Violent conflicts and modes of identification

By | January 19, 2010

My saxophone instructor, a Muslim, asked me today about the ‘religious violence’ in northern Nigeria. I tried to explain to him that most of the violence that is reported from northern Nigeria is about a weird definition of who an indigene is and who a settler is, and that most often, the immediate cause of the violence is some fight over resources. In other words, people fight over access to resources (control of state power should be seen as a resource), but quickly resort to claims of entitlement based on ethnicity, place of origin and religion. These modes of identification are then often used to mobilise other people with the same or similar identity markers to fight opposing groups.

I was just thinking about this when I saw that Jeremy had written a post about it. He mentions poverty and an artificial distinction between ‘indigene’ and ‘settler’ as being at the root of the conflict in Plateau State. In short, things are way more nuanced than they are often depicted in the media.

See for instance the details of a conflict that broke up in Langtang, close to Jos in 2002:

In June 2002, a serious conflict broke out in the Langtang area, some 200 km. SE of Jos, and was still current in May 2003. The main inhabitants of the region are the Tarok people, principally farmers, but the large open savannah between Langtang and the Benue river has long attracted nomadic Ful∫e graziers. There are also neighbouring smaller tribes such as the Boghom as well as substantial settlements of Hausa, notably at Wase (east of Tarokland towards the Benue) and the ferry-crossing at Ibi (southeast). The Tarok have maintained good relations with the Ful∫e for a long time and are now themselves substantial cattle owners, often as a result of sending their sons to be trained in herding by the Ful∫e. The Tarok are overwhelmingly Christian, although traditional religion also plays an important role in maintaining social order, whereas the Hausa and Ful∫e are strongly Muslim. The Tarok, moreover, have a long tradition of military service, and many of their leaders are ex-generals.

Apparently, a fight broke out in Yelwa, near Shendam (in SE Plateau State) at the end of June 2002 between Christian and Muslim residents, resulting in the burning of churches. Fleeing Tarok families brought the news to Langtang South, inciting attacks on Hausa-owned businesses in various settlements in the region. Prompt intervention of the security services brought about a temporary calm. However, it appears that a substantial number of Hausa and Fulani, armed with modern weapons and some at least from outside the region, regrouped and began attacking Tarok settlements from a base near Wase. Local people claim that mercenaries from Niger and Chad were involved although this is hard to verify. At this point, Tarok church leaders seem to have turned funds collected for evangelisation to the purchase of modern weapons. Traders appear to have had some guns in readiness for self-defence and were soon able to supply automatic weapons from Enugu. In general, government reaction seems generally to have been inaction, although there is a report of a pitched battle at Kadarko, near Ibi, where the Mobile Police were forced to retreat. Government-controlled media made no mention of the situation for some three weeks, when they reported (falsely) that things were back to normal. The lack of official action was so marked that one of the leaders of the Tarok, Rev. Maina, took the unusual action of placing newspaper adverts in the independent press pleading for a more effective response from government.

Since this date there has been open armed warfare between Tarok and Hausa /Ful∫e and the whole region is a no-go zone. Women and children have fled into refuges and well-organised groups regularly burn down villages in remote areas. Soldiers have been sent to key flashpoints such as Wase, but since they will not enter the bush and meet the armed groups on their own terms, this is a largely ineffective. A worrying consequence has been the uncharacteristic arming of small communities and the development of weapons workshops. Although a few hunters have always had Dane guns, their manufacture is now widespread and even herdboys now go to the fields armed. Peace summits between Jos-based leaders have had little or no impact. The elections in May 2003 distracted the political elite in Jos in the preceding months from paying attention to this rather serious situation. In the first months of 2003 there were a series of minor outbreaks of violence culminating with another major conflict in Langtang in March. In June, the well publicised murder of Muslim travellers passing through Langtang lorry-park has reminded the indigenous populations that the conflict is alive. A visit to Langtang towards the end of June was marked by unnaturally quiet roads and a collapse of commerce and services such as water and electricity. Roads in this region of Plateau State have become effectively divided between Muslim and Christian blocks. Pastoralists who are usually grazing the fresh grass at this season were conspicuous by their absence.

The whole report is here (pdf). Check out Jeremy’s post.

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