Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, faces intersecting and multidimensional security crises in nearly every part of the country. In northeastern Nigeria, the jihadist group Boko Haram, along with its now-larger splinter group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), has maintained an active insurgency since 2009, leading to the deaths of over 30,000 people. In northwestern Nigeria, there are alarming rates of kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, and other forms of terroristic violence known locally as “banditry,” much of it committed by ethnic Fulani pastoralists. In southeastern Nigeria, the military is clamping down on the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group seeking the secession of the Igbo people from Nigeria. In Nigeria’s central Middle Belt states, herder-farmer conflict between Fulani pastoralists and non-Fulani farmers persists after many years. This herder-farmer crisis has expanded into southern Nigeria and assumed a dangerous religious dimension as southerners, who are mostly Christian, fear an encroaching Islamist threat that is much bigger than Boko Haram alone. Many Nigerians no longer distinguish between Fulani herders and Boko Haram, seeing both as a singular terrorist front whose sole aim is to Islamize Nigeria.
These fears of Islamization have helped fuel cycles of vitriolic rhetoric and ethnoreligious violence in Nigeria, undermining the country’s stability. Southerners have reacted to perceived Islamization and “Fulanization” by forming regional vigilante outfits such as Operation Amotekun, which is supported by governors in the Yoruba-majority southwest, and IPOB’s Eastern Security Network in the southeast. Expectedly, this southern resistance to a perceived Islamic incursion, as well as ongoing discrimination against Fulani people in southern Nigeria, has provoked retaliatory actions from northern political groups such as the Miyetti Allah, a powerful herders’ union. Miyetti Allah has issued threats against northern residents of southern origin and blocked shipments of farm products to the south, for example.1
Nigeria’s unity thus appears to hang in the balance. Many Yoruba now voice interest in forming an independent state, though secessionist violence has not reached the same levels in the southwest as in the Igbo-majority southeast, where IPOB escalated its operations in the spring of 2021. It is therefore important to look beyond the sensationalist rhetoric and unpack the Islamization discourses to capture the true essence of the Fulani herders’ crisis as well as Boko Haram’s declared Islamization objective, especially in light of the fact that Boko Haram has so far failed to expand into southern Nigeria.
This essay seeks to show that Fulani herders and Boko Haram have separate ideologies and interests and that cooperation between Fulani herders and Boko Haram has been limited, though not entirely negligible. The growing fear and stigmatization of Fulani among the Nigerian public is likely to prove counterproductive, undermining both national cohesion and the fight against Boko Haram and other forms of violent extremism. This essay also finds that the lack of Boko Haram incursions into southern Nigeria is rooted in overlapping ethnoreligious, cultural, political, and geographic factors that are unlikely to change anytime soon, significantly limiting opportunities for Boko Haram to expand beyond its northern base in the near future. This essay benefits from key informant interviews conducted between 2014 and 2021 with Nigerian security officials and politicians, detained Boko Haram suspects, and members of vigilante and sub-state armed groups including Amotekun and IPOB.
Islamization Discourses in Nigeria
Discourse over the Islamization of Nigeria is not novel to Boko Haram and Fulani herders.2 The notion of Islamization discussed here relates to the aggressive expansion of Islamic social and political systems or the imposition of shari’a rule on a non-Muslim society and non-practicing Muslims. It is a form of forced conversion or assimilation into an Islamic society, different from proselytization and voluntary conversion. Historically, the expansion of Islam in Nigeria has involved a degree of Islamization. The nineteenth-century jihad of the Fulani preacher Usman Dan Fodio (1804-1808) that produced the Sokoto Caliphate is the prime example. Driven by a desire to reform the Muslim communities of present-day northern Nigeria, Dan Fodio sought to enshrine Islamic values and shari’a among the ethnic Hausa emirates and purge them of “pagan” rituals and practices. Dan Fodio’s followers dislodged the Hausa rulers and established a Fulani-controlled ruling dynasty that has endured until today (although its power is now largely symbolic). Dan Fodio’s jihad even expanded to the southwest into Yorubaland, but not without meeting resistance.3
Ever since Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, the country’s north has been susceptible to Islamic reformist movements that have challenged the traditional political and religious authorities of the region, who are often descendants of the elite of the erstwhile Sokoto Caliphate. As one former gubernatorial candidate in Kaduna state in northern Nigeria noted to the author, “Every once in a while, you get a leader or a group of people who rise up in the effort to purify Islam, to expand its scope and take it to those areas where it does not exist.”4 The issue of shari’a has been exploited by conservative Muslim politicians and the northern clerical establishment as a tool of mobilization while many northern dissident groups, for their part, have used the issue as a tool of protest. For example, between 2000 and 2003 (the first few years of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic that followed decades of military rule), 11 northern governors, beginning with Governor Sani Yerima of Zamfara state, adopted shari’a law.
The adoption of shari’a law by these northern governors could be understood as a drive by Hausa-Fulani elites to Islamize northern Nigeria, ignoring the protests of the significant Christian minorities in those states. Yet such a brazen attack on the secularism of the Nigerian constitution fails to conceal the real agenda behind the adoption of shari’a in the north. In the early 2000s, the Hausa-Fulani elites were driven by a geopolitical agenda to protect their political interests against a southern Yoruba president and former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose policies were considered anti-north (Obasanjo would later seek a third term in office in contravention of the Nigerian constitution). The Hausa-Fulani political class, in other words, used sharia as a tool to mobilize the Hausa-Fulani populace against perceived southern domination. Similar divisions and fear are seen today as southern Nigerians resist what they perceive as Islamic colonization driven by the Fulani herders.
Conversely, Boko Haram’s Islamization project can be seen, to some extent, as “a violent political reaction to Muslim authoritarian regimes and their allies in the west.”5 Boko Haram formed in protest against the perceived corruption, both material and spiritual, of the northern Muslim elites. For Boko Haram, the solution is and always has been the establishment of a puritanical Islamic system, though the two factions of the group have had different degrees of success in actually erecting a proto-state, with ISWAP going further in this direction. Boko Haram is not the first Islamic reformist or dissident movement to challenge the northern Nigerian elites in this regard, although it is undoubtedly the most destructive. In the early 1980s, the north witnessed several bouts of riots by a religious militant group known as Yan Tatsine led by the notorious Mohammed Marwa (aka Maitatsine).6 Boko Haram’s quest to establish an Islamic state is thus symptomatic of a recurrent intra-Muslim contest and challenge to the spiritual authority of the Sokoto Caliphate and its descendants in northern Nigeria.7
Boko Haram’s Islamization agenda is laid bare in its statements. As one of Boko Haram’s spokesmen, Ali Sanda Umar Konduga (aka Usman al-Zawahiri), stated in 2011, “We would continue to fight until Islam is well established and the Muslims regain their freedom all over Nigeria. The only solution to what is happening is for the government to repent, jettison democracy, drop the constitution, and adopt the laws in the Holy Qur’an.”8
In the early stages of its insurgency, Boko Haram helped stoke fears of a nationwide ethnoreligious civil war. Between 2010 and 2015, the group’s operations were dispersed throughout the north (in contrast, today the group is largely confined to the northeast). In this period, the group attacked churches and Christian neighborhoods across the north as well as government offices and security installations. Consequently, a popular conspiracy theory arose in the south alleging that Boko Haram was a creation of northern elites who intended to thwart the second-term ambitions of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, who was up for reelection in 2015. (Conversely, as President Jonathan declared a heavily militarized state of emergency in three northeastern states in 2013 and 2014, many northern elites promoted a conspiracy theory that alleged that Boko Haram was created by President Jonathan to decimate the Hausa-Fulani populace.)
In reality, not only is Boko Haram not a puppet of the Fulani elite, but its attacks against Christians have, in practice, not extended beyond the Christian minorities in northern Nigeria. Based on the group’s own ambitious statements such as the aforementioned one by Usman al-Zawahiri, one could argue that Boko Haram seeks to Islamize the whole of Nigeria. However, Boko Haram’s limited actions in southern Nigeria suggest that this is at best a long-term aspiration and not a strategic priority for the group. Interestingly, neither Boko Haram nor ISWAP have launched any campaign to disrupt the oil and gas sector in Nigeria’s south, which is Nigeria’s economic lifeline.9 In this sense, Boko Haram’s historical genesis—as a dissident preaching movement critical of northern elites—can help explain why Boko Haram has shown little appetite in expanding its terrorist activities southward: Its primary concern has always been over the fate of Nigeria’s Muslims in the north.
In terms of the ostensible Fulani Islamization agenda, it is necessary to first distinguish between the different social groups to which the Fulani belong. The Fulani fall under four sociological categories: the ruling dynasty or rulers of the Sokoto Caliphate (the elites), the settled Fulani (the working class), the semi-sedentary Fulani (mostly Fulani farmers), and the pastoral Fulani “who depend completely on their herd of zebu cattle for subsistence, and whose lives are tuned to continuous transhumance, migratory drift, and periodic migration.”10 The Fulani herder “lives and survives instantaneously,”11 as one Nigerian interviewed for this essay noted. Most Fulani herders are thus motivated primarily by material, rather than ideological, interests and concerns.
The Fulani elites are seen by many Nigerians as the inheritors of Usman Dan Fodio’s jihad and are thus viewed suspiciously. Additionally, the fact that the British colonial government favored the Fulani ruling class as part of its system of indirect rule leaves a bitter historical legacy. These fears and suspicions of ethnic and religious domination described as “Fulanization” and “Islamization” have manifested at different junctures in the trajectory of the Nigerian state, including during a 1978 constitutional debate about shari’a; in 1986, during the enrolment of Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); and, most prominently, in the early 2000s, when 11 northern governors adopted shari’a.
Nevertheless, the claim that Fulani herders are carrying out a campaign of Islamization is unsupported by the evidence. As one source, who has been in close contact with both Fulani armed groups and Boko Haram defectors, noted, “this is a purely conspiracy theory.”12 This theory stems from the historical distrust between the south and the Hausa-Fulani majority in the north and is further fueled by the perceived complicity of the Fulani elites (particularly President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani, and his northern advisors) in Nigeria’s security crises. President Buhari’s administration has conspicuously remained ambivalent in its response (publicly, at least) to much of the criminal violence rocking Nigeria, especially banditry and kidnappings perpetrated by Fulani herders. This stands in contrast to President Buhari’s rather hardline approach to the perceived threat from historically non-violent groups such as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), also known as Nigeria’s Shiites, and IPOB.
Some Fulani political and religious elites have reportedly maintained an ambivalent relationship with criminal herders, sympathizing with the herdsmen’s violence out of ethnic or religious solidarity.13 However, while they may enjoy a degree of sympathy (or, at least, indifference) within the government, Fulani herders have not captured the Nigerian state for the purposes of Islamization. Whether it be farmer-herder clashes or banditry, violence involving Fulani is almost always driven by local conditions and competitions—often over scarce land or material resources—rather than a grand ideological and religious project. 14 In this sense, the failure of the Fulani religious and political class to strongly condemn the criminality of certain Fulani herders has contributed in no small part to southern fears of Islamization.
Boko Haram and Fulani Herders: Is There a Connection?
Many Nigerians see Fulani herders as synonymous with Boko Haram, claiming that both have an agenda to Islamize Nigeria. As one security official claimed, “Fulani herder is another branch of Boko Haram working under a different guise. So, if they are working under a different guise, definitely they share the same aspiration with Boko Haram. And the mission of Boko Haram is to Islamize the nation and take over.”15
In reality, there is little that connects the Fulani herders to Boko Haram, besides the fact that the two groups come from northern Nigeria, are Muslim, and are likely to speak the lingua franca of the north (Hausa). As a senior IPOB member stated, “Their program is far different [from Boko Haram].”16
For starters, ethnicity and geography separate the Boko Haram insurgency from the activities of Fulani herders. The majority of Boko Haram’s commanders are Kanuri, an ethnic group that makes up less than three percent of Nigeria’s population, and Boko Haram’s main theater of operations is in the Kanuri heartland of northeastern Nigeria, particularly Borno and Yobe states. In recent years, Boko Haram’s attacks have been largely confined to these northeastern states and parts of neighboring countries adjacent to Lake Chad, such as northern Cameroon. While Fulani bring their cattle to graze in the northeast, and while Boko Haram counts both Hausa and Fulani among its ranks, Boko Haram’s insurgency is ultimately driven more by grievances among the Kanuri population of the northeast than by Fulani grievances.
Fulani herders have, in fact, been harmed by Boko Haram’s indiscriminate attacks. The faction of the (now late) Abubakar Shekau in particular is known for its wanton violence against both Christians and Muslims alike, meaning the Fulani are not spared. The Boko Haram insurgency directly affects the Fulani herder insofar as Boko Haram militants have engaged in cattle rustling, while the insurgency affects the herders indirectly insofar as instability in the northeast has pushed herders southward from their traditional grazing routes.17 In contrast to Shekau’s faction, ISWAP makes a much more concerted effort to govern and has attempted to mitigate violence between Fulani herders and non-Fulani (Muslim) farmers in its areas of control, protecting one group from encroachment by the other.18 This itself shows that the Fulani herders are not natural allies of Boko Haram and ISWAP but rather one group among many in the northeast with whom the jihadists must balance their relationships. Additionally, Fulani herders have clashed with jihadists in the northeast, such as in December 2019, when Boko Haram killed 19 herders.19
Boko Haram and ISWAP have a different ideology than the Fulani herders. Boko Haram does indeed seek Islamization: it is guided by a fundamentalist Islamist ideology that rejects Nigeria’s secular democracy and seeks to replace it with a shari’a-based political system. 20 Although some scholars have suggested that greed has by now supplanted ideology within Boko Haram,21 there is no doubt that religion plays a central role in the group’s constitution and operation. In contrast, those Fulani herders moved to criminality appear to be primarily motivated by material concerns. As one Nigerian police official explained, “The Fulani Herders are not looking at the religious aspect per se. They are looking at how their social status will be rising in terms of that criminality act [sic] as regards to kidnapping and waiting for ransom to be paid.”22
However, there is some evidence of a strategic marriage of convenience between Boko Haram and certain Fulani-led criminal groups in northern Nigeria. For instance, shortly after bandits kidnapped over 300 schoolboys in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria in December 2020, Shekau’s faction claimed the attack and released exclusive video footage of the hostages, who claimed to be prisoners of Shekau. In other words, while Shekau’s soldiers did not kidnap the students themselves, they appear to have been in touch with the kidnappers to arrange to have the operation look as if it were the work of Boko Haram. Beyond this, one source described limited technical support and training that Boko Haram offers to bandits as well as weapons exchanges between the groups. In his words, the bandits obtain ransom from the government and “use the money through the Boko Haram network to smuggle weapon [sic] into the northwest region.”23
The Implications of Stigmatization
The criminal actions of some Fulani, and the occasional complicity of Fulani elites in such violence, have had serious implications for ordinary Fulani and their relationships with other ethnic groups. Firstly, violence has ruptured the mutual and complementary relationship between Fulani herders and their host communities that has existed in the past. Every Fulani is now treated with stigma and suspicion. While Fulani are increasingly discriminated against in the south by Yoruba, Igbo, and other groups, their relationship with the Hausa majority in the north, historically a codependent relationship defined by assimilation, is no less hostile today. As the key informant with access to the Fulani armed groups noted, “Most of the communities in the northwest, once they see a Fulani man roving around in their community, they will arrest him and start investigating. ‘What brings you to our community? What are you doing here? Do you come to attack us?’ [sic]”24 In many parts of the country, it is difficult for Fulani, whether herders or not, to do legitimate business without fear of discrimination or attack. For some Fulani, this stigmatization is a factor that leads them into criminality.
The incursion of Fulani herders from other West African states such as Niger, Mali, Cameroon, and Chad has also complicated the security picture in Nigeria. The migration of Fulani is natural, but many Nigerians suspect that the influx of foreign Fulani into Nigeria in recent years was a result of the Fulani elite’s mobilization in the build-up to the 2015 general election between former President Jonathan and then presidential candidate Buhari. Although Buhari won the election, “they [the foreign Fulani] continued coming,” according to one IPOB member. “The Federal Government was busy instead of following what they agreed and allowing them to go back [to their home countries], they are still coming in because the business of thuggery and kidnapping they started is lucrative.”25 These claims should be treated with skepticism, as criminality within the ranks of Fulani herders has a history that stretches back well before 2015, especially when it comes to cattle rustling. A more plausible explanation is that while some Fulani elites in Nigeria are sympathetic to criminal herders, many others are likely powerless or simply reluctant to clamp down heavily on their kith and kin. In 2016, Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai of Kaduna state admitted to paying the leaders of Fulani criminal outfits to stop them from attacking communities in his state.26
Foreign Fulani often persuade or coerce Nigerian Fulani to join their criminal networks (though some Fulani bandits from Nigeria have themselves begun to cross into Niger and target local communities).27 These foreigners take advantage of Nigeria’s porous borders, across which small arms also flow. But Fulani criminals do not operate in isolation. Their criminal acts are aided and abetted by criminal elements and networks that draw from other ethnic groups including Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, and other minority groups who are “selling them weapon, [sic] selling them ammunition. Some are providing intelligence information to them.”28 The Fulani are also not the only ones perpetrating kidnappings. Fulani-dominated bandit outfits are the most active in the northwest, but local gangs in other parts of Nigeria also kidnap for ransom.
The perceived complicity of the Fulani elite in communal violence and the failure of federal security agencies to combat criminality have led to the establishment of sub-federal security outfits such as IPOB’s Eastern Security Network and Amotekun, the latter of which is supported by southwestern governors. Officially, these outfits were established in response to the threat to local communities posed by Fulani herders. Yet the ethnoreligious framing of Nigeria’s security crises as ones of either “Fulanization” or Fulani-led Islamization is simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst. One Nigerian paramilitary officer noted:
“The stigmatization of the Fulani is hurting security because crime is crime. Crime should not be tribalized. My agency has had cause to arrest some guys who are kidnappers and they are not Fulanis. How about that? So, we won’t say, because they are not Fulanis, we automatically turn them into Fulanis.”29
The Fulani themselves suffer from bad state policies, poverty, and stigmatization by society at large. Adverse climactic conditions such as desertification, deforestation, and drought threaten the economic livelihoods of Fulani herders.30 The Nigerian state, for its part, has failed to maintain established grazing reserves and routes that Fulani have historically relied on. Some of these grazing reserves have been cultivated for farming or other forms of infrastructure development. Hence, as the Nigerian paramilitary official quoted above noted, “The Fulanis have no option [but to graze on open lands] as they have an understanding that they must keep grazing. You cannot overnight say the Fulanis should not graze. So, it’s as if the government is deliberately attacking the Fulanis because they are not educated.”31
This is not to say that the Fulani have suffered more than other ethnic groups in Nigeria. Climate change threatens the livelihoods of Nigeria’s farmers and fishers as well, and poor government policies have stifled economic development and led to insecurity that affect all Nigerians regardless of ethnicity. This is simply to recognize that the Fulani have legitimate grievances, though this does not justify criminality.
Consequently, labelling every Fulani a criminal or radical bent on Islamization will only legitimize ethnically based violence, fueling the sorts of tit-for-tat attacks that have roiled Nigeria of late. This calls to mind Dag Tuastad’s argument regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly that Israeli’s use of the labels “terrorist” and “Arab Mind” to describe the full spectrum of Palestinian resistance organizations inflames tensions and escalates conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.32 Throughout Nigeria’s history, labelling a group as a terrorist or security threat has led to a misrepresentation of violence (as is the case with IPOB) or the criminalization of an entire community (as is the case with the IMN aka the Shiites).33
It is therefore necessary for Nigerian officials and citizens alike to disaggregate criminal elements from the broader Fulani community. A failure to do so will likely lead to more ethnically based violence and thus push more Fulani to take up arms. It is also possible that, should stigmatization of Fulani increase, more Fulani armed groups will forge connections with Boko Haram and adopt jihadist ideology as a way of interpreting and seeking to remedy their grievances.
Boko Haram: Stuck in the North?
Boko Haram does not appear to have seriously attempted to attack southern Nigeria at any point in time. The only publicly available evidence of Boko Haram attacks or plots in southern Nigeria is circumstantial and shaky. Boko Haram has itself only claimed one attack in southern Nigeria, a 2014 explosion at a gas tank storage unit in Lagos. Shekau’s claim was immediately disputed by local authorities, however, who said the explosion was accidental.34 For an organization whose declared objective is to Islamize Nigeria, it is worth considering why Boko Haram has failed to establish a presence in the country’s south.
The lack of Boko Haram attacks in southern Nigeria is rooted in the profound structural and social differences between Nigeria’s north and south. These regional disparities have had significant consequences for the regions’ respective development trajectories and, more importantly, for nation-building.35 The factors that aid Boko Haram’s expansion in the north—shared culture, religion, and other demographic similarities—are not present in the south. The south and north are significantly different from one another in terms of language, topography, levels of socioeconomic development, and religion.
To meaningfully expand into the south, Boko Haram would need to build some degree of popular support, which would be difficult in an overwhelmingly Christian region. Boko Haram could conceivably recruit among Yoruba Muslims, who constitute approximately 45 percent of the ethnic group in the southwest. However, as David Laitin and James Watkins note, “the Muslim-Christian divide in Yoruba land, far from fanning the flames of religious conflict in Nigeria, actually built the foundation for compromise.”36 Among Yoruba Muslims, loyalty to one’s indigenous culture is generally equal to one’s allegiance to Islam if not slightly greater. As such, there is a significant degree of religious syncretism among Yoruba Muslims and interfaith marriage among the Yoruba more broadly.37 Because Yoruba politicians cannot afford to alienate a large part of their electorate, religious adherence plays a limited role in Yoruba politics, unlike among the Hausa-Fulani, whose religion is deeply entrenched in their politics. It is therefore unlikely that Boko Haram will develop deep inroads amongst the Yoruba.
These linguistic and cultural differences alone would make it difficult for Boko Haram to infiltrate the south undetected, but the south is also more economically developed than the north and enjoys higher literacy levels. Boko Haram’s extremist ideology is thus less likely to resonate with southerners.38 Additionally, northern Nigeria’s topography, including numerous hills and large stretches of uninhabited forest, has proven crucial to Boko Haram’s resilience. The landscape of southern Nigeria—which is flat, more riverine, and more urbanized—is less conducive to the type of guerrilla warfare that Boko Haram has waged to date.
Nonetheless, as one Nigerian official warned, “there is every possibility that they [Boko Haram] will still come down south if they are not caged.”39 If this were to happen, it would be through partnership with criminal networks in the south. Although the ties between Boko Haram and Fulani bandits are rather weak and transactional in nature, such transactional ties can have structural significance that help bridge divides between groups.40 Hence there is reason to believe that Boko Haram could forge similar ties with criminal networks in the south. These ties would likely be weak and transient, however, meaning that the prospect of Boko Haram establishing a sustainable foothold in the south is minimal. For these reasons, it is likely that Boko Haram has not spent much effort trying to operate in southern Nigeria.
This paper argues, contrary to what many Nigerians believe, that Boko Haram and Fulani herders do not constitute a unified radical Islamic vanguard. Nonetheless, it is critical to understand that such sensationalist claims have not emerged in a vacuum. They stem from historical distrust between Nigeria’s north and south and also reflect widespread frustration with the incompetence of a Fulani president as well as the occasional complicity of other northern political elites who bear some responsibility, directly or indirectly, for fanning the flames of ethnoreligious conflict. At the same time, many southern political elites have disingenuously stoked fears of Fulani-led Islamization and “Fulanization” for political gain. In terms of Boko Haram’s goal of Islamizing Nigeria, this paper concludes that Boko Haram lacks the capacity to achieve such an ambitious feat, as it has failed to establish even a minor presence in southern Nigeria over the course of more than ten years of insurgency.
Moving forward, President Buhari’s administration and Fulani elites should strongly condemn and punish criminal acts perpetrated by Fulani armed groups. The Nigerian government should also invest in its under-resourced and undermanned security agencies, which are struggling to cope with rising insecurity across the country. The proliferation of small arms across Nigeria and the lack of adequate border security will also have to be addressed. Lastly and most importantly, the Nigerian government will, in the long term, need to improve its governance and provision of justice in order to address the underlying issues that drive criminality and ethnoreligious violence.
Unfortunately, these developments are unlikely to occur anytime soon, especially as Nigeria approaches another tense election in 2023. Southern political elites are leveraging southerners’ fears of “Fulanization” and Islamization to position themselves as Nigeria’s last line of defense against a hostile internal adversary. The Ohaneze Ndigbo—the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization—and other Igbo elite will likely associate with the secessionist IPOB if they feel it will increase the chances of an Igbo gaining the presidency in 2023. Likewise, the Afenifere (the leading Yoruba socio-cultural organization) supports Operation Amotekun as a means of furthering Yoruba political interests.
In short, Nigeria’s political elites cannot be trusted to fix the country’s flawed political structure and address the ethnoreligious tension engendered by political dysfunction. Any fundamental change would have to be driven from the ground up by the people, a glimpse of which was seen in the youth-led #EndSARS protests against police brutality in 2020. Otherwise, Nigeria will drift further apart.