Thursday, January 21, 2010

Violence in Nigerian City Remains Unresolved

Rioting, burning and killings in the central Nigerian city of Jos has left more than 200 people dead, caused untold damage to property and created hunger among residents unable to buy food, which all-too-often can’t be sold due to violence and a 24-hour curfew imposed to stop it. Incidents of violence have not been limited to Jos, spreading to nearby towns of Pankshi, Bukuru, Apata and Alheri.

Periodic violence is becoming a frighteningly common occurrence in Nigeria. Since the end of military rule in 1999, more than 13,500 people have been killed in religious or ethnic clashes across Nigeria. Nearly 1,500 people have been killed in violence in Jos alone in clashes in 2001 (1,000), 2004 (700) and 2008 (700). In addition to violence largely carried out by youth, Human Rights Watch documented 133 cases of unlawful killings by members of security forces in responses to the 2008 violence in Jos.

This middle belt town is one of the country’s most cosmopolitan cities, home to a mix of dozens of ethnic groups, and Jos separates the Muslim north from the Christian south. The city’s name is an acronym for “Jesus Our Savior,” coined by Christian missionaries. Jos was sometimes called the “home of peace and tourism” because its cooler temperatures brought in Nigerian and European tourists. The city also is a major commercial center and is a center for the mining of tin and columbite. Heavy industry produces cement, crushed stone, rolled steel and tire retreads. Other enterprises include food processing, beer brewing and the production of cosmetics, soap, rope and furniture. Consequently, disruption of commerce in Jos has an impact far beyond the city and its nearby neighbors.

In response to the current crisis, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, declaring the violence “one crisis too many,” deployed security agencies to Jos to calm down the situation, and reports are that they have not been as heavy-handed as in past responses to violence. However, there were reports of shootouts between rioters and security forces, as well as alleged fake military personnel shooting people in the area, leaving some dead or injured.

Vice President Jonathan was handed the power to use presidential authority by a federal court last week while President Umaru Yar’Adua recuperates from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Jonathan’s decisive action in Jos is likely to intensify efforts to replace President Yar’Adua, who has been out of the country and largely out of public view for several weeks, after persistent reports of his ill health almost since his election in 2007. Still, the Vice President will be urged to bring accountability to this year’s outbreak of violence, as well as the previous incidents.

The federal government and the Plateau State government have acted to quell violence, but have not conducted complete investigations leading to the prosecution of the leaders of violence in Jos. Investigations such as the panel of inquiry led by Justice Niki Tobi have produced no reports leading to greater accountability for violence-mongers. Neither the national nor state government nor others can agree on what causes the violence.

Plateau State police claim the most recent violence was caused by Muslim youth attacking worshippers around Saint Michael’s Catholic Church, but Muslim leaders said the violence was initiated by attempt to rebuild a mosque destroyed in 2008 in a Christian area.

Some say the state government is to blame this time for the excessive use of force in 2008 and for the discrimination against Jos residents prevented from competing for government job opportunities and academic scholarships as “non-indigenes” because they cannot prove their ties to the original inhabitants of the area. A group of Christian clerics held a news conference to declare that this violence (and previous incidents) was the result of terrorist activities.

Violence in Jos and elsewhere in Nigeria undoubtedly is caused by multiple instigations. Unfortunately, Plateau State Governor Jonah Jang continues to claim that his government has apparently successfully restored and sustained peace. “Our efforts have been made manifest through communal harmony, religious tolerance and maintaining security personnel on our streets in addition to continuous dialogue with various stakeholders so as to consolidate peace and security in the state.”

No doubt the state government has made moves to achieve these ends, but clearly they aren’t working or at least not working in the long run. Neither has the federal government acted to ease continuing tensions in Jos. Merely rebuilding destroyed areas of Jos will not be enough this time. Someone will have to be held to account for instigating or supporting violence that has cost so many lives and destroyed so much property and halted so much commerce. Any other result will leave the door open for future incidents of violence that makes a mockery of Jos as a city of peace.

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