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Politics of identity - the Jos conflict

Home destroyed in religious violence, Jos
Une maison détruite lors d’une flambée de violences intercommunautaires dans le Nord (photo d’archive) (Obinna Anyadike/IRIN)

Reverend Zang Tengong is certain a religious war is under way for the soul of Nigeria and believes the central city of Jos is the frontline where Islam’s expansion southwards will be stopped.

The church he founded in Bukuru, in the southern section of Jos, escaped relatively lightly when the Christian community was attacked on 19 January. The walls are scorched where petrol-soaked rags were pushed through the windows, but the high zinc roof largely survived the heat of the blaze.

Surrounding houses were not so lucky; at least 20 were gutted, now abandoned, their owners scattered to other neighbourhoods.

Bukuru was part of the vendetta violence between communities in Plateau State that has left hundreds dead since January. A tense stand-off is monitored by a heavy military presence, but “silent killings” are continuing, and Tengong believes it is only a matter of time before major fighting resumes.

Like many other Christian leaders across this city, he is convinced the church is confronting jihad - an echo of the 19th-century campaign of Islamic conquest and conversion by Fulani nobleman Usman Dan Fodio, eventually halted by Nigeria’s southern forest belt and the hills of Plateau State.

Tengong has served his congregation for 52 years, but peace is not part of his sermons at the moment. Instead, he takes grim satisfaction that in his community, hugging the busy highway into the city, far more Muslims were killed than Christians in the January violence.

“I know what Jesus says, but Islam is a demonic religion,” he told IRIN. “These people are very dangerous, we know them, this is a religious war … We will fight to the last drop of blood.”

Religion alone does not explain the crisis in Jos. Ethnicity, political power, discrimination and fears of cultural demise are other, powerful ingredients being stirred in what was once seen as a laid-back cosmopolitan city.

“The real divide is between indigenous people who claim it’s their land, and those they call settlers,” said Nelson Ananze of the NGO Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP).


A few kilometres from Tengong’s church is Bukuru’s main market, and the home of Ali Muhammed, head of the Hausa community in Jos South. His house was built by his great-grandfather, and he hands round a copy of a certificate awarded to him in 1942 as the village head of Bukuru by Britain’s King George, recognizing 33 years of “loyal and faithful service”.

The almost exclusively Muslim Hausa are one of Nigeria’s three main ethic groups. They dominate the north, and were drawn to Jos in the early 1900s to work in its tin mines. For the first half of the century, as a colonial administrative convenience, Plateau was under the authority of the neighbouring Hausa-Fulani emirate, and it remained part of the north until Nigeria adopted a federal system in 1967.

What Muhammed and other Hausa leaders ask is, how far back must you go to qualify as an indigene? Their forefathers were in Plateau before Nigeria existed, and they refer to themselves as Jasawa - which means people of Jos. They argue that with rights of citizenship guaranteed by the constitution, origin should not matter.

Chair melted in the heat of the blaze in a Jos church, torched in religious violence

Les églises et les mosquées ont été incendiées
Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Chair melted in the heat of the blaze in a Jos church, torched in religious violence
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Politique de l’identité, le conflit de Jos – Analyse
Chair melted in the heat of the blaze in a Jos church, torched in religious violence

Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Churches and mosques were torched

The three “original” ethnic groups that lay claim to Jos - the largely Christian Burom, Anaguta and Afizere - insist that it must. Hausa is the accepted lingua franca of Plateau State, Hausa attire commonly warn, but “you know the real Hausa man, and you attach Islam to him,” Ananze said.

Fundamentally the three indigenous groups fear their extinction - eclipsed by Hausa commercial dominance and numbers, which will inevitably translate into political power, explained Ezekiel Gomos, interim chair of the Conflict Management and Mitigation Regional Council (CMMRC).

“They worry about the future of their children,” said Ananze. “A Hausa man can always run back to Kano [the largest city in the north] if something happens - a Plateau man has nowhere else to go.” Yoruba and Igbo settlers, Nigeria’s two other main ethnic groups, also migrated to Jos before independence, but they do not claim indigene rights.

There has been fierce resistance to Hausa political control of Jos North, the commercial heart of the state, which was the trigger for rioting in 2008 that reportedly left 700 dead, and is likely to remain a flashpoint in the run-up to elections in 2011.

A more than symbolic expression of ethnic identity is the refusal to accept a Hausa paramount chief in Jos North, who would stand as an equal with the existing local traditional leader, despite the fact Hausas are probably the largest single group.


The grievances of Muhammed and his Hausa community are also deep. “None of the Muslims in Bukuru are working for the local government; they don’t employ us, don’t give us indigene forms [which entitles preferential treatment in schooling and state jobs], they don’t give us [business] contracts,” he said. “We haven’t taken anyone’s land, we respect their paramount ruler.”

The Muslim community withdrew all their candidates in Jos South in the 2008 local government elections in the “interest of peace”, and expected to be rewarded. Instead, the state and local government seem to have turned the screws; in one extreme example, they aim to relocate Bukuru market to a new site, a Muslim graveyard.

“Most of our people are sharpening their knives for the next crisis,” Muhammed said. Non-Hausas who were burned out of the market area, their shops and churches gutted, have not returned. “How can we guarantee their safety when we can’t even guarantee our safety?”

This year’s violence began on 17 January when a Muslim was prevented from rebuilding his house in a predominantly Christian area. The state police commissioner said - falsely - a church was also attacked, and the city was paralysed by unrest. Bloody tit-for-tat killings followed with an assault on a Fulani village in Kuru Karama, and a reprisal raid on a Berom community in Dogo Nahauwa in February. In the latest violence on 23 May, three Fulani herdsmen were killed, and reprisals are feared.

Fulani and Hausa share a common culture, but the true Fulani remain nomadic – their cattle seen as an additional prize in the clashes. Cattle rustling adds another level of resentment and layer of complexity, with the Fulani able to call on help from their kinsmen in neighbouring countries.

Boniface Igomu, of the USAID-funded Conflict Abatement through Local Mediation project, says the potential for renewed trouble is clear. But although peace structures are in place, what is missing is effective state and local government engagement. “The interest from the government is growing, but how non-biased the government is, is a big factor.”


Muhammad Sani Mudi, spokesman for the Jos Muslim community, believes Governor Jonah Jang is the problem. Mudi, a career politician, accuses Jang, the first Burom to rule Plateau, of being a partisan extremist who has yet to condemn the Kuru Karama attack, or encourage any sincere peace efforts.

Frisking civilians at check point, Jos

The army is trying to keep a lid on trouble
Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Frisking civilians at check point, Jos
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Politics of identity - the Jos conflict
Frisking civilians at check point, Jos

Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
The army is trying to keep a lid on trouble

“To the extremist mindset, the best way to address the issue of Hausa/Burom is to apply any formula, including force, to drive the Hausa out,” Mudi told IRIN. “It’s not a government for all, it speaks on behalf of the other community.”

But Reverend Tengong regards Jang as a “commando; if it were not for him these people [Hausa] would have finished us”. Jang is seen by many Burom as not only willing to stand up to his enemies in Plateau, but also within the national leadership of his own ruling People’s Democratic Party, and a federal government historically perceived as discriminating against indigenous groups.

“We’re looking at hard choices, hard decisions that have to be made,” said Gomos of the CMMRC. “I used to have mainstream views [on ‘settlers’] but I realized that would mean we would be perpetually fighting.”

He argues the current conflict obscures issues of accountability; without the unifying factor of the Hausa, the three indigenous groups would likely be fighting among themselves over “who is the superior owner” of Jos, and the allocation of state resources. His pragmatic line is that Hausa economic power is a reality, and their political control of Jos North should be accepted – and no longer seen in zero-sum terms.

“People say ‘over my dead body’, but it will happen, that’s yesterday’s problem. The area where we can’t make a compromise is over chieftaincy. Political representation is based on democratic will, but chieftaincy is not – traditional institutions should be left to the indigenous people.”

The joint military taskforce, in distinctive desert camouflage - a response to reports of killers masquerading as soldiers - is almost certain to stay in Plateau for the foreseeable future. But so many factors weigh against peace holding in Jos; not least the gangs of unemployed youth with little stake in stability, a political culture of impunity, allegations of meddling by political barons, and next year’s high-stakes elections.

Optimist Habila of CAPP does not live up to his name: “It’s really a very, very difficult situation,” he told IRIN. “We must sensitize the people; tell them that these power-seekers, these politicians are using you, what do you benefit from violence? And we must create jobs to allow this restless army of people to find something.”


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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