Power, elitism and history: Analyzing trends in targeted killings in Nigeria, 2000 to 2017

This Research Report is authored by Hilary Matfess* and published by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime

Power in Nigeria is often personalized and the mechanisms to transfer power are often opaque and non-institutionalized.

This allows targeted killings** to play a particularly important role. Nonetheless, there has not been a systematic accounting of targeted killings in the country.

** The phrase ‘targeted killing’ refers to lethal violence – both actual and attempted – against specific individuals. In other words, targeted killing (for the purposes of this study) does not include violence directed at a random member of a particular group (be it an ethnic or religious affiliation, or some other community); it is defined as violence targeted at, or intended for, a specific person because of their identity.

To understand this phenomenon...

...we created a dataset 'Targeted Killings in Nigeria, 2000-2017' to document instances in which individuals were specifically targeted for violence.

The Targeted Killings in Nigeria Dataset catalogues more than 1,600 targeted killings in Nigeria - this number includes both lethal and non-lethal attacks, as well as threats.

Targeted killing extends beyond the political sphere:

Targets are included in the realms of business, academia, government, activism and criminal networks.

Number of targeted killings by target demographic
Information produced by the Dataset suggests that criminality may be associated with targeted killings more than other forms of non-state, anti-state, or violent organizations.
Findings show that the breadth of targeted violence is wide and corroborate the idea that the 1999 transition to democracy is insufficient to comb through the tangled relationships between politicians, businessmen, criminals, civil servants, traditional leaders and violence.



The categories of individuals most commonly targeted in our dataset were politicians, and traditional and religious leaders.

The dataset catalogues more than 540 targeted attacks on politicians and party affiliates and nearly 200 targeted attacks on traditional and religious leaders. In addition, we catalogue attacks on more than 140 civil servants (not including police officers or members of the military, who were also frequently targeted). In the private sector, more than 100 businesspeople and more than 100 trade-union affiliates were targeted.


Targeted violence against politicians is not necessarily confined to general election years...

...though there does appear to be an uptick in the run up to general elections and during such elections.


Patterns of targeted violence do not have the same characteristics as other forms of violence experienced in Nigeria.

As Boko Haram has become more lethal and indiscriminate in the north, the number of targeted attacks in the region has fallen. On the other hand, the country’s southern states are particularly affected by targeted violence.


Patterns of violence differed greatly among geopolitical regions.

Targeted violence against politicians is more common in the South South and South West of the country, than in the north.


Traditional leaders and religious authorities exercise significant influence in modern Nigeria;

this relevance has made the leaders and representatives of these organizations susceptible to targeted violence; our dataset catalogues more than 200 attempted or successful attacks on such leaders.
Targeted attacks on traditional and religious leaders


Targeted killings of students, academics, university staff, or cult members...

...are included in the category of cults and campus-related violence, which accounted for more than 70 attacks in the dataset.
Students and academics


More than 200 attempted or successful attacks on businessmen, entrepreneurs, and trade union affiliates...

...particularly those who were involved in the country’s taxi and petroleum industries.
Targeted killings of businesspeople, entrepreneurs and union affiliates


Nigeria has repeatedly been identified as one of the deadliest countries for journalists to work in;

Our dataset catalogued 52 attacks on journalists since 2000, of which 33 resulted in death.
Targeted killings of journalists

The distribution of attacks by state:

The prevalence of targeted killings in the country’s southern regions is a function of a number of interrelated factors, including:

management of Resource wealth

Legacy of colonial rule

Presence of secret societies and criminal networks

Lack of a clear hierarchy of authority

Self-perpetuating characteristics of targeted violence

Our initial data collection seems to confirm previous work done that shows that, within the context of low-intensity conflicts, assassinations contribute to insecurity and prolonged conflict.

The staggering numbers of targeted killings in nigeria, require domestic and international policy attention.

Breaking this cycle will require political commitment and credible enforcement mechanisms.

*About the author

Hilary Matfess is a PhD student in political science at Yale University. She is the author of Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses. You can follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess.


Creato con immagini di Ovinuchi Ejiohuo - "The scavenger" • Kaufdex - "nigeria flag" • Joshua Oluwagbemiga - "Not so Mad Max" • Public_Domain_Photography - "flag banner nation" • geralt - "globe network connectedness" • Carsten Ten Brink "Pick your candidate" • Surian Soosay "Nigeria UN Building Bombed" • Michael Sean Gallagher "The Kenneth Dike Library at University of Ibadan" • Diariocritico de Venezuela "Nigeria-UNREST"

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