Journeying to Sa-Hell in Jos

December 4, 2008

Burned out cars in Jos

Burned out cars in Jos

While around 200 people may have died in Mumbai, about twice as many have died in riots in Nigeria’s Plateau State this week, as Christian and Muslim gangs battle for political influence in the city of Jos. This has been a largely unremarkedupon event, lacking the shock value of the Mumbai attacks and the legions of global news cameras and reporters there to mediate them. Yet its importance is perhaps greater.

The details are harrowing. Some sources say that 10,000 people have fled their homes for the sanctuary of nearby military bases. Mosques and churches have been torched, as have homes, markets and workshops. In one grain market, 3,000 stalls were burned. As one trader told AFP, We don’t even have enough to eat now. We have been ruined.” One car dealer lost 200 cars, as mobs attacked economic targets.

It seems that Muslims were disproportionately targeted. Although much of the reporting does not make this explicit, it is suggested by the Guardian’s Xan Rice, who writes that “Nearly 400 bodies are reported to have been received at the main mosque in Jos.” The official death toll has been put at 200, while AFP reports that “other sources have put the toll at twice that figure.” AFP also states that “machetes, guns and even bows and arrows were used” in what appears to have been wholesale violence, predominantly directed at Jos’ Muslim population.

Map showing the location of Jos, from the Guardian

Map showing the location of Jos, from the Guardian

Reporting has been hampered by the response of the Nigerian state, which ordered a shoot to kill policy and has subsequently come under fire from Human Rights Watch for doing so. Reuters reports HRW as saying that “Nigeria’s security forces appeared to have used excessive force to end the violence” and that “it had credible reports from multiple witnesses including civil society leaders and local residents of killings by the security forces.”

The backdrop to the violence involves a set of disputed elections to the local government in Jos, which lies in the centre of Nigeria. The Christian-linked People’s Democratic Party won the polls, defeating the All Nigeria People’s Party, which has a mainly muslim support base. These results were contested by the losers, leading to the bloodshed. It is unclear how the dispute spiralled out of control.

Elections in poorer nations are often flashpoints for ethnic violence. As Reuters reports, “…The authorities in many of Nigeria’s 36 states routinely deny opportunities such as civil service jobs or academic scholarships to “non-indigenes” — those who cannot trace their roots back to the community that originally settled there” making the battle for power much more dangerous.

Then there is the problem of extreme deprivation. Economically successful residents of Jos were targeted, like the traders and the car dealer, in the context of mass unemployment. The Nigerian elite has never shown a willingness to deal with huge economic inequalities, making appeals to ethnic solidarity in the face of economic discrimination that much more effective.

These events are no exception. As the governor of neighboring Imo State has put it, “It is just political rascality and hooliganism occasioned by unemployment.” There is no concern for the poor amongst the nation’s rulers. This was made vividly apparent in Jos when the speaker of Plateau State’s House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, visited the city to pay his respects.

Leaving the city’s central mosque, Bankole told a crowd that “Yes, you have lost property, brothers, sisters, fathers, uncles and relations, but it is not more than the losing of Prophet Mohammed.” The crowd promptly attempted to lynch him, leading to an ignominious flight.

There may, however, be another dimension to the violence. The government of Nigeria has suggested that there was international involvement in the riots which turned them from a political dispute into fully blown ethnic warfare. As AFP reports, authorities in Plateau State “announced the arrest on Tuesday of 16 “mercenaries” from neighbouring Niger.”

The Nigerien “mercenaries” – aged between 18 and 22 – were displayed by the military who, according to the Nigerian Tribune’s Isaac Shoboyo, “Paraded with them were various weapons recovered from them, like daggers, spears, bows and arrows and charms.”

The Nigerien government has denied that its citizens are involved, saying that the 16 are merely water hawkers. This has been corroborated by Shiboyo, who reports that one of the accused told him that “all of them came to Jos to hawk water, adding that they never participated in the mayhem.”

It is likely that Nigerian authorities are seeking to offload blame onto a neigboring country for its own problems, as Indian officials have been doing in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, and as authoritarian states are wont to do. Yet in a crucial sense the Jos riots are an international problem, and not simply a product of Nigeria’s unequal and corrupt society.

The tension between “indigenes” and interlopers in Jos stems from an influx of muslims from the north of Nigeria. This influx is being spurred by ecological factors such as desertification, which is particularly acute in the Sahel region. As Nigerian environmental expert Anthony Nyong said back in 2005, “Since the 1960s, the West African Sahel has experienced a steady decline in annual rainfall, as well as an increase in the frequency and intensity of drought.”

Climate change is pushing agriculturalists and pastoralists southwards, bringing different ethnicities into close contact. At the same time, as Nyong described, “The cultivation of crops for the international markets made us go into marginal land to produce more crops to make more money” – raising the stakes when ecological crisis bites. Right now, northern Nigeria is facing a double crisis – falling demand for those crops and desertification.

Every year, Nigeria loses 350,000 hectares of cropland. According to NGOs in the north, as the Sahara advances some 600 metres every year, thousands of farmers and their families are forced off the land and head southwards, to central Nigeria where population pressures are rising and the cities are expanding.

This is a truly dire regional problem. The UN’s Special Adviser on conflict, Jan Egelund, has described the Sahel as “ground zero” for climate change related conflict. As he told a conference in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, “Many of the people here live on the edge even in normal times, so if there will be dramatic climate change as many predict, they will go over the cliff if there is no investment in adaptation.”

With expanding deserts generating ever greater movements of peoples, tragedies like the violence in Jos will become much more likely, assuming that social and political changes are not made to adapt. But Nigeria may need a revolution before such changes are made. The government, dominated by oil interests and unwilling to tread on local social elites, has failed to stem the encroachment of the sands. As journalist Lanre Oyetade wrote last year:

The government’s annual reforestation programmes have largely failed, they say. In the absence of sustained public awareness campaigns, the majority of the saplings die or are cut down. The 1,500 km green belt along the edge of the desert, promised in 2001, has never materialised. A report issued by the Ministry of the Environment shows that only 30,000 hectares were reforested in 2002, a mere tenth of the area claimed by the desert during the course of the year.

“In terms of votes, the populations that are most affected by desertification may not be the most important ones,” said SCN’s Dalhat to explain the apparent lack of interest in a country where economic power is concentrated in the South. “With a few exceptions, the authorities, including at the state level, show little interest in this struggle.”

“But if we don’t do anything, the desert will soon be in our backyard,” said Dalhat. “When your neighbour’s house is burning, yours is also in danger.”

With climate change talks ongoing in Poznan, there is an opportunity for the nations of the world to discuss and deal with future crises. The manifesto suggested by Bolivian president Evo Morales would be a great starting point, if the aim is to transition to a sustainable and fair world.

Of course, with the U.S. sending a seasoned coal and oil man like Harlan Watson to stonewall and snipe, action will be delayed by at least a year. Until then, events like the riots in Jos will mark the milestones on a road to generalised ecological and social catastrophe.


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