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Azubuike Ishiekwene: The Fire in Nigeria’s Coal City

Folks in many parts of the world must be wondering what on earth is going on in Nigeria. From an ailing president to the fragile peace in the Niger Delta, there appears to be a relentless stream of bad news coming out of Africa's most populous country. Last week, at least 100 people were killed in sectarian violence in Jos, a north-central city about 800 kilometres from Lagos. Among the dead were children and women who were ambushed and beaten to death in their homes while they slept. Many of them were were later buried in mass graves.

The perpetrators, according to the police, were herdsmen on a purported revenge mission after a similar attack left 100 of their own dead in January.

When will the cycle of violence end? In February, journalist Sunday Dare wrote an article, “From peace home to killing fields,” published in a number of Nigerian newspapers. The article was about this same Jos—the place of his childhood and former home. At one time, Jos was among of Nigeria’s four fabled cities—the others being Lagos and Port Harcourt in the south, and Kano in the north. The city’s coal and mineral wealth, temperate climate, and lush vegetation has lured many of the country’s nouveau rich to its environs over the years, people who subsequently acquired large tracts of land in the Mambilla plateau region for farming and leisure.

But Jos, like the other fabled cities, appears to have lost its innocence. The family home of the journalist, Dare, was set ablaze in January’s sectarian violence. His elder brother was hacked to death as he tried to flee. And now we have new violence this month, leaving scores more dead, maimed, and homeless in its wake.

After the outbreak of violence in January, Human Rights Watch issued a report that, among other things, urged the Nigerian government to “investigate and prosecute those responsible for the killing of at least 200 people during the violence, the latest in the deadly outbreaks in Nigeria, and address the underlying causes.” To be sure, Nigeria has never been short on investigations to discern the causes of social violence. There have been eight such commissions of inquiry between 2001 and 2009. And after the last outbreak of violence in November, two different panels were set up—one an investigative panel by the Federal Government; the other a judicial panel by the State government.

But the commissions and panels have produced little or no results because the major parties to the dispute are determined to learn nothing, remember nothing, and do nothing—until the next outbreak of violence. Sadly, the story since 2001, when Nigeria saw its first major outbreak of sectarian violence, is that it gets bloodier the next time, with some sources claiming that over 13,500 lives have been lost in various crisis throughout the country since 1999.

Yet, just listening to politicians and those whose responsibility it is to tame the violence suggests a shocking lack of candor in getting to the root of the problem. It is true that the central police command structure leaves state governors bereft of any real executive power during a crisis. But this limitation hardly justifies Governor Jonah Jang’s weak response to the latest spate of attacks. Jos has been a city under siege, with soldiers patrolling the streets intermittently since January. On the evening of the most recent attacks in March, I’m at a loss as to why the governor—a retired military officer—could go to sleep after allegedly making, by his own account, a few futile calls to the state army commander.

Wasn’t it possible to reach anyone else in the security hierarchy?

If it is true, as was reported, that Governor Jang “lives near the affected village,” and had observed a tank minutes after his “futile calls” to the army commander, what did he do afterward? I am rather surprised that despite sensing danger, the governor went to bed only to be “woken by a call three hours later that they had started burning villages and people were being hacked to death,” as Punch newspaper reported.

Governor Jang’s inexplicable response does not, however, justify the excuse by the General Officer Commanding, 3rd Armored Division, Major General Saleh Maina, that he did not receive any call. According to press reports, the governor did not say that he got General Maina on phone, but rather that he tried (which should be fairly easy to confirm) and could not reach him. The general’s defense—that poor direction was largely responsible for the late arrival of troops at the trouble spot—is hardly tenable. It is an indictment of the military’s intelligence that even though soldiers had been on the streets of Jos since January, they had no clue as to what was in the offing. What are they doing on the streets then? And if one arm of intelligence could not supply the information required, how about the other services?

Some have blamed the repeated sectarian violence in Jos—six attacks in nine years, by some accounts—on the rise of “radical Islam.” Others have blamed it on disingenuous gerrymandering under the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, which led to the creation of Jos North Local Government, effectively transferring political control from the “indigenes” to the “settlers.” While still others argue that the upsurge in sectarian violence not only in Jos but other parts of the country is the inevitable consequence of pent-up frustrations that could not be openly debated and negotiated during the long years under the military when the country was ruled with an iron fist.

I am also aware that some people accuse politicians of permanently investing in sectarian crisis to shore their base, especially when elections are at hand. But listing the problems and spreading blame would not get us very far. There have been eight commissions of inquiry on the Jos crises with zigabytes of recommendations. The two most important things, I think, are: (1) bringing the culprits to book, and (2) recognizing and dealing with the economic roots of the crisis. For as long as the perpetrators believe they can take the law into their own hands and get away with it, the violence will not end. The situation is worsened by accusations and counter-accusations that security forces called in to maintain the peace not only resorted to extra-judicial killings themselves, but also provided cover for one group to attack the other.

The conflict in Jos may well have a religious flavor. According to Thomas Sowell in Cultures and Migrations, there is even a sense in which “indigenes” feel threatened by the relatively rapid growth in the population of “settlers.” At its core, though, the conflict is an economic one. Concerns over land ownership rights and trespassing over farmlands by nomads who move their cattle to graze further south during the dry spell in the North tend to heighten the conflict among the various ethnic groups. Any serious attempt to solve the problem must therefore start with respect for and protection of property rights.

The Land Use Act, which vests the ownership and control of all lands in governors, is anachronistic and overdue for a review. There is also the need to take another look at small-scale animal husbandry and create conditions that will attract private investors to pool the skills and resources of nomads and channel them towards ranches and more modern farming methods.

It should not take another round of mayhem and mass graves to start the process.

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