Nigeria’s Slow Motion Civil War, International Law, and Multifaceted Conflicts

Nigeria’s Slow Motion Civil War, International Law, and Multifaceted Conflicts

While the attention of the international news is fixed on the Mumbai attacks, I just want to pause to note that there is a growing tide of sectarian violence in Nigeria, which has claimed another 300 lives in the past few days. The strife in Nigeria provides a window into the types of complex ongoing conflicts that combine ethnic tensions, religious disputes, and resource grabs. Moreover, as in the case of Nigeria, there may be multiple semi-independent conflicts within a single country. What, if anything, can international law contribute to resolving such conflicts?

As for the situation in Nigeria, CNN reports:

Mobs burned homes, churches and mosques Saturday in a second day of riots as the death toll rose to more than 300 in the worst sectarian violence in Africa’s most populous nation in years…

Those killed in the Christian community [of Jos] likely would not be taken to the city mosque, raising the possibility that the total death toll could be much higher…

The hostilities mark the worst clashes in the restive West African nation since 2004, when as many as 700 people died in Plateau State during Christian-Muslim clashes.

Jos, the capital of Plateau State, has a long history of community violence that has made it difficult to organize voting. Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people.

The city is situated in Nigeria’s “middle belt,” where members of hundreds of ethnic groups commingle in a band of fertile and hotly contested land separating the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south.

All told,

More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since civilian leaders took over from a former military junta in 1999. Political strife over local issues is common in Nigeria, where government offices control massive budgets stemming from the country’s oil industry.

By way of background, an ethnolinguistic map of Nigeria (circa 1979) is available on a University of Texas website here.

Besides the sectarian violence in Nigeria’s middle belt, consider also the battles over oil resources in the Niger delta, as well as, more generally, the centrifugaleffect that oil has had on Nigerian society. As I noted in a comment to an earlier post, Nigerian oil wealth is supposed to be distributed via communal regions. However, this oil revenue distribution plan seemingly incentivizes the splitting and re-splitting of political communities, pitting each against the others:

So strongly are the boundaries of imagined political communities [in Nigeria] driven by perceived economic interests from oil rents that, whereas in 1970 it had only three regions, it now [in 2006] has thirty-six.

Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, The Political Economy of Secession, in NEGOTIATING SELF DETERMINATION 37, 48 (Hurst Hannum & Eileen F. Babbitt Eds. 2006).

So, while the situation in Nigeria is not a civil war in the classic sense, it is an example of the type of bloody but “low-level” ongoing conflict that saps the strength of countries. These situations time and again teeter on the brink of becoming full scale civil wars (and sometimes do… see Biafra) but their complexity denies a “one issue” solution. The mantra of “democracy” is not sufficient to stabilize a country. In the case of the recent eruption in Nigeria, CNN reports that:

The fighting began as clashes between supporters of the region’s two main politicalparties following the first local election in Jos in more than a decade. The violence expanded along ethnic and religious lines.

Complex problems unfortunately often (but not always) require complex solutions. Up to this point, there has been alot of thinking about what these types of conflicts mean in terms of international humanitarian law: do the laws of armed conflict need to change and, if so, how? There has also been an emphasis on the role of law–both domestic and international–in post-conflict scenarios. But, what of international law in pre-conflict situations… the efficacy of international institutions and international law in slowing or preventing a country’s slide into civil war? 

While law has a role in addressing the phenomenon of failed states, it also can have a function in preventing states from failing. If one thinks creatively about how the panoply of tools presented by international regimes, international law and institutions have a role to play in the prevention of conflicts beyond the old “peaceful settlement of disputes” sense of taking cases to the ICJ or arbitration.  International financial institutions can relieve poverty, human rights treaties can provide baselines for minority rights, the rules of public international law can clarify claims concerning self determination, and the good offices of international organizations such as the U.N. can assist in mediation, to name a few examples. Each of these functions of international law and institutions may play a part in addressing the root causes of such multifaceted conflicts. (Perhaps Ken Anderson et al. will touch on some of these points in the upcoming CTLab online symposium). Through a combination of direct relief to those suffering and the use of good offices to foster dialogue, international institutions can play a role in getting parties to the bargaining table. For its part, international law may be of use in cutting through the political rhetoric and providing context as to the strength and weaknesses of various claims by the parties. International law is not, in and of itself, a “solution.” But it is important the we explore its possibilities as a tool.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Africa, Featured, Foreign Relations Law
Notify of

It seems to me the only real way to solve these multifaceted problems is to more fully develop the concept of Universal Jurisdiction.  If international law is not adequately responding to situations such as those in Nigeria, it is simply because the courts that have jurisdiction over Nigeria can only have states as parties, and not individuals.  But courts enforcing domestic law in any particular country can certainly prosecute individuals.  We need more states to pass legislation giving them more broad jurisdiction over the “universally illegal” acts that take place in other countries as well (or at least neighboring countries).  I know Belgium did this with mixed reaction in the international community (and harsh criticism from the U.S. who had charges brought against some of its nationals in Belgian court).