A Deadly Cycle: Ethno-Religious Conflict in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria

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Executive summary

Over the last decade, the political crisis over ‘indigene’ rights and political representation in Jos, capital of Plateau State, has developed into a protracted communal conflict affecting most parts of the state. At least 4,000 and possibly as many as 7,000 people have been killed since late 2001, when the first major riot in more than three decades broke out in Jos. Ten years later, only the heavy presence of military and police forces ensures a fragile calm in the city. Tensions between ethnic groups rooted in the allocation of resources, electoral competition, fears of religious domination, and contested land rights have amalgamated into an explosive mix. The presence of well-organized armed groups in rural areas, the proliferation of weapons, and the sharp rise in gun fatalities within Jos all point to the real risk of future large-scale violence.

More than 13,500 people have been killed in communal violence since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 (HRW, 2010a). The ‘Middle Belt’ region, to which Plateau State belongs, is one of the areas worst hit. The 2001 Jos riot claimed at least 1,000 lives (HRW, 2001). Subsequently, long-standing tensions within smaller towns and villages in Plateau State escalated into violence. The killings came to a halt only when the federal government declared a state of emergency in 2004, after about 700 people had been killed in an attack on the town of Yelwa in southern Plateau State (HRW, 2005). Clashes between Muslim and Christian youths rocked the city of Jos again in 2008, killing at least 700.
The year 2010 is one of the worst on record, with more than 1,000 lives lost.

The human cost of the violence is immense. The number of internally displaced persons since 2001 peaked in 2004, with up to 220,000 people displaced (IRIN, 2005). After the 2008 riot, more than 10,000 were displaced, while violence in 2010 resulted in about 18,000 people fleeing the clashes (IRIN, 2010a). Numerous houses in Jos have been burned and blackened remnants litter the streets in many parts of the city. All sides suffer a massive loss due to livelihoods destroyed. Violence and displacement have reshaped Jos and many rural settlements. As neighbourhoods become religiously segregated, ‘no-go areas’ alter patterns of residency, business, transportation, and trade.

This study finds that the historical, regional, and religious dimensions of the Jos crisis are crucial to understanding the protracted nature of the current conflict situation. Geographically, Jos lies in the centre of Nigeria, between the predominantly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. The city of Jos was established around tin mining activities during colonial times. It attracted migrants from all parts of Nigeria to work in the mines and with the colonial administration. The colonial legacy of indirect rule initially relied on northern emirate structures. Later, political power was transferred to the ‘native’ tribes of the Plateau. Among these, the Berom were one of the largest tribes and they most vocally defend ‘indigene’ rights today. But Hausa migrants from the north constituted by far the most numerous group in early Jos.

Today, the ownership of Jos and claims to ‘indigene’ status are fiercely contested between the native tribes and the Hausa. Indigene certificates ensure access to political representation and positions within the civil service. Only local governments issue these certificates and therefore decide on indigene status. This arrangement opened the floodgates for the politics of labelling and the selective reciting of historical accounts that foster group boundaries to secure political control over local government areas. Within a socio-political environment characterized by strong patronage networks, exclusion of one fraction of the political elite is widely felt as socio-economic decline among its constituency. The urban conflict dynamics interlink with tensions in rural areas. The increasing scarcity of land and access to riverbanks has resulted in contested claims over land use between indigene farmers and Fulani herders.

Religion reinforces the boundaries between the mostly Christian indigenes and the Muslim Hausa and Fulani in both urban and rural conflicts. In principle, these root causes of the conflict are well understood. Nigerian scholars have elaborated the problem of indigene rights in several publications. Yet there has been a lack of political will to address the situation. The escalation of large-scale urban and rural violence over the past decade contributed to the protracted conflict. A thorough reframing of a once-localized conflict over indigene rights into a religious crisis of regional and national dimension has taken place. Ten years of violent confrontations and the extreme brutality of 2010’s massacres around Jos left many residents traumatized. Religious identities have become strongly polarized and one-sided conflict narratives internalized. Despite numerous peace efforts, tensions on the Plateau are at their worst today.

Compounding the tragedy of the Jos crisis, violent clashes are no longer sparked only by deliberate political instigation during election times. In fact, Plateau State remained calm during the April 2011 national and gubernatorial elections, while neighbouring Kaduna, Bauchi, and other northern states were rocked by violent protests. But in Jos, small-scale reprisal and revenge killings have exploded since 2010. The situation is so tense that residents fear that any minor incident could set the town ablaze again.

A long-term solution to the Jos and wider Plateau State crisis will need to tackle the indigene–settler divide. However, given that the conflict over indigene rights is endemic all over Nigeria, Plateau State will hardly arrive at a durable solution on its own. Christian indigenes need only point to the discrimination against fellow Christians in northern, predominantly Muslim states to justify exclusion of the Hausa–Fulani in Jos. The latter constitute Nigeria’s most numerous ethnic group. Plateau’s indigenes feel threatened with marginalization and are not willing to be the first to step down from exclusive indigene privileges.

Religious leaders will have to take responsibility for invalidating the perceptions of existential threat to religious identity that have become entrenched in many people’s daily lives. Top-level religious leaders have preached peace and tolerance, but the message does not trickle down fully. While grassroots initiatives echo their tenor, mid-level religious leaders feel under pressure to protect their communities. People tend to be suspicious of inter-religious dialogue, making it difficult to rebuild trust among communities. Many within the churches and mosques call for a more militant response from their community. The city managed to stay calm during the 2011 elections, but political elites in Jos and Abuja will need to tackle the Jos crisis. A heavy military presence is no durable solution.