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Did ‘at least 50,000’ Nigerians die from terrorism in 2017?

This article is more than 6 years old

  •  While defining terrorism was difficult, figure a gross overestimate

  •  50,000 deaths would be the highest-ever recorded in a single year

  • Security challenges of concern and should be tackled with right data

Attacks linked to Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria have claimed more than 120 lives this year, sparking reprisal attacks in what is seen as a struggle for resources.

A focal point of the violence has been Benue state, where over 70 victims were buried on 11 January 2018. (Note: The Fulani are a largely Muslim group found in the Sahel region and parts of West Africa.)

The official response to the violence has sparked national debate. Likening the clashes to terrorism, former aviation minister and a prominent critic of the government Femi Fani-Kayode said terrorism deaths in Nigeria were higher than acknowledged.

"In the past year, Nigeria has experienced the greatest increase in deaths from terrorism, with 7,512 deaths reported - an increase of over 300%",  he tweeted to his more than 650,000 followers at the beginning of January 2018.

Attributing the figure to British online newspaper The Independent, Fani-Kayode, a lawyer, added: “It is far higher than 7,512 in the past year. It is at least 50,000.”

Data quoted is three years old

Fani-Kayode is yet to respond to our query for the specific media report he cited or the source of his figure of 50,000 deaths. (Note: We will update this report should he do.)

We traced his claim of 7,512 deaths to an article published by The Independent in November 2015. Citing the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, the article said that the 7,512 deaths recorded in Nigeria in 2014 were an increase “of over 300% – most of which have been claimed by Boko Haram”.

The index said it had sourced its data from the Global Terrorism Database and that this was for the 2014 calendar year. It defined terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non‐state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation”.

Definition of terrorism not ‘clear-cut’

Calculating deaths from terrorism is difficult as there is no single globally accepted definition, analysts told Africa Check. This means some death tolls can be understated or inflated, depending on which definition is used.

“Granted there is no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism but the definition of terrorism by the United States government suffices,” Don Okereke, a Lagos-based security analyst, said.
This defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

“It is logical to conclude that deaths resulting from any or all of the aforesaid activities could be deemed terror-related,” said Okereke.

Ikemesit Effiong, an analyst with Lagos-based research advisory SBM Intelligence, agreed this was an acceptable definition within the Nigerian context. “The crucial thing to note when assessing the human cost of terrorism is to remember that for an act to be properly construed as a terrorist act, it… must have been committed with the aim of achieving a clear, stated political objective,” Effiong said.

Note: The Nigerian government’s definition of terrorism can be found here.

Most recent data shows far fewer deaths

The most recent edition of the terrorism index was released in November 2017. Its data covers the 2016 calendar year because its compilation takes time. This Murray Ackman, a research fellow at the Institute for Economics and Peace, which publishes the index, told Africa Check.

The report showed that deaths from terrorism in Nigeria peaked at 7,538 in 2014, fell to 4,940 in 2015 and fell further to 1,832 in 2016.

A survivor of a Boko Haram's attack looks at the waters of Lake Chad which borders Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, in Bol on January 25, 2015. Photo: AFP/Sia Kambou
A survivor of a Boko Haram's attack looks at the waters of Lake Chad in January 2015. Photo: AFP/Sia Kambou

“We don’t have the numbers for 2017 yet, but early indicators suggest that deaths from terrorism in Nigeria continued to fall in 2017,” Ackman said.

“For Nigeria to have experienced 50,000 deaths from terrorism in 2017 would mean it would need to have both the most deaths ever recorded from terrorism and the largest yearly increase ever recorded. [This] would be more than double the deaths from terrorism than the rest of the world combined.” (Note: According to the index, the most ever deaths recorded in one country in one year is about 10,000 people in Iraq in 2014.)

Even if a broader definition of “armed conflict” was used, the most recent data shows that in 2016 there 100,000 battle-related deaths from more than 100 armed conflicts globally, Ackman said.

“It is not possible that terrorism in Nigeria has had the equivalent of half of all the death from armed conflict (which tends to be much deadlier than terrorism) in one year.”

Ackman said the only scenario that Nigeria would record such a number of deaths were if they were counted as an indirect consequence of terrorism, for example from displacement and food shortages. But these are by their nature difficult to calculate and attribute, he noted.

Figure ‘very high and unlikely’

Two databases which have complete data for 2017 documented far fewer than 50,000 deaths due to violence.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which tracks the wider category of political violence, recorded 3,310 incidents in Nigeria in 2017, and 9,342 deaths. Project manager Olivia Russell told Africa Check that while they code the lower of the figures they come across, the figure of 50,000 sounded “very high and unlikely”.

Another source, the Nigeria Security Tracker run by the Africa programme of the Council on Foreign Relations, documented 3,564 deaths in 2017 from violence in the country. These were from a variety of causes, including economic and social ones and by state security agents. It however notes that its data is “indicative rather than definitive as certain categories of violent or terror acts may overlap while some may have been left out”.

Conclusion: Counting terrorism deaths difficult, but no data shows 'at least 50,000' in Nigeria in 2017

Femi Fani-Kayode, a former Nigerian cabinet minister and prominent government critic, claimed that the real death toll from terrorism in Nigeria was “at least 50,000” in 2017.

Experts told Africa Check that while defining terrorism was difficult, that figure was a gross overestimate - even according to the broadest definitions. For Nigeria to have experienced 50,000 deaths in 2017 means it would have had the most deaths ever recorded from terrorism in a single year - a record of about 10,000 held by Iraq in 2014.

We therefore rate Fani-Kayode’s claim as incorrect. While the challenges with internal security that Nigeria faces are well documented and rightly of national concern, the debate around it should be informed by accurate data.  

Edited by Lee Mwiti


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