<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

III. The Conflict in Plateau State

Inter-communal violence has affected many parts of Nigeria before and since the end of military rule in 1999.  Most of these conflicts were originally very localized.  There are more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, a country with a total population of more than 130 million.  Some of these groups have fought each other for decades for control of land, economic resources, and lucrative political positions.   Central to many of these disputes, as explained below, is the notion of “indigeneship”, which has pitted groups who consider themselves the “indigenes”, or the first inhabitants of an area, against those viewed as “settlers”. 

Large-scale inter-communal violence is a more recent phenomenon in Plateau State than in some other parts of Nigeria. There had been longstanding grievances between different communities for several decades, but it was not until 2001 that people began turning to organized violence to express their frustrations at perceived political and economic marginalization.  The turning point was the massive violence in the state capital Jos in September 2001 (commonly referred to as the Jos crisis) which claimed around 1,000 lives.5  Most of the violence which followed, from 2002 to 2004, can be seen as directly or indirectly connected to the events in Jos.  There have been violent attacks in several local government areas in addition to Jos, including Wase, Langtang North, Langtang South, Shendam, Mikang, Qua’an Pan, Barkin Ladi, and Riyom.  The area around Wase and Langtang North and Langtang South was especially badly affected, and hundreds of people are believed to have been killed there in 2002 and 2003.  The total number of people killed in Plateau State since 2001 has not been confirmed, but on the basis of its own research, Human Rights Watch believes that between 2,000 and 3,000 people were killed between September 2001 and May 2004.

One of the biggest challenges posed by the violence in Plateau State is the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators, particularly those orchestrating the attacks.  To date, the violence has not been carried out by recognized groups or militia with a clear structure.  No individual or organization has openly claimed responsibility for the killings.  Across the state, there are organizations representing the political, economic and social interests of different ethnic groups and communities, but these organizations do not openly advocate violence.  There are no formal or clearly identifiable armed groups who maintain a visible presence in the periods between the fighting.  Ever since the 2001 Jos crisis, the situation has been fluid:  the violence goes in waves, and it may not be the same individuals participating on every occasion.  Yet the pattern of the larger attacks, in particular, indicates a high level of organization, forethought and planning.  Claims by sympathizers of both sides that these attacks were spontaneous lack credibility.   As illustrated in this report, the attack of May 2-3 in Yelwa showed the existence of a network which could be convened, mobilized and armed at short notice.  Like other parts of Nigeria, Plateau State has a large population of unemployed youths, from poor backgrounds, who may not have strong ideological beliefs but who can easily be persuaded to take part in acts of violence with the promise of money.  They may make up the bulk of those carrying out the attacks.  But it has proved more difficult to confirm the identity of their political sponsors – the individuals who are paying and arming these young men to attack their opponents. 

The population of Plateau State is ethnically and religiously diverse, like that of most of the central states of Nigeria known as the Middle Belt.  While Christians are in the majority, Muslims make up a large minority6.  Some ethnic groups are predominantly Christian, others are predominantly Muslim, and others include both Christians and Muslims, even within the same families.  Many people also observe traditional beliefs, sometimes alongside Christianity or Islam.  In recent years, influential positions in the Plateau state government and many local governments have tended to be dominated by Christians, leading to feelings of resentment and marginalization on the part of some Muslims.  On the other hand, Christians have complained that economic activities in some areas are dominated, or even monopolized, by Muslims. 

These grievances should be seen in the context of longstanding political tensions and rivalries between the predominantly Hausa population of the north and a multitude of other ethnic groups in the south and other parts of the country.  Northerners tended to dominate the political and military establishment during Nigeria’s long years of military rule.  Even since the end of military rule in 1999, many southerners and minority groups still resent what they perceive as the continued domination of northerners. This historical competition between north and south has been brought to the fore in more recent years and has taken on a more overt religious dimension, in particular since 1999 when Shari’a (Islamic law) was extended to cover criminal law in 12 northern states7.

The conflict in Plateau State has ethnic, political, economic, and religious components, which, over time, have become inextricably linked.  Not all these ingredients have been present from the beginning.  As different groups have sought to recruit additional allies to support their cause, the conflict has become increasingly complex, drawing in an ever-larger number of ethnic groups.  It has also spread geographically to different parts of the state, leading to a convergence of conflicts originally rooted in different locations.  Increasingly, different communities started reacting to events in other localities.  The larger attacks have had repercussions not only in the form of counter-attacks by the aggrieved community in the same area, but in other areas some distance away, where communities from a different ethnicity but from the same religion have identified with the victims and sought to avenge them by attacking people from the “opposing” faith within their own area.  In the most extreme cases, these repercussions have extended well beyond the state boundaries.  For example, the May 11-12 riots in Kano were a direct response to the May 2-3 attack in Yelwa.

At the root of the conflict in Plateau State is the competition between “indigenes” and “non-indigenes.”  Throughout Nigeria, groups considered “indigenes”, or the original inhabitants of an area, are granted certain privileges, including access to government employment, scholarships for state schools, lower school fees, and political positions.   To secure access to these privileges, they have to produce an “indigene certificate” which is granted by the local authorities.   “Non-indigenes” or “settlers” are denied these certificates and the accompanying privileges.  Different groups are considered “indigenes” or “settlers” in different areas. The definition of the term “indigene” is commonly understood to be based on a person’s place of origin, but many people born and brought up in a particular area are not accorded that status, even though they may never have lived in any other part of Nigeria.   No official document or legislation defines these categories precisely or sets out clear criteria as to how a person’s “indigeneship” is determined. The Nigerian constitution refers to the concept of “indigene” but fails to define it.8  

The way in which the concept of “indigeneship” has been applied has been fundamentally discriminatory and constitutes a violation of Nigeria’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).   Article 2 of the ICCPR requires state parties “to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”    It also violates provisions against discrimination within Nigeria’s own constitution, in particular Section 42 which explicitly prohibits restrictions or privileges and advantages on the basis of a person’s community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion.9

The concept of “indigeneship” has been exploited by various groups to further their own interests.  In Plateau State, ethnic groups who have been living in the area for several generations are still considered as “settlers” by “indigenes” who claim that their own ancestors were there before them.  Different groups voice competing claims to “indigeneship” or “ownership” of the same town or area, as in the case of Yelwa and Jos.   In Plateau State, the “indigenes” have most often tended to be Christians while the “settlers” have tended to be Muslims, but there are exceptions, for example the Gamai ethnic group, who consider themselves to be “indigenes” and who include members of both faiths.

The dispute between “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” has surfaced in different contexts.  In some instances, for example in Jos, the two groups have fought primarily over political positions.10   In other cases, the dispute has focused on the use of land.  An additional dimension in this context is the presence of Fulani cattle herders in many parts of Plateau State.  The Fulani, who are nomadic and predominantly Muslim, are resented by many “indigenes” because they allow their cattle to graze on their land and cause damage.  There have been numerous cases of cattle rustling, where cattle belonging to Fulani have been stolen by members of other communities, leading to revenge attacks by Fulani on these communities, followed by counter-attacks by these communities against the Fulani. 

The dispute between the Fulani and other communities can be seen as a sub-conflict within the broader conflict in Plateau State, but soon the two became intertwined.  The cow rustling was probably motivated primarily by economic considerations, as the sale of cattle is a lucrative business.   Cattle are the main source of livelihood for the Fulani and play an important social and cultural role in their lives.  As the Fulani fought back against the Tarok and other predominantly Christian groups whom they suspected of stealing their cattle, the religious dimension came into play.   As most Fulani are Muslim, Christian “indigenes” assimilated them with their other Muslim “enemies”, particularly the Hausa.  The Fulani claim to have lost over 1,800 human lives and 160,000 cows between September 2001 and May 2004.11 

As explained above, neither the conflict between “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” nor the conflict over land and livestock were originally about religion.  However, religious identity has gradually overtaken other considerations in Plateau State and has proved to be one of the most effective ways of mobilizing people:  not only does it have a strong emotional appeal, but it has enabled both sides to reach out to a much larger number of people from many different ethnic groups.  Religious rhetoric and prejudice have escalated, not only among local communities, but among Christian and Muslim leaders at state level, and even, sometimes, at national level.  Whereas in previous phases of the conflict, ethnic allegiance tended to be stronger than religious allegiance, in the last one to two years, the question of religion has become paramount, leading to situations where members of the same ethnic group—for example the Tarok or the Gamai—have clashed because they were from different faiths.12 

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

[6] No accurate statistics are available on the proportions of Christians and Muslims.  Some Muslims claim that they make up half, or more than half, of the population of the state, but these figures are strongly disputed by Christians. 

[7] For a full discussion of this issue, see Human Rights Watch report “Political Shari’a? Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria,” September 2004.

[8]  The concept of “indigene” was formalized for the first time in the 1979 Constitution with a view to ensuring representation for the broad diversity of groups within all the major political institutions.

For a fuller explanation of the problems caused by the distinction between “indigenes” and “non-indigenes”, see pages 22-24 of Human Rights Watch report “Jos: a city torn apart,” December 2001.

[9] Section 42, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.

[10] This was the case in the period leading up to the Jos crisis of September 2001, and again during the primaries for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jos north, in May 2002, when scores more people were killed.   For details, see pages 23-26 of Human Rights Watch report “Testing democracy:  political violence in Nigeria,” April 2003. 

[11] See letter to the Administrator of Plateau State by Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), May 24, 2004.  Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm these figures. This letter also provides a fuller explanation of the Fulani point of view on the conflict.

[12]  In this respect, the evolution of the conflict in Plateau mirrors that of other states, such as Kaduna, where the religious element has been introduced with devastating consequences.  See Human Rights Watch report “The ‘Miss World riots’:  continued impunity for killings in Kaduna,” July 2003.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>May 2005