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Insecurity and Militancy in the Middle Belt of Nigeria

On November 10, 2016, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted a discussion on violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, an area that has garnered less international attention than Nigeria’s northeast, where Boko Haram operates. The Honorable Frank Wolf, Dr. Elijah Brown, and Dr. Olufemi (Femi) Vaughan spoke.

Date & Time

Nov. 10, 2016
2:00pm – 3:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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On November 10, 2016, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted a discussion on violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, an area that has garnered less international attention than Nigeria’s northeast, where Boko Haram operates. Honorable Frank Wolf, former member of the House of Representatives (R-VA); Dr. Elijah Brown, Executive Vice President of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative; and Dr. Olufemi (Femi) Vaughan, Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies & History at Bowdoin College, former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, and current Africa Program Advisory Council Member, joined for discussion on the history and dynamics of violent conflict in this diverse region.

Honorable Wolf opened his remarks with an appeal to direct more attention to the issues that the Nigerian people in the Middle Belt face. He recalled his own travel to Nigeria with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and the suffering he witnessed while there. He highlighted that Nigeria is home to two of the most deadly terrorist organizations in the world, according to the Global Terrorism Index: in their 2015 report, Boko Haram ranked 1st and “Fulani militants” ranked 4th. Moreover, militancy is not localized to Nigeria, but impacts the larger Lake Chad area, resulting in millions of refugees and IDPs. Honorable Wolf lamented the lack of attention paid to the Middle Belt, calling for a greater understanding of the conflicts in the region and a stronger response and coordination among international actors as well as within the U.S. government. Just as the U.S. Government had been heavily involved with a deliberate plan for a post-war Colombia, Honorable Wolf suggested that a similar plan must be developed for Nigeria, and should include human rights training for the Nigerian military and a significant effort for reconciliation.

Dr. Vaughan provided historical context to the issues insecurity and conflict afflicting the Middle Belt. He explained that relations between northern and southern Nigeria have been defined by Islam and Christianity respectively since the 19th century. The Sokoto caliphate and a Muslim reform movement brought Islam to the Hausa and Fulani peoples in the north, and Christianity arrived to the southern fringe of this region in the mid-1800s. As the influence of Christianity grew, Christians challenged Muslim dominance of the caliphate using Christian principles of universality, and the act of converting others to Christianity became a political action. Meanwhile, British colonial structures reinforced the dominance of a Hausa identity as a “northern” concept, in so doing strengthening divides between Hausa and Fulani peoples of the north and the non-Muslim (Christian and pagan) peoples of the south and creating the Middle Belt as a new political social identity. The Middle Belt was once dominated by pagan faiths, and later the indigenous converted to Christianity, but as Hausa and Fulani Muslims migrated southwards since the late colonial period, the demographic balance of the region has tipped more in their favor. These new settlers began contesting property rights with indigenous Middle Belt Christians, leading to conflicts over resource distribution, land claims, and control over local government agencies between Christians and Muslims that continue to contribute to instability in the Middle Belt to this day.

Dr. Brown discussed the Wilberforce Initiative’s newly published report, “Nigeria: Fractured and Forgotten,” which examines violent conflict and its effects on the Middle Belt and the rest of Nigeria. He described his research trip to Nigeria, where he visited villages, state representatives, and victims. The report focuses on the foundation of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities across northern and central Nigeria; violence and humanitarian catastrophe including level 5 famine; and the rise of militancy among some Fulani in the Middle Belt, which has been largely ignored by the international community. Dr. Brown detailed the extent of the damage done by these attacks, and noted several trends that the Wilberforce Initiative observed throughout their trip. First, they found, the singular focus of the Nigerian government and the international community on Boko Haram has allowed the militants to increase their engagement without consequence. Second, the upsurge of small arms in civilian hands coupled with Nigeria’s environment of impunity has led directly to an increase in violence. Third, Nigerian and international security forces meant to counter violent groups are absent in the impacted areas. Fourth, the narrative of this violence is changing from “farmer-herdsman conflict” to something more serious. Fifth, accompanying the upswing of Fulani militant attacks comes a rise in vigilante and reprisal attacks against Fulani people. Coupled with an environment of general insecurity and impunity, the conflicts have real potential for further escalation.

The speakers and audience debated the extent to which these conflicts can be accurately characterized in religious terms. Dr. Brown affirmed that the militants are primarily driven by economic interests of securing permanent grazing territory, but noted that they have been attacking areas primarily occupied by Christians. In his view, it would be a disservice both to overplay and to underplay the role of religion within this conflict as a structure for organizing (as distinct from religion as theology).

Given this sense of urgency, the speakers underscored the positive steps that the Nigerian and U.S. Governments and the international community can take to address this issue, including engaging in security dialogues and providing support to counseling and rehabilitation programs to address the psychosocial needs of those affected by the attacks.

This event was live-tweeted and the recorded webcast is available at the top of the page. Follow the Africa Program on Twitter @AfricaUpClose and catch up on the conversation with the hashtag #MiddleBelt.


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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, including our blog Africa Up Close, 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

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