Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mapping Violence in Nigeria

This post originally appeared on, the Future Forum, and Africa in Transition.

The recent intensification of attacks by Islamic militant group Boko Haram in northern and central Nigeria, including its capital Abuja, is alarming to Nigerians and the international community alike. But is it really an escalation?

Nigeria has been marred by violence almost continuously during its post-independence history. To cite recent episodes, since 2005, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has waged war against the Nigerian government and the oil industry over what it deems is an unfair distribution of the wealth the Delta region produces. They have killed soldiers, kidnapped oil workers, and destroyed infrastructure, and have threatened renewal of its campaign against the government and the oil industry. Near the city of Jos, situated in the middle belt region of the country, economic, religious, and sectarian conflict (often between Christians and Muslims) has killed thousands over the past three years. Following the disputed presidential elections in April 2011, violence along religious lines erupted in northern states, claiming the lives of an estimated 800 Christians and Muslims, after southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan was declared the victor.

Considering the apparent daily attacks and bombings attributed to Boko Haram in the past few weeks, there is a new, palpable feeling of insecurity in the country. More than fifty civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed in the last week in separate attacks in Maiduguri, Kaduna, and Suleja, prompting the indefinite closure of the University of Maiduguri and the banning of motorbikes in that city, as well as an unprecedented 10 p.m. curfew in Abuja. Further, bombings in the capital during its 50th Independence Day celebration in October as well as the June bombing at the National Police Headquarters have underscored the federal government’s inability to suppress violence, at least in the short term.

However, press and other reporting of the violence and unrest are often contradictory or inconsistent. At times, numbers of victims appear to be underestimated. Sometimes, however, casualties are double-counted. And disagreement over responsibility is common.

In an effort to improve our understanding of the scope of the unrest, we have initiated a crisis mapping project, the Nigeria Security Tracker, sifting through media reports, looking for incidents of violence that ostensibly can be connected to political, economic, and social grievances directed at the state or other affiliative groups (or conversely the state employing violence to suppress those uprisings). Using Ushahidi’s relatively new Crowdmap platform, we are recording each event we find, categorizing the data, and plotting it on a map and timeline. Over time, we hope to be able to evaluate the frequency of attacks, the magnitude (measured in terms of lives lost or injured), and the location of incidents.

Crisis mapping has a number of advantages. For one, it requires a more rigorous definition of violence and consideration of information as part of the process of determining which incidents should be included. It provides a means to organize and analyze often conflicting reports while at the same time allowing us to database information for future reference. In addition to being visually, appealing, the act of mapping also creates a novel opening to discuss violence in Nigeria for a technology-hungry media.

Of course, its analytical value is equally limited. Dependence on published reports means that incidents will be missed or reported inaccurately. This is particularly relevant in Nigeria where media is often concentrated in the south and important events, especially in the north, may not receive the coverage they should.

Further, it does not answer the question of why these incidents happen or why their frequency or intensity might be changing. As a result, we are working under the assumption that violent incidents often take place because of the weakness of the government and popular alienation from it, making scarce legitimate channels for redress of grievances. This alienation in turn is, at least in part, driven by Nigeria’s extreme poverty and inequality, which is most pronounced in the north; a political system that encourages winner take all competition; overzealous security services operating within a culture of impunity; and perverse corruption, which saps the political will for political solutions.

Follow the Nigeria Security Tracker here.