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Nigeria - Introduction

Religious conflicts constitute a serious cause of violence in Nigeria and have for a number of years. Much of this violence has occurred in the North, although anti-Muslim incidents often occur in the South as well. Low-level incidents seem more or less a constant of daily life, and more or less manageable at that level; but when they escalate, the costs in lives, property, and political and economic stability can be devastating. This latter kind of violence can touch off ricochet riots in other parts of the country (e.g., in Aba after the two Kaduna religious riots during the first five months of 2000).

Northern Muslims' support for application of criminal aspects of the shari'a legal code appears motivated by lack of economic development, disparities of wealth between rich and poor, and relative insecurity, as well as forms of behavior (drinking, prostitution, etc.) stigmatized by their faith. Religious and political leaders have seen in the shari'a movement a vehicle to advance moral or personal agendas. The issue of shari'a has taken on real economic significance for southern Christian entrepreneur settlers in the North who often operate restaurants, hotels, and bars where drinking and prostitution occur. Under these circumstances, potential for violence remains high.

Many minorities in the Middle Belt, in Delta states, and elsewhere in the country have felt marginalized for much of the twentieth century. That feeling persists today. These groups include dispersed minorities such as the Ijaw in Delta, Ondo, and Edo states, separated from the main concentration of Ijaw in Bayelsa State, and non-Muslim minorities in northern states-for example, the Katab, Kaje, Gbabyi, Numana, Kono, Kagoma, and Chawai in the southern part of Kaduna State. Until the religious riots of 2000 precipitated an adjustment in institutional arrangements that recognized these groups as autonomous, they had been subjected to the overlordship of the Hausa-Fulani rulers of Zazzau, the Muslim emirate that ruled much of what is now Kaduna State throughout the nineteenth century. Other conflicts arising from feelings of marginalization among some groups in the population include the Tiv-Jukun and Aguleri-Umuleri conflicts and the 1992 Zango Kataf riots in the Kafanchan region of southern Kaduna State.

Other conflicts clothed in the trappings of ethnicity have erupted as competition sharpens among different production systems for certain renewable resources. The perennial confrontations between sedentary farmers and transhumant pastoralists appear to pit Fulani (Fulbe) herders against Hausa, or Kanuri, or Yoruba, or Middle Belt minority groups. As agriculture spreads into arable areas formerly reserved for use as pastures, herders have a harder time finding forage for their animals. Some resort to putting their cows in other people's corn, leading to disputes and, not infrequently, violence.

Other tenure issues pose similar struggles of control over access to and use of renewable resources (e.g., arable land, wooded areas, fisheries, and water sources). Although these struggles may be between individuals from different ethnic groups, they can just as well pit members of the same ethnic group against each other. An example is the 150-year-long Ife-Modakeke struggle, named for the adjacent areas in question, between Yoruba indigenes (original occupants) and Yoruba settlers (families who moved into the area after it had been settled and claimed by the indigenes). Because these struggles concern resources on which people's very existence depends, they can easily degenerate into deadly conflicts.

Conflicts spurred by competition over economic opportunities have been part and parcel of life for more than 150 years in the area now known as Nigeria. Such competition has long been managed with varying degrees of success in many places in the country, but it can erupt at any moment into violent confrontations. Both Kano and Lagos, Nigeria's two largest urban centers, attract immigrants from most other parts of the country. They come seeking economic opportunities, and frequently gain access to employment through kin networks or, failing that, through membership in an ethnic group. This means that economic competition often occurs between groups organized on ethnic bases. In consequence, such conflicts incorporate powerful potential to destabilize Nigeria's transition to democracy as well as the political situation more broadly, and to wreak havoc with the economy. At the same time, such economic competition, like other forms of dispute, can be managed successfully if local leaders have the training and institutional facilities that allow them to diffuse ethnic tensions before they boil over into open violence.

In Benue State, land disputes between Tiv and their Jukun tribes claimed hundreds of lives in 2001. The situation became more complicated after the army found itself in direct confrontation with the Tivs. Nineteen soldiers sent to help quell the violence were ambushed and killed by a Tiv militia group. This led to reprisal killings by the army in several Tiv villages.

Differences in values, histories, and sense of autonomous identities create critical and persistently dangerous fractures among Nigeria's peoples. Although these ethnic groups are not intrinsically hostile, they often harbor suspicions about one another based, to an extent, on personal experience from the capture and use of power, and have often shown themselves ready to believe and act on exaggerated and inflammatory rumors. The generalized perception among many groups that Nigeria is stagnating economically certainly fuels these frictions. If people felt the economy were expanding rapidly, they might be less inclined to respond to ethnic appeals. But since many believe the economy is shrinking, any tool that can protect an individual's economic future is welcome. This heightens the reliance on ethnic and religious identifications and accentuates the differences among groups (Cohen, 1969). Political actors can manipulate such differences to advance their own agendas and careers-though sometimes at awful cost to those affected when violence ensues.

The diverse groups of Nigeria generally co-exist peacefully in mixed ethnic neighborhoods throughout the country's urban areas. Nonetheless, members of different ethnic groups often look with suspicion on one another. They remember the violence of the past, and remain sensitive to slights, insults, and "unfair" advantages. They frequently interpret the actions of members of other groups as efforts to assert (or reassert) domination over them. Each group has its own history of perceived slights, injuries, and disadvantages experienced at the hands of other groups. Each group has militants to mobilize those most ready to engage in intergroup violence, and each group has hurt members of the others.

Nigeria's political and electoral history has been punctuated repeatedly with violent incidents. In the North, political and electoral competition, though often fierce, tends to be relatively peaceful. In the South, and particularly in the Southwest, violence has more often characterized political interactions and especially elections. Both have the potential to destabilize the transition to civilian rule and democracy. Both can spill back into patterns of ethnic competition; but, most often, such conflicts pit members of the same ethnic group against each other in struggles for leadership posts. Positive changes can be achieved within a two-year timeframe.

Delta oil resources linked to development and environmental problems. With several million extremely poor people living in circumstances of low-grade anarchy, where local collective action institutions have eroded badly, prospects for settling conflicts and promoting development appear sharply constrained.

Young people, particularly young men, often take the lead in violence. This means that youth are, typically, a cross-cutting factor found in the majority of conflicts. Causes for their participation are diverse, but their status as unemployed or underemployed individuals often makes them extremely susceptible to invitations to participate in violence.

Nigeria has long suffered from a pattern of ethnic reprisals that often follow in completely different parts of the country after a localized confrontation between two ethnic groups. Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba have taken lead roles as classic ethnic protagonists in Nigeria, fighting each other repeatedly since the founding of the federation. The typical ricochet riot scenario plays out as follows. Members of ethnic group 1 commit violence against those of ethnic group 2, who have settled in the home area of group 1. When news (and sometimes the wounded and bodies of the slain) arrive in the group 2's home area, leaders and followers often exact vengeance on members of group 1 who have settled in group 2's territory, even though the latter will usually have had nothing whatsoever to do with the original incident of violence. Any number of causes (e.g., economic competition, religious values, control over governance institutions) can trigger the initial dispute between groups 1 and 2. But in the second round of violence, here termed ricochet riots, conflicts proceed on another basis, that of the blood feud writ large across whole ethnic groups rather than individual warring families or other smaller social units.

The popular consensus holds that most contemporary secular governments at all levels in Nigeria are "broken," in major part because those who lead them view public office as a means to enrich themselves and their communities by raiding public funds. This fuels popular desires for alternatives. Particularly in the North, the emirate system put in place after Usman dan Fodio's successful jihad against the Hausa states in the early nineteenth century retains in many places a capacity to provide some essential government services, particularly resolution of certain kinds of disputes. In Yoruba areas as well, indigenous structures retain some authority. By contrast, indigenous leaders are discredited in many Ibo and minority areas (particularly the Delta). Corrupt practices associated with secular governments undoubtedly retard development; they do not necessarily threaten consolidation of democratic civilian governance, nor do they have an easily measurable negative impact on the national economy that might threaten consolidation.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:53 ZULU