Nigerian sectarian violence: Religion as a pretext

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The city of Jos in Nigeria’s Plateau State was the scene recent of communal clashes that registered the death of several hundreds of people. Although no official figures have been provided, various sources indicate that at least 400 could have perished. A week after the attacks, residents are still fleeing the troubled area. Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Nigeria specialist, talks to about the real reasons behind the so-called religious conflicts that have repeatedly rocked the Nigerian middle belt in recent years.

After several days of violent confrontations, calm is slowly returning to the city of Jos, capital of Plateau State, a middle belt area caught between Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north and Christian south. But despite the appearance of a return to normalcy many residents are still fleeing the area, as fears of renewed clashes linger.

jpg_marc-perouse.jpgAfter consulting with Muslim leaders in Jos to determine the number of deaths, Human Rights Watch indicate that the sectarian violence may have claimed the lives of at least “364 Muslims”. For the time being, no official death toll has been established. But according to religious sources and rescuers, the toll could exceed 400 deaths.

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, a researcher at the Institute of Development Research (IRD) and an African conflict specialist sheds light on the Jos conflict. Interview. What is the cause of these clashes in Jos?

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos:
It is not a religious conflict. In these communal clashes, religion is a standard. In the case of Jos, it is about land disputes under a religious banner. The violence is in effect more about economic issues. Jos and its neighbouring areas are made up of natives, who include several ethnic groups such as the Birom, the Jarawa and the Anaguta — mostly Christians, — and settlers or non-natives, consisting mainly of Hausa Muslims. There are tensions between the two groups. The Muslims are seen by some natives as immigrants, or second-class citizens. Are these “settlers” victims of discrimination in Nigeria?

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos:
The 1999 Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of movement and establishment of Nigerian citizens throughout the country. But it is more complicated at the regional government level. In Plateau State, where the city of Jos is located, there is a bias in favor of Christians and regional and territorial authorities are often accused of discrimination against Muslims, particularly in the area of employment, or access to health and education. Why is the city of Jos and its periphery particularly affected by sectarian violence?

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos:
In the last decade, Jos, the administrative capital of Plateau State, has been hit by violent clashes. The city is located in the Middle Belt; the central belt of the country where the predominantly Christian South, and northern, which is mainly Muslim, meet. The Plateau State has major economic interests: high agricultural yield, tin mines and employment in the public service. This has encouraged many Nigerians from the rural areas to migrate to Jos, a fact that has also fueled land disputes. Who are the troublemakers?
_Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos:
Most of these riots are perpetrated by young people. Both Christian and Muslim neighborhoods in Jos have their own militias for self-defense. Residents contribute to and mobilize these militias, which may also be financed by local elites. Moreover, military veterans sometimes get involved in these conflicts by training and arming the groups. These militias have no connection with the Islamists. In Nigeria, the Islamists are not linked to al-Qaeda …

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos:
Indeed. There is no evidence to that effect. It is pure fantasy. The Islamic sects in the country, like the local “Taliban”, are endogenous. In your opinion, will these clashes in Jos last?

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos:
The army and federal police are there to stop the violence. I think the situation will not escalate in the coming days. However, the fighting could resume in the longer term if the federal government continues to give leeway to the Plateau state authorities who have been accused of promoting Christianity.

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