IRIN Focus on communal Conflict [2000105]

IRIN Focus on communal Conflict [2000105]

NIGERIA: IRIN Focus on communal conflict

[This IRIN report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, 5 January 2000 (IRIN) - Since Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in as president in May 1999, communal conflicts have increased in Nigeria in number and intensity, causing hundreds of deaths and displacing thousands.

The most common explanation provided to IRIN by analysts in Lagos and Port Harcourt is that the introduction of democracy has acted like the release of a pressure valve, enabling people to vent their pent-up anger and express themselves more freely.

"The causes for these communal conflicts have been there all along," Dr Peter Ozo-Eson, Director of Projects for the Centre of Advanced Social Sciences, told IRIN.

However, "under successive military governments, particularly the suppressive and brutal regime of Sani Abacha, not many of these conflict areas have been able to give vent to their anger as the fear of military's brutality has kept them in check," said Ozo-Eson, whose institution is a Port Harcourt think-tank involved in conflict analysis.

"After Abacha's experience people are now prepared to defend whatever they consider their interests to be, more forcefully," Beko Ransome-Kuti of the Campaign for Democracy told IRIN, "but many people were also building up armed capacity before Abacha died and I don't think that they would have accepted the status quo under Abacha indefinitely."

Samie Ihejirika of Strategic Empowerment and Mediation Agency, a Nigerian non-governmental organisation, said: "Thirty-one prominent communal conflict areas have developed in Nigeria in the last ten years."

More militant ethnic-based groups emerge

One of the factors fuelling communal violence has been the emergence of increasingly militant groups such as the Oodua People's Congress (OPC), a pro-Yoruba organisation, Ijaw youth groups in the Niger Delta (although the Ijaw Youth Council says it espouses non-violence) and the Arewa People's Congress (APC), formed to protect the interests of the Hausa-Fulani in the north.

Clashes in November 1999 between Hausas and Yoruba at a market in Ketu District in Lagos resulted in at least 30 casualties. The disturbances were blamed on the OPC, which denied that it was involved.

"The OPC, which I believe is a pseudo-ethnic army, never really came to fore while the military was in power," Ozo-Eson said. "It only started its own attacks and public campaigns after the transition to the elected government.

"I think that the OPC was one of the underground movements which emerged under Abacha to challenge him and remove the military from power, but with the death of Abacha this mission changed. Now that the group has people who are trained and organised it feels it should at least defend the ethnic interests of the Yoruba people."

In response to what it perceives to be the increasingly violent activities of the OPC against northerners living in the southwest, the APC has said that it will start full-scale education of northerners in the art of self-defence. This would enable northerners to protect themselves and respond promptly to any future attack on them, Asaph Zadok, APC director of publicity, research and documentation, said at a news conference in Kano on 13 December.

Zadok said the OPC was taking advantage of a Yoruba presidency to secede from Nigeria, with the active support of a pan-Yoruba group, Afenifere, to the provocation of other parts of the country.

For their part, leaders of the Oha-na-Eze Ndi Igbo organisation have demanded compensation for the 1967-70 Biafra war. They said in a petition in late December that their political exclusion had reached a new level under the administration of Obasanjo, who had commanded the Third Marine Commando division that led the final assault which crushed the Igbo secession bid in 1970.

The emergence of these groups and their demands are a worrying trend, according to analysts.

"Before you know it every ethnic group will feel that it is not safe until it has a military or quasi-military youth organisation," Ozo-Eson told IRIN. "The more of those you have, the more you will have clashes and before you know it you could have a complete breakdown."


Some analysts argue that leaders garner the support of criminals to protect ethnic identity in a society where violence has become institutionalised, exacerbated by the widespread availability of arms.

"One is worried to the extent that violence is becoming an organised business," Nimi Walson-Jack, director of the Centre for Responsive Politics in Port Harcourt, told IRIN. "There are criminals, dropouts and miscreants in every part of the country. If a leader discovers that those miscreants can be used to protect tribal interests, it gives jobs to some people. They have no clear-cut developmental agenda."

Others say that criminals willingly join ethnic-based groups for their own purposes. "Jobless youths in the Lagos area, known as area boys, join whichever side they like in order to loot, break into shops and so on," Mofia Akobo, Chairman of the Southern Minorities Movement, told IRIN.

Poor economy

The dire state of the Nigerian economy after years of abuse by military governments also helps to exacerbate ethnic tensions, analysts say.

"During periods of extensive economic downtown you tend to have the greatest antagonism towards immigrants and minorities. Jobs are not secure and there is a tendency to think that new arrivals are taking work from those that are already there, particularly in market areas," Ozo-Eson told IRIN.

"In Shagamu there is a high concentration of Hausa traders. Where they trade, they have their own trading rooms that are different from that of the host community. From time to time the host community says 'why are they doing things that way?' We can do whatever they are doing to control this market and these clashes arise out of such attempts to control the market," he added.

In July about 60 people died in fighting between ethnic Hausas and local Yorubas in Shagamu, a town of about 300,000 inhabitants some 50km north of Lagos.

"Everyone wants to control his own resources. Everyone wants to do things his way," Oliver Onwubunta, information officer of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt, told IRIN.

Niger Delta impoverished and marginalised

In the Niger Delta, which is impoverished despite its oil and gas deposits, competition for resources is especially intense and the feeling of marginalisation among the different ethnic groups particularly acute.

At the end of May 1999, for example, fighting broke out near the southern oil town of Warri between Ijaws and Urhobos on the one hand, and Itsekiris on the other, over the relocation of a local council headquarters. The clashes caused nearly 200 deaths.

Knock-on effect of clashes

Violence between ethnic groups in one part of the country may have a knock-on effect and ignite copycat or revenge clashes between the same ethnic groups in other parts of the country, analysts say.

"The return of those wounded in the Shagamu clashes to their home in Kano in the north of the country was the direct cause of a further eruption of violence" in Kano, a political analyst in Lagos told IRIN.

A clash between Ijaws and Ilajes, a Yoruba sub-group, arose in September 1999 in the Niger Delta state of Ondo over ownership of the Opuoma oil field, resulting in some 15-20 casualties. In retaliation, Yoruba youths attacked Ijaws in the Ajengule neighbourhood in Lagos, according to Joel Dimiyen Bisina from the Niger Delta Professionals for Development, a group which specialises in conflict resolution.

"There has never been a problem between the OPC and the Ijaws over the years," Bisina told IRIN. "During the clash in Ondo the Ilajes suffered some damage to their properties and put pressure on their brothers, the OPC, to retaliate on their behalf. This is what caused the Ajegunle crisis."

The clash in Ajegunle resulted in at least 12 deaths and the arrest of 56 youths.

Religious law

The introduction of Islamic law in Zamfara and proposals to introduce it in several other northern states has aroused tensions and has had a knock-on effect among Christian and secular groups in the country.

The south-eastern state of Cross River, for example, has threatened to introduce "Christian law." In the northern state of Kebbi, the local chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. James Audu Manga, was reported as calling on the state governor to shelve plans to introduce the Sharia.

Manga was reported by 'The Guardian' as saying at a news conference on 3 January 2000 that Christians in Kebbi would do everything within the bounds of the law to protect their freedom of worship. "We Christians are ready to die for the church," the Nigerian daily quoted Manga as saying.

"What the declaration of religious law is really saying is that this territory is Muslim territory and you can either lump it or get out," Ayesha Imam, director of BAOBAB, a prominent women's rights group, told IRIN in Lagos.

"When you look at clashes in the north and to some extent in the west it is very clear that it is about identity and sometimes it is religious identity which is mobilised and sometimes ethnic identity," Imam added.

"Those in the southwest are not much interested in religion. We want to have a liberal society so that those who strive can see the result of their efforts," Beko Ransome-Kuti told IRIN.

Clashes part of democratic transition

Some analysts believe the reported increase in clashes is temporary, that it is part of the teething process in Nigeria's transformation from a military dictatorship into a mature democracy.

"These clashes will settle provided that we do not celebrate the criminality that is inherent in some of these outposts," Ozo-Eson said. "If we can ensure that proper steps are taken to maintain law and order, not wanton destruction, then I think that the country will get back on its feet."

"The situation is not as bad as these clashes might suggest," Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Constitutional Rights Project, a human rights NGO, told IRIN. "We have seen the worst of them."


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Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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