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Indigeneity and Intercommunal Conflict: An Overview

Nigeria has been plagued by recurring episodes of intercommunal violence throughout its history as an independent state, and the problem is widely perceived to have grown worse and more intractable over time.  Since the end of military rule in 1999 alone, some ten thousand Nigerians have lost their lives in several hundred separate clashes along ethnic, religious and other intercommunal lines.  Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees has estimated that more than three million people have been displaced by these conflicts since 1999.95  Most of these incidents have been small in scale, but other conflicts have seen entire communities razed to the ground and hundreds of lives lost in the space of a few days.

Ethnic tensions, religious extremism, poverty, competition over increasingly scarce land and other resources, and the indigeneity issue, along with other factors, have all combined in a number of different ways to push intercommunal relationships towards violence.  Far from displaying leadership adequate to the task of managing Nigeria’s many sources of intercommunal tension, many political and religious leaders have helped them boil over into violence by mismanaging them or even manipulating them outright.  This failure of leadership at all levels of government is perhaps most starkly visible in government policies on the issue of indigeneity, which have helped to create new material incentives for conflict by tolerating and to some extent actually mandating the marginalization of non-indigene communities.

Indigene-Settler Conflicts

By providing minority ethnic groups with a relatively secure measure of cultural autonomy, the concept of indigeneity is sometimes regarded as helping to prevent conflicts that might otherwise be sparked by indigenes’ fear of being overwhelmed by migrants from more numerous ethnic groups.  The populations of most of the numerous ethnic minority groups in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, for example, are numerically insignificant compared with Nigeria’s large and relatively mobile Hausa population.96  As one European scholar put it, “In a social environment pervaded by mutual fear, it has become important to possess some space from which potential enemies can be excluded.”97  Putting the issue in more concrete terms, one Ibadan-based academic explained to Human Rights Watch that some kind of distinction between indigenes and settlers may be necessary to “assure people that no one is going to destroy their shrines and usurp their titles of traditional leadership.”98   

As discussed above, however, the concept of indigeneity has increasingly been used to justify discrimination that is completely unrelated to the principles that might justify its existence.  Largely as a result of this reality, indigeneity has become inextricably bound up with other sources of intercommunal tension in Nigeria, and many of Nigeria’s bloodiest intercommunal conflicts in recent years have pitted indigene against “settler” communities.   

In some cases, non-indigene communities have reacted to discrimination by loudly disputing the decision to label them non-indigenes in the first place.  Such assertiveness has placed new strains on some already tense intercommunal relationships, in part because many indigenes still harbor the fears of cultural domination that helped give rise to the concept of indigeneity in the first place.  In addition, the prevailing climate of economic scarcity leads many indigenes to see their exclusive enjoyment of full citizenship rights as an entitlement whose loss would plunge their communities deeper into poverty.99  In recent years such disputes have boiled over into bloody intercommunal clashes in Kaduna, Delta and Plateau States; each of these cases are discussed in detail below.100   

The concept of indigeneity, and the discrimination which accompanies it, fuels intercommunal (including sometimes religious) tension and conflict in less obvious ways as well.  As discussed above, some local officials abuse their responsibility to issue indigene certificates by discriminating against people who are religiously or ethnically different from themselves.  Such practices are particularly rife in Kaduna State, where already explosive interreligious tensions have been made worse by local officials’ improper refusal to issue indigene certificates to people who do not adhere to their religion.101

Such controversies lend credence to the widespread notion that politicians and civil servants at all levels routinely discriminate against any Nigerian who does not share their ethnic background and religion.  While it is impossible to state with certainty precisely how much truth there is in this belief, one Kaduna-based activist pointed out that because so many people believe it to be true, “Everyone in Nigeria claims to be marginalized in one way or another.”102  In the troubled Delta State city of Warri, a long-running dispute between three ethnic groups over who the rightful “owners” of the community are has turned violent in recent years largely because of a widely-held belief on all sides that there is no way to escape poverty without winning that argument.103

Political and religious leaders are often accused of pandering to these sentiments in order to deflect attention and blame away from their own dismal records as public servants or to curry political favor with one group by playing it off against another.104  As one prominent imam in Kaduna put it, giving voice to an accusation leveled by many other community leaders interviewed by Human Rights Watch, “When they have achieved nothing, when they have nothing to offer, they talk about indigene-settler issues.”105

Others go further still, accusing some segments of the political elite of actively trying to provoke intercommunal crises through their irresponsible use of indigeneity-related rhetoric in the hope that they can then exploit heightened intercommunal tensions for their own political gain, or as a way to demonstrate their political power to the federal government.  One prominent Hausa civil society figure told Human Rights Watch, “Indigene and non-indigene is a distinction used to manipulate the minds of the people and drag them into crisis, just like religion and ethnicity.  [The elites] use this to drag innocent people into war with their neighbors.”106  Nigerian President Obasanjo himself has voiced similar sentiments, stating on one occasion that the issue of indigeneity is used to manipulate people into serving as “foot-soldiers to the designs and machinations of power-seekers.”107

[95] “Violence Left 3 Million Bereft in Past 7 Years, Nigeria Reports,” Reuters, March 14, 2006.

[96] See below, Section VII, Plateau State Case Study.

[97] Johannes Harnischfeger, “Sharia and Control Over Territory: Conflicts Between ‘Settlers’ and ‘Indigenes’ in Nigeria,” African Affairs 103/412, p. 436.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview, Ibadan, November 4, 2005.

[99] Seeabove, Section V.

[100] Seebelow, Section VII.

[101] See below, Section VII, Kaduna State case study.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Lydia Umar, Kaduna, November 14, 2005.

[103] See below, Section VII, Warri case study.

[104] See below, Section VII, Plateau State case study.

[105] Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, November 9, 2005.

[106] Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, November 14, 2005.

[107] “President blames unrest in Nigeria on power-seekers, mind-set,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2002.

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