History and Nature of Armed Conflicts in Nigeria

History and Nature of Armed Conflicts in Nigeria


Armed Conflict (AC)

O’Connell defines armed conflict as the presence of organized groups that are engaged in intense fighting.[1]   ICRC defines the term as protracted armed confrontations occurring between governmental armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups arising on the territory of a State (party to the Geneva Conventions). The armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity and the parties involved in the conflict must show a minimum of organization and have the capacity to sustain military operations. [2]

The Appeals Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) stated that ‘armed conflict exists whenever there is a resort to armed force between states or protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organised groups within a state’.[3] Similarly, the ICJ in the Nicaragua case stated;

An armed attack must be understood as including not merely action by regular armed forces across an international border but also “the sending by on behalf of a state of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another state of such gravity as to amount to” (inter alia) an actual armed attack conducted by regular forces, “or its substantial involvement therein[4]

Under IHL, AC is classified into international armed conflict (IAC) and non-international armed conflict (NIAC).IAC is generally defined by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as an armed conflict which exists whenever there is a ‘resort to armed force between states’.[5]

In this light, although without offering a definition, Common Article 2 to Geneva convention states that IAC will arise in all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more high contacting parties, even if the state of war is not recognised by one of them’.

On the other hand, NIAC is defined as a ‘protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organised armed groups or between such groups within a state’.[6] The import of the above definition is that for NIAC to exist the hostilities must be protracted and the armed group must be organised.[7]

It is always important to distinguish between armed conflict and mere riots, skirmishes, demonstrations or disturbances. Intensity of the conflict and organization of the parties are the two widely accepted criteria upon which to determine if a conflict situation is an armed conflict or a mere disturbance.[8] For intensity, it is required that the armed hostilities be ‘protracted rather than sporadic or isolated’.[9]

The relevant factors to determine protracted violence include ‘the seriousness of the attack, their geographical spread and temporal persistence, the mobilization of government forces, the distribution of weapons, and whether the situation has attracted the attention of the UN Security Council’.[10]

For the organisational structure of parties in the conflict, the ICTY in Haradinaj case, stated these factors as elements of organisation;

Existence of a command structure, disciplinary mechanisms, headquarters, control of territory, access to weapons, military training, ability to plan and carry out military operations, and ability to speak with one voice, negotiate and conclude agreements such as ceasefire or peace accords.[11]

History and Nature of Armed Conflicts in Nigeria

Armed conflicts have marked Nigeria’s history since pre-colonial times, but have intensified following independence in 1960. Several armed conflicts have occurred in Nigeria since the inception of party politics that took place during the colonial era (the 1920’s in the south and the 1940’s in the north).

In 1960, the countdown to independence engendered conflicts among groups who used crude weapons such as machetes, bows, and arrows; these conflicts intensified soon thereafter, culminating in the 1967–70 civil war. The United Kingdom exported weapons to the federal government while France supported and armed Biafran secessionists[12].

In addition, the local crafting and manufacture of small arms was further developed, especially in Awka in the south-east, where the secessionists drew from the resources of a long-standing but relatively unsophisticated local blacksmithing industry to overcome the difficulty in obtaining arms from external sources.

In 1967, a civil war between the Nigerian Federal Government and the Biafran secessionists erupted and quickly escalated into full-scale armed conflict before ending in 1970. Since then, Nigeria has been be-devilled by religious, communal, and civil strife.

In the Niger Delta, the Egbesu Boys initially emerged as an Ijaw religious cultural group, but subsequently took up arms in order to challenge perceived injustice caused by the exploitation of oil resources in Ijaw land and the Niger Delta by the Nigerian state and multi- national corporations.

The Bakassi Boys in the Igbo-speaking south-east, initially formed as a vigilante group to help protect south-eastern traders and their clients from attacks by armed robbers, a situation that arose from the failure of the Nigerian police to perform their duties effectively.

Armed vigilantism and cults in Rivers state fighting in the nine oil-producing states, which include the states of the Niger Delta, was motivated by the on-going struggle for the control of oil wealth, and anger over the environmental degradation and high levels of unemployment that have surfaced since oil exploration began in 1956.

Conflict epicenters included Warri in Delta state (the late 1990s) and, more recently, Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers state. In 2003 and 2004, two main rival armed groups, the NDPVF, the NDV, and a number of associated smaller groups fought over the control of territory and oil bunkering routes in and around Port Harcourt. The Fighting’s have caused the deaths of hundreds of people and resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands[13].

The situation quietened in late September 2004 only after the NDPVF leader, Alhaji Mujahid Abubakar Asari Dokubo, threatened to launch an all- out war unless the Nigerian government granted greater control of the region’s oil resources to the Ijaw people, the major ethnic group in the Niger Delta.

This move attracted international attention, particularly within the oil industry, and prompted the Nigerian government which had deployed troops to the region for an internal security mission code-named ‘Operation Hakusi’ to negotiate with the two main armed groups. The 1st October 2004 ceasefire agreement and a call for the dis-armament of all groups and militias was the end result[14].

While many armed groups were active in Nigeria during 2004, the NDPVF in Rivers state was one of the most organized, armed, and deadly. In 2004, Asari, who hailed from the town of Buguma[15], claimed that his organization fronted a volunteer force of up to 168,000 fighters and more were joining every day[16], a contention that most experts now believe to be a wild exaggeration.

The NDPVF also maintained they were holding discussions with groups who shared similar ideas in other parts of Nigeria. Asari stepped down as IYC president on 10 July 2003 amid pressures from senior IYC figures, and subsequently created the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) led by Ateke Tom. The NDV emerged in Okrika, a major town in Rivers state, during a general state of lawlessness engendered by criminal gang activity.

The group, known before 2003 as the Okrika Vigilante or as the Icelanders, gained the support of the community after it was able to neutralize local mafia. It gained prominence in reaction to the inability of the Nigerian police force to maintain law and order, and such was its influence that local politicians took note.


[1] M.E., O’Connell. “Defining Armed Conflict”, in Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Vol 13 Issues 3, 2009, 393-400.

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “How is the Term ‘Armed Conflict’ Defined in International Humanitarian Law?” Opinion Paper, March 2008, p. 3

[3]Prosecutor v Tadić, 105 International Law Reports(ILR) 419, at p. 488.

[4]Nicaragua case 76 ILR 1.

[5]The Prosecutor v Dusko Tadić, ICTY Decision on the Defence for Interlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction, IT-94-1-A, 2nd October 1995, para 70.

[6]Tadić case, No IT-94-1-AR72, para 70.

[7]<www.geneva-academy.ch/RULA/php.html> accessed on the 7th of December 2018.

[8]R Cryer et al, An Introduction to International Criminal Law and Prcedure (3rd edn, Cambridge 2014) 279.

[9]R Cryer et al, ibid 279.

[10]Tadić, ICTY Trial Chamber 11, 7th May 1997, Paras 562-567. See also, Akayesu, ICTR Trial Chamber, 12th September 1998, paras 619-620, Lubanga, ICC Trial Chamber, 14th March 2012, Paras 538.

[11]Haradinaj, ICTY Trial Chamber, 3rd April 2008, paras 37-60. See also, Boskoski and Tarculovski, ICTY Trial Chamber, 10th July 2008, paras 175-205.

[12]Musah and Thamson, 1999, p. 112

[13](HRW, 2005, p. 1)

[14](HRW, 2005, pp. 1–3)

[15](HRW, 2005, p. 6)

[16](The News, 2004, p. 20)

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