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Apocalyptic warnings and threats in a week of escalating violence

Former head of state urges state governors to speak responsibly, reminding them of road to 1967-1970 civil war

General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who took over as head of state after the death of military leader Gen. Sani Abacha in 1998, stepped out of the shadows for a television interview on 18 February to warn state governors that the reckless accusations being thrown at political and regional rivals could fuel violence that would tear the country apart. He drew a chilling comparison with the prelude to the outbreak of civil war in 1967.

Although political and economic conditions in the country have changed radically over the last half-century, Abubakar and other soldiers who fought in the country's civil war from 1967-70 are alarmed by the deterioration of national security in the past decade.

A few days earlier, prominent journalist Kadaria Ahmed issued a call to her colleagues to guard against fuelling ethnic, regional and religious division in reports and analysis of violent incidents across the country.

This week, Nigeria has seen an alarming ratcheting up of communal clashes, insurgent attacks and violent crime. On 17 February armed men attacked Government Science College in Kagara in Niger State kidnapping around 30 students, following several other armed attacks in the Shiroro, Bossi and Mariga areas of the state.

Over the weekend of 13-14 February, Fulani and Yoruba youths clashed in the Sasha market area of Ibadan, Oyo State, in the south-west. About 20 people were killed and thousands more fled their homes after youths started burning down houses and shops.

State governors – Seyi Makinde (Oyo State) from the opposition People's Democratic Party and Rotimi Akeredolu (Ondo) from the ruling All Progressives' Congress – toured the area on 15 February trying to calm tensions. 

The clashes between the mostly Fulani cattle herders and settled farmers have shifted southwards from the middle belt where they blew up ahead of the 2019 elections. Now there are reports of clashes between herders and farmers across the south-west, parts of the Niger Delta and the south-east, all much more densely populated than the middle belt and northern states. 

The clashes are becoming more militarised. Herders are carrying AK47s and farmers are calling on local vigilantes, armed with more traditional weapons, to chase them out of the area. Local leaders such as Sunday Igboho, who leads a gang of vigilantes targeting suspected kidnappers, are raising the temperature.

Akeredolu and Makinde both support the regional security formation, known as Amotekun, which is meant to protect farmers and arrest kidnappers and other violent criminals. Amotekun was set up to remedy the failures of the federal police to protect local community but there are concerns in Abuja that this will lead to the establishment of state police forces by stealth, adding to the already wide-ranging powers of state governors.

Taking a cue from this, the Indigenous People of Biafra, a secessionist group under the nominal leadership of Nnamdi Kanu, set up an armed wing known as the Eastern Support Network in December. It's not clear from where United States-based Kanu gets his funding but he's paying $80,000 a month to lobbyists Mercury Public Affairs in Washington DC to proselytise against President Muhammadu Buhari's government and call for the break-up of Nigeria.

In an escalation of hostilities with IPOB, which is proscribed in Nigeria, the air force was reported to have sent a helicopter gunship on 13 February to target the group's military bases in Orlu and Orsu, on the border of Imo and Anambra states. On the same day, ground troops raided homes in the area, searching for IPOB militants (AC Vol 62 No 3, The guard changes, at last & Vol 62 No 1, Ready to rumble).

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