Ethnicity, politics, land, religion and deadly clashes in Jos, Nigeria


Kingsley L. Madueke, doctorant à l’université d’Amsterdam – Pays-Bas

Date de publication: 
April 2018

Carte Nigeria

Over the last two decades, Nigeria has experienced at least 2, 500 violent events in the form of riots, protests, terrorist attacks, and other expressions of collective brutality. In addition to the insurgency led by the Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad [People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad], also known as Boko Haram, in the north east, the country’s ethnically diverse landscape is marked by frequent indigene-settler conflicts and farmer-herder clashes in the central belt, separatist agitations in the south east and militancy in the Niger Delta. Over 40, 000 people have been killed.1 While most parts of the country have witnessed one form of violence or the other, incidents of large-scale violence are disproportionately concentrated in the central region also known as the “Middle Belt”. The media often describe these conflicts as “religious crises” and reconciliatory measures have focused on engaging Christian and Muslim leaders to broker peace. This article argues that labelling these clashes “religious” is a gross oversimplification and has motivated an intervention approach that focuses on interreligious reconciliation without paying attention to the underlying issues. As episodes of riots in the city of Jos suggest, collective violence in the region is a culmination of several factors. In the towns and cities, violent riots stem from contestations between indigenes and settlers over rights, distributable resources and political power whereas struggles between farmers and pastoralists over land are at the heart of mass killings in the rural areas. Measures aimed at promoting peace have not yielded concrete results because they have sidestepped these factors. In addition to building links across religious divides, an effective peacebuilding strategy should address the long-running contestations over indigeneity, resource-based competition, power tussles and struggles related to land ownership and use.

Beyond the religious veil

The conflict that takes place in the area of Jos demonstrates how struggles over indigenous rights, distributable resources and political power precipitate violence. Conflict over indigeneity is common in Nigeria. Apart from being a citizen, every citizen is supposed to register as a certified member of a specific patrilocal community. Indigeneousness certificates are issued by local government authorities to differentiate between the natives and settlers or migrants. Although the practice originated from colonial rule, it has assumed more importance in the postcolonial period. Now a criterion for accessing certain socio-economic rights and privileges, the indigeneousness certificate let individuals gain access to scholarships, school admissions, employment quotas and tenured positions as heads of government ministries. Individuals and groups resident in a state other than their states of indigeneousness are considered settlers, thereby lacking such rights and privileges and are often being subjected to other informal forms of discrimination.2

The crux of the conflict in Jos is the dispute over indigeneity between two groups. On one side are three ethnolinguistic groups indigenous to Jos – Afizere, Anaguta and Berom – who are consequently considered indigeneous people; on the other are the Hausa, who are more recent arrivals to the Jos Plateau than the natives but who established themselves in urban Jos before other groups. The Hausa insist that they are also indigeneous people by virtue of their long residence and contribution to the growth and development of city. The natives reject this position, maintaining that the Hausa are coming from states in northern Nigeria and must return there if they want to exercise their indigeneous rights. The local government council is responsible for deciding who qualifies for an indigeneous certificate and who does not. The two groups compete fiercely to gain control of this decision-making institution. Periods of council elections and local appointments are particularly volatile and have resulted in mass violence in 1994, 2001 and 2008. To demonstrate the role of indigeneousness, resource-based competition and political tussles, it is important to zoom in on these incidents.

The first large-scale violence to occur in modern-day Jos was in 2001, following the appointment of a Hausa man as coordinator of a poverty alleviation programme in Jos North. The natives protested the appointment, insisting a Hausa does not qualify for the position. Amidst heated exchanges, violence started in a slum, located in the south-east parts of the city centre. Christians and Muslims engaged in open clashes, using sticks, cutlasses, bows and arrows, spears, petrol bombs and locally made firearms. Within a remarkably short time, similar clashes erupted in different parts of the city, with mobs killing, maiming and burning. The police was overwhelmed; it took a firm intervention by the military to finally end the violence six days later. About 1,000 people were killed in the pandemonium. Another round of violence almost engulfed the city in May 2002, but calm was restored within a few days and it did not spread to other parts of the city. It started with skirmishes between rival party loyalists at an electoral registration centre and ended in mobs rampaging around Angwan Rukuba, Eto Baba, Nasarawa Gwong and Dogon Dutse areas. In the end, about 50 people were killed and up to 100 vehicles burnt. Yet, this was minimal compared to what happened in 2001 or what was to come in 2008. That horrendous violence was directly linked to the local government area elections held on 27 November 2008. Once again, armed mobs killed, maimed and vandalised. After two days of fighting, 700 people were dead and hundreds of buildings and vehicles burnt and/or destroyed.

As demonstrated through the case of Jos, the Middle Belt has long presented the most precarious security setting in Nigeria. The region’s penchant for intergroup fighting may partly be traced to the paternalistic manner in which the British colonial administration managed ethnic diversity. For administrative purposes, the colonial administration let the various small groups of native peoples from the region be subsumed under the political dominance of the Hausa-Fulani. The colonialists, in their indirect rule, stayed impervious to their subjects’ cultural differences and territorial integrity. Struggles by the natives to ‘liberate’ themselves from an overbearing Hausa-Fulani oligarchy started in the 1930s, but became more determined after independence in 1960. The very label ‘Middle Belt’, adopted by native politicians of the region, represents the struggle to differentiate the area geographically and, more consequently, culturally and politically from the Hausa-Fulani dominated north.3 Yet, reconciliatory efforts have neither acknowledged nor addressed this historical antecedent.

Land scarcity, farmer-herder conflicts and mass killings

Apart from native-settler conflicts in urban areas, contestations over land ownership and use between farmers and pastoralists have spiraled into mass killings in villages of the Middle Belt region. Though there are no official figures for casualties, fatalities are said to be in their thousands. In addition to over 1,000 deaths resulting from earlier attacks on rural communities in Plateau State and Southern Kaduna, recent attacks have led to about 500 deaths in Agatu area of Benue in 2016, 700 in south east Taraba in June 2017, and over 100 others in Adamawa.4 These attacks happen mainly in rural areas and are not to be conflated with the native-settler conflicts in urban settings. Population growth and desertification have increased the strain on land in northern Nigeria and pushed Fulani pastoralists southwards. The north-south movements of cattle used to be seasonal but nowadays they are forced to stay longer in the Middle Belt due to the scarcity of grazing land in the north. This has pitched them against the predominantly agrarian local populations. Moreover, demographic changes as well as land grabbing have encroached into and reduced the volume of officially designated grazing routes.5 The scale and frequency of the killings have sparked national outrage. Hard pressed for solutions, President Muhammed Buhari (elected in 2015) has attributed the violence to mercenaries from the Sahel who were trained by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and left with nothing to do after his death in 2011.6 While there seems to be no evidence - at least not in the public domain – to support this claim, the scale and manner of the attacks suggest the involvement of well-trained militias with transnational links.

Inefficient interreligious talks

In response to the rising spate of violence, the Nigerian government in collaboration with local and international NGOs has organized numerous Christian-Muslim reconciliatory meetings. While these interreligious engagements are relevant for promoting peaceful coexistence, they have often bypassed the root causes of the conflicts. For example, high expectations for peaceful coexistence accompanied the inauguration in September 1999 of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC), a voluntary association made up of 50 members - 25 Christians and 25 Muslims. The association was established by the Nigerian government and members were selected from the leaderships of the country’s major religious bodies. Though the intention behind it is plausible, the association has yet to present practical solutions to the pockets of conflicts in different parts of the country. Moreover, in spite of ongoing interreligious engagements at national and local levels, mass killings have persisted and further polarized group relations in Nigeria with the umbrella associations representing the country’s two major faiths – Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Jama’tu Nasril Islam (JNI) engaging in war words and vehemently trading blames.7 For example, reacting to a recent incident in which two Catholic priests and seventeen parishioners were murdered by assailants that have come to be known as “armed herdsmen” in the media, Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) called for the resignation of President Muhammed Buhari blaming his administration’s inability to protect the lives of Nigerians. The statement alleged that “attacks against Christians” have persisted partly because the security sector under Buhari is dominated by Muslims, Buhari himself being a Sunni Muslim.8 The thinking among many Christians is that the presidency under Buhari has not responded to violence by so-called herdsmen with the firmness it requires because the assailants are his Muslim-Fulani kinsmen. The growing discontent toward Buhari’s security antecedents resonates particularly with members of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) but is also gaining popularity among Nigerian Christians. This narrative has tainted Buhari’s administration and may hurt his bid for a second term as a democratically elected leader in the general elections of 2019 especially in the volatile central region.

As can be seen, these conflicts are resource-based and mainly between ethnic groups. However, pundits and religious bodies have given them a religious interpretation even when the undercurrents have nothing to do with religion. This is because Nigeria is a very religious society.9 And there is an incentive for politicians to use religious identity for mobilizing support. Religious identity transcends tribal and linguistic differences and helps to unify smaller groups into larger and more formidable political forces. For example, the Berom, Afizere and Anaguta of Jos are ethnolinguistically distinct groups and do in fact have their squabbles, but these differences are subsumed within a broader group narrative when they mobilize under an overarching Christian identity against a Muslim Hausa rival. Similarly, the Hausa in Jos represents a social category that includes also the Fulani, Nupe, Beriberi, Kanuri and other groups who have adopted the Hausa language and practice Islam as religion. On both sides, religious animosity serves the parochial interests of politicians. Extremists have also taken advantage of the religious rhetoric to push their cause. For example, Boko Haram has exploited this religious narrative to fuel religious tension and advance its jihadist ideology.

Between 2010 and 2013, the group targeted many Churches in the north east region and the Middle Belt. Despite its visible role in mobilizing for violence, religion is certainly not the chief precipitant. Contestations over indigeneous rights, political tussles, and competition for land are the underpinning variables. Until these conflicts are accurately characterized, and the underlying issues resolved, peace talks between religious leaders remain a futile attempt at sustainable peace.

Tackling conflicts and mass killings in Nigeria requires a sophisticated approach that disaggregates underlying causes from popular narratives of mobilization. The indigeneous question needs a constitutional solution as well as a strategy to address grievances that have accumulated over several years of hostilities. As it is, who qualifies as a native is mentioned in an arbitrary manner in the constitution, yet indigeousness is given priority over citizenship and acknowledged as the determining factor for federal and state appointments. This has led to ambiguities and contradictions in the interpretations of the term and competing claims on the distribution of rights and resources, such as political appointments, employment quotas, school admissions and scholarships. Addressing this issue would resolve some of the resource-based contestations and political tussles that have translated into mass violence in the Middle Belt. In relation to mass killings in the villages, urgent military action is required. There is need for a taskforce that can tighten security at Nigeria’s porous borders. Besides these measures, however, addressing the underlying struggles over land would require revisiting the idea of open grazing and extensive transhumance routes. The population of Nigeria was slightly over fifty million when these routes were gazetted in 1965. Today, the population stands at over 180 million. This demographic shift alone renders this practice infeasible. An alternative may be to create grazing reserves and promote intensive husbandry but even this too is not foolproof and does need to be thought through critically before being implemented.