The drivers of displacement in Nigeria are multi-faceted, complex and often overlapping. In the marginalised north-east, the emergence of the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, has caused large numbers of displacements since 2014. In the Middle Belt region, competition between pastoralists and farmers has caused tensions, culminating in significant levels of violence and displacement, and conflict has also emerged in several states in the north west, linked to banditry and criminal violence. Flooding displaces thousands of people every year.
In the first half of 2019, about 142,000 new displacements were recorded, 140,000 by conflict and 2,000 by disasters. Find out more about displacement in Nigeria and other countries in the Mid-Year Figures Report.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
The drivers of displacement in Nigeria are multi-faceted and complex and often overlap. Livelihoods and access to water and grazing have been under strain for decades in the marginalised north-east of the country, as the surface area of Lake Chad has shrunk by 90 per cent over the last 45 years. The shrinkage is the result of climate change and anthropogenic factors including the damming of tributaries, unsustainable water management policies and overgrazing.
People have increasingly migrated south along the perimeter of the Lake Chad basin as a result, which over time has caused around 70 ethnic groups to converge, contributing to an increase in competition, tensions and conflict over resources. This combination of political, social, economic and environmental factors has created fertile ground for the emergence of militant armed groups such as Boko Haram.
Founded in 2002, the group has launched increasingly dramatic attacks since mid-2014, leading to an unprecedented displacement crisis in north-eastern Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad basin. Its indiscriminate attacks against civilians, including bombings, mass shootings, suicide attacks, kidnappings and the destruction of property, have prompted millions of people to flee both within Nigeria and across borders to neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Boko Haram has also extended its activities to these countries, causing further displacement there too. This is thought in part to be the result of militants as well as civilians fleeing Nigeria to escape the military’s counterinsurgency operations, which have led to accusations of extra-judicial killings, torture and the destruction of property.
Despite the Nigerian government’s claims that Boko Haram is near defeat, the conflict continued unabated in 2018. Non-State Armed Group (NSAG) activity increased in the second half of 2018, with a number of deadly attacks against Nigerian Armed Forces. As many as 341,000 new displacements associated to this conflict were recorded in 2018. The Boko Haram insurgency continues to be the biggest driver of displacement in Nigeria.
International attention tends to focus on Boko Haram’s brutality, but inter-communal clashes fuelled by ethnic and religious tensions also flare regularly throughout the Middle Belt, which forms a transition zone stretching across 15 states between Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south. The violence is triggered by myriad factors, including ethno-religious disputes, crime, cattle rustling, land disputes and tensions between pastoralists and farmers. The conflict in the Middle Belt was six times deadlier in 2018 than the Boko Haram insurgency, with over 1,300 people killed in the first half of the year alone. The majority of the displacement took place in Benue, Nasarawa and Plateau states, when entire villages were burnt down and emptied of their residents. About 200,000 new displacements associated to this conflict were recorded in 2018, likely to be an underestimate given the limited number of aid organisations responding to the humanitarian crisis there.
Nigeria is also highly exposed to natural hazards and is affected each year by a number of disasters that trigger displacement. The most common are floods that occur in lowlands and river basins where people live in densely-populated informal settlements. These are caused not only by rainfall and overflowing watercourses, but also as a result of water being released from dam reservoirs in Nigeria and countries upstream. Flooding was particularly severe in 2018, when 34 out of Nigeria’s 36 states were affected, inundating 80 per cent of the country and displacing 600,000 people.
Where and how do people move?
People internally displaced by Boko Haram in the north-east are spread across 13 states, the vast majority in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe where active conflict is still ongoing. Of the 2.2 million IDPs recorded in Nigeria at the end of 2018, Borno alone accounts for 80 per cent of IDPs in the country. Displacement camps do exist, but the majority of IDPs in all affected states stay with family, friends or in host communities. Despite military efforts to combat Boko Haram, the states hosting IDPs remain unstable, living conditions are difficult and basic services few and far between.
At the same time, large numbers of people who fled into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger have returned to their areas of origin as resources in their places of refuge have dwindled. After many years of Nigerians fleeing across the border into Cameroon, a tripartite agreement was signed in March 2017 between the governments of Nigeria and Cameroon and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to facilitate the return of refugees. About 35,700 returns from neighbouring countries were recorded in 2018. However, in many cases, the returns were not considered voluntary nor were returnees able to return to places of origin.
In addition, 311,000 IDP returns were recorded in 2018 by IDMC’s partners. Information about conditions of returnees suggests that progress towards durable solutions is only partial. Given the ongoing insecurity, the level of destruction and lack of basic services in the north-east, conditions that support voluntary, safe and dignified returns are not yet in place.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
IDPs’ main concerns relate to food, health and shelter. The disruption of agriculture, markets and trade routes due to insecurity and the presence of UXOs across Borno State has contributed to widespread food insecurity, with around 1.7 million people currently food insecure. Despite the apparent improvement from previous years, many in Borno state continue to depend on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic food needs. Around 1.4 million IDPs were in need of health assistance as of the beginning of 2019, and a similar number needed shelter support. Cholera outbreaks are common and cases of malaria have increased in areas with inadequate shelters and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. About 800,000 people in Borno state continue to live in areas inaccessible to humanitarian workers.
Protection needs are also high. Boko Haram attacks on displacement camps and retaliatory assaults on areas under military control mean that IDPs' protection space is minimal. They have also faced violent intimidation by government forces. Around 1.8 million IDPs are in need of protection support. This includes psychological services for people who have suffered trauma and abuse during the conflict, such as the thousands of survivors of abductions, forced recruitment and sexual violence.
IDPs’ arrival often puts additional strain on host communities’ already scarce resources, and the latter may struggle to accommodate the influx of more mouths to feed. Host community members tend not to receive equal humanitarian assistance, which jeopardises IDPs’ security and may trigger new and secondary displacement as competition and tensions over resources boil over.
Where does the data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
The data landscape in Nigeria is complex for many reasons, including lack of access, rapidly evolving population movements and the political nature of displacement.
Our data on displacement associated with conflict in the north-east comes primarily from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)’s monthly displacement tracking matrix and emergency tracking tool reports. For displacement data associated to the Middle Belt crisis, IDMC used International Crisis Group’s estimate. However, this data only represents new displacements occurring in the first half of the year, making it likely that the number is an underestimate for 2018.
It has also become increasingly difficult to link armed attacks directly with new displacement flows, because the nature of the attacks has changed. There have been fewer raids on homes and villages, which can easily be seen to have triggered displacement, and more suicide bombings and other attacks in markets and other public places. While it is clear that insecurity has increased, it is more difficult to determine that people have left their homes for precisely that reason, which is likely to lead to our underestimating the number of new displacements.
IDMC’s only source for this estimate is IOM’s DTM reports, which includes data on the number of individuals and households who were able to return to their habitual place of residence. However, for 2018 returns, information provided suggests that progress towards durable solutions for these IDPs is only partial.
Collecting data on displacement associated with disasters is less complicated. Information is collected via Nigeria’s National Emergency Management System (NEMA), but given the lack of organisations focused specifically on doing so on the ground, our figures are likely to be underestimates.
IDMC’s estimates of the total number of IDPs in Nigeria and the number of new displacements in 2018 are based on IOM DTM and emergency tracking tool (ETT) reports covering the north-east of the country. From these sources, IDMC identified people displaced by conflicts or violence. The number of new displacements in 2018 also combines data from both IOM ETT and media reports for the period not covered by the last DTM report of 2018. IDMC also included information provided by the International Crisis Group and media reports about displacement in the Middle Belt, where the spread of violence into previously more peaceful areas of the country accounted for much of the increase in both the number of IDPs and new displacements compared with 2017, along with greater geographical coverage in the north-east where data collectors were able to access more areas.
From its analysis of IOM DTM reports, IDMC categorised 225,000 reported returns to non-damaged houses in areas of high insecurity and 86,000 returns to damaged or destroyed housing or shelters as partial solutions.
What are governments currently doing to prevent and respond to displacement?
Since signing and ratifying the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, also known as the Kampala Convention, Nigeria has developed a national policy on IDPs that would enshrine the protections granted by the convention into domestic law and facilitate a coordinated response to IDPs' needs. The policy, however, is still under discussion in the lower house of parliament.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNHCR have collaborated with the government in efforts to implement a joint protection, return and recovery strategy for the north-east. The strategy builds on other national and international policy instruments including the government’s 2016 Buhari Plan. In 2018, UNHCR coordinated the development of the Borno State Return Strategy which aims at setting minimum conditions for return in order to enable the safe, dignified, informed and voluntary return of IDPs.
Nigeria published its National Disaster Management Framework in 2010, and a national emergency management system (NEMA) was established as a result. It has also produced a first and second national communication under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which outline the country’s adaptation strategies. Drafting of the third began in May 2017.