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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Poverty behind Nigeria's violence
By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

Nigeria's combination of poverty for the majority and wealth for the few makes it an ideal breeding ground for the sort of violence which led to a presidential order for a state of emergency to be declared in the centre of the country this week.

A state of emergency was announced in Plateau State on Monday following violence between Christians and Muslims earlier this month in which hundreds of people were reported to have been killed.

Muslim children scavenge the charred remains of property belonging to Christian settlers in Kano
In Nigeria there is a large gap between rich and poor
President Olusegun Obasanjo sacked the civilian governor and appointed a retired army general in his place.

But the superficial labels of 'Christian' and 'Muslim' - or indeed the tribal tags often used to describe other violence in Nigeria - do not explain the heart of the problem.

Although Africa's most populous nation does have religious and ethnic splits, these are often exaggerated and are invariably manipulated by politicians in their quest for high office - which in Nigeria means access to the country's vast crude oil receipts.

Wealth gap

The combination of a huge pool of unemployed youth who can easily be recruited as political thugs, and the presence of thousands of millionaire politicians who use them, is a lethal combination.

Whenever there is so-called 'ethnic' or 'religious' violence in Nigeria there are usually also reports of a looting free-for-all as unemployed people grab what they can.

Corruption and economic mismanagement are other factors that contribute to the usually fast escalation of relatively minor disputes into deadly violence.

While there is great wealth at the top of Nigerian society - polo clubs and five star hotels - there is also great poverty and some of the violence reflects a struggle for resources and survival.

Land, power grabs

This is particularly the case in rural areas along a belt of territory across the centre of the country, including Plateau State, where farmers are in competition for land and resources with herders.

In areas where farmers are predominantly settled Christians and where cattle herders, originally from further north, are mainly Muslim, an impression can be created of 'religious' or 'ethnic' tension.

But in reality the root causes of the violence are political and economic - a competition for fertile land.

And the undemocratic example set at the top of society in Nigeria does not help.

The country has suffered many years of power-grabs with military or near-military rule. Although the current administration was elected it has been condemned by critics, including the Nobel-prize winning writer Wole Soyinka, as a "civilian dictatorship".

Plateau polarisation

Nevertheless, once the vicious spiral of attacks and counter attacks is under way, the violence does polarise communities.

The case of violence in Plateau State came as a surprise to most Nigerians since it has traditionally been known as a peaceful area.

In colonial times the British used to visit the main town, Jos, for recreation as it is cooler that many other parts of Nigeria, and since then the area's motto has been 'Home of Peace and Tourism'.

The unrest there this month was not the first.

Plateau state first became a victim of its own tolerance in 2001 as many people from other parts of the country, that had been suffering violence, fled there thinking it would be safe.

This created competition for jobs and resources and a polarisation of people into 'indigenous' and 'settler' communities.

The 'indigenes' were largely Christian tribes and the 'non-indigenes' a mixture of ethnic Hausas from the north (mostly Muslim) and ethnic Igbos from the south east (mostly Christian).

Then there was a power struggle between local politicians which exacerbated the latent tension and in September 2001 hundreds of people were killed.

The violence this month in Plateau State is a consequence of the polarisation caused by earlier rounds of fighting and the underlying causes related to poverty and wealth.

Some of the other outbreaks of violence in Nigeria in recent years have been more directly related to religious issues.

The October 2001 outbreak of rioting in the northern city of Kano began as Muslim protests about the US attacks on Afghanistan.

And there have been several flashpoints in northern states that have declared the imposition of Sharia Law.

In pictures: Nigerian clashes
06 May 04  |  In Pictures
Muslims riot in northern Nigeria
11 May 04  |  Africa
In pictures: Kano riots
12 May 04  |  In Pictures
Country profile: Nigeria
17 Dec 03  |  Country profiles

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