Mar 11, 2010 | 18:53 GMT

8 mins read

Nigeria: The Underlying Conflict in Jos

The official death toll from recent Christian-Muslim clashes in the Jos area of Nigeria's Plateau state was set at 109 by the state police chief March 10, a sizable reduction from the initial claims by state government officials that more than 500 had been killed in the March 7 attack. Though clashes periodically break out between Christians and Muslims in Jos, the real reason for the violence is not religious difference, but a struggle between ethnic groups for local political control.
The police chief of Nigeria's Plateau state said March 10 that the official death toll from a Muslim Fulani raid on several Christian Berom villages in the northwestern part of the state March 7 was 109. Earlier reports from state government officials had put the figure above 500. The violence occurred in three villages in the Jos South administrative zone, near the state capital of Jos. It was the second such outbreak of violence between the area's Christian and Muslim communities since January, when more than 300 were killed. (click here to enlarge image) Jos is the name used to describe the northwestern area of Plateau state, which is located just around the geographic center of Nigeria. It is the name of both a city and a general region with a population of about 800,000 living in three administrative zones: Jos North, Jos South and Jos East. The city of Jos, in Jos North, is home to approximately 500,000 people, located some 186 miles from the federal capital of Abuja. Its inhabitants are overwhelmingly Christian, but a sizable Muslim population also inhabits the area, as Plateau state sits on a fault line in Nigeria known as the Middle Belt Zone, which separates the predominately Muslim north from the predominately Christian south. Many of the clashes that break out periodically in Jos are between members of these faiths, but the tension is not so much about religious differences as it is about political control. The perpetual conflict between Muslims and Christians in Plateau state — and Jos in particular — is a microcosm of a larger struggle throughout Nigeria between groups known as "indigenes" and "settlers." There are three main tribes in Jos recognized as indigenes: the Afizere, the Anaguta and the Berom. They are mainly poor, rural farmers. These groups claim to have settled the area first, and because they are a majority living in a democratic system, they are able to maintain a de facto monopoly on local political control. While the Afizere, Anaguta and Berom are overwhelmingly Christian, their conversion only occurred around the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of the British; the conflict with the Muslim "settlers" predates this event. In contrast to the indigenes are the settlers, the label commonly applied to a pair of Muslim ethnicities often lumped together: the Hausa and Fulani. While the Hausa engage in commerce in the city of Jos, as well as agriculture, the Fulani traditionally are a nomadic cattle herding society whose way of life collides with that of the sedentary indigenous tribes. The settler label implies that the Hausa/Fulani are newcomers to the area, though they have inhabited the Jos region since at least the mid-19th century and have been clashing with the indigenous tribes for over 100 years. There are other sizable minority populations in Jos — such as the Igbo, Yoruba and Ijaw — but the main tension occurs between these two groups. Violence between the indigenes and settlers is a recurring theme in Jos. The most recent outbreak was in January, when then "ceremonial" President Goodluck Jonathan sent troops to the city of Jos. More than 300 people, mostly Hausa/Fulanis, were killed over the course of a few days. The March 7 attack, undertaken in the middle of the night, reportedly was carried out by the Fulani in response to the January violence. Ninety-five suspects were arrested immediately afterward, with the current total of arrests reportedly standing at 351. The police chief said 49 suspects were charged with conspiracy and culpable homicide. Police say all those arrested are Fulanis who have confessed to plotting revenge attacks, with a few reportedly having confessed to being mercenaries. Berom survivors allege their attackers spoke the Fulani language, and that Muslim residents of the targeted villages received text messages up to two days in advance warning them to vacate. The tension between these communities, which led to similar outbreaks of violence in 2001 and 2008, has to do with the political power concentrated in what is known in Nigeria as the Local Government Area (LGA). The LGA is the smallest unit of government in Nigeria's federal political system — one step down from the state government level — and often functions as a de facto miniature kingdom, which is of course heavily intertwined with ethnic identity. Local elections determine the chairman of each LGA, who then controls the access to government revenue streams and thus controls a lucrative source of patronage. The number of states and LGAs in Nigeria has multiplied many times since independence in 1960, mainly to placate the hundreds of ethnic groups in Nigeria who all of a sudden were afforded political power where none existed before. To live in an LGA controlled by an ethnic group other than your own is to risk being stuck on the outside looking in, hurting your chances of gaining employment, land title, university admission and access to resources. Within this structure, indigenes are afforded political rights that settlers are not. Because the LGA — not the federal government — determines who its indigenes are, LGAs in a region with such competition between ethnic groups are particularly prone to outbreaks of violence as groups battle over indigene status. Nigeria's 1999 constitution attempted to create a system that affords equal rights to all of its citizens, but the document's rhetoric is often quashed by the reality of local politics. Jos was a single LGA until 1991, when it was divided in half by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, a northern Muslim who ran Nigeria as a military dictatorship from 1985-1993. A third LGA was carved out from this arrangement, leaving the area with its current configuration of Jos North, Jos South and Jos East. This act planted the seeds for the instability that is now chronic in the region, as it gave the Hausa/Fulani more of an opportunity to win democratic elections once the country made its transition to democracy in 1999. Democracy, therefore, has only poured fuel on the fire in Plateau state, most notably in the Jos region, as elections are imbued with an urgency that was lacking under the various military regimes, which ruled the country by force for much of the time until 1999. In 2004, the indigene-settler conflict in Plateau state prompted then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to declare a state of emergency that lasted six months. During this time, Obasanjo organized a peace conference aimed at answering the question of how to define an indigene. The conference, however, only reaffirmed the primacy of the Afizere, Anaguta and Berom tribes. In 2007, a Berom named Jonah Jang was elected governor of Plateau. Although Jang ran on the ticket of Nigeria's most powerful party, the People's Democratic Party, his loyalties lie more with his ethnic group than with the government in Abuja. His platform consistently has been one of opposition to Hausa/Fulani power, and his initial response to the March 7 Fulani attack was one of extreme anger. The Nigerian troops dispatched to quell the January violence were still in Jos on March 7 but reportedly were three hours late to the scene after the attack on the Berom villages began. Jang went so far as to blame the military for what happened, alleging that he had received intelligence about an impending attack two hours before it began, at which point he personally informed the army commander in charge of the units nearby. However, enforcing a dusk-to-dawn curfew across an area the size of Jos (the three LGAs combined have an area of approximately 703 square miles) is beyond the capabilities of a few hundred soldiers. Nothing short of martial law could likely ensure perfect stability in the region. While Jang initially lashed out at the military's failure to protect the Berom villagers, he toned down his criticisms shortly thereafter. On March 10, he visited the military headquarters building in Plateau state to meet with the chief of defense staff and the police chief. While tensions run high in Jos and throughout the surrounding region, it appears that for now, no reprisals are imminent. However, the underlying causes of the violent outbreaks in Jos remain unaddressed, and it is only a matter of time before violence flares up again.

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