News / Africa

Nigerian Political and Military Leaders Trade Blame Over Ethnic Violence

A boy, the only survivor of an overnight gang attack in the village of Vwang Fwil, lies on a hospital bed in the Nigerian central city of Jos, September 10, 2011.
A boy, the only survivor of an overnight gang attack in the village of Vwang Fwil, lies on a hospital bed in the Nigerian central city of Jos, September 10, 2011.

Ethnic and religious violence in central Nigeria has killed dozens of people over the past few days as security forces struggle to contain the attacks. Civilian politicians and military officers are blaming each other for failing to stem the violence.

Whole families have been killed in the latest round of violence in villages near the capital of Plateau state, which lies in Nigeria's so-called middle belt that separates the predominately Christian south from the mainly Muslim north.

There are longstanding land disputes in Plateau state between ethnic Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslim, and ethnic Berom farmers, who are mostly Christian. But it is about more than land. This round of violence appears to have been set off by a dispute over where Muslims conducted their Eid prayers marking the end of Ramadan.

Retired Lieutenant General Jeremiah Useni heads the most influential group of religious and political leaders from northern Nigeria, an association known as the Arewa Consultative Forum. He says religious animosities are so high in Nigeria that the slightest provocation can lead to widespread bloodshed.

“Sometimes what may start as a local problem between two people then will escalate, especially when it involves a Christian and a Muslim," said Useni. "Or even when a church is torched, either by mistake of other means, the Christians will not take it kindly and attack also the mosque. Or vice versa.”

Human Rights Watch says more than 1,000 people have been killed in communal violence in Plateau state over the last 18 months. The group says contributing to that hostility are local laws that discriminate against Nigerians who were not born in the state. Useni agrees.

“If there is no level playing ground or we don't treat people equally, you are going to have problems in your state," said Useni. "And when there is a problem in one state, of course the country is a body. I can not say that if my hand is paining me that therefore the rest of the body is OK.”

Governor Jonah Jang says national security services are failing the people of Plateau state. National Security Adviser Owoye Azazi, a retired general, says Governor Jang is ignoring intelligence reports from security officials and is trying to shift the blame for the violence.

Those divisions further complicate efforts to take a coordinated approach to the violence at a time when President Goodluck Jonathan's government is already battling the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is calling on Nigeria to deal with the root causes of this violence, including discrimination, land disputes, and poverty.  A statement from the commission urged local and federal officials to curb hate speech and called on security forces to respond in an "even-handed manner" to avoid making the situation worse.

While hundreds of suspects have been arrested as part of the crackdown on this violence, Useni says that too often, those responsible for attacks are set free without prosecution.

“If anybody is arrested for any wrongdoing at all, justice must be seen to be done," said Useni. "You don't keep people there for a long time for people to forget and then in the end they are released quietly.”

Useni says stopping Plateau state violence should be as much about the courts as it is about the soldiers called in to restore order.

“Instead of booking them, we will talk to security to release them like they have learned their lesson," he said. "Which lesson have they learned?  When the person has committed an offense, you haven't taught them anything. You haven't booked them to make sure for them to know they have committed an offense. This again is not helping the system.”

Plateau state security officials say more than 50 people have been arrested in connection with the most recent attacks.  Governor Jang is scheduled to meet with President Jonathan Monday to discuss how best to end the violence.

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