Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: Nigeria

By: Lena Musoka

May 4, 2023

Nigeria: Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

With over three million people living in situations of internal displacement, Nigeria has the largest population of internally displaced people (IDPs) in West Africa. This population, as well as the demands and suffering associated with displacement, has grown. The causes are complex but include insurgencies, notably Boko Haram; increasing lawlessness and gang violence; and resource-based conflicts linked in part to fluctuations in rainfall associated with a changing climate.

Forced Migration: Causes and Trends

Forced displacement is the result of complex interactions between political and environmental challenges with religious elements, a significant—even if disputed—part of the mix. In the early 1980s, occasional conflicts erupted due to tensions between Cameroon and Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula, resulting in the displacement of people in southern Nigeria. Despite a settlement in 2006, the Nigerian government has done little to aid the return of IDPs.

Violence linked to Islamic extremism and the activities of Boko Haram and other groups is a primary cause of displacement today. Boko Haram is one of the largest Islamic militant groups in Africa, responsible for attacks on religious and political groups, military, police, and random civilian targets. Other non-state armed groups (NSAGs) also contribute to displacement in the north. In 2020, attacks from NSAGs in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe led to the displacement of 190,000 people.

Resource-based conflicts and violence between pastoralists and farmers in Nigeria’s northwestern regions are increasing, aggravated by climate change effects. Scarcity of water, exemplified by the recession of Lake Chad, contributes to community displacement. The rise of extreme weather events like torrential rain and floods also contributes to displacement, notably in the southern regions.

Nigeria’s Response

Several Nigerian government policies and programs address different drivers of internal displacement. Economic and political challenges facing the country, however, hinder their impact. Counter-terrorism initiatives include an anti-terrorism platform and military funding. The Nigeria Regional Refugee Response Plan of 2016—a joint effort between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger—was updated in 2019 to strengthen efforts to address the needs of IDPs and Nigerian refugees hosted in these countries. Nigerian government programs also work to facilitate the return of IDPs in the northeast region of the country.

Faith-inspired organizations (FIOs), both Muslim and Christian, implement social programs to provide services to displaced people. On an international level, conversations and advocacy from American and Nigerian Catholic bishops seek assistance for displaced persons and dialogue among Christians and Muslims for peacebuilding.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges. Contributors in this series weigh in on causes and trends of forced migration and internal displacement in Nigeria, as well as the roles of the Nigerian government and faith-inspired organizations in response to this issue.

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