Explaining Nigeria's Christmas killings

Jos is located in the so-called Middle Belt of Nigeria at the juncture of the predominantly Muslim North and Christian South. Both sides accuse the other of seeking to ‘rule’ Jos in order to dispense favours to their specific religious constituency.
Jana Krause
3 January 2011

Christmas Eve celebrations in Jos, central Nigeria, came to an abrupt end after as many as eight bombs killed at least 80 people and injured many more. Fearing more attacks and reprisals, local residents stayed home, and churches remained empty. A little-known Islamist group calling itself Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunna h Lidda’ Awati Wal Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombings. The incident was swiftly followed by renewed inter-communal fighting, principally within poorer areas of the city centre including Anguwan Rukuba, Tina Junction, Nasarawa, Dutse Uku and Rikkos Quarters.

Such violence is hardly new to Nigeria. More than 13,500 people have been killed in religious and ethnic clashes since 1999. But the past year has been one of the worst on record, with over one thousand people killed in and around Jos during 2010. Back in 2001, communal violence spread from Jos to rural areas resulting in a string of massacres. By May 2004 the government enacted a state of emergency in Plateau State. Roughly 5,000 people were killed during the four year period. Clashes between Muslim and Christian youth rocked the city of Jos again in 2008 with at least 700 people killed during two days of rioting.

The effects of violence extend well beyond deaths and injuries. Relief agencies counted more than 18,000 displaced persons at the beginning of 2010 (IRIN, 27.01.2010) and it can be safely assumed that this number has only grown over the past twelve months. As in previous years, the 2010 conflict spread outwards beyond Jos, moving North and into rural areas. Episodic bouts of violence in 2008 and 2010 resulted in widespread destruction: physical property was routinely targeted with the charred remains of houses scattered across the city and its perimeter. Entire settlements are blackened ruins, akin to the aftermath of an artillery barrage.

In the wake of riots this year in January, March, and, most recently, December, security forces were deployed to major road junctions and known hot spots. While these demonstrations of state presence were welcomed by some, to most residents it seemed inevitable that another outbreak of violence would follow. Just before the attacks this Christmas, tensions were high with many city residents anticipating renewed conflict. It was widely believed that even a minor incident could trigger another round of fighting. 

There is little trust between the two sides. Each regularly accuses the other of collecting weapons and making preparations for fresh attacks. The presence of a special task force (STF) comprising military and riot police was unable to prevent the Christmas killings. For its part, the STF placed the blame for its inability to identify the perpetrators of the bombings, and to prevent the attacks, on a  lack of communication from local residents (The Punch, 27.10.2010).

The violence in Jos is symptomatic of a wider social malaise. Local analysts are convinced that the killings arise from competition over political power, rights and privileges, between the indigenous (predominantly Christian) and the ‘settler’ (predominantly Muslim) population. Although such tensions date back to the colonial era, they surfaced anew during the 1990s and were exacerbated following the end of military rule in 1999.

In Nigeria´s Plateau State, the wider democratic transition precipitated a shift in political power from the Muslim Hausa-Fulani elite to the predominantly Christian indigenous population. Historically, the Hausa elites ruled over many of the middle regions' ethnic groups. Today, the principle indigenous groups - the Berom, Anaguta and Afizere - accuse the Hausas of monopolizing political rule wherever they settle. To these indigenous groups, the Plateau State - and the city of Jos in particular -always belonged to their ancestors who themselves allowed the Muslims to settle in their land.

Exacerbating matters, in the 1990s the local government of Jos abruptly stopped issuing ‘indigene certificates’ to the Muslim population despite the fact that many families had resided in the area for generations. Without these certificates individuals are barred from running for political office, are restricted from government jobs, pay higher education fees, and often encounter difficulties entering an accredited university. Notwithstanding widely reported conflict resolution efforts amongst elites, a genuine compromise between the political actors - much less a durable solution to the issue of political participation - has yet to materialize. Instead, over the past decade communication has steadily eroded between the local government and the Muslim community.

The latest round of riots in Jos was coupled with an alarming new phenomenon: ‘silent killings’ of people who were discovered in the ‘wrong’ neighbourhoods. Both sides report men going missing over the last eight to twelve months. Bodies are seldom recovered for burial. Although no one knows for certain how many people have been silently killed, the current situation is a breeding ground for fresh rumours, fear and demands for revenge. 

Several factors contributed to the religious dimensions of the confrontation in Jos. On the one hand, national regime change in 1999 was followed by violent conflicts between Muslims and Christians in neighbouring regions that further eroded trust between the religious communities in Jos. Specifically, the introduction of the Sharia criminal code to twelve northern states in 2000 and 2001 provoked major protest from Christians. Many objected to what they perceived as a progressive Islamization of public life and discrimination against Christian minorities in northern cities. Disputes over Sharia resulted in deadly inter-religious violence in the cities of Kano and Kaduna, eventually exacerbating grievances amongst religious communities in Jos.

Geographic and demographic factors are also significant in shaping patterns of contemporary violence. Jos is located in the so-called Middle Belt of Nigeria at the juncture of the predominantly Muslim North and Christian South. The country’s population of approximately 152 million inhabitants is itself split between Muslims (50%) and Christians (40%) (CIA World Factbook). In the Plateau State, both sides accuse the other of seeking to ‘rule’ Jos in order to dispense favours to their specific religious constituency. Some Christians fear that if Muslims win control of the city, they will soon rule the entire nation.

Such religious tensions are mirrored in the struggle over the Presidency of Nigeria, particularly between northern and southern elites. Traditionally, the office of the President is rotated between the Muslim north and the Christian south every second term. The premature death of the former President Yar’Adua interrupted this arrangement, bringing the Southerner Goodluck Jonathan into office before a single term was even completed. The upcoming April 2011 elections are forcing national elites to forge a compromise in order to sustainably balance power.

The 2010 Christmas killings are hastening the transformation of a protracted ethnic conflict into a nasty religious confrontation with regional and potentially international dimensions. And there is evidence that the risks of all-out war are escalating. The violence in Jos occurred alongside attacks by extremist Islamists on churches in the northern town of Maiduguri. There, the Boko Haram sect (meaning "Western education is sin" in Hausa) re-emerged despite a major security crackdown on extremists in July 2009. Hundreds were killed during clashes between the sect and security forces, and Christian places of worship have since been targeted. One recent attack was on Christmas Eve 2010, when some 30 alleged Islamists killed a pastor and several other Christians at a church in Maiduguri.

Nigeria's senior religious leaders refuse to recognize the violence in Jos as stemming from a ‘religious conflict’. Instead, the Sultan of Sokoto and the head of the Christian Association of Nigeria have criticised the ruling elites, especially those of Plateau State but also the government in Abuja, for their failure to resolve the political conflict (This Day, 28.12.2010). Half-hearted efforts to prevent conflict among political leaders over the past decade have instead transformed what should be a political debate over claims to ‘inclusive and participatory’ democracy and indigene rights into a protracted communal conflict with a strong religious dimension. 

The recent developments in Jos threaten to unravel Nigeria as a whole. The extremist group claiming responsibility for the Christmas bombings announced future attacks on ‘disbelievers’ (The Punch, 28.12.2010). In anticipation of another major incident and in the lead-up to national elections in April 2011, humanitarian and relief agencies are hastily assembling their emergency response plans. It is clear, however, that the damage has been done. The psychological trauma generated by the latest wave of bombings is sowing fear and discontent. If reconciliation and healing are to take place, Nigerian public and religious authorities must acknowledge the tensions for what they are. Anything less could prove fatal.


Jana Krause thanks Robert Muggah for assistance in the preparation of this article


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