At year's end, Nigeria hosted more than 7,000 refugees, including more than 2,000 from Liberia, about 2,000 from Sierra Leone, and more than 3,000 from other countries such as Chad, Cameroon, and Sudan.

Fewer than 1,000 Nigerians were refugees or asylum seekers at year's end, including about 300 in Benin. Between 5,000 and 50,000 Nigerians remained internally displaced.

Political Background

The election of President Olusegun Obasanjo in February brought an end to more than 15 years of military rule in Nigeria.

Repression by state security forces diminished, but clashes over the control of natural resources and local governance became increasingly violent in 1999. Ethnic and religious conflicts increased after Obasanjo took office in May. Government security forces called in to quell the unrest instead fueled fighting and destruction in some areas, producing large-scale temporary displacement. At least 1,000 people died in violent conflicts during 1999, according to one estimate.

Uprooted Nigerians

Violence continued in Nigeria's southern oil-producing states, where local ethnic groups claimed the government was exploiting their land's natural resources while remaining indifferent to their economic and social development.

Ethnic Ogoni from eastern Nigeria's Rivers State have charged that the government systematically attempted to deprive them of their land and its oil reserves. In 1996, confrontations between Ogoni and government security forces reportedly displaced as many as 30,000 Ogoni people and prompted small-scale refugee flight to Benin. By 1999, relatively small numbers of Ogoni refugees remained outside the country.

Leaders of other ethnic groups in the oil-rich Niger delta increased their demands that the national government should share oil revenue with local communities. Local groups regularly sabotaged the operations of international oil corporations in the region. Large numbers of soldiers and state police were deployed to the region. Violence escalated during the year.

Some of the worst fighting took place in November, when several hundred soldiers arrived in the village of Odi, in southern Nigeria, after the murder of 12 policemen there. The military virtually destroyed the town, forcing as many as 20,000 people from their homes and killing at least several dozen civilians. The exact number of displaced was difficult to assess because of historically fluid population movements in the region.

Uprooted families began to return to Odi in mid-December. The Nigerian Red Cross distributed food, pots, pans, mats, blankets, and water to returnees. Extended family and communal networks also helped to meet the needs of the displaced.

Localized ethnic and religious conflicts have also uprooted uncounted thousands of people, at least temporarily. In June, the Journal of Refugee Studies published an article arguing that the magnitude of population displacement in Nigeria had increased exponentially in recent years. The lack of government attention to the problem and the absence of official population estimates hampered humanitarian assistance, the authored stated. Noting that the "fleeting character of population displacement makes exact numbers a 'moving target,'" the article estimated that state violence had been responsible for the temporary displacement of more than 1 million Nigerians during the past few years.

It remained unclear exactly how many of the thousands of Nigerians who fled their homes in 1999 remained displaced at year's end. Some local sources estimated that hundreds of thousands were displaced. The U.S. Committee for Refugees conservatively estimated 5,000 to 50,000 were internally displaced, pending more in-depth analysis of the situation.

Refugees from Liberia

Nigeria hosted about 2,000 Liberian refugees at year's end. Many lived in the town of Oru, in Osun State, in southwest Nigeria. Most arrived during Liberia's civil war, which ended in 1996.

Only about 100 Liberian refugees repatriated from Nigeria with assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, primarily by ship. Most repatriated in June at the end of the school year.


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