Death and destruction in Nigeria

After hundreds were slaughtered there in January, army presence was stepped up heavily in Jos, the capital city of Plateau State, in north-central Nigeria. The security forces, however, were nowhere near the outlying village cluster of Dagan-Na-Hauwa when, over four long hours, hundreds were hacked to death on the morning of Sunday, 7th March. Jos has been the scene of mass violence in 2001, 2008, and now twice this year. The multi-ethnic former colonial mining city lies on Nigeria’s roughly Northern-Southern, Muslim-Christian divide, and the sporadic killings have been put down to ongoing feuds between the heavily segregated religious communities of Jos. The facts, however, do not fit so simple an explanation, and these periodic murderous riots and rampages are in fact a disturbing manifestation of some of Nigeria’s deepest-rooted problems, both cultural and systemic.
On 17th January, protests at the building of a mosque in a Christian area of Jos sparked off four days’ intense fighting. Mobs set aflame mosques, churches and over a thousand houses, shops and vehicles. Of the 492 who were burned, hacked or shot to death, 364 were Muslims. Among them were all 150 inhabitants of one Muslim village. Less than two months later, at 4am on 7th March, machete-wielding gangs descended on the Christian and Animist Berom community of Dagan-Na-Hauwa. They set fire to homes, used fishnets and animal traps to catch fleeing villagers and killed between 100 and 500 people. This recent slaughter has been seen as a reprisal by Muslim Hausa-Fulani herdsmen for January’s violence, but the tribe’s expansionist agenda and aggressive protection of their grazing rights have been mentioned as possible motivations. In reality, though, these two motivations are examples of the same kind of inter-ethnic power struggles which have fuelled violence in the area, and indeed throughout the country, for decades.
Tribal and village loyalties come before nationality for most Nigerians – a policeman might conspicuously fail to notice crimes committed by a kinsman, or a civil servant might promote someone from his own village over someone more qualified. While this is in no way true in most cases, it has generally been a problem in Nigeria that collective, community-based thought and action is invested not in Federal or even State government, but in tribe and village. At best, this is nothing more sinister than friendly parochial-style rivalry, but at worst it manifests itself in mass murder. Nigerian nationhood is tenuous; “Nigeria” as a word and as an entity being a more or less arbitrary creation of British imperial officials. The many groups living in this vast, rich swathe of land were ruled under imperialism as one, fought for independence as one, and have been ruled as one by military governments or a tiny political élite ever since. A complete lack of common language, identity, religion or perceived interests have stunted any effort to make a united nation of this geographical expression and have fuelled the kind of violence that has plagued Jos.
In such a context we can understand, when we consider that the Muslim Hausa-Fulani are Nigeria’s largest ethnic group, making up 30% of the population, why accusations of complicity in the recent massacres have been directed at people in high public offices. Plateau State’s governor, Jonah Jong, a Christian, was informed of the likelihood of violence as early as 9am on Saturday 6th. He passed word on to security chiefs, who failed to respond until 2.30pm on Sunday 7th – when the murderers had long since escaped after a massacre lasting four hours. The National Security Advisor has been replaced, security forces are clamping down heavily on the area and dozens of arrests and charges have been made, but more boots on the ground in and around Jos will not uproot the causes of the violence.
Protests of crowds of women in Jos and Lagos on 12th March illustrated the ethnically divided nature of Nigerian politics, as they demanded that the Northern Muslim oligarchy end their encouragement of the aggressive expansion of the Hausa-Fulani around Jos. The Hausa-Fulani are seen as “settlers” and “invaders” in Jos, despite a presence going back decades. However, they have done little to encourage integration, clustering away from the locals while expanding, often violently, outside this zone. Like the Igbo and the Yoruba, Nigeria’s other major tribes, they speak a language unintelligible to others. With rapid urbanisation as the 20th century drew to a close, such strong cultural differences became a catalyst for violence in many Nigerian cities, and today in Jos the Hausa-Fulani are expanding their power. Because “settlers” are treated as effective second-class citizens by local and state government, the Hausa-Fulani must rely on high tribal connections in the Federal establishment. These powerful Muslims identify with the Hausa-Fulani as kinsmen on a national level, and at the local level of Jos religion is an easy visual and cultural symbol for tribal affiliations. The killings therefore are a national, and not a local or a religious issue, and one which poses tough questions to Nigeria’s tribal-based politics and society.
The Most Rev. Dr. B. A. Kwashi, Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria stated, following the recent massacre, that: “In Jos we are coming face to face in a confrontation with Satan and the powers of hell.” This could easily be mistaken for part of an extreme anti-Islamic rant, but the Archbishop’s statement on the violence was more pertinent than that. He insists that religion is being used as a justification for a quest for money and power by mobs of unemployed, demoralised, hopeless young men. He believes that they are young men with no religion, no values whatsoever, made so by the hopelessness of their environment. Professor Kibiru Mata of the University of Abuja agrees. The government of Plateau State and the Federal government alike, he says, have failed to appropriate public resources in such a way as to alleviate suffering. He calls the killings “a manifestation of economic alienation”, the actions of a generation with no opportunities.
To understand why and how the Jos massacres happened, we should examine the economic realities of Nigeria today. Though the country is abundant in natural resources and production, is potentially self-sufficient and has a huge and young working population, most of its citizens live in poverty and squalor. Of the nation’s 154 million inhabitants, and of the hundreds of thousands who apply for third-level education, only 35-40,000 are accommodated in the country’s universities. 31% of Nigerians are completely illiterate. Hundreds of billions of dollars are owned by a tiny number of Nigerians and business-savvy foreigners for purposes of speculation and short-term profit, making the material basis for real progress impossible by squandering or looting the country’s potential wealth. The continuing deregulation of the oil sector is taking even more of the country’s natural wealth out of the hands of its citizens.
In this context, it is little surprise that some of the country’s tens of millions who are permanently unemployed, and the many more who are on precarious livelihoods, might resort to violence to defend what they see as their tribe’s interests, and by extension their own. The segregated and tense nature of society explains why such a small élite can seize and hold so much of the nation’s wealth with so little outcry. Struggle between rival groups, made up of the powerless and penniless, for political and economic advantage is seen as the only means of advancement. Since community consciousness goes no further than tribe or village, class-consciousness is practically nonexistent. Rival ethnic groups, victims of the same inequality, fight for the scarce resources left to them, encouraged and often given impunity by wealthier and more powerful members of their tribe. This is a battle fought at the cost of lives, most graphically illustrated by the rioting, violence and massacres that have periodically broken out in places like Jos.   
Dozens of suspects have been arrested by the time of writing, some with blood still staining their clothes. Charges have been made against many, heads in authority have metaphorically rolled and security forces are bolstering their presence around Jos. It must be recognised, however, that the occurrence of such hideous atrocities must be a sign of massive systemic and cultural problems. A suppression of the symptoms, assuming even that is achieved, will not address the root problems of inequality, disenchantment and militant ethnic division that have once more brought death and destruction to Jos.