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Analysis: Nigeria's smoldering crisis in Jos

Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is necessary to prevent another round of violence.

Villagers look at bodies of victims of religious attacks lying in a mass grave in the Dogo Nahawa village, about nine miles to the capital city of Jos in central Nigeria, March 8, 2010. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

BOSTON and JOS, Nigeria — Massacres in Jos have again drawn world attention, as three people died last month in renewed clashes between between Christian and Muslim gangs.

In total, this year, more than 800 Nigerians have been killed in violence that persists in the central city of Jos, which is the capital of Nigeria's Plateau state.

Fierce competition for fertile farmlands between Christians and Muslims has fueled unrest in the region over the past decade.

Of the many ironies surrounding this tragedy, one of the most notable is that Jos was once a cosmopolitan city, with residents drawn from different parts of Nigeria and the world at large. Its high altitude and cooler weather offer a pleasant climate, and its fresh water and mineral deposits have spurred local industries that attracted migrants.

Decades of predatory governance and economic neglect, however, turned this cultural melting pot into a fiery cauldron of ethnic and religious tensions that have grown worse with every bloodletting, as grievances from one bout of violence go unaddressed, sparking the next round.

Nigeria's population of 152 million is roughly half Muslim and half Christian, and the great fault line between the two religions runs through Jos.

Plateau state is majority Christian majority, but the ownership of Jos has been a running contest between Muslim Hausas, a small percentage of whom migrated to Jos at the start of British colonial rule, and the largely Christian indigenous ethnic groups of Berom, Afizere and Anaguta. Although the Hausas are a minority in Plateau, they are the largest ethnic group in Nigeria overall, so that a common theme among the Berom and other Christian groups is that they, too, feel like minorities. Consequently, they see Plateau as their only state (making them “indigenes”), and the Hausa as “settlers,” who can return to any of the seven or more Hausa majority states.

This distinction becomes a major legal problem because Nigerian law allows local governments to determine their own qualifications for residency, and local administrators across the country typically make this determination based on ethnic heritage and historic control of the land.

Consequently, many Nigerians are considered “residents” of local governments in ethnic homelands from where their grandparents or great-grandparents may have migrated and where they themselves may never have even visited. These same Nigerians may be denied residency in the very neighborhoods where they were born. Without certificates of residency, individuals face a host of problems in voting, gaining political office, accessing certain types of employment or public services, and even buying land.

A succession of rapacious military regimes in the 1980s and 1990s neglected local industry and mismanaged Nigeria’s economy so badly that Nigerians saw their standards of living drop by 75 percent between 1980 and the mid-1990s. Seven out of every 10 people now live on less than a dollar a day. Subsistence living and control of land thus became a matter of life or death across the country.

In the case of Plateau state, in order to maintain their dominant political and economic position — and to stem the tide of the Hausa and their numerical superiority at the national level — Berom and other Christian political leaders have often denied residency to Hausas, effectively disenfranchising them.