Militias fracture Nigerian society

Over the past two years, more than 2,000 people have died in sectarian and ethnic feuding.

"We fight all the time," Ali Lasisi, an unemployed father of four, says with a shrug. "They kill us. We kill them."

So go relations between this nation's more than 250 ethnic groups.

Two years into Nigeria's new democratic government, citizens have taken to expressing their newfound freedom by joining ethnic-based militias and killing one another. Officials estimate that in the past two years, more than 2,000 people have died in sectarian and ethnic feuding.

The slaughter has shaken Nigeria's fledgling democratic government and has some experts wondering if Africa's most populous country will turn into another Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Indonesia. "We're seeing the beginnings of an intense struggle for power," says Sanusha Niadu, a researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs.

It started when Yoruba tribe members founded what they described as a non-violent political organization to promote their interests at the dawn of Nigeria's new democracy. Members of the Oodua People's Congress (OPC) have since been accused of murder and leading assaults on other ethnic groups.

Rumor-fueled violence

This set off a cycle of violence between the country's ethnic groups.

Mr. Lasisi's fellow Hausa tribesmen established the Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) in 1999 ostensibly in response to OPC attacks.

"Because there is OPC, there must be APC," says Lasisi, who is a member of the APC militia. "If there is only OPC, who will defend us?"

Such logic has ethnic groups throughout the region reaching for their weapons. The government has lost track of the number of militias and militia members, says Sheidu B. Ozigis, director of Nigeria's Police Council.

"All these groups started at the inception of democracy," says Mr. Ozigis. "It is a spontaneous emotional expression that occurred without the government's approval. It is very difficult to stop."

The violence resembles the strife that has beset Indonesia, where ethnic and sectarian clashes have increased since the 32-year authoritarian rule of former President Suharto ended in 1998. For example, in a particularly pointless spate of violence in July 1999,

Yorubas attacked Hausas in the southern city of Sagamu in a dispute over a parade route. Dozens were reported killed. When rumors spread in the Hausa-dominated north that hundreds of their kinfolk had been killed and their bodies were on their way home in dozens of trucks, Hausas took revenge. The rumors were false; nonetheless the ensuing riots further increased the death toll.

Ironically, the surge in militias is a symptom of what unifies Nigerians after 30 years of deleterious military rule. No matter their ethnic group, Nigerians share a lack of faith in government and the rule of law, a sense of being oppressed, and of not receiving their fair share of Nigeria's bounty. Add to this mix: no tradition of democracy or good governance.

"In the absence of a higher authority, people prepare for the worst," says Professor John Stremlau, a Nigeria expert at South Africa's University of the Witswatersrand. "Anxieties lead to worst-case assumptions about your neighbors. Both crime and sectarianism go up."

Some 400 ethnic groups

African countries, created by European powers with little regard for ethnic politics and historical tribal boundaries, have long been plagued by instability. Nigeria - a collection of people as diverse as any crowd on a New York City street, with more ethnic groups and languages than anyone has ever been able to count (some estimate as many as 400) - was supposed to be different. This diversity, experts hoped, would create a sort of United States of Africa, a country in which national identity transcended clan and tribe.

But soon after Nigeria's 1960 independence from Britain, an ethnic-based civil war divided the country. Clashes between ethnic groups have occurred sporadically in the decades since - and with frightening regularity since the country's democratic transformation.

Sitting on a wooden stool in front of his corrugated metal market stall, selling cheap auto parts, Vincent Darlinton watches the parade of humanity walk by and provides his take on what makes each group different. He points out the tall and skinny Fulani herdsmen in flowing robes and says that they are not the brightest bunch. He looks over at the squat Yoruba tribesmen from the south in jeans and T-shirts and says that they are a bit pushy.

"We Ibos," says Mr. Darlinton, referring to his tribe. "We're like Jews. We're hard-working. That's how God made us."

The government has tried to build bridges between Ibos and Hausas, Yorubas and Fulani. University graduates are required to perform national service far from their homes.

The goal is two-fold: foster community development projects and spread goodwill between ethnic groups. Billboards around the country proclaim: "Stop. Think. United We Stand. Divided We Fall."

Still, many people here appear to live in a cocoon surrounded by their own kind. Darlinton, for example, hired two Ibos to staff his shop, and the few Ibos who live here say they buy exclusively from "their brother."

A call for a national conference

Recently, a few ethnic groups have called for a national conference to re-evaluate the need for a Nigerian nation. Some favor complete independence for their own ethnic group. Others propose a Nigeria that resembles a loosely organized group of tribes, not the current unified state.

President Olusegun Obasanjo has dismissed such talk. He likens Nigeria to a bad marriage that just needs a little communication and time.

Even some militia supporters agree with this assessment. Says Abdulkhadir Abdullahi Kure, the governor of this state who shocked his colleagues last year when he vowed to start his own militia: "The United States is great today because you accept people from diverse cultures. We hope to God that one day we can be so strong."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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