Northern Nigeria: The Conflict Within – By Zainab Sandah

Members of Nigeria's Northern States Governors Forum.

Ethnicity and religion are not predetermined; we are not born, do not possess an innate sense of ethnic or religious affiliation, we become Yoruba, Christian, Hausa or Kataf largely as a factor of geographical, ancestral, and societal influences.

Against this backdrop, it is ironic that in a substantial number of the 19 states that make up northern Nigeria, and indeed in the country as a whole, ethnicity and religion have become the primary factors that dictate how we (co)exist.  Of course, the question of Nigeria’s fragile unity has never been in doubt. But much as Nigeria is burdened with crises of ethnic and religious nature, the (near-clichéd) media characterization of  “˜largely northern Muslims and southern Christians’ is anomalous and misleading, for the mere fact that both southern and northern Nigeria are multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

Moreover, the unity of the northern region as an entity in itself is arguably in a worse state than that of the country as a whole. It may, therefore, not be far-fetched to suggest that northern Nigeria, even though geographically homogeneous, is on a precarious cliff due to its continued and ever-widening heterogeneity, comprising of ethnic, religious and political dynamics, and that if left untended, will have national implications.

It is hard to recall a three or five-year period – since the famous anti-government and intra-religious riot that was led by the YanTatsine group in Kano State in the “˜80s – in which one or other settlement within northern Nigeria has not been consumed by ethno-religious strife. It is also one of nature’s not so funny jokes that warring parties largely happen to be neatly divided along religious lines, and belong respectively to “˜majority’ (Hausa and Fulani and Muslim) and “˜minority’ (Kataf, Berom, etc. and Christian) ethnic groups. States like Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi and recently Plateau have been the traditional flag-bearers of the country’s ethno-religious riots.

For instance, the riots that happened in Kano in 1982 and 1991 were largely caused by religious differences, the former to do with Muslim opposition to the reconstruction of a church in Fagge area of the state, and the latter, in objection to the invitation issued to a German Evangelist Reinhard Boonke to hold a Christian crusade in the state. It is worthy to note that Muslims primarily objected to the Christian crusade because they had been denied a chance to host the late Ahmed Deedat, a Muslim scholar from South Africa in Kano for an Islamic sermon. This of course led to loss of lives and destruction of property.

A near-unique characteristic of riots in Kano is its largely inter-religious nature – there is relative ethnic harmony within the state since most of the indigenous population is Hausa and Muslim. However, because of the cosmopolitan and commercial nature of the city, there is an intersection of tribes, with the Igbo – largely Christian – being the most visible because of their commercial success. The Hausas have been known to clash with the Igbos in the course of religious tension, thus bringing non-regional entities into the fray and further complicating an already complex situation.

Unlike Kano state, Kaduna and Plateau (Jos) states are marked by, ethnic, territorial and religious differences largely driven by the issue of  “˜indigeneship’ or the “˜indigene-settler clause’. While the issue of indigeneship is a burdensome colonial legacy, it is also promoted by a vague and rather discriminatory constitutional provision that fortifies the superiority of the indigene over the Nigerian citizen – who in this context is considered to be a settler – thus, making the settler an inferior entity lacking political influence, and denied benefits like scholarship opportunities.

According to a recent report released by the International Crisis Group titled “˜Curbing Violence in Nigeria: The Jos Crisis‘, 80 episodes of violent riots have occurred from 1999 to 2004 between the indigenous Berom/Anaguta/Afizere (largely Christian) and non-indigenous Hausa and Fulani (largely Muslim) tribes in Jos.  In Kaduna, Southern Zaria Christians of Zango Kataf, Kafanchan etc. who enjoy a numerical advantage are constantly at loggerheads with Hausa Muslims and this often leads to reprisal attacks in neighbouring cities. One such notable riot that generated reprisal attacks in Kano and Kaduna metropolis was the May 1992 Zango Kataf riots. A more recent example, which had a chain effect (of both attacks and counter-attacks) from Kaduna to Zango Kataf to Kano etc. was the 2011 post (presidential) election violence.

Ethnicity and religion therefore can be considered the badge of identity the average northerner (or Nigerian) wears; apart from establishing social interactions, they also determine political viability and by extension economic inclusiveness, which intensifies power struggle and conflicts among rival ethnicities within a given state (Kaduna, Plateau come to mind). Competition over access to state resources, generated mostly through oil revenue from the Niger Delta, provides much needed fuel to keep the ethno-religious inferno alive.

As if indigeneship and its divergent, divisive complexities were/are not trouble enough, with the return to democratic rule in 1999 and armed (again) with an ambiguous constitutional reading, 9 northern states with Muslim majority population instituted the Sharia legal system (both civil and criminal) as the law. 3 more northern states followed with the adoption of Sharia, but only in areas with large Muslim populations. Adoption of, and Sharia in itself, is not by any means wrong, and represents the aspirations of certain section of people within those 12 states, but when considered within the context of a society already steeped in mutual animosity and violent conflict, or within the context of a multi-faith, multi-ethnic and democratic society, the counter-intuitive nature of that policy becomes glaring.

Institution of the policy predictably led to riots in various northern states, consolidated the ethno-religious divide, which for instance culminated in the advent of separate living communities/quarters in some areas in Kaduna state (it is claimed that there is currently no single Muslim living in Sabon Tasha and no single Christian living in Rigasa – both areas of Kaduna metropolis). I would suggest that for a multi-faith region steeped in inter-ethnic/religious suspicion, secularism would have continued to serve as a better balancing act.

With the vehement negation of all state and constitutional authority and the call for national adoption of the Islamic legal system by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awatih wal-Jihad (popularly called Boko Haram), a terrorist group operating in northern Nigeria, Sharia once more became a contentious issue, only on a much bigger platform this time around. Even though the views of the terrorist group are not shared by northern Muslims in general, the continued negative leveraging of Sharia as a condition for cease-fire, continued massacre of innocent civilians and bombing of churches and state properties by the group, has led to calls by some in the south for a re-negotiation of the continued unity of Nigeria.

Considering the above narrative of detrimental intersectionality between ethnicity, religion (Sharia), and power struggle, it has become imperative to seek practical solutions to re-stitch the unraveling thread of unity, first regionally and then nationally. How can the northern region advance a psychological erosion of ethnicity, or bring northerners out from their respective ethnic enclaves, to embrace regional harmony?

So far, government at state and federal levels has set up various committees to look into remote and general causes of the riots, several reports and recommendations have been given, but implementation is lax. For instance the International Crisis Group has urged the government to “˜implement the recommendations of the published Fiberesima, Tobi and Ajibola commissions of inquiry and whitepapers,’ note that these submissions were respectively made in 1994 (Fiberesima), 2001/2002 (Tobi), 2009 (Ajibola). Similarly, the recommendations from various commissions of inquiry into the causes of the Sharia crisis in Kaduna over a decade ago have not been implemented. What is needed primarily is a body of committed and specifically, regionally focused civil society and other pressure groups to see to the implementation of reports.

The status of the constitutionality and legality of adoption of Sharia law in a pluralistic, federating nation, and respective states, has to be made constitutionally clear. Likewise, the indigene-settler clause needs to be reviewed. The discriminatory aspects of that policy, like educational, political privileges for (only) indigenes have to be broadened to include non-indigenes, but for a longer term national integration goal, the clause will have to be abrogated completely. It remains doubtful though whether a mere constitutional provision can sufficiently erode the acquired psychological effects of ethno-religious differences. This suggests the need for CSOs to oversee the launch or intensification of policies that drive inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogues between conflict-ridden parties at the grassroots. These groups also need to build capacity and political literacy especially for youths, with respect to understanding rights and duties of political representatives.

As a matter of urgency, the national mono-economic system, and culture of dependency on federally allocated funds for development of states and local governments needs to be revised. When all local government (chairmen) or states (governors) are made to generate revenue for local and state sustenance, instead of being dashed “˜free oil money’ and freedom not to account for state funds – the incentive to occupy public and elective offices will reduce and by extension only competent hands will vie for such positions and emerge as leaders. This will ensure that the immediate constituency for respective politicians will no longer be mosques, churches or their ethnic enclaves.

The northern leadership, especially the Northern State Governors’ Forum (NSGF), needs a people-focused regional alliance, a “˜new’ blueprint for development that prioritizes literacy, (youth) employment, infrastructure development, girl child and women empowerment schemes, and optimization of mineral resources. This can effectively deplete the number of available recruits that fight during ethno-religious crises. Northern NGOs and CSOs need to act as watchdogs and guide the policies of the NSGF.

Zainab Sandah is a community servant based in Abuja.

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4 thoughts on “Northern Nigeria: The Conflict Within – By Zainab Sandah

  1. The beginning of your article makes a sweeping generalisation about identity which I do not fully agree with (the ancestral aspect is the primordial aspect of identity and maybe should not form part of your cluster of factors). So the factors you have mentioned do not make us Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani or Nupe, because identity is a two way relational concept and even if I want to see myself as Hausa, because maybe I was born in Katsina, the Hausa might not see me as Hausa. While we cannot say that identities are primordial it does not mean that some do not see it as such. The issue of Identity formation is not something that I will discuss here but we must acknowledge that identities are important because they are the safety net for many people on the African continent. Yes, Nigerians have too much emphasis on these identities but they are so entrenched in our collective psyche that eradicating it might not be as simple as you suggest. Patronage networks that are based on these divisions ensure that they remain relevant and that is the problem.
    I agree that, yes we need to move away from a mono product economy and a centralised system and yes states and local governments have to start generating their own revenues with little reliance on the federal largess. The north does not exist in the sense that you envision with the divisions a product of the country’s nation building process that has divided rather than united the region and the country as a whole. Even during the first republic the northern unity was not as strong as many are led to believe (eg. Middle Belt Zone; United Middle Belt Congress). The issue of ethnicity is not strictly a northern problem (see Achebe’s account of the Biafran war) so the task of moving beyond these identities are a hard task.

  2. You are a careful writer. You wrote the piece with a high level of responsibility. Nor Hausa/Fulani, Berom, kataf, Muslim or Christian will accuse you of being biased against his/her tribe or religion.
    However, there are issues you raised which i feel i will respond to as events unfold.

  3. Thank you for a very interesting and intelligent post.

    I think the post clearly shows the intellectual gymnastics that are needed to reconcile two things that are, in reality, impossible to reconcile: on the one hand, the need to respect and take account of ethnic difference and on the other hand, the desire to keep Nigerian unity intact in some way.

    I believe that people will only feel loyal to a country if they can see that their identity is respected. That means that they country they are in must feel like ‘their’ country, because there is a certain measure of shared identity: linguistic, cultural, religious. If that is not present, many people will not care about their country. Instead, they will cling for example to clan, religious or political systems of patronage that are controlled by small élites to the benefit of a few, rather than for the common good.

    I really wonder if Nigeria can ever work as a country. I think that perhaps the fact that so many different peoples are forced to work together in a country that they cannot identify with is itself a major obstacle to development. Because of this, the energies of the peoples of Nigeria are diverted in the direction of ethnic struggles and indeed the struggle for survival. This leads away from peaceful development.

    More about this in this recent post entitled ‘From tribe to nation?

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