Violence rooted in history
In late November 2020, militants on motorcycles stormed Zabarmari Town in North Eastern Borno State, killing over 40 rice farmers. A local anti-jihadist Civilian JTF told the press that the fighters tied up the farmworkers and slit their throats. This tragedy, which Boko Haram claimed, is now known as the Koshobe or Zabarmari Massacre, which had a death toll of 76.
The above incident is just one of possibly hundreds of massacres that have occurred in Nigeria within the past seven years. In 2020 alone, per SBM Intelligence’s estimates, there were about 100 massacres and mass killings within Nigeria. On 15 May of that year, 35 people in Adamawa were killed following a disagreement between the Hausa community and the Chabo tribe, after a tricycle accident.
Nigeria’s culture of violence is one that is rooted in deep history and formed through force and conquest, with its founders maintaining order through the whip. The all-conquering Hausa Constabulary which was initially brought under the Royal West Africa Force (Britain’s regional militia for its West African colonies) is the founder of what is now known as the Nigerian Army, although parts of it formed the Nigerian police force that was unified in 1930.
But a year before that unification, the young country which was just 15 years old post-amalgamation, experienced its first massacre: women protesting over taxation in Aba were killed by police from Lagos after the eastern regional police refused to do it. That incident became known as Aba Women’s Riot (1929), a name introduced into Nigeria’s documented history by the colonial government who labelled it a riot as opposed to the true events of what happened–a women’s march, in order to delegitimise it.
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When the colonialists left 31 years later, the people they handed over power to continued with the tradition of employing maximum violence for cohesion and used the military to brutally suppress the Tiv Uprisings in 1964 – unrest which had begun 12 years earlier in protest of the continuity of the Native System.
Over the years, this cycle of violence has not abated. But one must note that before now, many of the registered massacres were carried out by state actors. And this was because the Nigerian state had the monopoly of violence. This is as true in the case of the Asaba Massacre (1967) as it is true of the Baikolori Massacre (1980). The last massacre that happened before the Nigerian state lost the monopoly of violence was the Odi Massacre in Bayelsa in 1999.
Immediately, militancy in the Niger Delta surged and the once-famed brutal Nigerian military came in contact with a near equal, symmetric adversary in the creeks of a region whose resources fuel the existence of the Nigerian state (no pun intended). Those early stages of the Niger Delta insurgency, coupled with the present multiple insurgencies the country faces indicate that the country’s security agencies no longer control the monopoly of violence.
But then, an even more depressing reality is that the massacres carried out by both state and non-state armed groups are now moving from rural areas like Odi, Nimbo, Gbaramatu, among others, to the urban areas. June’s brazen attack on the St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State, jolted many people to an ugly reality: the chickens are coming home to roost, and the “revolution” is being televised. Perhaps the most televised of all such urban atrocities was the Lekki Massacre of 20 October 2020 in which the Nigerian Army opened fire on peaceful protesters in the heart of the country’s financial capital, yet pro-government actors attempted to deny it despite thousands watching live.
What that incident did is that it awakened the country’s elites to their country’s darkest reality. Maiduguri and its outlying towns, where hundreds are slaughtered near quarterly, seemed thousands of miles away. So is Zaria in Kaduna where the military killed 348 people in 2015 for the crime of belonging to a different religious sect from the majority. But Ondo, where the Owo Massacre happened is a mere three-hour drive to Lagos.
Ideally, one expects the cycle of violence to be relatively low in urban areas compared to the countryside but the reality is that the non-state actors are now matching the security services power for power, arm for arm, and man for man and are seeing how the urban centres are not off-limits.
Currently, this is playing out in the Federal Capital Territory. The areas that have been attacked in Abuja – Bwari, Kwali, Kuje, Gwagwalada – cannot be described as rural.
As things begin to crystalise in the middle which hitherto had been spared such ugly blushes, one can no longer fear the possibility of a spillover into more developed neighbourhoods. If it could happen in Owo, it can happen in Lekki. As a matter of fact, it is already happening.
Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence