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Impunity for perpetrators of sectarian violence

Grains traders plough through the remains of Laranto grain market before it was burned down in the Jos riots
(Aminu Abubakar/IRIN)

As youths involved in recent sectarian clashes await trial in northern Nigeria, human rights groups and local residents say they are sceptical that those perpetrating violence will be held to account.

“Generally following flare-ups like this, perpetrators are held without charge and very rarely prosecuted,” said Erik Guttschuss, Nigeria researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW). “I don’t know of any cases in which those responsible for planning or carrying out violence in prior incidents have been prosecuted or held to account for their crimes.”

Shehu Sani, activist at a prominent rights group in Kaduna state, Civil Rights Congress, told IRIN the authorities often overlook perpetrators' actions: “The response of the government when sectarian clashes erupt has always been the same – impunity, shifting of blame, looking for scapegoats and non-implementation of probe panel reports.”

Clashes erupted on 12 April when a group of Muslims in Gwada, 110km from the capital Abuja in Nigeria’s central Niger state, allegedly disrupted a procession by area Christians. The unrest resulted in scores of injuries and the burning of two churches and a mosque, according to police spokesperson Richard Adamu Oguche.


Following the violence in Niger state, Governor Babangida Aliyu vowed to “invoke the full wrath of the law on all those involved in the violence – [they] will not go unpunished,” according to a 14 April statement.

Oguche told IRIN the police were “doing all they could”, noting that on 16 April police charged 115 youths with disturbance of public peace, arson and theft.

Government spokesperson Maigari Kanna from Bauchi State, a hotbed of sectarian unrest since 1991, said government authorities are constrained from prosecuting those responsible for violence. 

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“Some of those involved in clashes are related to influential people…who exert pressure and ensure their relations are let off the hook. This attitude has frustrated previous attempts to prosecute the accused, which has only encouraged hoodlums to perpetrate the same crimes." 

In February in Bauchi clashes killed 14 people and displaced 4,500.

In bouts of violence in Plateau state in 2001, 2004 and 2008, repeat perpetrators have never been charged, Guttschuss said.

An investigation may follow the Niger state flare-up but Guttschuss said results usually are not made public and any recommendations rarely implemented.

Bauchi state’s Kanna told IRIN: "The government is treading in a minefield…anytime there is religious conflict. This is why suspects are rarely prosecuted and government panel reports are never implemented."

Religion or politics

Religious leaders say many of northern Nigeria’s clashes are more about politics than religion.

Yakubu Pam, a Christian cleric in the northern city of Jos, accused politicians of fomenting religious fights for political ends. In November 2008 several hundred people were killed in Jos during sectarian riots over local elections.

“Imams and priests only admonish their flock in churches and mosques but politicians exploit the poverty among the youth and engage them, using financial inducements to perpetrate violence in the name of religion to achieve selfish political goals,” he told IRIN.

Imam Aminudeen Abubakar agreed: “These youths are ignorant [and] poverty-stricken, and use the cover of religion to foment trouble…No religion advocates violence.”

The line between religion and politics is usually blurred in Nigeria, particularly in the north, say analysts.

“The power struggle for religion and politics often plays out on the streets through violent clashes that are unfortunately encouraged or sponsored by religious leaders,” said Guttschuss.

Political polarisation along religious lines is linked to the fact that local rights in Nigeria are defined by whether or not residents are indigenous. In Plateau state for instance, many Muslims are not considered indigenous, and feel marginalised by Christian-dominated party rule, says HRW.

“The tension is exacerbated by poverty, which leaders use to exploit for divide-and-rule gains,” HRW West Africa director Corinne Dufka told IRIN.

Moving forward

Rights groups stress the need to hold perpetrators of violence to account. “It is our hope that [Niger state] Governor Aliyu will set the pace and ensure the prosecution of those arrested in the Easter violence to stop further senseless killings in the name of religion,” said rights activist Sani.

He said the government must implement recommendations it has made in recent years, including regulating religious groups’ activities and developing economic programmes to give youths better work opportunities and a sense of belonging in society.

Nigeria has experienced 670 ethno-religious crises since 1979, leading to 85,000 deaths and over 10 million people to be displaced, according to research by Civil Rights Congress which monitors outbreaks of violence.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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