‘Fear of the Unknown’

Religion, Identity, and Conflict in Northern Nigeria

A preacher speaking.
July 06, 2021

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Intercommunal conflict in northern Nigeria has killed thousands of people, displaced countless others, and wreaked havoc on markets and livelihoods. These conflicts are animated by multiple overlapping cleavages related to identity—including ethnicity and religion—and livelihood activities, namely farming and pastoralism. In recent years, clashes in the region have become increasingly violent and their possible religious dimensions have garnered greater attention. Addressing violence in northern Nigeria requires a nuanced understanding of its underlying drivers and the role of identity, including religion.

To examine these dynamics, this Mercy Corps study combines an analysis of violent events data from North West and North Central Nigeria with 165 in-depth interviews and a survey of 750 residents in 15 communities in Kaduna and Kano states. We find that:

  • Only some violence in northern Nigeria has been inter-religious in nature, and Muslims and Christians have been both perpetrators and victims.
  • The more religious people are, the less likely they are to support or engage in violence. In a survey experiment, we also find that identifying the perpetrator of a transgression as a religious out-group member has no effect on respondents’ support for more severe forms of retaliation.
  • Intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups. In our survey, an increase in perceived insecurity corresponds with a 25% to 35% increase in support for violence, while a decrease in social cohesion—including intergroup trust—is associated with a 43% to 60% increase in people’s willingness to endorse violence.
  • While religion is usually not a direct cause of conflict, it provides opportunity and motivation for specific actors to mobilize violence in pursuit of political, economic, or personal objectives. Religious leaders play an important role in both stoking violence—by politicizing or enhancing the salience of religious identity—and preventing it by resolving disputes and promoting peace.

These findings underscore the complex, multi-faceted nature of violence in the region. They also have important implications for government and donor-led efforts to prevent conflict and forge peace in Nigeria, especially in the lead up to the next electoral cycle.