Nigeria's 120 million people belong to more than 250 distinct ethno-linguistic groups, and are evenly split between Muslims and Christians, while there are also significant numbers of people who follow traditional African religions. Various historical and other factors have spurred conflict between the country's various peoples, especially in modern times.
In the pre-colonial era many of the peoples who now make up Nigeria related primarily through trade. It was through trade across the Sahara with North Africa that Islam was introduced to parts of northern Nigeria more than 1,000 years ago.
A turning point in Nigerian history came in 1804 when a Fulani preacher, Othman dan Fodio, began a holy war that resulted in the subjugation of the old Hausa city states of northern Nigeria. Having conquered the Hausa, the Fulani adopted their language and merged with their ruling classes to create a Hausa-Fulani ethnic group under the rule of what was now the Sokoto Caliphate.
Another major development, this time in the southern coastal and forest region, was the contact with Europeans in the 16th century through trade, mainly in slaves. Colonisation began in the 19th century, when the industrial revolution in Europe spurred interest in agricultural and mineral commodities in the African interior. Along with the colonialists came Christian missionaries who converted large parts of southern Nigeria.
In 1914, northern and southern Nigeria, which had been governed by the British as two distinct colonies, were merged to create the colony of Nigeria. “It was in this colonial era that many of the rivalries that were to later explode in conflicts were fostered,” historian Emeka Uzoatu told IRIN.
According to Uzoatu, the British had forged an alliance with the Sokoto Caliphate, which controlled vast areas of northern Nigeria using the emirate system that devolved powers to traditional and religious leaders or emirs. This system, known as "indirect rule", secured the allegiance of the Caliphate to the British empire which, in return, allowed the Caliphate to keep its authority over its subject peoples. Under colonial rule this authority was even extended over other ethnic nationalities in northern Nigeria which had successfully resisted Sokoto hegemony prior to colonial conquest.
Meanwhile in southern Nigeria, the British had a more difficult time. The Yoruba of southwest Nigeria, one of the three biggest ethnic groups in the country (the others are the Hausa-Fulani and the Igbo in the southeast) had a centralised system of government which suited indirect rule. But the Igbo had a decentralised system so the British imposed chieftaincies, choosing handpicked loyalists as chiefs.
The system of creating chieftaincies and imposing collaborators as chiefs was also imposed on the many smaller ethnic groups in other parts of southern Nigeria. The numerous ethnic minorities in the north were placed under the control of the Sokoto Caliphate.
According to Uzoatu, to weaken the south, which had embraced western education and begun to agitate for independence, the British split it into two regions, leaving the north intact as one region. “Under the parliamentary system of government inherited at independence this lopsidedness gave the north bigger numbers and ensured its political dominance,” he said. “Thus was the stage set for northern dominance of power in Nigeria.”
In these circumstances the Nigeria that became independent from Britain in 1960 was a time bomb waiting to explode. By 1962, the Tiv of central Nigeria revolted against their perceived domination by the northern regional government controlled by Sokoto princes. Violence exploded in western Nigeria following federal elections in 1964 and regional elections a year later when it was perceived that the Northern People’s Congress, which was in control of the central government, had rigged the elections for its preferred candidates.
A group of mainly Igbo officers who carried out Nigeria’s first coup in January 1966 said their objectives included ending Hausa-Fulani dominance. Although the coup failed, the government collapsed, and the most senior army officer, Gen Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, who incidentally was an Igbo, took power.
Six months later a group of mainly northern officers launched what became known as the “revenge coup”. Ironsi was killed and Gen Yakubu Gowon (then a colonel), took power. In most of northern Nigeria pogroms against Igbos ensued, resulting in the massacre of more than 50,000. Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, whom Ironsi had appointed governor of the southeastern region, refused to accept Gowon’s authority and after months of political impasse, declared an independent republic of Biafra in May 1967.
The defeat of Biafra in 1970 at the end of a brutal civil war in which more than one million people died, was followed by years of military rule - broken only by a four-year spell of democracy and ended by elections in 1999. Military rule suppressed long brewing grievances among the various ethnic groups, but by the 1990s restiveness had begun to boil over in the Niger Delta.
With the end of military rule the discontent that built up over the years came to the surface. In the last four years Nigeria has experienced its worst violence since the civil war, and more than 10,000 people are estimated to have died as a result.
According to sociologist Ekenna Nwafor, most of the violent conflicts that have rocked Nigeria over the years and intensified in recent times are “part of the consequences of a failed development process”. If Nigeria had realised the potential of its huge human and material resources, much of the discontent that has resulted in violent conflicts would have been avoided.
“Years of misrule, massive corruption and squandering of development opportunities by successive governments have not only pauperised large segments of the population,” he said. “They have also left frayed nerves, forcing frustrated Nigerians to bare fangs against erstwhile peaceful neighbours at the individual and communal levels.”
Some of the worst violence has been between neighbouring communities and ethnic groups over claims of land ownership. Land disputes have fuelled most of the inter-communal and inter-ethnic conflicts in the southern oil region, where land ownership attracts compensation payments and amenities from oil multinationals.
In northern Nigeria, environmental degradation, especially desertification, has pushed mostly nomadic communities southwards in search of pasture. As they enter lands controlled by settled farming communities, violent conflict often erupts. Some of the worst violence recorded in Nigeria in recent years has been between so-called indigenes and settler communities, especially in the northern and central regions.
Rivalry between Muslims and Christians has also ignited violence in Nigeria, especially with regard to the adoption of strict Shari’a (Islamic law) by states in the predominantly Muslim north. Some Christians, who are in the majority in the south, have perceived this as a threat of Islamisation, and in flashpoints such as Kaduna in the north and Jos in central Nigeria this has been a source of Christian-Muslim violence.
“What many Christians fail to observe is that aggressive evangelism by pentecostal preachers in recent years, often taken to Islamic strongholds, has seemed threatening to Muslims and may have partly brought on the Shari’ah response,” Bolaji Adebiyi, a lecturer in religion, told IRIN.
Nwafor agreed. He also noted that in the face of widespread poverty, more and more people were seeking refuge in their faiths. “Political leaders have been quick to see this and have exploited it and the result includes violence, increased mutual suspicion and widening of existing divides,” he said.
“But the conflict is likely to abate if rapid development is achieved and more people find reason to believe in the capacity of the government to solve their problems and provide for their needs,” he added.