and opening the door still wider for international terrorist networks."
The Nigerians have paid a high price for the rise of sectarian violence. Tens of thousands have been killed over the past decade. Over three million people are currently displaced. Law and order are collapsing throughout much of the country. The damage to food supplies and loss of livelihoods is incalculable. Hunger and disease haunt millions of civilians who are caught up in the conflict. Slavery has made a comeback.
Life seems to pass as usual for most ordinary people in major urban centers, like Lagos and Abuja. Although poverty, corruption, and the attendant hustling for survival weigh heavily on the population of such cities, signs of violent sectarianism are not visible, at least on the surface. But things are different elsewhere.
The infamous jihadist army called Boko Haram – the West African affiliate of the Islamic State– wreaks havoc in Nigeria’s northeast, radiating outward from its Borno State heartland into other parts of the country and neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram is implacably opposed to the Nigerian state, not to mention the USA and all other governments in the international state system. Much of Boko Haram’s inspiration comes from the early 19th century Wahhabi-style jihad of the Fulani preacher Usman dan Fodio, who founded the Sokoto Caliphate on the ruins of the seven Hausa kingdoms. But with strong roots in the aspirations of the hitherto marginalized Kanuri people, Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is the re-establishment of an Islamic state centered on the Kanuri heartland of northeastern Nigeria.
Boko Haram targets not only Christians and other non-Muslims, but also Muslims who are not strict observers of the Islamic shari’a law, especially those who have been influenced by western culture. The headline-grabbing kidnapping of 276 Christian and Muslim schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, in 2014, and their forced transformation into shari’a-observant sex slaves, reflected not only Boko Haram’s loathing of Christians, but also its Wahhabi-inspired hatred of Muslims who adopt western or pagan practices. Boko Haram regards such Muslims – like Christians – as infidels (kufar) whom it is permissible to kill or enslave.
Fulani tribal militias are the main drivers of sectarian violence in central Nigeria, especially in Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Nasarawa and Taraba states. Like Boko Haram, they are inspired by the jihad and caliphate of their Fulani kinsman Usman dan Fodio. The extensive death and destruction caused by Fulani terrorists rarely makes major headlines in the West. But, according to the Global Terrorism Index, “In 2018 alone, deaths attributed to Fulani extremists are estimated to be six times greater than the number committed by Boko Haram.” Unlike Boko Haram, the Fulani militias do not target the Nigerian government, or the interests of western states. Neither do they have a strong tradition of unleashing violence against other Muslims, although cattle rustling does sometimes take place within the faith community.
Fulani attacks against villages, the destruction of crops, and kidnappings tend to be directed against Christian and traditionalist villagers, with the goal of driving them off their land and occupying it. For the Fulani militias the ideology and rhetoric of dan Fodio’s jihad are used to legitimize land grabbing. The violence of these Islamist-driven Fulani militias tends to be conducted with impunity. The American and British-backed Nigerian Army – the largest in Africa and a major participant in many international peacekeeping missions – is unable or unwilling to confront Fulani militias. Despite their low profile in the western media, the Fulani militias are among the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.
"Fulani attacks against villages, the destruction of crops, and kidnappings tend to be directed against Christian and traditionalist villagers, with the goal of driving them off their land and occupying it."
The violence of Fulani militias is often cast in reporting from think tanks and the media as a conflict over natural resources between nomadic herdsmen and settled farmers, aggravated by desertification. Economic competition between these groups is indeed an important factor. But this de-sectarianized narrative of the Fulani militias downplays the crucial role of violent jihad in the Fulani people’s historic tradition of colonial empire building. It also glosses over the current links between Fulani militias and international jihadist networks on the one hand, and Islamists and Fulani ethnic chauvinists within Nigeria’s Fulani-dominated military and intelligence establishment on the other. As has been observed by Drs. I.F. Izeonwuka and Austine Uchechukwu Igwe, when Fulani political leadership has felt the need for “socio-religious cleansing (a jihad)” to advance its interests, the rank and file of nomadic herdsmen have been used as a fighting force. This pattern appears to be as true today as it was during the dan Fodio jihad.
Who are the Fulani? They are a nomadic, transnational people, believed to descend from Berbers and black Africans, whose ancient sub-Saharan homeland was in Senegal. They also live in Niger, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad and the Sudans.The Fulani make up just over 12 million, or 6.3% of Nigeria’s estimated population of 203 million, according to the CIA Factbook. But their exact numbers are disputed, with some sources reporting that the Fulani in Nigeria number no more than 6 to 7 million. The Fulani began to settle in present-day Nigeria in the 14th century. Although a small minority, they acquired enormous political power as a result of dan Fodio’s jihad. The political dominance of the Fulani tribal oligarchy has survived until the present day, and is reflected in the disproportionate number of Fulani officials in the country’s security institutions.
Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of West Africa’s Fulani are peaceful people struggling to survive, and have little in-depth understanding of Islamic jihad. There are also a multitude of urban Fulani who live peacefully in multi-ethnic, multi-religious settings. But Wahhabi-inspired Islamism has made great inroads within both urban and pastoral Fulani society since the 1980s. Moreover within Fulani leadership there is acute awareness that the expansion and consolidation of Fulani power in Nigeria resulted from dan Fodio’s jihad. Collective memory of the 2.5 million non-Muslim slaves who were captured during the jihad, and who subsequently played a major role in the Caliphate’s economic prosperity, lives on in the Fulani cultural tradition, and serves as a confirmation of their political and religious superiority. A revival of the Fulani territorial expansion within the ideological framework of their jihad tradition is currently underway. It is being patronized by international and domestic Islamist actors. This revival is a crucial factor in transforming what might otherwise remain low-level pushing and shoving between herdsmen and farmers into a grisly sectarian conflict that threatens the stability of the fragile Nigerian federal state and the whole of West Africa.
Nigeria’s bloody sectarian conflicts have not emerged out of a political vacuum. They have roots that extend deep into the country’s history of 19th century Fulani jihadism, British imperialism and local ethnic power struggles. They are also embedded in Nigeria’s contemporary relations with non-state Islamist actors, the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Understanding this history and the contemporary networks of power that animate Nigeria’s domestic politics and connect it to the outside world is necessary to make sense of the nightmare being endured by countless Nigerians today. Without such understanding, this man-made catastrophe will appear to be merely a local economic quarrel, or worse, to be random, incomprehensible violence with no solution – a view of suffering in Africa that Western observers take all too often. It is hoped that, by promoting informed discussion and debate over the continuing tragedy in Nigeria, this website will equip and motivate international actors and people of good will everywhere to act to restore peace to this suffering country.
John Eibner, Director, Christian Solidarity International (CSI)
UN agencies (UNHCR and IOM) track displacement in the northeast where Boko Haram is active. They report that as of the end of March 2019 nearly 2.4 million civilians have been displaced from their homes in that region. The UN agencies, however, appear not to systematically track and provide humanitarian aid to those displaced in the Middle Belt as a result of Fulani militia activity. The International Crisis Group reported in July 2018 that approximately 300,000 people had been displaced from their homes in the Middle Belt during the previous twelve months. “Stopping Nigeria’s Spiraling Farmer-Herder Violence”, International Crisis Group, Report no. 262/Africa, 26 July 2018.
In August 2016, Boko Haram appeared to split into two factions after a leadership struggle. One faction is officially sanctioned and recognized by the core Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the other, led by the group’s long-time commander Abubakar Shekau, officially maintains its loyalty to the Islamic State and its caliphate, but rejects IS’ choice of leader for Boko Haram. Despite the high-profile nature of the split, it appears that both factions maintain links to international jihadist networks and continue to attack Christians, Muslims who do not conform to their standard of shari’a, and the Nigerian state.
Bolaji Omitola, “Between Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen: Organized Crime and Insecurity in Nigeria”, A Paper Presented at the 5th Institute of Security Studies Conference on Crime and Crime Reduction, 14 and 15 August, 2014, Sandton, South Africa. Zuwaqhu K.A. Bonat, “In Search of Salutary Responses to the Existential Threats against Middle Belt Autochthonous Communities in Nigeria”, High Level Discussion/Conference on the Violence Between Farmers and Herders in West Africa, Columbia University’s Columbia World Project, October 5, 2018.
I.F. Izeonwuka and Austine Uchechukwu Igue, “Emerging Challenges in Nigeria’s National Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Fulani Herdsmen Menace”, Journal of Asian Multidisciplinary Studies, vol. 4, Issue 5, April 2016, p. 207.
I.F. Izeonwuka and Austine Uchechukwu Igue, “Emgerging Challenges in Nigeria’s National Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Fulani Herdsmen Menace”, Journal of Asian Multidisciplinary Studies, vol. 4, Issue 5, April 2016, p. 206.
Adam Higazi, “Rural Insecurity on the Jos Plateau: Livelihoods, Land and Cattle amid Religious Reform and Violent Conflict”, published in Abul Aaufu Mustapha and David Ehrhardt eds., Creed and Grievance: Muslim-Christian Relations and Conflict Resolution in Northern Nigeria, James Currey: Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2018. pp. 284-5.
Apart from the tradition that lives on in folklore, glorification of the Fulani-led jihad and Caliphate of Sokoto as a model for the future became a feature of some prominent Nigerian Islamist scholars – a phenomenon that began to flourish in the 1970s and 80s as Saudi Arabia began investing heavily in Wahhabism in Africa. One of the most prominent of these scholars is Ibraheem Sulaiman of Ahadu Bello University whose work A Revolution in History: The Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio was published in London in 1989. Sulaiman notes in the Introduction that violent jihad had become necessary because “there was unrestrained mixing of men and women, Christianity had gained ground, and cheating and fraud were rife”. Christianity had not reached northern Nigeria when dan Fodio launched his jihad. Sulaiman’s association of it with rampant immorality is therefore a message to Christians and Muslims in modern Nigeria. Two Islamic scholars of a similar school of thought have recorded that: “The influence of Jihad is still conspicuous and evident in the daily lives of the people of this region … The Sultan at Sokoto is still the symbol of unity of the Muslims, not only of Nigeria but of the whole west African sub-region”. (See: Hamza Muhammad Maishanu and Isa Muhammad Maishanu, “The Jihad and the Formation of the Sokoto Caliphate”, Islamic Studies, vol 38, no. 1 (Spring 1999) p. 129.”) This residual influence is being exploited today for the purposes of aggrandizement.