JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The central city of Jos is on high alert after Sunday’s Nigeria violence in which a late-night attack by herdsmen killed up to 500 people from nearby farming villages. The attack has been seen as a reprisal for attacks in January, in which about 300 herdsmen were killed by youth from the farming community.
The town of Jos is all too often a focal point for competition over the use of arable land in central and northern Nigeria, where climate change has dried up pasture lands and forced animal herders closer and closer into farming communities, where their herds can destroy crops.
Jos is also right on the de facto fault line separating the Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north from its mainly Christian south. The farming community in Jos are primarily Christians of the Berom ethnic group, while the herders are ethnic Fulanis who practice Islam.
“Land is central to the conflict in Jos,” says Ugar Ukandi Odey, a Jos-based news reporter for the Nigerian newspaper NEXT. Mr. Odey has been covering the attacks and the tense aftermath. “The Beroms are the original people of Jos, and the Fulanis are nomads moving around with cattle who have settled in amongst the Berom people. But it becomes ethnic and religious, because there are Christians on one side, and the Fulanis are Muslims on the other side.”
Clash of cultures
Local disputes are common all along the cultural and ethnic dividing line between Nigeria’s north and south. There are no signs that the crisis in Jos will have ripples beyond the immediate environs of Plateau State, where Jos is located, but Nigerian authorities aren’t taking any chances. After all, Nigeria has just emerged from a national crisis of succession, in which a hospital-ridden northern Muslim president, Umaru Yar’Adua, has passed down power to a southern Christian, acting President Goodluck Jonathan, and where many northern politicians were signaling their willingness to put up a fight, at the polls at least, to pass the presidency to another northerner rather than to Yar’Adua’s second-in-command.
Local officials have issued a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and Mr. Jonathan – holding a meeting with state officials and security commanders in the capital of Abuja – issued a statement, calling on Nigerians to remain calm.
“While it is too early to state categorically what is responsible for this renewed wave of violence, we want to inform Nigerians that the security services are on top of the situation,” a spokesman said on behalf of Jonathan. “In the meantime, the Acting President has placed all the security services in Plateau and neighboring states on red alert so as to stem any cross border dimensions to this latest conflict. He has also directed that the security services undertake strategic initiatives to confront and defeat these roving bands of killers.”
Working to keep violence from spreading
Jonathan and state officials will have to work fast to keep the violence from spreading. The attacks were brutal, with mobs of young men passing through two villages outside of Jos, and hacking to death anyone they caught – women, the elderly, and even toddlers – with machetes. Some firebrand Christian leaders from Jos are condemning the Army for moving too slowly, and calling the attack on their parishioners a “jihad” against Christians.
In Jos this morning, youths had gathered to protest the killings, and police were arranged to prevent the protests from getting out of hand. Schoolchildren were being sent home early. Shopkeepers were locking up their stalls, or packing up their goods to take out of harm’s way.
Violence in Jos killed some 326 people – most of them Fulani herders — just two months ago, and local reports suggest Sunday’s attacks may have been reprisals. Christians of the Berom community view the Fulani herders as a threat to their livelihood as farmers, and also a threat to their political hold over the local government in Jos, local experts say.
Jos, unfortunately, has a violent reputation. Rioting between Muslims and Christians killed more than 1,000 people in 2001, and another 700 in 2004.