On January 17th, news began circulating that violence had erupted in the central Nigerian city of Jos. In the following hours, reports of the fighting spread as witnesses reported mobs armed with knives and machetes roving among burning houses, mosques, and churches.
The conflict is ostensibly sectarian: Jos is a major city along Nigeria's “Middle Belt” – the border area which divides the country's Christian-majority south from its Muslim-majority north. This is not the first time violence has erupted in Jos: once known as a favorite destination for expatriates and tourists, the Plateau State capital has previously seen deadly riots in 2001 and 2008. During the past decade, more than 13,500 deaths have been attributed to sectarian violence in Nigeria — conflict which many observers say is more about resources than religion.
The initial cause of the fighting in Jos remains unclear: some witnesses cite a disagreement over the rebuilding of houses destroyed by rioting in 2008, some point to a row over a football match, some to the burning of a church. However, regardless of its source, the violence spread quickly: some sources have estimated the death toll as high as 400 with up to 17,000 people displaced. Authorities declared a 24-hour curfew on the city and on January 19th, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan (standing in for the absent President Yar'Adua) sent the military to take control of the city.
Brenda Hartman-Souder wrote about her view of the conflict:
Yesterday we seesawed between eerie quiet with almost no traffic on the road below our home and gunshots, the cackling fires of destruction and the excited voices of hundreds of onlookers. They were standing on the rocks and hills behind us watching gangs of youth torch and destroy buildings and homes – Muslim or Christian – depending on which neighborhood you lived in. All of it barbaric and still hard to believe.
This morning we climbed the hill again to see raging bonfires in the empty lot over our wall. Youth were carrying loads of household goods – pots, pans, a bookshelf – and feeding the black and smelly fire. We realized they were burning the possessions in those destroyed houses and other buildings that had been occupied by Muslims. These acts of pure meanness and revenge are happening all over Jos. One group starts a fight or fire, the other side takes revenge, people are killed, their homes destroyed. And what has this accomplished?
My family home in the Nasarawa area where I grew up with all my siblings and where we all lived for nearly three decades was razed down by irate Hausa youths. My only elder brother who had just returned from church moments ago while trying to escape from a burning house was hacked down with knives and machete and left to burn with the house. Even as I write, his charred body lies on the ground around the house because it is impossible to recover his body due to a breakdown of security. I know of several family friends whose homes were equally burnt and relatives missing. I know of thousands of Jos residents hunkered down in hide outs and safe heavens in different parts of Jos unable to venture out.
He reflected on more peaceful times:
Jos never used to be like this. Not the killing fields that it has now become….
My primary and secondary school days were bright and simple. I had friends, many of them and their religion was never an issue. My friends and I, though of different religions and tribe bonded like brothers and shared almost everything.
That was then. This is now. Now in full adulthood, our friendships still remain though pushed into the realm of uneasiness because we all have suffered loss from the several conflicts that have engulfed the State. We have all failed to find an explanation, nay justification for what is happening. When, why and how did Jos lose it? What changed that turned friendly neighbors into bitter enemies and near savages?
Olusegun Gbolagun also wondered what had gone wrong:
Why will a dispute over a building project throw the whole city into predicament? Why would a difference of opinion in a section of the city grossly affect the entire Jos city? What would make neighbours and friends suddenly become enemies?
A simple disagreement claimed over 300 lives, destroyed hundreds of houses, cars and various properties. These are issues I kept thinking about during this present mayhem in Jos City. I keep thinking why there is such a tensed atmosphere in this city. Trust seems elusive.
There must be more than meet the eye in this crisis.
I have at least 2 entries on my blog stating that Nigeria is not a terrorist country but the muslim region north of Nigeria continues to make nonsense of my claims. There are loads of groups now on facebook saying that Nigeria is not a terrorist country. But the more some of us have tried to paint Nigeria positive by saying that we are not a nation of terrorists the more some fools somewhere are negating our claims.
A commenter on Omotade's blog made a similar point:
And people recoiled in shock when they discovered Mutallab was Nigerian… “It is not a Naija thing”, they say… Well, if this isn't terrorism, then Obama is Chinese. Those Al Qaeda people are not stupid. They saw such tendencies towards extremism and made a point to start targetting Nigerians. It's not exactly rocket science.
Writing at A Tunanina…, Carmen McCain saw the violence as being rooted in something deeper than religious conflict:
While the crises have certainly taken on religious dimensions—especially when symbols like churches and mosques are the most obvious markers of identity—I have seen many discussions on the internet, whether in the comments sections of articles or on Facebook, which oversimplify the conflict as a mostly religious one. I think this is a mistake and a serious one, as it is exactly this over-easy identification of the religious symbols as representative of a group which makes churches and mosques the most popular targets in a conflict that is primarily over politics, land, identity, belonging, ethnicity, and retaliation.
Loomnie also wrote on the complex causes of the violence:
Most of the violence that is reported from northern Nigeria is about a weird definition of who an indigene is and who a settler is, and that most often, the immediate cause of the violence is some fight over resources. In other words, people fight over access to resources (control of state power should be seen as a resource), but quickly resort to claims of entitlement based on ethnicity, place of origin and religion. These modes of identification are then often used to mobilise other people with the same or similar identity markers to fight opposing groups.
At the root of the conflict in Plateau State are two core issues: poverty and an artificial distinction between “settler” and “indigene”…
The settler/indigene dichotomy goes against the fundamental freedoms granted in sections 42 and 43 of the constitution.
Until the government takes a hard look at the issues that block 42 and 43 from functioning (“Federal character” guidelines and the “State of origin” law), the conflicts will remain and Jos will continue to be a flashpoint. Violent conflict will probably exacerbate as desertification, water scarcity and population growth drive northern populations southwards into the Middle Belt in the next decade.
On Thursday, January 21st, the BBC reported that the 24-hour curfew on Jos had been relaxed and Army chief Lt Col Shekari Galadima had declared an end to the violence. But many still worried about the volatility of the region. In a post entitled, “Silence that is not golden,” Brenda Hartman-Souders wrote about her fears for the future:
The quiet in urban Jos proclaims that something is seriously amiss. Curfew now ends at 10 a.m. and begins again at 5 p.m. Our seven-hour window of “freedom” allows people to buy supplies, check on loved ones, move to a safer place and bury the dead.
Rumors of more “attacks” abound and we try to hear them but not let them paralyze us with fear. Yet with the intensity of the reactions, with the unbridled killing, maiming, burning and looting, it’s easy to believe that more revenge –suppressed for now while the city remains under tight control of the military–will rage upon this area again and again. Intervention at the highest levels of government and cooperation among key religious leaders has to be a top priority if Jos is going to keep from disintegrating into a war zone.