UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
[This IRIN report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
LAGOS, 3 August (IRIN) - A week of violence involving two of Nigeria's three biggest ethnic groups raised new fears about the country's fragile nationhood barely seven weeks after President Olusegun Obasanjo took over to end years of military rule.
By most accounts more than 100 people died in a week of ethnic violence which began in the south-western town of Shagamu on July 19 and peaked a week later in the northern city of Kano.
The violence in Shagamu, populated mainly by people of the Yoruba ethnic group, started after a woman from the town's Hausa minority was killed for breaking a local taboo by watching forbidden rites.
The consequences shook the country of over 200 distinct ethnic groups and some 108 million people. More than 60 persons were confirmed dead by police and dozens of houses burnt down during two days of clashes between Yorubas and Hausa-speaking settlers.
The clashes led to the flight of hundreds of people from the Hausa community, which had settled for more than a century in Shagamu.
Retaliatory violence broke out against Yorubas in the predominantly Hausa city of Kano, northern Nigeria's biggest, after some Hausas returned from Shagamu with their dead and wounded survivors, rousing tempers in the volatile city which had witnessed ethnic and religious riots before.
Police said at least 70 people were killed and dozens of houses burnt down in four days of violence in Kano which sent thousands of Yorubas and other southerners seeking refuge in police stations and military barracks.
"Let us stop hacking ourselves to death over minor misunderstandings. Let us not imperil this our hard-won democracy and freedom," Vice President Atiku Abubakar pleaded to the nation on behalf of a government rattled by the intensity of the violence.
As tension spread to Lagos, Bola Tinubu, Lagos' governor, said intelligence reports showed that officers sacked by Obasanjo in his purge of the military were behind the clashes in Kano. Local newspapers quoted police sources as saying some of those arrested for the violence said they were paid for the action.
There were not only muted fears that such violence could be a pretext for a military coup, but the incidents were ugly reminders of the ethnic riots that occurred before Nigeria slipped into nearly three years of civil war in the late 1960s in which more than one million people died as the Igbos in the southeast, the third biggest ethnic group, tried to breakaway as the Republic of Biafra.
Ethnic tensions worsened during the last 15 years of military rule, particularly after the northern-dominated military annulled the results of the 1993 elections as late Yoruba millionaire Moshood Abiola was on course to victory.
However, says political analyst Emeka Uzoatu, "Obasanjo emerged president by winning the least votes from his ethnic kin and the most from northern Hausas, Igbos and the other numerous ethnic minorities".
"This shows that at least on the political level most Nigerians can look beyond the ethnic factor," he says, "but there are forces always out to exploit it.
"The country should not play into their hands."
But there are widespread fears that the police, weakened through neglect over the years by military rulers whose security outfits usurped their powers and duties, lack the capacity to cope with growing insecurity now that the military has returned to the barracks.
"Each time security is threatened you find little or no response from our law enforcement agents," Innocent Chukwuma of the human rights group Centre for Law Enforcement Education told IRIN.
He said with democratic rule the police were still in a dilemma as to their role. At the same time, years of neglect have resulted in their being hampered by logistical limitations, including a lack of vehicles and communication equipment for rapid response to emergencies.
At a ratio of one policeman for 1,000 people, Nigeria's police force is also overstretched.
Soldiers were drafted to help the police bring the violence in Kano under control, but although the government has said that all is now well, Yorubas were still streaming out of the city for the safety of their south-western homeland at the start of this week.
The government has discouraged such mass movement, fearful that it could send the wrong signals and raise tension in other parts of the country, where people of the two ethnic groups have lived side by side for decades along with other communities.
The main challenge now, observers say, is to make those scarred by the experience feel secure once more anywhere in their country.
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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