In the early morning of March 7, between 200 and 500 Nigerian Christians, mostly women and children, were butchered in the villages of Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Ratsat, which lie about 10 kilometres south of Jos, the capital of Plateau State. The corpses were buried in mass graves. A shocked world has compared the deaths to the genocide in Yugoslavia. However, labelling this conflict as a religious one – Muslims versus Christians – is simplistic.
The tragedy at Jos, a city of half a million on the fault line between the Muslim North and the largely Christian South, is a sordid example of how Nigeria’s dodgy political elite manipulates ethnic and religious sentiments to selfishly usurp the soul of the nation. While superficially the Jos conundrum is painted in religious hues, the fact is that it was ethnic, economic and political tensions which set the once peaceful and beautiful city ablaze.
Politics in Nigeria, a country with 150 million people and 250 ethnic groups, is a murky affair. The Afizeres, Anagutas and Beroms – predominantly Christians – are the ‘indigenes’ of Jos. But ‘settlers’, newcomers like the Hausa-Fulani (mostly Muslims), Igbos and Yorubas, have moved into the region for over a century. Conflicts have arisen — mostly between the indigenes and the Hausa-Fulani. These two groups, among other things, both claim the chair of a local government area: Jos North, the political and commercial centre of the city. While the indigenes are bitter about the domineering ‘born to rule’ tendencies of the Hausa-Fulani, the settlers also wish to assert their rights to leadership in a municipal council where they work and pay taxes. This is a right recognised by Nigeria’s constitution.
In Nigeria, local government areas (LGA) determine who is an indigene or not. Only officially certified indigenes can vie for and vote in local elections. An American scholar who has studied the situation in Jos, Phillip Ositien, has asserted that, in the final analysis, this is what much of the fighting is about. It’s hard to disagree.
The political complications were accentuated by the 1991 split of Jos LGA into northern and southern regions by former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida (a northern Nupe Muslim). This reorganisation was perceived as illogical and viewed as a ruse by the Hausa-Fulani to gain political leverage in Jos politics. Furious protests by indigenes and settlers, egged on by sinister politicians, have created a deadly tit-rot-tat massacres in Jos.
Nigeria’s constitution does not help matters. On one hand, it guarantees rights to move freely within Nigeria and to reside and own property anywhere. However, the same statute sets down that federal appointments should reflect a ‘federal character’ . It confers indigeneship only on persons whose lineage can be traced down to their parents or great grandparents.
Now for the hard part. The Hausa-Fulani are not the only settlers in Jos. Unlike the Igbos and Yorubas who probably came before them, however, the Hausa Fulani are the only ones seeking elective posts. This curious twist is made more complex by the Hausa-Fulani propensity to violence.
Besides, notes Ostien, “widespread illiteracy, unemployment, a growing population of rootles and jobless young men, availability of arms, coupled with venal, petty-minded and short-sighted politicians” are fodder for ethno-religious trouble. Incompetent and unaccountable public officials are wont to use violence to win elections makes it difficult to unravel this conflict.
Both sides in the conflict have a fair share of blame for the bloodshed in Jos. No one has been punished since September 2001 when this violence claimed about 1,000 in Jos; three years later in Yelwa as many as 700 died. Another 700 died in Jos in November 2008. In January, perhaps a hundred died, in riots between Muslim and Christian gangs. Both the state and federal government have politicised the matter and the crisis remains unresolved. Since there has been no justice – no one has ever been tried for any of the killings — a revengeful vortex ensues.
Patently corrupt and incompetent leadership has failed to provide employment for locals. That’s the economic angle to this disaster, since government remains the highest employer of labour in Nigeria. Also the security outfits – both police and military – have dirty hands. Why was a crisis in the nearby Bauchi State when an Islamist group, Boko Haram ran amok, efficiently controlled while Jos was left to boil for many days? News reports have supported suspicions that some prominent Nigerians actually sponsored the killings.
Although the Hausa-Fulani are Muslim and indigenes are largely Christian, this is not clash of civilisation. As the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan affirms, this is not exclusively a religious war. Unfortunately pictures of mass graves easily project as a jihad or pogrom, depending on one’s ethnic or religious affiliation. However, it is squarely a leadership problem. The Nigerian political class – both Christian and Muslim – are interested only in filling their pockets. Their insatiable appetite for milking the public till continues to drive them to whip up ethnic and religious absurdities to further their diabolic desires. The division of ‘them’ against ‘us’ will continue until people who want to serve occupy public office in Nigeria.
First published in Mecartonet