Why a Terrifying Religious Conflict Is Raging in Nigeria

By John Campbell and Asch Harwood
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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."

Subsequent to the arrival of tin miners, Fulani herdsmen have also been pushing south into Plateau in search of pasture for their livestock. Shortage of pasture in their traditional grazing lands further north reflects, in part, desertification and the southern creep of the Sahara. The arrival of Fulani herdsmen in Plateau brings them into direct land-use competition with the Barome, who are Christian. And the Fulani are Muslim.

Before the British came, the Fulani were notorious slave owners, feeding the trans-Sahara slave trade. They preyed on minority tribes, such as the Barome, who practiced traditional religion at the time. In the 20th century, the Barome and other minority tribes have become overwhelmingly Christian. It is hard to know the consequences of this slaving history for the current bloodletting, but, at the very least, it does not promote good feelings between the Fulani and the now-Christian minority tribes.

Weak government at all levels, poor security, an under-resourced court system, incomplete rule of law, and a culture of impunity hinders the peaceful resolution of the inevitable disputes. Peace and reconciliation non-governmental organizations (Nigerian and foreign) have had only limited and episodic success.

It is tempting to seek cooperation links between tin miner "settlers" and the Fulani herdsmen. While they may exist at the local level, there is little evidence of any more general collaboration. The killing sprees that afflict the Middle Belt, at times claiming more than 40 lives, according to the NST, are often ignited by alleged cattle theft or destruction of crops. These episodes in turn generate revenge killings. Often, the killings are done with traditional weapons, not guns and bullets, and have a ghastly, almost ritualistic quality. Victims are predominantly women, children, and the elderly- men are able to run off. Killings sometimes occur among close neighbors.

In Jos itself and in some outlying villages, the violence has led to ethnic cleansing that recalls the Balkans. Formerly mixed villages or Jos neighborhoods now consist of only one ethnic group. If an outsider is detected, he risks being killed on the spot.

The government has stationed military forces in Plateau state to contain the carnage. However, the declaration of the state of emergency on May 14 in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states may have led to the transfer of at least some of them to the North. In any event, they have been remarkably unable to control the carnage. There appears to be little coordination between the military and the state government. In the aftermath of many attacks, villagers complain that there were no military or police nearby. Probably more important is the size of the geographic area affected, which is so large that military can do little.

The killings in Plateau state are not directed at the Abuja government, unlike in the North. But, the government's inability to stop them contributes to the growing sense in Nigeria that the state is impotent. There is widespread suspicion that local officials are often complicit in the killings; the evidence is inconclusive. Meanwhile, residents contend that economic activity is only a shadow of what it once was, which is also the case in those parts of the North dominated by Boko Haram violence.

There has been only episodic Western attention to the bloodletting in Jos and Plateau. This may be because the violence is local in nature, if horrific in magnitude. It is not associated with the "international jihad" or the other perceived threats to Western interests. This could change. "Boko Haram" has allegedly carried out attacks in Plateau and has represented itself as a champion of abused Muslims. Plateau would seem wide open to eventual penetration by the radical Islamists revolting against the Nigerian polity in the North.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/why-a-terrifying-religious-conflict-is-raging-in-nigeria/277690/