Nigeria: The Jos Clashes

Although religious tensions between Christians and Muslims are a major factor in the recent violence in the Nigerian town of Jos, the disturbances there are also symptomatic of wider systemic problems in Nigeria.

By Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, and Hanna-Caroline Imig, Researcher, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

For the second time in less than a decade, the northern Nigerian city of Jos has witnessed an outburst of sectarian violence : the 2008 violence which has cost the lives of nearly 300 people and displaced hundreds more.

In 2001, more than one thousand people died in during Christian–Muslim clashes. The 2008 disturbances, which were the direct result of a disputed electoral result in the Plateau state of which Jos is a part, have once again resulted in religious clashes between Christians and Muslims. Although Nigeria is one of Africa’s best examples of religious multiculturalism, there is no doubt that Christian–Muslim tensions in northern and central Nigeria are a destabilising factor, and one which could ultimately threaten the social cohesion of the nation.

Since 2000, there have been significant ethnic and religious clashes every other year in Nigeria. In addition, the clashes in Jos come at a time when there is renewed concern about violence in the Nigeria delta. There are also growing concerns about the health of President Yar‘Ardua, and the legitimacy of the election results which brought him to power in 2007 remains contested. Jos is thus a symptom of a much deeper malaise in Nigeria.

A tradition of communal clashes

Since Nigeria made the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, the tradition of military takeovers and their attendant upheavals has been replaced by urban disturbances in the northern and central districts.

• In 2000, an estimated 3,000 people were killed when non–Muslims in the northern state of Kaduna opposed the implementation of Sharia law. The ensuing riots spread throughout northern Nigeria.

• In September 2001, violence between Christians and Muslims Muslimcost almost a thousand lives during a week of rioting. In November 2002, Nigeria was forced to abandon the Miss World finalsheld in the capital, Abuja, after a newspaper article implying that the Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the pageant sparked rioting in the northern city of Kaduna. Fears that continuing the Miss World event in Nigeria would lead to a Christian–MuslimMuslim civil war war in Nigeria led to the transfer of Miss World to Europe.

• In May 2004, an estimated 900 civilians were killed in inter-faith and intra-ethnic clashes in Yelwa in central Nigeria. Simultaneously Muslim–Christian riots broke out in the northern town of Kano, leaving up to 6,000 dead.

• In February 2006 Muslims in the northern town of Maiduguri protested against the publication of the Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet. These protests soon led to clashes with Christians in northern and southern Nigeria, and claimed nearly 200 lives.

• Finally, in November 2008, a disputed local government election in Jos resulted in rioting and systematic violence which killed more than 300.

The Jos clashes

The violence was the direct result of a 28 November local government election between the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which is largely Christian, and the opposition All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP), which is largely Muslim. The PDP won in 16 of the 17 local elections in the Plateau province. ANPP supporters maintained that both the PDP election victory in Jos and the overwhelming overall PDP victory in Plateau were fraudulently obtained. The political dispute soon took on religious overtones, with sporadic clashes between rival supporters escalating into running battles between Muslims and Christians. The 2008 election was the first in Jos since the 2001-2002 violence. As some had predicted and many had feared, the second Jos election precipitated yet another bout of violence.

The Jos clashes are a manifestation of age-old Muslim–Christian tensions in central and northern Nigeria. Nigeria is almost evenly divided between Muslims – who are mainly in the north – and Christians, who are mainly in the south. Nigeria’s greatest achievement is to have avoided a catastrophic civil war on religious lines. This is a result of the state’s careful management of political power to give both groups access to power, Nigeria’s rich socio-historical tradition of religious amity and local religious conflict management and intra-religious differences within both Christian and Muslim groups, belying the stereotypical image of two monolithic and mutually hostile groups.

But competition for resources and endemic poverty in ‘fault-line’ areas such as the Plateau state in general and Jos in particular have provided rich pickings for militant groups on both sides to fan the flames of violence. Jos lies on the fault-line between Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south, and there is a long history of sectarianism there dating back to the 1980s.

However, the Jos clashes are not simply about a clash of ideologies, or disputes over electoral results. It is, in many ways, the result of the politics of patronage. Elections in Nigeria, as in many other countries, are not just about the right to democratic representation; they are also about the chance to enter the patronage and contract ‘system’.

The tradition is for the winner of local or national elections to ‘reward’ their supporters by doling out contracts in the service or development industries (oil contracts) are the most favoured. The supporters of the ‘losing’ side are usually frozen out of the contract system. This system of reward and punishment, whilst long established and seen by some as irreversible, also encourages corruption amongst those who have the means, and a bitter sense of grieviance amongst those who do not. This was the case in Jos – the comprehensive victory of the ANPP throughout Plateau province would have intensified the PDP’s fears that their small slice of the patronage ‘cake’ would now vanish altogether.

Long term resource insecurities also fuelled the clashes; there is a long history of economic tensions between ‘indigenous’ rural and urban dwellers, and more recent arrivals who are often seen as ‘foreigners’. There are ongoing struggles for the control of the fertile farmlands of the Plateau area, and there are urban tensions over access to economic empowerment. Urban poverty is a key factor in the Jos disturbances; unemployment among the youth is high, as is violent crime. There is also little doubt that there is an element of political manipulation to these apparently ‘spontaneous’ disturbances.

Some of the political and financial elites have a vested interest in using the violence to ‘fix’ rivals or to prevent rival groups from achieving or retaining political or economic power. The inherent ethnic, religious and political tensions thus provide a malleable template for the vested interests of those with personal agendas.

Lessons learned?

Civic society leaders in Jos have criticised the provincial administration and election authority for organising elections without sufficient safeguards in place, pointing out that the 2001 Jos disturbances and history of religious conflict in Nigeria should have alerted the authorities to the possibility of trouble. After the earlier violence, there has been no monitoring of the availability of weapons in Jos and surrounding areas; neither was there any sustained decommissioning of criminal and religious militia groups. Although the voting was relatively peaceful, violence followed once the result was announced. The local police force was unable to cope and army reinforcements had to be deployed in Jos. Although there is little doubt that the Jos violence could have been minimised (although not averted) through better preparation, the rapid and effective response of the army, has been an encouraging sign.

More importantly, the soldiers have not taken sides in the conflict thus far. The curfew in Jos and the military presence in other ‘at risk’ towns has helped considerably in reducing the violence. For now, the emphasis will be on rehabilitating the displaced and the injured, but the question of political power in Jos remains unresolved.It is likely that a religious power- sharing arrangement will have to be made to avoid a recurrence of conflict.

Wider concerns

Jos is a symptom of a wider unease about, and within, Nigeria. Although there is perennial worry about religious clashes, for most Nigerians the primary concerns are the health of President Yar’Adua and the Niger delta conflict. The President entered office in 2007, with good intentions particularly with regard to resolving (or at least better managing) the ongoing crisis in the Niger Delta. He also promised a crackdown on corruption, particularly the systemic patronage system which characterises the internal politics of oil in Nigeria. He has begun the reform and re-organisation of Nigeria’s national petroleum company and has promoted good governance by allowing challenges to the result of the 2007 elections which brought him into office to proceed.

Nigeria’s parliament has also emerged as a vibrant forum for the discussion of the political process. Yar’Adua also appointed a Technical Committee on the Niger Delta to formulate a strategy for resolving the conflict. In early December, the Committee presented its report, in which it made recommendations on a political methodology and timetable for the resolution of the crisis. However, widespread concerns about the state of Yar’Adua’s health persist. He has made a public declaration about his health on state television but the questions remain, and there are fears that the state of Yar‘Adua’s health will imperil the grand reform projects (particularly with regard to governance and the economy) which he outlined upon taking office.

The conflict in the Niger Delta is no nearer to a resolution, and the pirate seizing of international trawlers and oil vessels has escalated in 2008. Many are fearful that if Yar’Adua is seriously ill this will trigger a succession battle which could also have grave consequences for the management of Christian–Muslim relations. There is a tradition of rotating the Presidency among Christian and Muslim leaders, and if this delicate balance is broken it could have catastrophic consequences. Thus many feel that the deadly sectarianism in the hinterland, Jos and other trouble spots is indirectly the result of an absence of strong leadership from the centre.


There is no doubt that religious rivalries between Christians and Muslims played a major part in the violence in Jos. But the Nigerian authorities should not see the management of religious fissures as the solution to the problem. Urban and rural poverty and competition for access to political and financial patronage networks fissures all played a role.

The problem, in other words, is the value system, not the weapons or the religious beliefs. The military can provide a short-term solution by ‘continuing the violence,’ but the only way to avoid the recurrence of violence in Jos and other towns is for the politicians to deal head-on with the patronage system in Nigeria.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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