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.
In response, the Hausas have been agitating for indigene status in Jos, as well as for their own traditional institutions and for political inclusion in elections and government appointments.
Tensions rose in 1991 when the Muslim-dominated military government created a new local government in the Hausa-majority neighborhood of Jos North. Hausa leaders promptly utilized their superior numbers in Jos North to exclude non-Hausa groups from residency benefits. Since then, nearly all elections and political appointments across the city have seen increasingly higher levels of resistance and competition, and ultimately violent conflicts in September 2001, May 2004, November 2008, and now Jan. 17, March 7 and March 17.
The 2004 violence led then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to impose a state of emergency in Plateau state, describing the mayhem as nothing short of “mutual genocide.” Politics in Jos North Local Government Area has thus become a zero-sum contest justifying warfare. The Nov. 28, 2008, violence alone claimed more than 1,000 lives.
That attack set the stage for the Jan. 17, 2010, violence when the Berom Christians invaded a Fulani settlement (Muslim herdsman allied with the Hausa) in nearby Kuru-Jenta, in which Berom gunmen murdered and threw Fulani corpses into wells. Fulani bands staged reprisal attacks on March 7 and 17, despite a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the targeted Berom villages of Dogo Nahawa, Rasat, Zot and Ramsat located in the Jos South and Barkin Ladi local government areas, and despite the presence of Joint Task Force military peacekeeping units. Berom leaders consequently accused Muslim officers of taking sides and allowing the Fulani attackers free rein.
This violence in Jos highlights a growing deficit of dialogue among the parties. Leaders from both sides of the divide manipulate the indigene versus settler legal dichotomy and use religious and ethnic identity as tools for mobilization in the Jos conflict. The last three rounds of violence were clearly driven in part by the efforts of the governor, who is Berom and a member of the ruling party, to rig ruling party candidates into office in Jos North, which is an opposition stronghold.
Since 1994, successive administrations have instituted several commissions of inquiry at both the federal and state levels. Most of the commission reports have not been made public, but those reports that were publicized have clearly seen both federal and state governments fail to implement any of the primary recommendations. State capacity has declined and public confidence eroded as a result, provoking a general crisis of trust between the government and citizens, such that the heaviest burden of the violent conflicts falls on the most vulnerable groups: women and children.
Hope is not lost for Jos, but rapid, comprehensive action must be taken at the federal, state and local levels to prevent another round of Plateau violence to stop the broader Christian-Muslim fault line in Nigeria from igniting.
The time is long past due for the federal government to address the thorny problem of who is indigenous — which is nothing more than a racist colonial relic also manipulated by apartheid South Africa — so that Nigerians may gain the full rights of citizenship wherever they may live in the federation, regardless of whether or not they reside in their ethnic “homelands.”
Nigeria’s Byzantine land ownership laws will also need to be addressed by federal action with long-neglected land reform. Further, election reform is an essential piece of the solution requiring federal action, in order to undermine Nigeria’s infamous election-rigging politicians.
Federal and state politicians also must renounce violence, restrain their supporters and negotiate a peaceful solution to the dispute over Jos North and its environs. Religious leaders can take the lead in this regard by first negotiating a set of principles for an agreement that can guide the politicians, and then using their religious offices to mediate among political leaders and to remind the adherents of both faiths that Islam and Christianity are religions of peace.
In this way, the conditions for sustained dialogue among the conflicting parties can be established, paving the way for genuine forgiveness, healing and reconciliation in Jos and nationally. Short of these difficult but achievable efforts, the hatred in Jos will again soon flare, threatening not just Plateau, but the whole Nigerian state as well.
Chris Kwaja is a lecturer at the Center for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos, Nigeria. Darren Kew is associate professor of conflict resolution at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.