Nigeria and the politics of massacre

The brutal violence against people of a different ethnicity or religion seen in the central Nigerian state of Jos is the most common face of genocide worldwide, says Martin Shaw.

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
13 April 2010

The shocking massacre of hundreds of Christian villagers near Jos, central Nigeria, in early and mid-March 2010 attracted considerable – if also brief - international attention. A study in the (London) Observer claims that considerably more articles were published about this atrocity than about the massacre of Muslims in the same region two months earlier, to which the recent attacks are widely seen as a response. The Observer speculates that the difference is due to the Christian identity of the latest victims, with whom many western observers are presumed to identify. It is difficult to be sure about this, although it may be optimistic to think that the repetition of this type of atrocity explains the coverage. 

This is not a mere debating-point, but reflects deeper perceptions of the character of such violence. Since 9/11, it is customary in much western discourse to think of Islam (or some of its variants) as a source of violent militancy, though an academic study published in 1998 - Toyin Falola’s Violence in Nigeria - had already argued that in that country at least Christianity had long been just as intertwined with political militancy. 

In Nigeria, patterns of “religious” massacre are many decades old, but it is wrong to see this as simple “sectarianism”. A poor society facing modernisation at the hands of corrupt elites is vulnerable to the use of violence as a means of asserting economic and political power and the mobilisation of “religion” to foment social divisions. Even before the latest clashes, the decade since the restoration of democracy in Nigeria 1999 had seen 14,000 lives destroyed  by “communal violence” with 3 million people (out of a total population of over 150 million) displaced. And it is reported that the original cause of the latest clash was the alleged theft of cattle, blamed by a group of settler-farmers on a group of cattle-herders.

A pattern of neglect

It remains a striking fact that, whatever the discrepancies between attention to atrocities perpetrated by Christians and Muslims, overall global attention to this violence remains appallingly low. The number of killings and displacements significantly exceed the tolls in many events that constitute global political crises, but the levels of international political and media attention are not remotely comparable. Africa is at the heart of this neglect: western states are often more tolerant of widespread localised violence in the continent, because it occurs within state boundaries and does not (yet) threaten overall state and international stability, and because it is part of endemic conflicts that have accumulated over a number of years. 

The result is that the United States secretary of state Hilary Clinton and the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon – to name only two such senior dignitaries - are unlikely to drop everything to address them. Even major conflict and human-rights NGOs devote a fraction of the concern to Nigeria that they give to other crisis-areas. 

There are many “instrumental” reasons why such neglect makes no sense. The violence is occurring in Africa's largest country; a major oil producer (indeed armed conflict, albeit not “religious”, affects the Niger delta where the country’s oil is produced); and a supposed regional bulwark (from which interventions were made in the early 2000s to Sierra Leone's and Liberia's conflicts). Nigeria is also a country suffering from chronic political instability and endemic police violence (with a high level of extra-judicial killings) as well as political violence; it was the site of one of Africa's deadliest wars, over the breakaway of Biafra in 1967-70. Whether or not Nigeria is on the way to becoming a failed state” its conflicts should be a matter of much greater international concern.

A nexus of violence

Nigeria is not alone. Kenya, viewed in western political circles as a bastion of regional stability, was racked by extensive violence in January 2008. Kenya's conflict was widely labelled “ethnic” rather than “religious” (although the most publicised atrocity was the burning down of a church with people inside); but as in Nigeria, economic and political factors were clear. In Kenya, there was a full-scale national political crisis following the dubious election of late December 2007; belated international intervention helped cobble together an uneasy compromise between the opposing political parties which has contained the conflict, even if it has hardly resolved the underlying problems (see John Lonsdale, “Kenya: ethnicity, tribe, and state”, 17 January 2008).

The Kenyan events also provoked a degree of hype about a new “Rwanda”, partly inspired by the church atrocity. This was an unrealistic comparison claim because neither of the opposing parties had an interest in generating nationwide violence. Yet massacres of the Nigerian and Kenyan types are the most common face of genocide today. Genocide on the scale, and with the murderous intensity, of Rwanda is indeed rare; but localised genocidal massacres - and indeed campaigns of genocidal rape, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo's wars - are all too common (see Gérard Prunier, “The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict”, 17 November 2008).

Ultimately it matters little whether they are most easily labelled “religious”, “ethnic” or indeed “political”, since the violence is much the same and these dimensions are usually tied closely together.

One thing the smaller-scale episodes in Nigeria and Kenya do have in common with Rwanda is that they involve “ordinary” people. But no more than Rwanda are they spontaneous outbreaks of popular feeling. Massacres are always organised, whether by local communal and militia leaders or (behind closed doors) by regional or even national politicians. Those who look for genocide where centralised regimes target whole ethnic groups may be reassured by its general absence in the first decade of the 21st century (see “A century of genocide”, 23 April 2009). But those who recognise that this form of violence has many different faces, scales and authors, will be profoundly disturbed by the latest outbreaks. No one knows exactly when and where they will lead to larger-scale campaigns of violence which weak international institutions will be unable to ignore. The repeated massacres of hundreds of people are a challenge not only to Nigeria but to the world.

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