Monday, April 27, 2015

Disenfranchisement Is the Root Cause of Violence in Jos, Nigeria

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Inter-ethic and inter-religious violence is often presented as an intractable problem, deeply rooted in ancient hatreds. Either the pre-modern nature of the competing groups or "fundamentalism" from one side or another tend to be blamed. An excellent recent paper (pdf) by Chris Kwaja from the University of Jos, for The African Center for Strategic Studies, superbly unpicks these miscomprehensions.

Kwaja's paper, Nigeria's Pernicious Drivers of Ethno-Religious Conflict, looks primarily at violence in the city of Jos, Plateau state, in the ethnically diverse middle belt of Nigeria. He forcefully argues that the conflict is not pre-modern but tied up with problems in the awarding of civil and legal rights to different groups in contemporary Nigeria. The intensifying violence is rooted in both local and central state conceptions of who belongs where, and the associated legal documentation, rather than any deep seated animosities. In his view "the ethnic or religious dimensions of the conflict have subsequently been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement, inequality, and other practical fears are the real root causes."

Local political leaders are stoking and increasing the conditions for violence through their partial awarding of "indigeneship" to selected groups. It is therefore no surprise that "no credible prosecutions have been pursued" for the perpetrators of communal violence. Indeed, the breakdown in trust and support for local government institutions leads "suspicious communities" into the arms of non-state actors, many of whom are violent vigilante groups.

Kwaja puts forward some policy suggestions to alleviate the situation in Jos, such as disentangling the concept of indigeneship from Nigerian law, learning from successes in Lagos and Kaduna state, and making minority rights a priority. Whether or not his ideas are accepted by the political class it is important for analysts to understand the real context which creates ethno-religious conflict. Behind each "barbaric" "pre-modern" ethno-religious conflict there may be much larger, very modern political issues. As Kwaja concludes:

"In many respects, the spiraling insecurity in Jos is anything but a local communal conflict. Its root causes and impacts encapsulate many of Nigeria’s biggest political challenges. Unclear and discriminatory legal codes fuel conflict, warp political dynamics, and undermine democratic progress. Governance shortcomings create vacuums in which citizens are forced to turn to self-help solutions such as ethnic associations or vigilante groups. A modern economy conducive to local entrepreneurship and appealing to foreign investors remains impossible while the free flow of people, goods, and ideas is restricted by indigeneship and resulting instability. Resolving the conflict in Jos will require looking past the symptoms of Nigeria’s ethnic and religious divisions to focus on the institutionalized inequities that encumber not only stability in Plateau State but also progress in Nigeria as a whole."