Nigeria (1990 – first combat deaths)

Tasneem Jamal Africa

Updated: June 2015

The Conflict at a Glance
Who (are the main combatants): Nigeria is home to more than 250 ethnic groups, with approximately half Muslim (dominant in the north) and half Christian (dominant in the south). While there is frequent conflict among ethnic groups and rebel factions, the most violent fighting currently is between Boko Haram  and the Nigerian Army.
What (started the conflict): British rule in Nigeria from the late 19th century until 1960 plays a significant role in the current conflict. In 1914 the British united the Southern and Northern Nigerian Protectorates, setting up many ongoing tensions between ethnic and religious groups. Since at least 1990, the government has repressed ethnic groups in the Niger Delta that have demanded political autonomy and compensation for environmental damage caused by oil companies.
When (has the fighting occurred): The Nigerian civil war or Biafran war (1967-1070),  led to a period of military rule that lasted until 1999, when elections were held. Boko Haram was formed in 2002; the Nigerian army launched its largest offensive against them in 2013.Where (has the conflict taken place): Fighting has occurred between government forces and rebel groups in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region, as well as in the Central and Northeastern states of Plateau, Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. Fighting between different ethnic and religious groups also occurs in these regions.


2015 The first quarter of 2015 was marred by election violence. Still, elections held in March and April peacefully replaced incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan with Muhammadu Buhari. In the first half of the year, Boko Haram launched major attacks on Baga and Damasak in Borno state. The military responded with an operation to clear Boko Haram out of its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest. In August, new president Buhari set a goal of defeating Boko Haram by December. Meanwhile, communal violence continued, with notable clashes between Tiv farmers and Fulani herdsmen. 

2014 Violence continued in the northeast. Boko Haram’s intensified targeting of civilians and capture of several towns in the states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe resulted in the mass displacement of people. In August, the group announced the formation of a caliphate in its seized territory. Government security operations against Boko Haram continued, with gains made in Adamawa at the end of the year. In May, the United Nations Security Council added Boko Haram to its list of al-Qaeda-linked organizations. Communal violence persisted, notably in the states of Katsina, Kaduna, Nassarawa, Zamfara, and Taraba. The Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) engaged in attacks at the beginning of the year, but announced a ceasefire in June.  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there were 13,847 conflict-related deaths this year, with Borno the hardest hit state. Funding of $16.7-million (U.S.) was allocated for the 2014 Strategic Response Plan for Nigeria coordinated by the United Nations.

2013 The year was the most violent since President Goodluck Jonathan came to power in 2011. Both the extremist group Boko Haram and government forces attacked civilians; fighting between sectarian and religious groups also occurred. An estimated 8,000 died in the fighting, approximately 1,137 civilians. A State of Emergency was declared in May after attacks on civilians increased in the Northeastern states; government forces launched their largest intervention to date against Boko Haram. Ansaru, a reported offshoot of Boko Haram, gained international notoriety for kidnapping and subsequently killing seven nationals from Europe and the Middle East. In an attempt to prevent further random acts of violence, the Nigerian government provided funding and training to the youth-led civilian vigilante group, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), to fight Boko Haram.

2012 The frequency and scope of Boko Haram attacks increased, triggering a national security crisis. Subsequent curfews, troop deployments and border closures did little to stem frequent suicide bombings; grenade and improvised explosive device attacks; car bombings; and raids on police stations, places of worship, businesses and private dwellings. Tensions appeared to worsen along ethnic and religious fault lines, with retributive attacks claiming hundreds of lives. The International Criminal Court (ICC) acknowledged that there was a “reasonable basis” to believe that Boko Haram militants had committed crimes against humanity, while Human Rights Watch accused the group of burning “more than a dozen” schools in the north. Boko Haram issued a series of ultimatums demanding that Christians vacate the country’s predominantly Muslim regions. The Nigerian Red Cross subsequently reported the displacement of tens of thousands. Security forces were accused of committing retaliatory killings and arbitrarily detaining journalists. In the absence of reliable figures from public authorities, numerous media sources estimated that the overall death toll reached approximately 800 to 1,000.

2011 The April election, won by Goodluck Jonathan, was deemed Nigeria’s fairest. But campaign violence, allegations of vote rigging and inflation of results (especially in the south and southeast) marred the results and led to three days of violent riots and sectarian killings between Christians and Muslims, leaving 1,000 dead. Militant Islamist group Boko Haram became a growing threat after several bombings, including Christmas bombings that killed 40, and attacks that killed hundreds, provoking fear in Nigeria’s Christian community.

2010 The Movement for Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) ended its ceasefire in January and stepped up attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings. In July, a state of emergency was called in the Niger Delta region. Militant demobilization slowed to a halt while President Umaru Yar’Abua remained in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. After his death in May, Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan assumed the presidency; he renewed the amnesty program in July, successfully negotiating the release of several hostages. Clashes between Fulani Muslims and Berom Christians in Plateau state killed more than 1,000, the highest death toll since 2008. In October, Boko Haram began attacks that culminated in a Christmas Eve bomb blast in Jos that killed 86. According to various media reports, an estimated 1,350 people were killed during the year, from both sectarian violence and militant activities in the Niger Delta region.

2009 Clashes between the government and militant groups in the North escalated, with militants continuing to attack oil facilities and going as far south as Abuja. Nigerian forces claimed victory over what they have called the Nigerian Taliban after they killed Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf. Tensions rose between the predominantly Christian South and the predominantly Muslim North with continued calls from some Islamic militants for the implementation of sharia law and the outlawing of Western education. According to analysts, the conflict stems more from anger and frustration over economic conditions than from religious belief. Some militants continued to disarm through the government-backed amnesty program. But others refused, citing the government’s refusal to address their main concerns of shared oil revenue and employment and training opportunities. In October, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) announced an indefinite ceasefire to allow peace negotiations with the government to proceed. Other militant groups also began to disarm; by October, almost 15,000 militants had given up their weapons.

2008 Violence continued in the Niger Delta between the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), other militia groups in the region and Nigerian government forces. Oil workers were kidnapped. There were 100 conflict deaths in September, the most violent month. Large-scale acts of sexual violence were committed by militias and government troops, raising fears of an increased rate of HIV/AIDS. Clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in Jos over an election dispute killed 200 and displaced approximately 7,000.

2007 Separatist, state and religious violence continued, while gang violence increased for the first time since 2004. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other armed opposition groups continued to attack oil-production facilities and employees. In the first civilian transfer of power in Nigeria’s history, northerner Umaru Yar’Adua was elected President. The election was deemed illegitimate by both domestic and international observers, undermining the government’s authority and increasing tension in the country.

2006 Violent clashes between various groups continued, resulting in approximately 300 deaths. Riots broke out between Muslims and Christians over the publication in Danish newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Tension increased between President Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, raising concerns for the April 2007 election. A new rebel faction, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), emerged, seeking independence for the region’s 14 million Ijaw people. It was held responsible for sabotaging oil production in the Delta region and kidnapping foreign workers.

2005 Religious, ethnic, separatist, state and gang violence continued, although at a lower intensity than in 2004. A national conference on constitutional reforms to address religious and ethnic tensions collapsed.

2004 Clashes between communities and with government security forces and attacks on oil facilities continued, claiming more than 1,200 lives. Most violence occurred between Muslim and Christian militias in and around Kano and between militias and government security forces in and near Port Harcourt. Piracy was also a problem;  Nigerian waters were ranked among the most dangerous in the world. A new government report estimated the number of people killed by violence in Nigeria since 1999 at more than 50,000. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by this year’s violence; since 1999, more than 800,000 have been forced from their homes.

2003 Communal violence and clashes with government security forces claimed hundreds of lives. April’s presidential election created dissatisfaction and violence.

2002 Violence killed hundreds, most civilian. Violence intensified in response to the scheduling of elections in early 2003; clashes over the controversial Miss World pageant claimed more than 200 lives.

2001 Fighting that targeted civilians persisted in several Nigerian states. The death toll from Christian-Muslim and ethnic clashes and from attacks by government troops likely exceeded 2,000.

2000 In February, violence broke out between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kaduna, spreading to neighbouring towns and eastern cities after a march to protest the proposed introduction of Islamic law in the state of Kunda. In May, there were renewed hostilities between Christians and Muslims after other northern states announced their intentions to implement sharia law. There were some reports of continued fighting between ethnic groups in other regions. An estimated 2,000 (most civilian) were killed, mainly in northern and southeastern Nigeria.

1999 Clashes between religious and ethnic groups took place in several regions,  claiming more than 1,000 lives. Clashes between Muslims and Christians in northern states killed at least 100. Groups also clashed with government forces, especially in the oil-producing Niger Delta. The government deployed troops to troubled areas in an attempt to control the violence.

Type of Conflict
Failed state

Parties to the Conflict

1. The Government of Nigeria: Goodluck Jonathan has been president since 2010. Government security forces continue to be heavily involved in the conflict. It is alleged that these forces, often with the consent of the government, have used excessive force. The U.S. government is reportedly providing military training as well as technical assistance to the distressed Delta region.


Various ethnic groups are involved in conflicts with one another or with the government, particularly in the Niger Delta, where several groups, in particular the Ijaws, are fighting for self-determination or a greater share of the region’s oil resources. While there are numerous ethnic groups that engage in sporadic fighting and hundreds of ethnic-based armed groups, only the most significant are listed below.

a) Ijaws and Itsekiris in the Niger Delta;

b) Ilajes and Ijaws in the southwest;

c) Yorubas and Ijaws in the southwest;

d) Yorubas and Hausas in the southwest and north;

e) Tivs and Jukuns, Fulani and Kutebs in central Nigeria;

f) Fulani and Berom in the Riyomo district, southwest of Jos.

Niger-Delta Based Rebel Groups:

2. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): Composed of Ijaw people living in the Niger Delta, MEND seeks independence for the region’s 14 million Ijaws. It has claimed responsibility for a rash of kidnappings involving foreign oil workers and reportedly pledged to incite a wave of guerrilla warfare until its demands, which include the release of prisoners and the cessation of all oil extraction and production in the Niger Delta, are met.

3a. The Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC): Operating under the MEND umbrella, it is sometimes called Western MEND.

3b. The Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF): Led by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, it is fighting primarily for a greater share of oil wealth. Other prominent groups are the Egbesu Boys of Africa (EBA) and the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF).

4. Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC): JRC is a militant group that claims to be fighting for an independent Niger Delta. In 2010, the JRC called for attacks on the Shell pipeline in Rivers State.

Other Ethnic-Based Rebel Groups:

5. The Yoruba-based O’odua People’s Congress: Established in 1994, this organization operates in Nigeria’s southwest and strives to protect the interests of the Yoruba ethnic group. Its goal is autonomy for the Yoruba.

6. Igbo in southeast Nigeria: They are represented in part by the unarmed Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB).

Religious-based groups in the north:

7. The Arewa People’s Congress (APC): Operating in Nigeria’s north, it was formed to protect the interests of the Muslim Hausa and Fulani populations.

8. Hisbah groups: These Islamic vigilante groups enforce adherence to sharia.

9. The Zamfara State Vigilante Service (ZSVS): In cooperation with the Zamfara state authorities, this group is tasked with capturing suspected criminals.

10. Al Sunna Wal Jamma: This group launched an armed struggle in 2004 with the intention of establishing a Taliban-type Muslim state in Nigeria’s north.  The conflict was quelled by security forces.

11. Boko Haram (“Western education is a sin”): This militant Islamic sect organized under Mohammed Yusuf in 2002; it is associated with the Islamic Maghreb, which aims to enforce Islamic law throughout Nigeria. The group has been responsible for bombings and other attacks, including a Christmas Eve bombing in 2010 that killed more than 80 people. In 2014, the United Nations Security Council added Boko Haram to its list of al-Qaeda-linked organizations.

12. Christian Militias: There are numerous small Christian militias. While some of the armed groups are clearly motivated by religion, religion is often a cover for disputes over land and cattle that have traditionally occurred between farming communities (which are mostly Christian or practise indigenous African religions) and cattle herders (who are mostly Muslims). Plateau State has seen the highest levels of such violence.

Additional Actors:

13. Hundreds of armed gangs, known as “cults”: Cults may be involved in such activities as organized crime (especially the theft of oil), vigilante actions, community self-defence, ethnic or religious violence and party politics (hired by local politicians to influence political outcomes). They are usually comprised of a small number of poor youths who view the gangs as one of the few opportunities for economic gain and protection. The largest among them include the Bakassi Boys in southeastern Nigeria and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), active in Rivers state. The NDV is led by Ateke Tom, one of the most wanted men in Nigeria, and has an active membership of several hundred. It has a small fleet of speedboats used in transporting stolen oil and kidnappings.

14. Civilian Youth Vigilantes: Calling themselves the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), these groups of young men, armed with small arms and hand-held weapons such as sticks and machetes, have defended against and attacked Boko Haram in the northeast. The CJTF was initially condemned by the government, but since late 2013 has received state funding to train some 1,300 members to join local police forces and the national army.

Status of Fighting

2015 Electoral violence occurred during the first quarter of the year. Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission reported that at least 58 people were killed in such violence between December 2014 and February 13, 2015 (International Crisis Group).

The government continued to fight Boko Haram. In January the militant group attacked Baga, a village on Lake Chad, killing many. The following month, Nigerian military forces launched intensive operations against Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold. Operations in this area continued in April and May, with military forces rescuing 200 girls and 93 women from a Boko Haram base on April 28 (International Crisis Group). In August, new president Muhammadu Buhari set a December deadline for the military to defeat Boko Haram and reclaim all territory held by the militant group. According to Newsweek, the President claimed that government forces had largely met this goal by December 24 (Newsweek). Throughout the year, Boko Haram militants continued to carry out suicide attacks, killing 265 civilians in June alone (International Crisis Group).

Communal violence persisted. On March 15 a raid by suspected Fulani herdsmen on Egba village in Benue state resulted in 90 deaths. Clashes between the Nigerian military and Islamic Movement of Nigeria left over 100 dead. The United States expressed concern over the deaths of civilians (United States Diplomatic Mission to Nigeria).

2014 Incidents of conflict increased by more than 40 per cent and fatalities by nearly 150 per cent, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Boko Haram perpetrated a series of attacks on villages, schools, and military facilities in the northeast. In April it kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls during from a school in Chibok, Borno. The United States deployed drones and aircraft to aid the search efforts for the girls. In August, Boko Haram proclaimed the creation of a caliphate in the territory it controlled, including 10 towns in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. In December, the Nigerian military re-established control over the Mubi, Gombi, Maiha, and Hong areas of the state of Adamawa. Amnesty International reported on human rights abuses perpetrated by government security forces, including the arbitrary killing of more than 600 people—most fleeing detainees—while fending off an attack by Boko Haram on an army facility. Attacks by MEND on oil and gas industry infrastructure continued until June, when the group declared a ceasefire. In October, attacks on People’s Democratic Party members and supporters took place in Abuja and the state of Akwa Ibom, in advance of 2015 elections. Communal violence escalated in March when approximately 110 people were killed in Katsina by suspected Fulani tribesmen and approximately 200 people in village raids in Kaduna. In April, almost 300 people were killed in communal violence in the states of Nasarawa, Zamfara, and Taraba.

2013 Civilian involvement in the conflict grew, with the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) providing defence and leading attacks against Boko Haram. Boko Haram was involved in abductions and rapes of women and young girls, and forced enlistment of children and young men in the northeast, beheading those who resisted. Their attacks on civilians and civilian institutions also increased; they reportedly burned 206 schools in one state alone. Boko Haram continued to destroy opponents’ homes and places of worship.

In May, Nigerian armed forces actively responded to high-profile attacks against civilians in May, retaking territory in the northeast claimed by Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a State of Emergency in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa, in preparation for a three-month campaign involving heavy artillery, airstrikes, and ground assaults against Boko Haram and affiliated groups.

2012 Following a noticeable deterioration in public security, President Jonathan imposed a state of emergency on the 15 local administrative regions hardest hit by Boko Haram attacks. Subsequent curfews, troop deployments, and border closures did little to stem suicide bombings; IED attacks; and raids on police stations, places of worship, businesses, and private homes by Boko Haram militants. More than 250 people were killed in the first three weeks, compared to an estimated 550 in all of 2011. Actors thought to indirectly assist the operations of security forces—such as telecommunication firms—were also routinely attacked by Boko Haram. In the first months of the year, Boko Haram issued a series of ultimatums demanding that Christians vacate the country’s predominantly Muslim northern regions. The Nigerian Red Cross subsequently reported the displacement of tens of thousands to the country’s predominantly Christian southern regions. Human Rights Watch reported that government security forces had engaged in unlawful killings and accused Boko Haram militants of setting “more than a dozen” schools on fire in the north, temporarily leaving thousands of children without access to education. The International Criminal Court indicated that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Boko Haram had committed crimes against humanity. Boko Haram also attacked mosques and Muslim religious leaders.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed responsibility for attacks on foreign-operated oil installations in Bayelsa State, feeding fears of the group’s resurgence.

2011 After the announcement of presidential elections on April 16, violent riots and sectarian killings between Christians and Muslims erupted in some northern states, leaving more than 1,000 dead and making the election one of the bloodiest in Nigeria’s history. According to Human Rights Watch, 45 incidents of communal violence in Plateau State killed more than 350; clashes between groups in Bauchi, Benue, Nassarawa, Niger and Taraba states killed more than 120 and left hundreds displaced. Nigerian security forces were implicated in several attacks on villages in Plateau State in August and September and in extrajudicial killings in response to Boko Haram attacks in Maiduguri. Boko Haram conducted several bombings, including Christmas bombings that killed 40; in total Boko Haram killed more than 400, mainly Christians,  provoking fear in Nigeria’s Christian community. The military was accused of killing an estimated 140 civilians.

2010 Conflict in the Niger Delta between government forces and the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) persisted; sectarian violence in the Jos Plateau region intensified. In July, MEND announced the end of a July 2009 ceasefire and increased attacks on pipelines and kidnappings. In March, three pipeline attacks were reported. In July, Senate President David Mark declared a state of emergency in the southeast states after four journalists were kidnapped. In early November, Niger Delta militants took 19 oil and construction workers hostage, including two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians, one Canadian and 12 Nigerians; all were released on November 18 after negotiations between demobilized ex-militants and MEND fighters. The Nigerian military began a new offensive in the Niger Delta, resulting in 150 deaths, according to activist groups.

In January, clashes between Muslims and Christians in Jos killed between 320 and 550 people, displacing 18,000. A curfew was imposed as troops moved into the area. In early March, an estimated 500 were killed when Fulani Muslims attacked three villages close to Jos in a revenge attack for Christian assaults on Muslim villages in January. Four hundred bodies were found in a mass grave in the city of Dogon Na Hauwa. Sporadic Muslim-Christian violence continued in Plateau State for the rest of the year.  Boko Harem conducted several attacks beginning in October, culminating in a Christmas Eve bomb blast in Jos that killed 86.

2009 In May, escalating hostilities between the government’s Joint Military Task Force (JTF) and militants in the Niger Delta led to many militant deaths, recovered arms and the destruction of a militant camp. Traditional rulers from the coastal areas called for more government accountability and for their children to lay down their arms. The Ijaw National Congress, representing the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta, said that the army had killed “at least 1,000 civilians.” The army countered that it was responding to increased attacks by MEND, which had stepped up attacks against oil workers.

2008 The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) continued to target oil facilities. MEND refused to participate in peace negotiations with the government until Henry Okah, a key rebel arrested in 2007, was released. For the first time, MEND struck a deep offshore oilfield–a location thought to be relatively safe. The unilateral ceasefire declared by MEND at the end of June ended after two weeks when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered to assist the Nigerian government with military training to target militias in the Niger Delta. Kidnapping of foreign oil workers and hijacking of foreign oil tankers continued; at the height of the hijackings, eight ships and 93 crew members were taken hostage. September saw 100 deaths in attacks on Chevron and Shell facilities by militants, who then declared another unilateral ceasefire on September 21. The government arrested 400 suspected militants for the attacks. In November, 2,500 new Joint Task Force troops were deployed in the Niger Delta region. In two days in November in Jos, violence between Christian and Muslim gangs killed approximately 200, injured 157 and displaced 7,000. Violence persisted in Jos; MEND threatened more violence after the arrest of a militant leader.

2007 The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) targeted oil facilities, bombing oil-export terminals, destroying pipelines and kidnapping foreign workers. Other kidnappers included criminal gangs seeking ransom and separatist groups with political agendas. Fighting, attributed to Chadian militants, increased in Kano, one of 12 northern states practising Islamic law. Islamic militants attacked a police station in Kano, killing police officers and civilians. Sectarian clashes killed religious clerics, civilians and police officers and continued to fuel tension between Christian and Muslim communities. Rival militias went on a rampage that killed 20. Following the release of two jailed Ijaw leaders, 25 armed groups jointly demanded more regional control over the delta’s oil resources. MEND refused to participate in the talks.

2006 The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was reportedly responsible for kidnapping at least four foreign oil workers each month as well as sabotaging numerous oil extraction and production facilities. Its efforts contributed to a 10-per-cent reduction in Nigeria’s oil exports. In February, hostilities swept through the northern areas of Maiduguri, Onitsha, Bauchi and Enugu after the publication in Danish newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Muslim rioters burned Christian churches and attacked civilians. Christian inhabitants looted Muslim shops and killed and burned Muslim civilians. During the March census, many ethnic groups reportedly attacked census personnel in Ondu, Anambra, Enugu and Nnewi states. The group known as MASSOB, composed of Igbo people and seeking an independent Biafra, was blamed for a series of attacks on police stations in the state of Anambra.

2005 Sunni and Shia Muslims clashed in the northwestern town of Sokoto. Christian-Muslim violence in northern Nigeria decreased significantly from 2004. Major ethnic clashes over land were reported in central-eastern Adamawa state. Violence in the Niger Delta among ethnic militias, gangs, local police and the Nigerian army was linked to land and oil access and self-determination.

2004 Most clashes were between Muslims and Christians in Plateau State (primarily in or near Kano) and between factions in the oil-rich area around Port Harcourt. A Christian militia attack on a Muslim town in May and the reprisals that followed killed hundreds. There were clashes between Muslim extremists and Nigerian security forces and attacks by insurgents on oil installations in Port Harcourt. Piracy was a significant problem; Nigerian waters were ranked the third-most dangerous in the world.

2003 The oil-producing Niger Delta area of Southern Nigeria witnessed the most intense fighting. Clashes between Ijaw and Itsekiri groups in March and August in the city of Warri, allegedly over oil reserves, killed hundreds. The violence had a severe impact on oil production and led to the intervention of security forces. Tribal and political rivals clashed before and after presidential elections in mid-April.

2002 Religious and ethnic-based clashes occurred near the central city of Jos; in southeastern Nigeria; and in Plateau, Nasarawa, Bauchi, Taraba and Benue states.  Some conflicts created mass displacements. Politically motivated violence increased in advance of elections. The Miss World pageant, which was to have been held in Kaduna in November, caused riots that left more than 200 dead.

2001 Clashes occurred between ethnic groups and between Christians and Muslims over the introduction of sharia law. Government troops killed more than 200 people in retaliation for the deaths of 19 captured soldiers.

2000 On February 21, violence broke out between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kaduna, spreading to neighbouring towns and eastern cities of Aba, Umuahia and Obasanjo, after a march organized by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was held to protest the proposed introduction of Islamic law in the state of Kunda. Over the next 10 days, homes and places of worship were burned and more than 1,000 people killed. In March, rival communities in Ife in southwestern Nigeria fought over disputed land. In May, violence broke out when other northern states announced their intentions to implement sharia law. By mid-October, clashes between a militant Yoruba group and Hausa-Fulanis in Lagos had killed approximately 100.

1999 Intense fighting continued in the Niger Delta region between ethnic groups (especially the Ijaw) and government soldiers and security forces. The state of emergency declared at the end of December 1998 lasted into January; as many as 240 people were killed in clashes between protesting Ijaw youths and government troops in the Niger Delta state of Bayelsa. There were clashes between Ijaw and Itsekiri groups, Ijaw and Ilaje in the southwestern state of Ondo, and between Yoruba and Ijaw in the southwest. Fighting in the southwest and north between Yorubas, who comprise the majority in the southwest, and the Hausa-Fulani, who dominate in the north, reportedly claimed more than 360 lives. Fighting in the north between Muslims and Christians claimed almost 100 lives, while clashes in the east between local farmers and Fulani herdsmen over land access killed approximately 100. Control over land also sparked conflict between Ibo groups in the east. The government deployed several hundred soldiers to various regions of the country, with little effect. Human Rights Watch suggested that government troops were involved in destroying villages and perpetuated the violence in many regions.

Number of Dead and Displaced

Total: The Council for Foreign Relations estimated the death toll to be approximately 36,500 since 2011. Human Rights Watch estimated that from 1999 to 2013, there were over 18,000 conflict-related deaths—3,000 related to Boko Haram militancy from 2009 to 2013. According to International Crisis Group, between 1999 and 2009, sectarian violence killed an estimated 14,000 people, most in Nigeria’s multiethnic, multireligious middle belt region. An estimated 3,000 occurred in the city of Jos, Plateau State–approximately 500 in 2008 and 1,000 in 2010. A 2004 government-sponsored report estimated total fatalities to be greater than 50,000. The same year a study commissioned by Royal Dutch Shell estimated that 1,000, mostly young, people died each year as a result of violence between rival militia groups in the Niger Delta.

2015 Estimates of the number of conflict deaths varied by source. The Council on Foreign Relations calculated 14,527 fatalities, (Council on Foreign Relations)[1] while ACLED reported 10,933 (ACLED, All Africa Files, ACLED Version 6 (1997-2015) standard file). Nigeria Watch calculated that Boko Haram and the Nigerian military combined accounted for 9,264 deaths. Pre- and post-election violence resulted in a further 370 deaths—down from 912 in 2011 (Nigeria Watch, Fifth Report on Violence in Nigeria, 09, 14).  

Refugees and IDPs: In June 2015 the UNHCR reported 1,385,298 internally displaced people, 120,303 refugees, and 40,640 asylum seekers originating from Nigeria (UNHCR).

[1] Raw dataset used for calculations. See third paragraph under the “Methodology“ subheading for link to data.

2014 The Council on Foreign Relations estimated that 13,847 deaths were caused by violence stemming from political, economic, and social grievances. Borno state, with 8,213 deaths, was the hardest hit; Adamawa was second with 1,686. There were differences in reports of deaths resulting from Boko Haram militancy: ACLED reported 7,711 deaths, Council on Foreign Relations reported 11,245, and Nigeria Watch reported 11,779.

Refugees and IDPs: According to the UNHCR, there were 41,838 refugees and 23,818 asylum seekers originating from Nigeria in July 2014. In August, UN OCHA reported 650,000 people displaced in the northeast of the country while Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) reported close to 700,000 IDPs between January and November. ACLED reported that Nigeria has approximately 1.5 million IDPs as a result of conflict. More than 60,000 people fled to Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

2013 The Council for Foreign Relations estimated the death toll at nearly 8,600, but totals varied widely among monitoring groups. Direct attacks on civilians were more frequent and severe, with approximately 1,137 killed. Most deaths  resulted from Boko Haram suicide bombings, village raids, and attacks on educational campuses, including elementary schools and colleges. An attack on an agricultural school dormitory at night killed 40 students; a gun battle in April killed between 187 and 220. According to IRIN, approximately 60 soldiers and police and 470 Boko Haram members were killed. In December, the Nigerian Army admitted to having 1,400 suspected members of Boko Haram in custody.

Refugees: Fighting in the northeastern states brought the total number of refugees in NIgeria to 17,461, with an additional 14,000 people seeking asylum elsewhere, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. It is believed that increased fighting displaced an additional 37,000 people from Nigeria and Niger.

2012 Between 900 and 1,100 civilians were killed and between 500 and 600 wounded in Boko Haram suicide bombings; grenade and IED attacks; car bombings; rocket attacks; and raids on police stations, places of worship, businesses, and private homes. Dozens more were killed in sectarian clashes attributed to historical grievances over land rights. Violence was often cyclical, with retaliatory attacks traded between local factions, typically divided by religion. Approximately 100 to 200 security forces personnel were reported killed; real numbers are likely higher, as militants frequently targeted them. Approximately 100 to 200 militants were reported killed. Media sources reported total fatalities surpassing 1,000.

2011 According to media reports, an estimated 1,700 people were killed in electoral violence, militant activities and sectarian clashes. According to Human Rights Watch, 1,000 died in sectarian violence and election riots, while Boko Haram killed 425. More than 100 people were killed in bomb attacks; another 50 died in ethnic clashes in Ebonyi state.

2010 According to media reports, sectarian violence and militant activities in the Niger Delta region killed 1,350, approximately 1,000 in and around Jos in clashes between Fulani Muslims and Berom Christians.

2009 Approximately 1,700 died in clashes between government forces and rebel factions. According to the Nigerian Red Cross, 780 people were killed in Maiduguri, home to the leader of Boko Haram.

2008 Violence killed at least 500 civilians, militia combatants and government officials in the Niger Delta and Jos. An additional 157 were injured and 7,000 displaced in a two-day conflict in Jos. As most fighting took place in remote, difficult-to-access areas, the death toll was likely higher.

2007 More than 100 died from violence, most in remote areas.

2006 At least 300 people, most civilians, were reported killed, 200 in clashes between Christians and Muslims. At least 50 foreign oil workers were kidnapped from compounds in the Delta region.

2005 At least 350 people were killed, most in clashes over land and oil resources.

2004 Between 1,200 and 2,100 were killed. Many reports of fatalities, particularly from sectarian fighting in Kano, were unconfirmed.

2003 According to independent media reports, approximately 500 people were killed in sectarian conflicts or clashes with government security forces; most deaths occurred in the oil-producing south.

2002 According to independent media reports, at least 500 died in religious and ethnic conflict or in clashes with government security forces.

2001 Media reported at least 2,000 conflict deaths, most in clashes between Christians and Muslims.

2000 An estimated 2,000 people, primarily civilians, died in clashes between Muslims and Christians in northern and southeastern Nigeria.

1999 An estimated 760 to 1,240 people, most civilian, were killed.


Political Developments

2015 As the result of pre-election violence in January and February, Nigeria’s Electoral Commission rescheduled February national elections for March 28 and gubernatorial and state elections for April 11. Despite continuing violence, the national election resulted in a peaceful transition of power after incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democracy Party (PDP) was defeated by All Progressive Congress (APC) candidate Muhammadu Buhari. The following month the APC consolidated power by winning the governorship of 29 states (International Crisis Group).

In June Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon made progress on a Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to replace the ad hoc international coalition fighting Boko Haram. International Crisis Group reported that the four countries agreed on a proposal for increased military action and a $66-million Emergency Development Program for areas suffering from the Boko Haram insurgency (International Crisis Group). In the same month, President Buhari ordered the release of $21-million of a $100-million fund earmarked for the MNJTF. On June 15, the United States announced a $5-million contribution to Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.

2014 On May 22, the United Nations Security Council added Boko Haram to the list of al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations and imposed financial sanctions and an arms embargo on the group and its supporters. In July, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau declared solidarity with the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. That same month, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon established a joint regional force of 2,800 to fight Boko Haram. On August 1, the government announced the allocation of $456-million (U.S.) to the Victims Support Fund for those affected by Boko Haram violence.

In February, the 2014 Strategic Response Plan for Nigeria, coordinated by the United Nations, was launched to address Nigeria’s humanitarian needs. In response to an appeal for $93-million donors pledged $16.7-millon. Nigeria was also granted $3.55-million from the United Nations Emergency Response Fund (CERF). On November 18, President Goodluck Jonathan appealed for another six-month extension of emergency rule in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states.

2013 The Nigerian government arrested and charged 340 suspects, both Christian and Muslim, with participating in the 2010 massacres. The leader of The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an extremist Christian group from southern Nigeria, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for bombings in 2010. A splinter cell of Boko Haram, Ansaru, targeted and kidnapped foreign nationals, including a French family of seven in Cameroon, and executed seven nationals from Europe and the Middle East. Fears of large-scale fighting between Christians and Muslims increased, as members from MEND made threats to target and kill Muslims in response to crimes committed by Boko Haram and Ansaru. The U.S. government formally classified both Boko Haram and Ansaru as international terror organizations and, along with the French and UK governments, pledged training and financial aid for the Nigerian government’s war on terrorism.

2012 President Goodluck Jonathan revealed that Boko Haram had likely “infiltrated” the executive, parliamentary, and judicial branches of government. In June National Security Adviser Owoye Azazi and Defence Minister Bello Mohammed were removed from office. The National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria publicly criticized arbitrary detentions of journalists by security forces, which took place after the publication of stories alleging human rights abuses by the military. Although the Government and Boko Haram reportedly engaged in a series of indirect “talks” through intermediaries, no truce agreement was reached. The U.S. State Department subsequently listed three prominent commanders of Boko Haram as Specially Designated Global Terrorists for suspected links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

2011 The April election in which President Goodluck Jonathan was reelected was deemed Nigeria’s fairest. But campaign violence, allegations of vote rigging and inflation of results (especially in the south and southeast) marred the results and led to three days of riots and sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims that left 1,000 dead. Nigeria made poor progress with its anti-corruption campaign. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission secured only four convictions of senior officials, none of whom faced serious prison time.

2010 Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan assumed presidential responsibilities in February as President Umaru Yar’Adua was receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. On May 5, Yar’Adua died and Jonathan became President. The death of Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, upset the balance of power between the Muslim North and Christian South. In the People’s Democratic Party, the national ruling party, power is meant to alternate between the North and South. After a party debate, governors from the northern states agreed that Jonathan, a southern Christian, could run in the next election. Elections were postponed from January to April 2011, approved by the National Assembly. Violence and political unrest in the Niger Delta region continued to be a major concern for the government. Yar’Adua’s illness stalled the amnesty program, and militants warned of new violence, staging protests in Abuja. In July, Jonathan restarted the rehabilitation and reintegration program.

2009 In May, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) declared civil war and advised oil companies to evacuate staff. MEND vowed to fight until all oil production in the Niger Delta ceased. Also in May, the government launched a campaign to target militant strongholds in the region. Human rights groups reported that the campaign caused many civilian deaths and large-scale displacement. The government offered amnesty to militants willing to lay down their weapons. In July, MEND leader Henry Okah accepted the amnesty offer. Delays and lack of resources meant that some former militants could not enter rehabilitation for six months after disarmament. Militants continued to target gas facilities, including major pipelines, forcing power stations to temporarily shut down. A month after the amnesty offer, a new rebel group, the Urhobo Revolutionary Army, appeared in the Delta region and swore allegiance to MEND. The Nigerian government confessed to extrajudicial killings of members of Boko Haram and sent a formal apology to the United Nations. The leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody. In November, MEND declared a ceasefire and began formal talks with President Umaru Yar’Adua. But Yar’Adua’s poor health, continued corruption among the bureaucracy, and division among the rebel factions left little hope that the talks would yield results.

2008 Many appeals of municipal, state and federal election results were held, as well as trials for suspected government corruption. President Umaru Yar’Adua’s election result was upheld in December. The oil-rich area of Bakassi Peninsula was transferred to Cameroon in accordance with an International Justice Tribunal ruling. The transfer resulted in requests by 60,000 Nigerians to move to other areas of Nigeria. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) refused to engage in peace talks without Henry Okah, a key rebel leader who had been arrested and given a secret trial in 2007.

2007 Opposition demands to delay May elections were rejected by the government. In response, 18 opposition parties urged Nigerians to boycott the election. The election of President Umaru Yar’Adua marked the first civilian transfer to power in the history of Nigeria. But the election was marred by reports of widespread vote-rigging. The government engaged in preliminary talks with 25 armed groups. The widespread discontent among the Ijaw people, who said that their rights were not being respected, increased support for armed opposition groups. Facing accusations of political corruption and abuse of power, Yar’Adua launched an investigation into the links between government officials in the Niger Delta and violent criminal gangs. After the election, assassination attempts were made on the President and Vice-President.

2006 Political tensions increased between President Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, when Abubakar refused to support the extension of Obasanjo’s presidency for a third term. The internal conflict slowed government functions and undermined confidence in the government and in the electoral process. Funsho Williams of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and leading candidate for governor of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous state, was murdered. All the major Nigerian political parties were fielding candidates from the predominantly Muslim North, rousing sectarian sensitivities in the Christian South were minorities perceive a history of domination by Northern rulers. Two journalists were charged with sedition after criticizing Obasanjo’s government. Massive unemployment continued to be a problem; large numbers of unemployed and disillusioned youth were recruited by rebel factions. Rebel groups kidnapped foreign oil workers in the Delta region to gain leverage in bargaining for the release of their members from custody.

2005 A national conference on constitutional reforms broke down in July without an agreement. In August, President Olusegun Obasanjo publicly confirmed that police were guilty of systemic human rights abuses and promised reforms. Late in the year, the Nigerian government arrested the leaders of several militia and separatist groups, charging them with treason and subversion. Negotiation between Ogoni leaders and Royal Dutch Shell continued.

2004 Militia groups in Nigeria’s oil-rich south announced that they would not disarm, despite pledging to do so as part of a peace deal with the government. But when the government offered money for arms, militia members began to turn in guns. In response to more violence in Plateau state, the National Assembly gave the President sweeping emergency powers. After an upsurge in violence in River state, the Governor fired his entire cabinet. More than 20,000 people were displaced by fighting, bringing the total number of displaced people since 1999 to well over 800,000. In March, the ruling party performed strongly in local elections.

2003 In April, President Olusegun Obasanjo of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was reelected amid allegations of fraud, despite the presence of international election observers. Opposition leaders refused to accept election results. The primary opposition to the mainly Christian PDP was the Muslim-dominated All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP).

2002 In response to intensified ethnic and religious violence, the Obasanjo government continued to employ extreme measures. According to a report by the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), government security forces were responsible for more than 10,000 civilian deaths. In addition to carrying out extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals, the report said, the state and its security agencies instigated and exacerbated communal conflicts and failed to react to warning signs of violence. Allegations of unfair voting registration procedures ahead of the 2003 elections fueled political tensions.

2001 Human Rights Watch criticized the Nigerian government for failing to prevent the violence that swept through the city of Jos, killing more than 1,000 people.

2000 Early in the year, President Olusegun Obasanjo implemented an anti-corruption program, dismissing senior officers. But renewed violence in the North sparked calls for Nigeria to split into a looser confederation of ethnic regions. By the beginning of October, eight states had adopted sharia law.

1999 Ending 15 years of military rule, Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in as Nigeria’s first civilian President in May after multiparty elections. Despite repeated promises, the Nigerian government did little to end sectarian conflict. A peace agreement between Ijaw and Ilaje groups in August was ineffective in discouraging armed clashes in the southwestern state of Ondo.


Approximately 120 million people of more than 200 ethnic groups live in Nigeria.

Since at least 1990, military governments in Nigeria have tried to stifle increasing complaints that oil production in the Niger Delta does not benefit local communities. For decades the government has repressed ethnic groups in the Niger Delta who are demanding political autonomy and compensation for environmental damage caused by oil companies. These demands intensified after 1995 when Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists were executed by Nigeria’s military regime for opposing oil extraction. In other areas of the Niger Delta, Ijaw and Ilage ethnic groups have fought over land ownership.

Tensions between the Hausa and Yoruba, Nigeria’s two largest ethnic groups, escalated into armed fighting in a number of regions, particularly the north and southwest. Northern Nigeria is primarily Muslim and dominated by the Hausa; the Yoruba make up the majority in the Christian South. Yoruba have traditionally accused Hausa governments of neglect, while Hausa believe that Yoruba monopolize business and economic affairs. Tension intensified in 1993 after the cancellation of presidential elections by military rulers was seen by the Yoruba as a grave injustice by the northern power elite. Yoruba groups have advocated secession, while groups living in the southwest have demanded decentralization of political power. Reports suggest that the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba, in 1999, shifted the balance of power to the Southwest from the North, which had controlled the country since 1960.

It is difficult to differentiate between ethnic or regional conflict and religious conflict. Recent clashes in the North stem from Christian opposition to Muslim appeals for the adoption of sharia law by states in which both Christians and Muslims live. Economic inequalities and resource scarcities are cited as causes of violence, as are the heavy-handed tactics of the government’s security forces. Media reports have accused politicians of fueling ethnic, religious or communal tensions for political gain. Sectarian violence, fighting between government forces and extremist groups, and deliberate attacks on civilians have produced a rising death toll since 2008.

Arms Sources

Tribal and ethnic groups in the Niger Delta are allegedly armed by criminal organizations involved in the trade in stolen crude oil. Many militia groups also obtain arms by either bribing police forces or attacking and raiding police stations.

In 1999 the United States and members of the European Union, previously the major arms suppliers to Nigeria, lifted the military sanctions imposed after the government execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2012 Nigeria received arms supplies from Italy and in 2013 from France, Israel, Norway, and Ukraine. SIPRI reported $54-million in arms imports from the United States in 2011; since then, the United States has not supplied weapons to Nigeria because of its poor human rights record. The Military Balance indicated that Russia, which last sold weapons to Nigeria in 2003, won contracts with the Nigerian military for helicopters, with orders placed in 2012 and 2014. Nigeria also placed recent orders with Australia, China, India, and South Africa (The Military Balance, Vol 116, 480). In the Niger Delta, oil multinationals were accused of importing small arms and employing armed soldiers. In addition, Nigeria has a domestic capacity to manufacture small arms. Other arms are smuggled into the country illegally from neighbouring countries such as Benin, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

Rebel factions easily obtain small arms from suppliers such as China. Boko Haram reportedly loots army barracks and troops. In 2007, the United States announced the initiation of a U.S.-led joint training and equipment program to assist Nigeria’s military in countering the growing violence against oil facilities and their workers. In 2008, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered Nigeria assistance in training forces to deal with militants in the Niger Delta, prompting increased violence from MEND and other militia forces in the area. In 2009, members of MEND agreed to hand over almost 8,000 weapons under the government’s amnesty offer, on the condition that the government buy back the weapons, make financial provisions for the militants, and deliver a percentage of oil revenue. Some militant leaders claimed that the program was subject to abuse and corruption, with third parties collecting arms from militants to build up their own armouries in preparation for the 2011 elections.

Analysts also believe that new partnerships between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could bring about new small arms sourcing patterns in the region.

The Nigerian government spent more than $2.1-billion on the military in 2012. Nigeria’s 2013 defence budget, according to The Military Balance, was $ 2.35-billion; in 2014 it was $2.23-billion and $1.88-billion in 2015 (The Military Balance, Vol 116, 460). According to IRIN, Nigeria’s defence budget in 2014 was $2.1-billion and the total security allotment was $5.8-billion—the largest single government expenditure.

Economic Factors

The impact of multinational oil operations in the Niger Delta region is at the centre of community protest and conflict. The communities are marginalized and impoverished and face environmental devastation after decades of oil production. Some analysts argue that much of the sectarian violence in Nigeria is a result of economic inequalities and resource scarcity, not ideological or communal differences.

The oil industry has become increasingly involved in the Nigerian conflict as its facilities have been targeted by various groups to attract the government’s attention to their grievances. In 2005, Nigeria signed a multimillion-dollar agreement with PetroChina, which was looking to increase its offshore holdings in the country and has emerged as a significant player in the Nigerian arms trade. Analysts believe that at least $1-billion in oil revenues is diverted by corrupt officials annually. The Heritage Institute reported in 2014 that while Nigeria recorded $800-billion in oil revenues over the past 50 years, Nigeria’s average per capita income has remained at $1 per day. In 2006, production disruptions cost the federal government approximately $4.4-billion in oil revenue. The government depends on oil and gas for over 90 per cent of its export earnings and approximately 80 per cent of total government revenues.

In 2004, militia groups demanded a greater share of oil revenues and threatened “all-out war,” stepping up attacks on oil installations. Armed local gangs and militant groups break into oil pipelines and siphon off hundreds of barrels of oil, which is sold to offshore oil tankers bound for Asia, Europe, Russia, and occasionally the United States. Often the ship captains pay for the oil with arms and ammunition.

With approximately $100-million a day lost from stolen oil, foreign investment interest waned in 2008. An economic shift from agriculture in the north to the oil industry in the south has led to the marginalization of predominantly Muslim areas.

Decades of oil spills have caused serious pollution in the Niger Delta region. In August 2011, the United Nations reported that restoring the Ogoniland region would cost $1-billion over 30 years; it would be the world’s largest oil cleanup.

Economic disparity is a big factor in perpetuating the conflict. Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world; corruption causes significant economic losses. Former World Bank Vice-President for Africa Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili maintained that since 1960, when Nigeria became an independent country, over $400-billion (U.S.) has been lost to widespread corruption. This, along with deteriorating infrastructure, regular shortages in electricity, factory closures caused by the import of cheaper goods from abroad, and growing unemployment, exacerbate poverty in the country. In the north, young people lack education and work-related skills, and experience high unemployment rates. With few prospects, many become easy targets for recruitment by anti-state rebel groups. The north has the most poverty in Nigeria and is Boko Haram’s main area of operations. In 2014, Nigeria ranked 152 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index.

In an already fragile economic environment, Boko Haram attacks  further contribute to the decline in local economic activity. Many business owners have relocated to the South or ceased operations. A ban on motorcycle taxis—the principal means of transport for many—on major routes and highways reduced access to local markets. In response to regional and internal instability, Nigeria frequently closes its borders with Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, disrupting national and regional economies.

In addition, land has become a source of conflict, especially between pastoralists and farming communities, as increasing desertification has led to a shortage of arable land.

map: CIA Factbook

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