By Max Fisher, Advocacy and Government Relations Fellow, Amnesty International USA
Nigeria has crisis of violence. As President Muhammadu Buhari begins his second term, his administration faces major challenges, and the collective failure to curb violence and the drivers behind it may be the most critical. For Nigeria’s external allies, attempts to reduce the crisis as primarily religious misrepresents the complexity and could undermine efforts to stop these pressing issues.
While international attention has focused on crimes committed by the Boko Haram insurgency and Nigerian security forces, attacks have also become commonplace in the Middle Belt Region of the country. In October 2018, 55 people were killed in Kaduna State. On November 20, 2017, armed men attacked Shelewol, a Fulani village in Numan. Amnesty International visited some of the survivors, now living as displaced persons in Mayo-Belwa, and found that contrary to media reports of about 50 deaths, the figure was at least 80, including a three-day-old girl.
For decades, people in Nigeria’s Middle Belt have faced an ongoing cycle of violence and disruption caused by climate change, inadequate water supplies, long standing conflicts over land ownership and a lack of resources for both the farmer and herder communities. These drivers have been exacerbated by the political climate at the national and state levels as well as by the Boko Haram insurgency in the north that has destroyed villages, decimated agricultural activity and displaced hundreds of thousands. Nigeria currently has an internally displaced population of two million, the majority of whom are dependent on food aid.
A factor that has led to this systematic failure is the performance of the Nigerian security forces in providing security to its communities. Security forces have been linked to extrajudicial executions and assaults which have failed to result in any accountability. Their record is regularly critiqued, as their protections are inadequate and, at times, possibly damaging. In Amnesty International’s report, “Harvest of Death,” researchers documented the military’s failure to protect while also conveying concerns regarding the military’s perpetual neglect of human rights. Due to a lack of security by those who are mandated to protect, at-risk communities have introduced their own self-defense units, many of which commit abuses themselves.
While religion may contribute to heightened violence in the Middle Belt, these tensions are not the principal cause of violence and should not be the focal point of U.S. policy and engagement in Nigeria. The country’s population is split roughly 50/50 between Islam and Christianity with Islam more prominent in the northern regions of Nigeria and Christianity more present in the middle and southern regions. Many of the deaths in the northeast and the Middle Belt cannot be solely attributed to religious violence. Boko Haram’s abuses have not been limited to Christian populations, as they continue to target Muslims who do not comply with their extremist vision of Sharia law. Attacks have been committed by members of both faiths and attacks are not limited to the “other’s” religion.
There are many factors that play into Nigeria’s crisis, but the one incontrovertible fact is the urgent need for leadership and action by Nigeria’s political leaders. Upholding the rule of law, including Nigeria’s constitution and its international human rights obligations, means the government must protect the rights and security of all of its people and prevent discrimination in all forms, as well as implementing other measures recommended by Amnesty International, including ending impunity, designating areas for both farmers and herders, and holding the government more accountable.
As the United States deliberates what to do to help the people of Nigeria, it should ensure its policies and actions do not oversimplify the complexity of this crisis. A continued lack of accountability and inaction will only exacerbate these issues, an alternative the people of Nigeria cannot afford.