Unless addressed immediately, recurrent violence in Nigeria’s Plateau state will continue to fuel settler-indigene tensions and exacerbate intercommunal strife across the country.
Since 2001, violence has erupted in Jos city, capital of Plateau state, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. The ostensible dispute is over the “rights” of the indigene Berom/Anaguta/Afizere (BAA) group and the rival claims of the Hausa-Fulani settlers to land, power and resources. Indigene-settler conflicts are not new to Nigeria, but the country is currently experiencing widespread intercommunal strife, which particularly affects the Middle Belt.
The city capital Jos crisis is the result of failure to amend the constitution to privilege broad-based citizenship over exclusive indigene status and ensure that residency rather than indigeneity determines citizens’ rights. Constitutional change is an important step to defuse indigene-settler rivalries that continue to undermine security. It must be accompanied by immediate steps to identify and prosecute perpetrators of violence, in Jos and other parts of the country. Elites at local, state and federal level must also consistently implement policies aimed at reducing the dangerous link between ethnic belonging and access to resources, power and security if intercommunal violence is to end.
The indigene principle, or indigeneity (that is, local origin), means that some groups control power and resources in states or local government areas (LGAs) while others – who have migrated for different reasons – are excluded. This gives rise both to grievances and fierce political competition, which too often lead to violence. Indigeneity was given constitutional force at independence in 1960 to protect the ethnic minorities from being submerged by the larger Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba groups and preserve their cultural and political identity and traditional institutions of governance. Religion is a pertinent, albeit secondary factor, which reinforces underlying tension and, over the years, has assumed greater importance, especially since the return of democracy in May 1999. Fierce and unregulated political competition characterised by ethnic mobilisation and violence, coupled with poor governance, economic deregulation and rampant corruption, have severely exacerbated ethnic, religious and regional fault lines. The notion of national citizenship appears to have been abrogated by both ethnicity and ancestry.
Muslims and the indigenous people predominantly Christian, struggle over land ownership, economic resources and political control tends to be expressed not just in ethnic but also religious terms. The dispute is compounded by the fact that, of the settler groups, only the Hausa-Fulani lay proprietary claim to Jos. As violence recurs, spatial polarisation and segregation accentuate social and political divisions; people become more conscious of their sub-national solidarity and allegiances and are more forthcoming about expressing them.
Since the end of 2010, security has further deteriorated in Jos because of terror attacks and suicide bombings against churches and security targets by suspected militants of Boko Haram, the Islamist group responsible for an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks in the north. Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been displaced internally and billions of dollars of property have been destroyed.
Thus far, responses from local and national authorities have proven mostly ineffective. They have come in three ways. First, several judicial commissions of inquiry have been appointed to “get to the root of the crises” and recommend “lasting solutions”. But authorities have been slow in publishing reports and acting on their recommendations. Tough public speeches have not been translated into tangible political action against instigators and perpetrators: none of the suspects named by the various commissions have been prosecuted, and impunity continues to feed violence.
The second response is police and military action, which has had little success. Security forces not only fail to share intelligence among themselves, they are also suspected of taking sides in the conflict and soldiers are accused of trading guns for money. Finally, Operation Rainbow (OR), a joint initiative since June 2010 between the federal government and the Plateau state government with support from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is considered a holistic response to the crisis. Still in its infancy, OR appears useful but will only be effective if it can, at the minimum, win the confidence of both sides. It should be publicised at the grassroots so that the population can own it.
The crisis in Plateau requires both national and local solutions. Constitutional provisions, by virtue of their ambiguity over the terms “indigene” (which the constitution fails to define satisfactorily) and “residency” for accessing citizenship rights, have done little to clarify the situation. Nigeria’s current conception and implementation of its citizenship (or national) question are inadequate and flawed. The way forward is for the National Assembly, via a referendum or by itself, following its nationwide public hearings on the matter, to replace the indigene principle with a more inclusive residency provision to fight discrimination and inequalities between settler and indigenous communities while consciously taking immediate steps to assuage the fears of ethnic minorities.
At the state level, the current Plateau government should change its approach. It can no longer carry on as if it is in power to serve only indigenous communities. It should not wait for national constitutional reform before abolishing discriminatory policies on education and employment between indigenes and settlers, as did the Sokoto state government. Otherwise, political differences will harden further, more pain will be inflicted on the hapless population, and the state’s – and, invariably, the country’s – development will be impaired.