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Friday, 26 November, 1999, 15:00 GMT
Nigeria: More divided than united?


As Nigerian police battle to restore order on the streets of Lagos, BBC News Online looks at the implications of ongoing fighting between Nigeria's two largest ethnic groups.

Mobs in Nigeria take to the streets all too easily. A land dispute, an argument over local government boundaries, a case of police brutality, a real or imagined slight on a community's traditions - any one of these can start a riot.

And in a country where more than 200 different languages are spoken, the riots are usually helped along by tribal resentments - the ever present suspicion that someone else is getting a bigger share of the cake.

Government officials initially blamed the Lagos riots on a dispute between market traders. However, it appears that ethnic tensions caused a disagreement over the control of market stalls to explode into violent conflict, with some members of the majority Yoruba community resenting the amount of control wielded by a particular Hausa businessman in the market.

Hausas, who originate in northern Nigeria, form a substantial minority in Lagos.

There have been ethnic clashes this year in the north-east and in the Niger Delta which have killed far more people than the Lagos riots, but these were local disputes, fights - however bitter - between neighbours. Whatever damage was done, they do not have the power to split Nigeria apart.

Fears of reprisals

Injured boy People were attacked with machetes in earlier ethnic fighting
But the Lagos riots have set alarm bells ringing, since they involve the two biggest tribal blocs in the country. Yorubas dominate southern Nigeria as Hausas dominate the north. And both groups are great travellers and traders: every large southern town has a Hausa community, clustered round its mosque; every big town in the north has a 'Sabon Gari', a Strangers' Quarter, and many of the people living there are Yoruba.

So the immediate fear is that anger in the north about Hausas killed in Lagos will bring reprisals against Yoruba communities there. The authorities in the north have already put extra police on the streets just in case.

Earlier this year, when members of the two groups clashed in the southern town of Sagamu, many Hausas fled to Kano, in the Hausa northern heartland. This added to the tensions that were already brewing in the northern city. Kano erupted into violence, and about 70 people were killed.

Tolerance

Aftermath of fighting Homes and vehicles were set alight in the Kano riots
Ever since independence in 1960, Nigerians have found it difficult to live together as one nation. In fact, some have never forgiven the British colonialists for arbitrarily throwing together myriad ethnic and religious groups, and then leaving them to try and get on with each other.

Sometimes, Nigerians have appeared to have nothing more in common with each other than a mutual suspicion of whoever was in power.

Yet the overwhelming majority of Hausas and Yorubas have always lived peacefully side-by-side, and are traditionally tolerant of each other's customs.

And despite some rumblings, both Hausa and Yoruba people believe that President Olusegun Obasanjo and his government do, on the whole, have Nigeria's best interests at heart.

This, if nothing else, makes a marked change from the recent years of military rule, when most Nigerians looked on the government as corrupt and self-serving.

And at the back of everyone's mind is Nigeria's disastrous civil war which started, more than 30 years ago, with clashes between Hausas, and the other big southern community, the Ibos. No one in Nigeria old enough to remember the war ever wants to see such a thing happen again.
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See also:
25 Nov 99 |  Africa
Ethnic clashes erupt in Lagos
30 Jul 99 |  Africa
'Plot' sparked Kano fighting
23 Jul 99 |  Africa
Kano 'tense' after ethnic riots
19 Jul 99 |  Africa
Violence takes Nigeria by surprise
27 Jun 99 |  Africa
Seven dead in Nigerian market riot
20 Jul 99 |  Africa
Uneasy calm follows Nigerian ethnic fighting

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