Why a Terrifying Religious Conflict Is Raging in Nigeria

In the country's so-called Middle Belt, 785 people have died in the past two years, and the government is doing little to stop it.
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A Nigerian license plate with the Plateau state slogan "Home of Peace and Tourism" is seen in the Nigerian capital Abuja on December 3, 2005. Plateau has been plagued by religious violence that has killed hundreds, but local license plates offer a much rosier version of reality. (Reuters)

As the military's assault against Boko Haram and civilians in northern Nigeria continues, so too does the ongoing and underreported conflict in the villages around Jos, the capital of Plateau state in Nigeria's Middle Belt. As in other parts of the Sahel stretching from Khartoum to Dakar, rivalries between ethnic groups, settlers and indigenes, herders and farmers, and religious groups overlap to create a kaleidoscope of insider and outsider identities. Resulting conflicts, in turn, create openings for international jihadist Islam, as in other parts of the Sahel. In the Middle Belt thus far, conflicts still remain largely local, but there is potential that they could acquire a cross-border dimension.

With an elevation of more than 4,000 feet above sea level, Jos has perhaps the best climate in Nigeria. It has long been a favored residence of Nigerian elites. Well-watered roses grow in Plateau, and it is a rich agricultural area. Jos was the closest Nigeria ever had to a "hill station" in the colonial period. It is the site of Hillcrest School, much patronized by missionaries and the children of the Nigerian elite. The University of Jos was a center of American studies. There are several medical institutions and, in the past, numerous non-governmental organizations made Jos a center of their operations.

But Jos is no longer a West African paradise. Bloody "religious" riots, ostensibly between Christians and Muslims in 2001, 2008, and 2010, split the community. The latest round, starting in 2011, continues. According to the Council on Foreign Relations' Nigeria Security Tracker (NST), there have been 785 sectarian related deaths in Plateau state alone between May 29, 2011 and June 30, 2013. Between January and June 2013, 481 people were killed; 61 percent of the total since May 2011. These estimates are very conservative.

What happened?

The conflict in Plateau state is economic and ethnic with a religious dimension. With good governance, these differences could be managed. But, as elsewhere in Nigeria, residents accuse local and state government personalities of fanning identity-based divisions to advance their own political agendas.

As with so much in Nigeria, Plateau's violence has its roots in the colonial period. The British opened up tin mines in the historically Christian area and invited in outsiders from other parts of the Nigerian colony to work them. Many of these "settlers" were Muslims from small tribes and from Fulani, the largest ethnic group in the North. As the city of Jos grew, substantial numbers of Yoruba (religiously mixed) and Igbo (Christian) from the south and west also settled there. Under Nigerian law and custom, "settlers" have fewer rights and privileges than "indigenes," those whose ancestral roots are in a particular area. The legal concept of indigeneity is related to a core principle of Nigerian governance called "federal character." This aims to safeguard equitable access to all government offices and services by all ethnic groups-and all states. "Settlers" only benefit from "federal character" where they are "indigenes," not where they happen to live now. "Settler" (or non-local) status can be overcome only with difficulty, and Jos Muslims often accuse the local administration of facilitating the process for Christians, but not for them. In Plateau many "settlers" have lived there for generations without acquiring indigene status. But, for reasons that are debated, the Fulani and other "settlers" are more economically dynamic and entrepreneurial than the "indigenous" population, even as they remain second-class citizens in their "new" state of residence.

The "indigenous" population of Plateau is made up of small tribes, of whom the Barome are probably the largest. They are predominately Christian. They traditionally control the state and local government authorities and have the best access to state contracts. They are predominately sedentary agriculturalists. Jos elites regard their city as "Christian." They claim that "Jos" stands for "Jesus our Savior."

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Presented by

John Campbell and Asch Harwood

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, is senior fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he also blogs. Asch Harwood is an Africa analyst.

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