TITLE=NIGERIA / ETHNIC TENSION
INTRO: Nigeria is a country of great diversity. With
more than 200 ethnic groups packed within its borders,
the (West African) country has a spectrum of cultures,
languages and traditions. Politically, Nigeria is a
federation of states, much like the United States.
This set-up is designed to harness and protect the
country's ethnic and regional diversity. But the
system has many flaws, and, in recent years, it has
sparked more ethnic conflicts than it has resolved.
From Lagos, V-O-A's John Pitman takes a look at
Nigeria's ethnic melting pot, and why it has been
TEXT: /// SFX - man hitting metal ring against
bottle - establish and fade under ///
The sound of metal against glass attracts shoppers in
Sagamu's crowded market place, as a vendor selling
strong local alcohol advertises his product with a
simple metal ring tapping the glass bottle.
Sagamu's market is crowded these days, and to a casual
observer, there are few outward signs that this small
town - about an hour's drive northeast of Lagos - was
the scene of violent ethnic riots in July.
Some scars from the three days of violence remain -
burned out cars and buildings still give mute
testimony to the rage that left more than 60 people
dead between July 17th and 19th.
The clash in Sagamu was sparked when a woman from the
Hausa ethnic group accidentally witnessed a secret
ceremony being performed by the town's ethnic Yoruba
majority. The woman was killed by a mob, which then
went on a rampage against other Hausas in the town.
Hundreds of Hausas fled north to the city of Kano,
where, several days later, there were retaliatory
attacks against the Yoruba minority there.
This pattern of attack and counter-attack has occurred
several times in Nigeria this year - from the northern
city of Kafanchan to the southern Delta city of Warri
- and some Nigerians consider ethnic violence to be a
"natural" part of life. In each case, the violence
has been set off by a specific local issue. In
Kafanchan, local Christians were protesting the
continued rule of a traditional Muslim emir; in Warri
and other parts of the Delta, ethnic groups such as
the Ijaws and the Itsekeris have clashed over control
of local government offices.
Despite the local differences between each episode of
violence, Nigerian political analysts say the reasons
for these conflicts are rooted in a political system
that has, since colonial times, favored certain ethnic
groups and neglected others. They say although
Nigeria's ethnic groups generally live together
peacefully - and even intermarry without too much
trouble - when it comes to competing for scarce
economic or political resources, ethnic identities
still divide people.
/// OPT /// Professor Kola Kusemiju teaches marine
ecology at the University of Lagos. Since his work
takes him to the Niger Delta frequently, he has also
become something of an expert on the region's social
/// OPT KUSEMIJU ACT ///
I guess it's more frustration. Years of
neglect. A reaction to a situation where they
find the environment too harsh for them to bear.
And, they fight themselves, regrettably.
/// END ACT / END OPT ///
Cyril Obi is a senior research fellow at the Nigerian
Institute of International Relations in Lagos. He
says Nigeria will continue to suffer ethnic clashes as
long as people feel the country's political rules are
stacked against them.
/// OBI ACT ///
Unfortunately, the historical and political
experiences we have had are such that ethnic
identity becomes crucial in the struggle for
resources; in staking claims; in also trying to
gain advantage over one another. So, to that
extent, you will see why people would want to
say they are Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa or Ogoni. But
if, democratically, we can find a way of sorting
these things out, we can have a kind of national
consensus to build a sense of belonging in
everybody. You begin to understand that people
will begin to de-emphasize those kinds of things
and begin to emphasize and claim Nigerian-ness.
Because the fundamental questions is: "What is
in Nigeria for us?" Now, once that question is
answered, it will no longer be an important one.
/// END ACT ///
In Sagamu as in other parts of the country that have
been consumed by communal violence, conspiracy
theories abound about what sparked the trouble. Some
say powerful interests that supported the former
military governments are encouraging local violence in
order to destabilize the new civilian government - and
give the military an excuse to return to power.
Local leaders - and many residents - in Sagamu are
reluctant to discuss the root causes of the violence
in July, preferring to blame the killings on divine
intervention. Yahaya Olodeoku is the executive
chairman of the Sagamu local government. He believes
the violence was pre-ordained by God. But he says,
nonetheless, that ethnic clashes should be
investigated by government panels.
/// OLODEOKU ACT ///
What I'm saying is in any place where there are
clashes like this, if the bodies are set up,
maybe more facts will be known about the
immediate or remote causes. Because there might
be rumors, and the facts might not be truly
established if this panel is not set up.
/// END ACT ///
For its part, Nigeria's federal government has started
to respond whenever ethnic violence boils over and
people are killed. In July, the government sent a
mediation team and relief supplies to Sagamu hours
after the clashes ended - and president Olusegun
Obasanjo has made a point to visit flash-points and
listen to the people's complaints.
When asked about Nigeria's ethnic identity crisis in a
recent V-O-A interview, president Obasanjo was quick
to remind us that he thinks of himself first-and-
foremost as a Nigerian, and he hopes that one day all
Nigerians will think the same way. But to do this, he
added, the government must make all Nigerians - no
matter where they are from - feel they have a stake in
the country and that the Nigerian Federal Government
cares about them.
/// OBASANJO ACT ///
See, what happens is when people feel that they
cannot get what they think is rightly due to
them, in terms of justice, in terms of equity,
then they take recourse to tribalism. They take
recourse to base instincts of going back to
their clans - not even tribes, clans. I believe
that we can get over that if we continue - not
that we should eliminate tribes, far from it! -
But that we should make being a Nigerian to be
of greater importance than belonging to a tribe.
/// END ACT ///
President Obasanjo believes Nigeria can - and will -
cement its national identity. But his optimism will
be challenged in the coming years by a growing
consensus that Nigeria needs to fundamentally revise
its federal system, and even re-write its constitution
to address regional demands for greater political and
/// OPT /// These demands have also given birth to
several regional or ethnic independence movements
which have threatened to pull out of the Nigerian
federation if the government does not address their
concerns. /// END OPT ///
Still, while the debate heats up, many observers say
it is premature to talk about the disintegration of
the Nigerian state. And they add that a repeat of the
ethnically-motivated Nigerian Civil War of the early
1970s is also unlikely, pointing out that no one in
Nigeria today wants to see the country suffer the kind
of ethnic cleansing and bloodshed that has torn apart
the former Yugoslavia this decade. (SIGNED)
22-Oct-1999 13:46 PM EDT (22-Oct-1999 1746 UTC)
Source: Voice of America
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