index  |  next>>

I. Summary

In the first half of 2004, hundreds of people were killed in inter-communal fighting between Muslims and Christians in and around the town of Yelwa and the southern part of Plateau State, central Nigeria, bringing the total number of victims of the violence in Plateau State since 2001 to between 2,000 and 3,000.  The violence reached a peak between February and May 2004 in the area around the towns of Yelwa and Shendam.   There were many attacks during this period, but two stood out in terms of their scale, the number of victims and the level of preparation and organization.  On February 24, 2004, armed Muslims killed more than seventy-five Christians in Yelwa; at least forty-eight of them were killed inside a church compound.  Then on May 2 and 3, large numbers of well-armed Christians surrounded the town of Yelwa and killed around seven hundred Muslims.  Yelwa and many surrounding villages suffered massive destruction, and tens of thousands of people were displaced. 

One week later, on May 11 and 12, Muslims in the northern city of Kano–several hundred kilometers away from Plateau State–took revenge for the Yelwa attack and turned against Christian residents of Kano, killing more than two hundred.  A once localized dispute in a specific part of Plateau State had escalated into a religious conflict of national dimensions.  Most of the victims of the violence in Plateau and Kano states were unarmed men, women and children who were targeted simply because of their religion.

The federal government and security forces bear a heavy responsibility for the massive loss of life in Yelwa and Kano.  In Yelwa, the security forces were absent during the attack of May 2-3.  Around 700 people had already been killed by the time the army intervened.  Likewise in Kano, around 200 people had been killed before peace was restored.  Then, instead of protecting those at risk and trying to arrest the perpetrators, some of the police and soldiers deployed to Kano carried out dozens of extrajudicial killings, contributing further to the violence.  Their actions in Kano were typical of the response of the security forces to previous outbreaks of inter-communal violence in other parts of Nigeria.

The conflict in Plateau State stems from longstanding disputes over land and political and economic privileges between ethnic groups who consider themselves “indigenes,” or original inhabitants of a particular area, and those whom they view as “settlers.”1  These disputes are not a new phenomenon in Plateau State, but until 2001, they had not led to large-scale loss of life.  In September 2001, tensions suddenly exploded in the state capital Jos, and around 1,000 people were killed in just six days.2  What had originally been an ethnic and political conflict turned into a religious one, as the ethnic divide happened to coincide with the religious divide:  the conflict between “indigenes” and “settlers” became a conflict between Christians and Muslims, as both sides exploited religion as an effective way of mobilizing large-scale support.  The violence then spread out of Jos to other parts of Plateau State, and scores, and possibly hundreds, more people were killed in 2002 and 2003 in a cycle of attacks and counter-attacks by both Muslims and Christians.  Muslims and Christians from different ethnic groups have become increasingly well-armed and have attacked their opponents with impunity, using religion as a tool to whip up sentiment and to spur on their followers.

Despite the escalation of the conflict in Plateau State since September 2001, and clear warning signs of the likelihood of further violence, the Nigerian government did not take any effective action and allowed the conflict to spiral out of control.  Finally, when Yelwa was attacked on May 2-3, 2004, the scale of the violence could no longer be ignored.  On May 18, 2004, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Plateau State. 

Relative calm was restored in the following months, and the Plateau State government embarked on a number of initiatives as part of a peace process under the state of emergency.  But since the state of emergency in Plateau State was lifted in November 2004, the momentum to find long-term solutions to the conflict seems to have been lost.  Critically, justice has not been delivered.  There have been some arrests, but the people responsible for planning or organizing the violence have not been prosecuted; neither have the police or soldiers responsible for killings in Kano.  As evidenced by the chain of events in Plateau State over the last four years, the mere absence of fighting since May 2004 cannot be interpreted as a definitive end to the conflict.  Until the root causes of the conflict are addressed, the violence could be reignited at any time, especially in the run-up to the next general elections, scheduled to take place across Nigeria in 2007.

This report documents the killings in Yelwa on February 24 and May 2-3, 2004, and the killings in Kano on May 11 and 12.   Given the large number of attacks in different locations in Plateau State over the last three years, Human Rights Watch has not been able to document them all and has concentrated its research on the above incidents, which were among the most serious in 2004.  However, the report provides information on the broader context in which these attacks took place.3

In July 2004, Human Rights Watch researchers visited Plateau and Kano states, as well as a camp for the internally displaced from Yelwa in Lafia, capital of Nasarawa State.  The information in this report is based on their interviews with eye-witnesses and survivors of the violence in these and other locations.  Human Rights Watch also spoke with many other individuals and organizations including Christian and Muslim leaders at state and federal level, officials of the Kano and Plateau state governments, representatives of the police, local government representatives, traditional and community leaders, and non-governmental organizations.

This report contains recommendations to the Nigerian government on ways of preventing further violence in Plateau and Kano states, which are also applicable to other parts of Nigeria affected by inter-communal violence.  The key recommendations are for the timely deployment of an adequate security force presence in areas of likely tension, while ensuring that members of the security forces do not carry out extrajudicial killings; and for the government to bring to justice those responsible for planning and organizing the violence, as well as those who carried out the killings, including members of the security forces.  On the basis of its experiences from countries all over the world, Human Rights Watch believes that the impunity which has protected those responsible for the violence in Plateau State since 2001 has directly contributed to the conflict and has encouraged all sides to continue killing without fear of being held accountable.  Human Rights Watch is also urging the Nigerian government to take longer-term measures to prevent a recurrence of the violence by addressing the root causes of the conflict, notably by removing the discriminatory distinction between “indigenes” and “settlers”.

Many of the recommendations below reiterate those made in earlier Human Rights Watch reports on conflicts which followed a similar pattern, notably in Jos in 2001, and in Kaduna State in 2002.4  In failing to implement these recommendations due to a lack of political will, the Nigerian government allowed the conflicts to continue escalating, with disastrous consequences.  Human Rights Watch is again urging the Nigerian government to implement these recommendations to put an end to the cycle of violence once and for all, not only in Plateau and Kano states, but in all areas affected by inter-communal conflict. 

[1]  An explanation of this issue is provided in Section III of this report, and, in more detail, in the Human Rights Watch report “Jos: a city torn apart,” December 2001.

[2]  See Human Rights Watch report “Jos: a city torn apart,” December 2001.

[3]  Human Rights Watch has already documented and reported in detail on the violence in Jos in 2001 and 2002. See Human Rights Watch reports “Jos: a city torn apart,” December 2001, and pages 23-26 of “Testing democracy: political violence in Nigeria,” April 2003.

[4] See Human Rights Watch reports “Jos: a city torn apart,” December 2001, and “The ‘Miss World riots’: continued impunity for killings in Kaduna,” July 2003.

index  |  next>>May 2005