What's Behind Nigeria's Escalating Bodycount?

Between an Islamic insurgency, a security crackdown, and sectarian clashes, 571 people were killed in Africa's most populous country in April.
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People pray near the graves of victims of a suicide bomb attack during a memorial service at St. Theresa's Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria on December 23, 2012. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

New data from the Council on Foreign Relations' Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) shows that April was the second-bloodiest month in Nigeria since President Goodluck Jonathan's inauguration in May 2011. Five hundred and seventy one people were killed by an Islamic insurgency called Boko Haram, by Nigeria's security services, or in sectarian clashes. There is a long history of military brutality in Nigeria under both military and civilian governments. Nevertheless, the pace of clashes between Boko Haram and Nigeria's security services appears to be accelerating, with many non-combatants killed. Though Nigeria is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and a major oil producer, the federal government in Abuja is failing to provide security for its citizens in parts of the country.

April's spike results largely from the Nigerian military's raid on the small fishing village of Baga on Lake Chad. Troops from Nigeria, Niger, and Chad reportedly entered the village to flush out suspected Boko Haram members. The ensuing shoot-out led to deaths credibly estimated to range from 187 to over 220, mostly civilian non-combatants. More than 2,000 houses were burned.

Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and the security services, especially the army, usually stonewall accusations of brutality. At Baga, official spokesmen insisted that only a handful of civilians died during the operation, despite many eyewitness reports of the carnage. However, the credible human rights organization Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to show that most of the town had been destroyed and even the state governor acknowledged a much higher death toll than the official claim.

Subsequently, President Jonathan has said that any perpetrators from the security services will be held accountable. It remains to be seen whether this will occur. To date, few if any from the government or security services have ever been held accountable for human rights violations.

NST estimates, based on a systematic survey of Nigerian and international press, are conservative. Violence often goes unreported and the government regularly downplays casualties. Particularly in the North, the ongoing insurrection makes it difficult for observers from the international community to visit. As result, there is only limited outside scrutiny or verification of violence.

Fifty percent of all deaths since the NST started two years ago have taken place in the past eight months. While most of this violence occurs in northeastern Nigeria, the center of Boko Haram operations, the NST has also documented a small but incremental increase in overall violence throughout the country as well.

This Islamist-inspired violence and the brutality of the security services may feed off each other. The NST shows a pattern whereby Islamist attacks provoke a heavy-handed response from the police and military. For a long time, northerners have complained that in the aftermath of Islamists violence, the security services round up large numbers of young men in the vicinity of the attack. Never formally arrested or prosecuted, they simply disappear. This response then drives popular support or acquiescence for Boko Haram's anti-government position and violent methods. In fact, the violence is so systematic that Human Rights Watch has called for an International Criminal Court investigation of both Boko Haram and the security services for crimes against humanity.

Among the police and military, training and pay are often poor or non-existent. As a matter of policy, soldiers and police are deployed outside of their "home" regions. This policy is intended to prevent "favoritism" in a country with some 350 different ethnic groups and where the population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. However, as a result, security personnel often have little understanding or sympathy for the populations they are supposed to protect. Many of them do not even speak the same language. Such factors help account for the brutality, but do not excuse it.

Northern Nigeria is the poorest part of a poor country, and it is getting poorer. It has long been plagued by bad governance. Predominately Muslim, it dominated Nigeria during the generation of military rule. Relations between the Muslim majority and its growing Christian minority are edgy at best. Now, many of its Muslim residents are alienated from the predominately Christian and southern administration of President Jonathan. They do not accept the validity of Jonathan's election as president in 2011 when he defeated a northern Muslim candidate. Boko Haram draws on the region's pervasive discontent. Initially, most of its victims were Muslims whom it regarded as sell-outs to the federal government. More recently, however, its attacks on Christians have escalated.


This post appears courtesy of CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Presented by

John Campbell and Asch Harwood

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, is senior fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he also blogs. Asch Harwood is an Africa analyst.

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