Nigeria Southwest: Ethnic-Economic Rivalries
As in other regions of Nigeria, conflicts in the Southwest tend to spring from social and economic roots. Such disputes are potent because they can easily be transformed into ethnic conflicts if people on opposite sides of an issue are predominately of different ethnic groups. Defining a conflict in ethnic terms greatly increases the potential for destabilization through overt violence, loss of life, property damage, and then generation of "ricochet riot" conflicts elsewhere in the country. Ricochet riots can go either way-a conflict in the North may spark one in the Southwest, or one in the Southwest may spark a riot in the North. Several factors underlie these conflict dynamics: a strong sense of Yoruba grievance against the North; strong Yoruba organizational capacity; the dominance of ethnic identity over religious identity; poor governance; and poverty, economic decline, and congestion.
The strong sense of grievance among Yoruba against the North and resultant tension between Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani predisposes people of the Southwest to redefine economic and social disputes in terms of ethnicity. Although mistrust between the two ethnic groups has deep historical roots, its current intensity can be traced to Ibrahim Babangida's annulment of the 1993 election won by the Yoruba candidate, M.K.O. Abiola, and Abiola's subsequent imprisonment and death. Many Yoruba people feel the 1993 election was the most free and fair Nigeria has ever held. In their view, its annulment by the northern military ruler proved that the North would never let a Yoruba be president, a feeling that has not been assuaged by election of the Yoruba Olusegun Obasanjo, for he was viewed as a pawn of northern leaders.
Conflict in the Southwest at its heart grows from the competition for scarce resources that, at times, appears organized along ethnic lines. Underlying this contemporary economic competition is a pervasive sense among Yoruba that they have consistently been turned away from political power by the Hausa-Fulani, as well as the keen awareness of Hausa-Fulani living in the Southwest of their repeated victimization by mob violence in the recent past. In these conflicts, religious identification is "trumped" by ethnicity, as Yoruba Muslims and Hausa Christians find themselves indiscriminately targeted by members of the other ethnic group, regardless of the religions they share.
Many seemingly minor conflicts can set off large-scale violence. Issues such as allocation of market stalls, control of the Lagos slaughterhouse, taxes levied on vehicles registered elsewhere, OPC activities, and perceived slights to religious or community holidays can trigger such violence. A ricochet riot effect between Lagos and northern cities, frequently Kano, spreads violence from one area to another. The OPC's robust organization adds both a risk and an opportunity in this area, as this Yoruba group can mobilize many members, whether to spread violence or to calm communities.
Added to the sense of grievance is general frustration and anger with poor governance and the resultant economic decline, decaying infrastructure, congestion, and sharp drop in standards of living. These conditions make the situation ripe for any dispute to escalate into violent conflict. This was seen in Lagos in October 2000, when members of the Yoruba Oodudwa People's Congress (OPC) vigilantes suspected a Hausa of harboring a criminal. The dispute became ethnically polarized and led to riots. Comparable disputes have flared over rights to stalls in markets, levying local fees on vehicles registered in other states, parking rights for tanker trucks, and respect for ethnic holidays.
Conflicts in the Southwest can also be sparked by violence in the North when Yorubas are on one side and Hausa-Fulani on the other. In such instances, what may have begun as religious conflict is redefined along ethnic lines, as was the case when violence erupted over the introduction of shari'a in Kaduna. It is important to note that religious conflict, as such, does not occur in the Southwest. Yorubas follow either Islam or Christianity, with many families counting members in both faiths. Religious tolerance is deeply entrenched in Yoruba culture. When violence in the North sparks violence in the Southwest, the conflict becomes defined along ethnic lines, not religious ones. Those involved attack on the basis of ethnicity, readily visible in the case of those who bear tribal marks, without pausing to determine whether Hausa victims are Moslem or Yoruba victims Christians.
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