(Lagos) - The Nigerian government should investigate and prosecute those responsible for killing up to 400 people during several recent days of violence in the city of Jos, Human Rights Watch said today.

The federal government should immediately establish an independent inquiry to find out who sponsored and carried out the killings, including any members of the security forces who appear to have responded to violence with disproportionate use of force. The government should also take concrete steps to end the discriminatory policies that treat certain groups as second-class citizens and that lie at the root of this violence.

"This latest outbreak of shocking violence should come as no surprise to the Nigerian authorities," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It is a direct result of the government's failure to anticipate the level of ethnic and religious tension in Plateau State over the recent election, much less to address the underlying causes."

The violence in Jos, the capital of Plateau State in central Nigeria, began early on the morning of November 28, 2008, following a disputed local election in which supporters of the opposition All Nigeria Peoples Party accused the governing People's Democratic Party of rigging the election results. Over the next three days, clashes between rival Muslims and Christians, some of whom on both sides were armed with firearms and machetes, left several hundred people dead, according to local sources in Jos. There was also widespread destruction in the town as mobs burned down homes, mosques, and churches. Thousands of residents have been forced to flee their homes.

The Plateau State governor issued a "shoot-on-sight" order to security personnel and ordered a 24-hour curfew in the worst-affected areas. Journalists and civil society leaders reported several instances in which people were killed by members of security forces responding to the violence, and Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of such killings from local residents and civil society leaders who witnessed them.

Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in carrying out their duties. State security forces are required to apply nonviolent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force, and where lawful use of force is unavoidable, restraint is to be used at all times to minimize damage and injury and to respect and preserve human life. Any order authorizing indiscriminate use of violence by security forces, such as "shoot-on-sight" orders, would violate these principles. Human Rights Watch called on Governor Jonah Jang to withdraw the order of November 29, which appears to authorize such use of force.

Nigeria is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. More than 12,000 people have died in religious or ethnic clashes since the end of military rule in 1999. In Plateau State, an unprecedented outbreak of violence in Jos claimed as many as 1,000 lives in September 2001. More than 700 people were killed in May 2004 in clashes in the town of Yelwa in the southern part of Plateau State.

Government policies that discriminate against "non-indigenes" - people who cannot trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of an area - underlie many of these conflicts. State and local governments throughout Nigeria have enacted such policies, denying those designated "non-indigenes" access to some of the most important avenues of socio-economic mobility. Non-indigenes are openly denied the right to compete for government jobs and academic scholarships, while state-run universities subject non-indigenes to discriminatory admissions policies and higher fees. In Jos, members of the largely-Muslim Hausa ethnic group are classified as non-indigenes despite many having resided there for several generations.

Human Rights Watch has called on the federal government to pass legislation prohibiting government discrimination against non-indigenes in all matters that are not purely cultural or related to traditional political institutions. Federal and state authorities should also conduct a public education campaign focusing on the rights that go with Nigerian citizenship and the need to end discrimination against non-indigenes. Instead of taking steps to combat this discrimination, government policies continue to legitimize and reinforce it.

"These discriminatory policies relegate millions of Nigerians to the status of second-class citizens and fuel the flames of ethnic and religious violence, which have often erupted during elections," Gagnon said.