Commentary | Nightmare in Nigeria

The roots of recent riots in Jos

During the morning hours of March 7, rioting spread through Jos, Nigeria. According to local reports, Hausa-Fulani herdsmen entered the city while firing rifles into the air. Some residents stepped from their homes to see what was happening. The herdsmen drove the residents into rioters waiting with machetes and clubs.

Stories about what exactly happened vary, but hundreds died – infants, children, and the elderly. The official death toll currently hovers around 500. The victims are primarily Christian – though in violence earlier this year, it was Muslims who were predominantly targeted in this city divided between Nigeria’s two main religions.

Linda Ikeji, a Nigerian blogger, posted photos of the bodies of a dozen children, lying in the dirt and poorly covered. She wrote, “This is our shame and failure as a country.” One reader responded, “The most insane part of the whole thing is that this wasn’t done by outsiders. Fellow Nigerians [were] doing this to each other’s children…. They may have grievances, but how does the death of a child bring you any closer to getting what you want?”

The uprising has totally eclipsed day-to-day life in the city. “Speaking from the experience of living in Jos during two major uprisings,” writes blogger Brenda Hartman-Souder, a Mennonite missionary working near the city, “I deflate with fatigue, fear, and the question that buzzes like a hungry mosquito: what the heck are we doing here?” She describes the “scorched buildings and cars” as a “war zone.”

“Where is the old woman sitting by the wall stacking oranges?” she asks. “Where are the old men lounging on worn benches chatting and chewing kola nut?
“Everyone is gone, shops and homes smashed or burnt, the vegetable market at the foot of the hill is silent and empty.”

Some have speculated that the riots are a response to violent clashes in January, during which the victims were mostly Muslims. Jos and the surrounding region have endured cycles of violence since the early ’90s. In the days following the recent unrest, the Nigerian army and police were called in – but most fear that the underlying problems behind the slaughter remain unaddressed.

The situation in Nigeria is complex: cultural differences, religious strife, corruption in government, rampant poverty, and unemployment all interact with government policies bordering on segregation to create an explosive mix. These factors combine with a rapidly growing population of 140 million squeezed into a pressure-cooker half the size of Quebec.

The discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in the early ’70s and the ensuing influx of billions of oil dollars is partly to blame for the situation. A decline in other industries, most significantly in agriculture, accompanied a rise in oil revenues. Nigeria – once a net exporter of agricultural products – now depends on other nations for a significant portion of its food supply. The economies of many political districts in the country depend on the federal government’s transfers of oil revenues. The problems in Jos could be related to this economic mismanagement – so much energy goes into oil that everything else is neglected. Severe regional unemployment, dependence on government handouts, and poverty result.

Nigeria today is an amalgamation of at least 250 different cultural groups shoehorned in 1912 into the confines of a single nation by Britain. To accommodate these diverse groups, Nigeria classifies citizens as either “indigene” or “settler.” In brief, this policy marks people as indigene to a region if they can trace their ancestral roots to that location. All others are settlers, or non-indigenes. Many local governments accord certain rights and privileges to indigenes, but proving one’s ancestry is often difficult, or impossible.

And if you’re not an indigene, there is no mechanism in place to become one – effectively making a whole segment of society second-class citizens. This policy amounts to segregation.

In Jos, the policy’s effects are poignant: the predominantly Muslim Hausa and Jarawa tribes cannot claim to be indigenes of Jos, despite the fact that they cannot trace their ancestral roots to any other part of Nigeria.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the division between indigenes and settlers is used pervasively at the local level to limit access to civil service jobs, scholarships, state universities, political office, and basic services and infrastructure.

HRW reports that “poverty and unemployment have both become more widespread and more severe in Nigeria, [and] competition for scarce opportunities to secure government jobs, higher education, and political patronage has intensified dramatically. Many Nigerians believe that this desperate competition between citizens for some basic level of economic security lies near the heart of most of the country’s intercommunal conflicts.”

Some have blamed religion for the conflicts – but perhaps the underlying cause is more fundamental: people want security and the ability to meet their basic needs. When the state makes this impossible, they search for a scapegoat.

“The problem with this country is that if you don’t have one of your own people in a position of authority, you get nothing,” a member of Jos’s Igbo community – a non-indigene group – told HRW. When you can’t have faith in the authorities unless they’re of your own ethnic group, you take matters into your own hands.

“It’s about trust in your leaders, knowing that the [people] in charge are going to do what is right, what is fair, regardless of their ethnic and religious ties,” said Emeka Nwakanma, a Nigerian expatriate and graduate of McGill’s library and information sciences program.

The violence in Jos will not end until the segregation of indigene and settler ends – and that will require changes not only in government, but also in the hearts and minds of average Nigerians.

David Davidson is a post-doctoral student in experimental medicine. Write him at