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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Nigeria

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Nigeria, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 24 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In April 2007, Africa's most populous nation held general elections, widely denounced as both fraudulent and incompetent. Even so, the outcome was largely accepted by the electorate. The winner of the presidential race, Umaru Yar'Adua – the chosen successor of the outgoing Olusegun Obasanjo – has a tough task ahead of him, managing this religious and ethnically diverse giant, whose population includes an estimated 250 ethnic groups.

Obasanjo's tenure was scarred by intercommunal fighting at the cost of thousands of lives. The entrenched nature of the conflicts in Nigeria – as well as the inability of the authorities to provide lasting solutions – was illustrated by the resurgence of fighting between the Tiv and Kuteb communities in Benue state and Taraba states in Central Nigeria. Hundreds were reported displaced, and dozens killed. The dispute over land rights of the various communities in the area has been simmering for years, with violence peaking in 2001, when hundreds died. Many were killed by the army in reprisal attacks against the Tiv community, after Tiv militants killed 19 soldiers who had been deployed in the area to quell the fighting. In November 2007, in a highly unusual move, the army issued a formal apology to the Tiv community. Condemned by some as inadequate because it was not tied to compensation for the victims' families, it was nevertheless welcomed by others as a sign that the Nigerian army was at last taking human rights issues seriously.

When he took power, President Yar'Adua identified the crisis in the Niger Delta as one of his top priorities. In November 2007 he unveiled a 'master plan' to develop the region. According to IRIN, this involves doubling the budget of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in 2008. The NDDC's chairman then proclaimed that the Niger Delta would be 'Africa's most prosperous, peaceful and pleasant region by 2020'. It will be hard to match the rhetoric with the reality because of the worsening problems in the region.

The Niger Delta – a lush region of mangrove swamps, rainforest and swampland – is home to 6 million people including the Andoni, Dioubu, Etche, Ijaw, Kalibari, Nemba (Brass), Nembe, Ogoni and Okrika minority groups. It is the site of rich oil and natural gas reserves both offshore and on land. But ethnic groups have protested about the environmental degradation and about the failure of the central government and the international petroleum companies to share the oil wealth with local communities. Little money goes into schools or hospitals. Public services are in a pitiable condition.

In recent years, disaffection has given way to militancy. Kidnappings of local and international oil workers have risen steadily, with the militias even resorting to the kidnapping of children. The situation is complicated by the links that the militias are alleged to have with powerful criminal and political networks. The gangs are known to be actively engaged in oil 'bunkering' – stealing oil from pipelines and using the proceeds to buy arms. Recently, there have been concerns that the oil giants may be further aggravating the problem by paying off the militants to 'protect' their facilities. The grip of the militants on the area was illustrated in August 2007, when fighting rocked Port Harcourt – Nigeria's main oil city. There were running battles in the street after government troops tried to arrest a prominent Delta militia leader. Criminality is alleged on the side of the military too, with accusations that local military officials are involved in selling oil to Eastern Europe in exchange for weapons.

In this context, the new president appointed Goodluck Jonathan – an Ijaw – as his deputy. Jonathan has already been targeted twice for assassination. The government, meanwhile, released the detained leader of Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, and the vice-president embarked upon a series of meetings with leaders of the different communities in the Delta. The main militant group in the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which claims to represent the interests of the Ijaw community, called a ceasefire which held for a few months from June. But by the end of the year the group had resumed attacks.

International Crisis Group (ICG) in May 2007 said that the failure of the electoral process has deepened the separatist sentiment in the south-east. In a year that marked the fortieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Biafran war, ICG said that, perhaps more than in any other region, the poll in the Ibo heartland was 'poorly conducted and mindlessly rigged', boosting the position of the separatist group, Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), that Ibos would never 'realize their political aspirations with the Nigerian federation'. However, there was a question-mark over the MASSOB's tactics, after a 'sit-at-home-strike' failed to mobilize widespread support, showing that many Ibos did not want to publicly associate themselves with the separatist cause.

The 1960s Ibo separatist leader, the now-elderly Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, contested the 2007 presidential elections, coming sixth. He later told the BBC that the Ibo had more reason than ever to seek independence, basing his comments on the widespread electoral irregularities. Throughout 2007, there were protests from Ibo associations that Chief Ralf Uwazuruike, leader of MASSOB, remained in jail – although other separatist or rebel leaders had been released. Uwazuruike and other alleged MASSOB supporters were arrested in 2005 and charged with treason. But at the end of October 2007 Uwazuruike was released from detention. His message of independence for Biafra – however – remained the same. IRIN reported him saying: 'All we want is our Biafra. We want to secede.'

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