The toll that various militia exact on civilian lives in Africa is highly under-appreciated. (Photo/AK Rockefeller/Flickr).

Nigeria’s ‘Neglected’ Conflict; Plus How One American Life Is ‘Equal’ To 80,000 African Lives

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YOU probably know about Boko Haram’s atrocities in Nigeria and across its northern and eastern borders. Boko Haram was designated the world’s deadliest terror group in 2015, responsible for over 6,000 civilian deaths.

But terror, and violence against civilians also comes in other, less publicised forms. One long-running, chronic conflict in Nigeria is that perpetrated by Fulani ethnic militia in the country’s Middle Belt, where the dry northern Sahel meets the wetter south.

It’s been called Nigeria’s “third conflict”, after Boko Haram in the north-east, and the Niger Delta conflict in the south-east.

Fulani are traditionally nomadic pastoralists, who would drive their cattle south during each year’s dry season. Grazing pastures used to be set aside for their animals in the Middle Belt, an area home to more than 200 ethnic groups.

But as population has exploded in the past few decades – Nigeria now has an estimated 170 million people – farming communities settled on most of the available land, intensifying competition for pastures and water.

By one estimate, Nigeria alone loses 2,168 square kilometres (837 sq mi) of cattle rangeland and cropland every year to desertification, posing serious threats to the livelihoods of about 20 million people.

Settled farmers accuse the armed Fulani of raiding villages and trampling crops as they pass through, even of ethnic cleansing.

2014 was the deadliest year in the Fulani-related conflicts, with more than 1,300 people unarmed civilians killed by the militia, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED). Even though deaths dipped in 2015, fatalities remained high, at nearly 600.

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This year has seen an upscale in attacks. In February the nomads were accused of killing 300 people in Benue, a state in central Nigeria. By September this year some 873 people had been killed in various kinds of sectarian violence in Nigeria, including Fulani-related attacks, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Along with Boko Haram and other armed groups, sectarian violence is responsible for over 16,500 civilian deaths in Nigeria over the past five years, shows ACLED data. That’s 50% more than the total death toll from the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

South Sudan’s most violent groups in the top ten – and they include the South Sudan military – were involved for over 4,300 civilian deaths, about a quarter of those of the top three deadliest groups in Nigeria.


The civil war in South Sudan has led to the marshalling of regional resources to try and mediate in the conflict – including those of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-country bloc from East Africa and the Horn.

Addis Ababa in Ethiopia was the headquarters of the peace talks, Uganda was militarily involved in supporting one faction of the violence, and just recently, IGAD member countries agreed (at least on paper) to send in peacekeeping troops into Juba.

And Al-Shabaab and other armed groups in Somalia were involved in about 2,300 deaths over the past five years, and they too have been the focus of much regional and international attention.

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The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has about 22,000 troops drawn mostly from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Kenya active in the country.

The US has also been active in the country by conducting airstrikes – both by drones and manned aircraft. Last year about 200 suspected Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia were killed by US airstrikes.

The question therefore is why the violence in Nigeria doesn’t get as much attention – regionally, and internationally.

For one, Nigeria is a functioning state, and Africa’s largest economy, and with much geopolitical clout. At least by these official standards, Nigeria is “strong enough” to deal with its own internal issues – unlike South Sudan and Somalia.

The data suggests otherwise. Early last year when the Boko Haram conflict spilled over Nigeria’s borders and seemed to be spiralling out of control, Nigeria’s bumbling military response prompted the formation of a regional force made up of troops from Niger, Chad and Cameroon, who then turned the tide against the jihadists.


But Nigeria was understandably embarrassed by being “bailed out” by underlings – Nigeria’s GDP is 32 times that of Chad, and 63 times that of Niger.

Predictably, losing face is a big deal for a country that dominates West Africa’s geopolitical landscape: Nigerian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade quickly said the role that Chadian armies are playing in the Boko Haram operations is being “exaggerated” by the media.

He is quoted to have said that “some theorists who are still bent on orchestrating a well-rehearsed smear campaign against the Nigerian military [are] struggling to attribute the recent defeats inflicted on the terrorists to the invincibility of other forces or military outfits other than Nigeria’s”.

The other possible reason for the “neglect” of sectarian violence in Nigeria is that it hasn’t yet threatened Western, or American interests directly. One can glean this from the Rewards for Justice Programme, that gives financial rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of terrorists or disrupts terrorism financing.

From the outset, the Rewards for Justice is explicit that US interests and attacks on US citizens is a primary factor in how much money they are prepared to put up – more than causing death or destruction in a more “generalised” sense.


As a terror group, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab has the highest bounty on offer in total, $37 million for nine of its leaders on the list.

Al-Shabaab has a death toll an eighth that of Boko Haram’s, but having more Western targets has raised their international profile such that their cumulative bounty is three times higher that than of Boko Haram.

It’s the same for other groups that have kidnapped or killed Westerners. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), unlike Boko Haram, have kidnapped dozens of Western citizens, increasing their notoriety, and attracting a higher bounty on their heads.


Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (who has apparently been killed several times by the Nigerian military) has a $7m bounty on his head

In fact, two wanted criminals from Sudan, Mohammed Makawi Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdelbasit Alhaj Alhassan Hamad were implicated in the murder of just two people, one a US citizen. They were tried and convicted, but escaped from prison.

The two each have a $5 million bounty on their heads – the same as Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who terrorised northern Uganda for two decades.

Yet Kony’s insurgency has been directly responsible for up to 40,000 deaths in northern Uganda and the surrounding countries over the past 18 years.

One can thus make the very contentious conclusion that in the US’s eyes, one American life is equivalent to 80,000 African lives.

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