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The Changing Geography of Terror: Why is Jihadist Terrorism Escalating Southward in Nigeria

A young Fulani herder walking with his livestock along the roadside in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria

Compared to the recent history of terrorism in Nigeria's Northern region, the Southwest, South-South, and Southeast regions have been relatively peaceful. However, on June 5, 2022, an attack which claimed more than 40 lives and injured 56 congregants was carried out during a Pentecostal service at the St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Southwest Nigeria. This recent mass killing, demonstrated the expanding geography of terror into southern Nigeria and the contagious nature of terrorism in a formerly peaceful region.

While northern Nigeria is familiar with armed bandits, Boko Haram, and Fulani militants shaping an intricate triangle of terror in the region, the latter group have also been prominent in southern Nigeria — carrying out repeated invasions, killings of farmers, and kidnappings for ransom in rural and urban locations since 2016. Some of these attacks have been referred to as "the Fulanization" and "Islamization agenda," Fulanization is a term used loosely to specifically describe Fulani militants forcefully taking over indigenous land. Fulanization implies an agenda to take over the ancestral land of indigenous communities, however, Islamization is the conversion of Nigeria from a secular state to a state governed and controlled by Islamic doctrines. In comparison, Fulanization is contextualized as a resource-based dominion agenda, but Islamization is a religiously motivated pursuit.

People in the Southern region consider Fulani militants, armed bandits, and Boko Haram to be the same jihadist terrorist group operating in the far north. This is because some of the survivors have confirmed that their attackers and abductors spoke Fulfulde, a language common to all Fulani. Moreover, Boko Haram has allied and collaborated with armed bandits to provide training and logistics. There has been an ongoing constructive debate within the southern populace about the accuracy of lumping these groups together. However, the Fulani militants' mode of operation has the recalcitrant character of jihadist fundamentalists — kidnapping for ransom, targeting vulnerable civilians, recruitment of underage, and unjust killing of innocent people.

Nevertheless, it is pertinent to note that while Boko Haram, armed bandits, and Fulani militants may have similar tactics and modes of operation, their objectives differ. For instance, Boko Haram has historically been motivated by an Islamization agenda. On the other hand, armed bandits are being driven by economic opportunism. Fulani militants, however, have been persecuting innocent people through kidnapping and unjust killings, partly due to unfavourable pastoral policies such as anti-open grazing laws and encroachment on grazing reserves propelled by urbanization. These grievances themselves have been exploited by jihadist fundamentalists to fuel terrorism in Nigeria. Therefore, various factors have created an enabling environment for jihadist-style terrorism to become prevalent in southern Nigeria.

Factors Fueling Spread of Terror

First, forced displacement in the North, which is rising, contributes to the influx of Fulani militants in the south. It is important to note that armed bandits and Boko Haram terrorists have destroyed and displaced several nomadic local communities forcing many people to migrate southward, for economic and security reasons. However, such migration has triggered competition for limited resources such as land, water, and grazing fields between the newcomers and the indigenous communities, resulting in a conflict of resources. While some Fulani migrants have engaged in kidnapping for ransom as a way to sustain themselves economically, others have viewed the south as a new territory in which to promote jihadism.

Second, the anti-open grazing movement initiated by the southwestern governors raised consternation in the north. Fulani nomadic herders opposed a bill prohibiting open grazing advanced by the southern region. To show their grievances against such policy, Fulani herders have attacked several remote villages in the southern region following the establishment of the open-grazing prohibition. Since the anti-open grazing laws forbid moving animals by foot from place to place, they have met with extreme resistance from the Fulani pastoral communities. Nevertheless, the host states have enforced the new laws with punitive consequences.

Furthermore, a new system of regional security outfits has been inaugurated in the southern region, designed to enforce anti-open grazing laws, counter Fulani militancy and other criminal activities and deal with the growing problem of kidnappings for ransom. While Fulani pastoralists have been involved in several kidnapping-for-ransom cases, obviously not all Fulani are criminals and terrorists and do not deserve to be treated as such. Northern Fulani ethnic socio-cultural groups, like the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), have made several calls to disband southern regional security systems, considering such outfits a threat to the survival of Fulani pastoralists residing in southern Nigeria. Nevertheless, regional security institutions like the Amotekun Security Network in the southwest have been allowed to thrive.

Moreover, several incidences of illegal migration of non-Nigerian Fulani from the Sahel into Nigeria have been reported. This has continued due to Nigeria's porous borders and the federal government's inability to employ technological solutions in addressing illegal cross-border migration. One of the challenges associated with such migration is a linguistic resemblance. Fulani from neighboring countries such as Niger, Sudan, and Mali speak the same Fulfulde as Nigerian Fulani. Therefore, it becomes impossible to identify Nigerian Fulani and their foreign counterparts.

The existing resource-based grievances have created an enabling environment for the mobilization of foreign Fulani jihadists and the importation of arms from the Sahel to northern and southern Nigeria. Such transnational mobilities of criminals and arms have necessitated stop and search operations of the vehicular movement and combing of forest reserves against infiltration of the southern region by the Fulani jihadists, actions deemed necessary to prevent the southern region of Nigeria from falling victim to jihadist terrorist attacks.


Generally, most Nigerians believe that government has failed to counter terrorism and deal with the insecurity that has troubled the country for over a decade. This apparent national security lethargy has reinforced agitation for secession in the south. In light of the perceived apathy of the federal government in the wake of daily kidnappings and killings of innocent Nigerians by the Fulani militants and armed bandits, a self-determination movement, led by non-state actors, has emerged in southern Nigeria. Furthermore, the infiltration of the southern region by the terrorists has continued to trigger agitation for independent states, struggles championed by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Yoruba nationalists. With the incessant killings and invasions by Fulani jihadist groups, the demands for a Yoruba nation and a Biafra sovereign state have grown. Moreover, such high-security threats have prompted the formation of the Eastern Security Network (ESN) by IPOB under the leadership of Nnamdi Kanu. Concomitantly, throughout the southwest, the Amotekun Security Network, vigilante groups, hunters, and neighbourhood watchdogs have played significant roles in curbing the criminal invasion of the Fulani jihadist group.

When governments fail to protect the lives and property of the people and lack urgent, decisive, and collective sub-national counter-terrorism strategies, self-defense often becomes the default solution. This is evident in the recent attack on northerners following the attack on a Catholic church in Ondo, southwest Nigeria. In addition, the northerners (Hausa/Fulani) are believed to have perpetrated several attacks in the south. Furthermore, there is an inevitability of retaliatory attacks against the law-abiding Hausa/Fulani residing in the southern region due to persistent attacks by the Fulani jihadist terrorist group. To avoid a total collapse of law and order in Nigeria, there is a need for urgent action against the jihadist destabilization of southern Nigeria. Escalation of terrorism has implications for regional stability and security and humanitarian relief in West Africa. Given the federal government's seeming inability to curtail the influx of foreign Fulani and illegal importation of arms from the Sahel l, the southern regional governments may find it necessary to take actions such as strengthening Operation Amotekun to curb the influx of Fulani militants migrating toward the south, or pursuing legislation allowing armed state police forces. Again, for the same reason as above, suggesting: However, legislative provisions would need to be enacted to allow such a sub-national security outfit to carry sophisticated arms in combating the Jihadist extremists disguised as ordinary criminals in southern Nigeria.


John Sunday Ojo is a Junior Fellow at The Global Research Network's Think Tank Programme on War, Conflict, and Global Migration. He is also a scholar and consultant on Conflict Analysis, Violent Extremism, Security, International Development, Peace Building in Africa. He can be reached through this email:

Photo Credit: A young Fulani herder walking with his livestock along the roadside in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria by Alucardion/

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

John Sunday Ojo

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more