The ethnic and religious militia’s size has continued to burgeon in the last one and half decades. The dominant militia also functions side-by-side splinter operatives. Despite those organizational differences, the focus remains the same. Boko Haram, for instance, is the dominant Islamic militia. However, it shares a somewhat similar set of ideologies with another splinter group, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Although fundamentally a religious militia, they are also ethnic in their cultural operations and seem to be considerably influenced by the northern regions dominant Hausa/Fulani culture. Virtually all militias in the country have a similar mixture of characteristics. For instance, although the Independent People of Biafra [IPOB] militia is fundamentally an Igbo ethnic group advocacy, they are ideologically tied to Israel’s religion.
But then, virtually every ethnic group in Nigeria have a militia. O’odua People’ ‘s Congress (OPC) in Yorubaland. The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), The Bakassi Boys, and the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) in Southeast. Egburra Mozum militia, in the Middle-Belt, Arewa People’s Congress (APC), Miyetti Allah, and the Fulani militia of the North; and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Ikwo warlords of Cross-River State and Egbesu in the South-South. Ethnic and religious militia exist to forcefully express and accomplish the wishes and aspirations of their underlying demography.
These ethnic and religious militant groups have caused innumerable destruction of valuable assets, inflicted untold hardships, and killed many. For instance, before creating the Niger Delta Development Commission [NDDC] and providing several incentives for the Niger Delta region’s youth, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta [MEND], orchestrated substantial mayhem on national installations. The group blew up oil installations in the region and took many foreign oil and gas workers hostage. The country bled economically as a result. In the same vein, as of 2015, the Fulani militia was globally the fourth deadliest terrorist group. Given the enormity of its heinous activities, it only ranks second to Boko Haram. Data from the Nigerian Security Tracker shows that sectarian violence excluding Boko Haram’s attacks in the past five years resulted in approximately 5,400 deaths. That figure is about 11% higher than what it was five years earlier between 2011 and 2016. The atrocious scale is scarier when we add the carnage perpetrated by Boko Haram, which alone is responsible for over 40,000 persons’ deaths in the past nine years.
The roots of ethnic and religious conflicts in Nigeria dates to pre-independence times. The 1914 amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates into what is known today as Nigeria perhaps laid the foundations for today’s ethnic and religious crisis. The colonialists fused-together the North with bleak revenue prospects and predominantly Muslims with the mostly Christian South with by far better economic opportunities. Worse still, the British colonialists diplomatically handed over the country’s governance to northern politicians. Even though it satisfied the British colonialists yearning for a contiguous colony where the more prosperous part of the country would easily subsidize the economic inadequacies of the North, it created deep-seated cracks. Each ethnic group fought each other for control of resources and the breaking of the political domination of the North. The Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s in which south-eastern Nigeria of mostly Igbo ethnic group sought secession from the country showed the strength of the ethnic discontents. Some other ethnic groups have continually demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the North and South Nigeria’s forced cohabitation.
There has also been a seemingly perennial fear and suspicion by the Christian South concerning the Muslim North’s alleged islamization plans. These suspicions gained momentum with Nigeria’s inclusion among the Organization of Islamic Countries and the Sharia Penal Code’s adoption in many Nigerian states. On the other hand, the Muslim North appears to be uncomfortable with the Western culture that is substantially dominant in its southern parts. Indeed, intolerance for Western education and culture is very much behind the emergence of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Unfortunately, the Nigerian Constitution, which appears to have been considerably influenced by the northern Muslim leadership copiously recognized Islam. At the same time, the Christian religion does not command any significant attention in the same document. Several decades of constant religious conflicts attest to this fact. Minority groups appear to have borne the severest brunt of these conflicts. For example, Christian minorities within the predominantly Muslim northern states walk a fragile line where they must learn not to infringe on the Islamic sharia codes. For instance, a young barber has recently been facing trial for giving a customer a haircut considered blasphemous to Muslims.
Poor economic governance and unfair allocation of national wealth lopsided in favour of some ethnic groups and religions depending on those in control of the political machinery cause ethnic and religious conflicts. That sense of marginalization breeds Cold War among the ethnic or religious groups that feel marginalized and those perceived to be politically in charge of the allocation and distribution of national wealth. For instance, the Igbo ethnic group of Southeast Nigeria appear to have suffered tremendous political and economic marginalization. In retaliation, they denied political support to an APC presidential candidate from the Muslim North who eventually emerged. That seeming unacceptance of a president from the North does not appear to have gone down well in the relationship between the Igbo ethnic group and the Hausa/Fulani group.
Another dimension of the resource ownership causing ethnic tension is that of the nomadic Fulani herdsmen’s seeming belief that they can successfully occupy and perhaps own wild forests where they graze their cattle. Part of the underlying reasons for the conflicts between the Fulani nomadic herdsmen and the several communities where they pasture their flock is their gradual occupation of the land where they find themselves. Land disputes are historically the centre point of ethnic rivalry across the country. In addition to that is the conflict over the growing scarcity of some natural resources limited in supply. Most host ethnic groups feel that the strangers in their lands deny them the opportunity to appropriate the income yielding potentials of such resources fully. The thinking is that by ejecting certain foreign ethnic groups from their midst, the resources in question will become more abundant and available to the host ethnic communities. A good example is the Yoruba ethnic group’s persistent hostility and their threats of ejecting Igbo traders from Lagos state.
Various ethnic groups have willingly or spontaneously created volunteer forces that believe they can use the military-style approach to managing these ethnic differences. These ethnic groups consider the leadership of these militias as Messiah depending on the volume of support and following, they can gather. Usually, and depending on the leadership’s narrative on the cause pursued, they can always attract and sustain large following. Unfortunately, the end of ethnic and religious violence in Nigeria is not in sight. Over the years, our political leaders failed to address those factors that drive ethnic and religious groups hitherto living in peace into violent conflicts.
Quite shamefully, the government is seriously implicated in many of these conflicts apart from those bordering on land ownership by contiguous communities. Most other underlying causes of ethnic and religious conflicts can be more effectively dealt with by the government without necessarily deploying military force. First, with practical and transparent economic governance, every ethnic and religious group will have a sense of equitable ownership of the country’s resources. Budget design and implementation that are transparent and not lopsided in favour of any ethnic or religious group assure all that no group is taking advantage of political power to hurt the other. Unfortunately, our fiscal transparency and economic governance performance has been consistently low. Recently, some restive youth from the Niger Delta region threatened to block the federal government [which comprises other ethnic groups] from further exploiting oil and gas resources in the South-South region. The reason for that was that the Zamfara State ignored the fiscal law that entrusts all-natural resources everywhere in the federal government’s hands. The state decided on its own to set aside this requirement and commence the exportation of its natural gold reserves. It also decided to be remitting N5 billion into federal government coffers as royalty. The Niger Delta region and every other state in the South-South and South-East geopolitical zones cannot possibly take laws into their hands to exploit the natural resources within their territories as Zamfara state did without attracting the ire of the federal government.
Second, such constitutional inequity and biases will always lead to feelings of marginalization by ethnic groups that are not dominating the federal government’s political machinery. A good example is the classification of the independent People of Biafra [IPOB] – an ethnic militia advocating for an independent Igbo country – as a terrorist group when it does not have significant destruction records. Side-by-side the IPOB is the Fulani militia globally reckoned as the fourth most brutal terrorist organization in the world. Surprisingly, and typical of the political class’s inequity and biases, this militia is not a terrorist group within the country. The fact is that while the IPOB is considered a terrorist organization within the country, the truly dangerous and brutal Fulani militia has a clean record. Third, by being complicit in whittling down the justice system’s effectiveness, the political class and the government play significant roles in preparing the ground for the hatred of each other by ethnic and religious groups. Over the past decades, many stories substantiate claims that some perpetrators of crimes from ethnic groups find it easier to walk away from the long arms of the law than other groups. In part, over the years, employment of persons into the security services and different sections of the justice system appears to favour those ethnic groups.
Therefore, at least three approaches may minimize the rapidly growing ethnic and religious militancy in the country. As always, the first is for those in political authority to allow the rule of law to prevail. That way, all citizens, including the state, will be subject to the law. The law, in turn, will have the right set of teeth to bite when necessary. The second is the upholding of transparent, equitable and progressive economic governance architecture for the country. Fairness in resource allocation and appointments to positions of authority in line with the dictates of the law, which all must own, will considerably minimize the incentives for militant approach in demanding for equity and justice. Lastly, cooperation and healthy dialogue among diverse religious and ethnic groups will provide needed headroom for resolving potential conflicts at its nascent stage.