DATE=10/22/1999 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=NIGERIA / ETHNIC TENSION NUMBER=5-44595 BYLINE=JOHN PITMAN DATELINE=LAGOS CONTENT= VOICED AT: 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 boiling over. 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 conflicts. /// 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 economic autonomy. /// 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) NEB/JP/GE/LTD/JP 22-Oct-1999 13:46 PM EDT (22-Oct-1999 1746 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .
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