The tendency to label conflicts in Nigeria as inter-religious or inter-ethnic is an oversimplified mischaracterization of the reality on the ground, according to Chris Kwaja, author of the Africa Center’s latest Africa Security Brief.
Plateau State in central Nigeria, the locus of a series of ethnic and religious clashes, for example, was once called “the home of peace and tourism.” However, the driver for this violence has not been an inability of groups to coexist but unclear legal codes regarding residency or “indigineship.” Seeking to mobilize support and extend their influence, local leaders and political opportunists in Plateau have capitalized on these legal ambiguities in ways that discriminate citizens’ basic rights, such as access to education, politics, and employment subject to whether they are deemed an “indigene” or “settler” to the region. With so much at stake, communities have become polarized and resorted to violence.
The government, at both the local and federal level, has seemingly been unable to reverse this trend. Poor coordination, insufficient means of information sharing, a lack of accountability, political expediency, and repeated unsupported promises to resolve the violence have forced communities to turn towards nonstate actors such as faith-based and ethnic associations for protection.
The legal framework at the root of violence in Plateau State has national implications – and has already contributed to outbreaks of violence across Nigeria. Left unaddressed, this institutionalized inequity will continue to undermine social cohesion, national identity, and peace and security.
Nigeria must mitigate this threat to national stability by instituting fundamental legal reforms. In addition, efforts must be undertaken to repair the damage done to Nigerians’ sense of shared identity and faith in the state. As part of this, additional efforts to better protect minority rights, improve security sector performance, and reconcile divided communities are also essential. [DOWNLOAD THE SECURITY BRIEF IN PDF]
Chris Kwaja is a Lecturer and Researcher at the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Jos, Nigeria.