The Biggest African Conflict You’ve Never Heard Of

In Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt, 785 people have died in the past two years in sectarian violence, and the government is doing little to stop it.

As the military’s assault against Boko Haram and civilians in northern Nigeria continues, so too does the ongoing and underreported conflict in the villages around Jos, the capital of Plateau state in Nigeria’s Middle Belt. As in other parts of the Sahel stretching from Khartoum to Dakar, rivalries between ethnic groups, settlers and indigenes, herders and farmers, and religious groups overlap to create a kaleidoscope of insider and outsider identities. Resulting conflicts, in turn, create openings for international jihadist Islam, as in other parts of the Sahel. In the Middle Belt thus far, conflicts still remain largely local, but there is potential that they could acquire a cross-border dimension.

But Jos is no longer a West African paradise. Bloody “religious” riots, ostensibly between Christians and Muslims in 2001, 2008, and 2010, split the community. The latest round, starting in 2011, continues. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker (NST), there have been 785 sectarian related deaths in Plateau state alone between May 29, 2011 and June 30, 2013. Between January and June 2013, 481 people were killed; 61 percent of the total since May 2011. These estimates are very conservative.

As with so much in Nigeria, Plateau’s violence has its roots in the colonial period. The British opened up tin mines in the historically Christian area and invited in outsiders from other parts of the Nigerian colony to work them. Many of these “settlers” were Muslims from small tribes and from Fulani, the largest ethnic group in the North. As the city of Jos grew, substantial numbers of Yoruba (religiously mixed) and Igbo (Christian) from the south and west also settled there. Under Nigerian law and custom, “settlers” have fewer rights and privileges than “indigenes,” those whose ancestral roots are in a particular area. The legal concept of indigeneity is related to a core principle of Nigerian governance called “federal character.” This aims to safeguard equitable access to all government offices and services by all ethnic groups-and all states. “Settlers” only benefit from “federal character” where they are “indigenes,” not where they happen to live now. “Settler” (or non-local) status can be overcome only with difficulty, and Jos Muslims often accuse the local administration of facilitating the process for Christians, but not for them. In Plateau many “settlers” have lived there for generations without acquiring indigene status. But, for reasons that are debated, the Fulani and other “settlers” are more economically dynamic and entrepreneurial than the “indigenous” population, even as they remain second-class citizens in their “new” state of residence.

Before the British came, the Fulani were notorious slave owners, feeding the trans-Sahara slave trade. They preyed on minority tribes, such as the Barome, who practiced traditional religion at the time. In the 20th century, the Barome and other minority tribes have become overwhelmingly Christian. It is hard to know the consequences of this slaving history for the current bloodletting, but, at the very least, it does not promote good feelings between the Fulani and the now-Christian minority tribes.

Weak government at all levels, poor security, an under-resourced court system, incomplete rule of law, and a culture of impunity hinders the peaceful resolution of the inevitable disputes. Peace and reconciliation non-governmental organizations (Nigerian and foreign) have had only limited and episodic success.

There has been only episodic Western attention to the bloodletting in Jos and Plateau. This may be because the violence is local in nature, if horrific in magnitude. It is not associated with the “international jihad” or the other perceived threats to Western interests. This could change. “Boko Haram” has allegedly carried out attacks in Plateau and has represented itself as a champion of abused Muslims. Plateau would seem wide open to eventual penetration by the radical Islamists revolting against the Nigerian polity in the North.

Full article: The Biggest African Conflict You’ve Never Heard Of (The Atlantic)

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