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The Roots of Violence

December 1, 2008

Many Nigerian politicians would rather fatten their own pockets than deal with the actual roots of religious violence, but some examples of reconciliation exist, according to Deutsche Welle's Thomas Moesch.

A pen next to the word "Opinion"

It is clear that no one expected the religious unrest to reach on the scale of what occurred in the provincial capital of Jos. The municipal elections on Thursday were conducted in a peaceful atmosphere and official results were not expected when the first assaults happened on Friday morning. But rumors of possible manipulation were enough of a match to set off the powder keg.

Thomas Moesch
Thomas Moesch

The violence reminded witnesses of the unrest that shook Jos in September 2001 and left as many as 1,000 dead. Since then there have been countless meetings between official representatives from the religious groups to analyze the causes of the past conflicts and prevent future violence. But the relative degree of peace over the last seven years has been a deception. All sides have repeatedly said they want to live and work together. Has it all been a facade?

It is still unclear exactly who is behind this most recent round of violence. But a pattern seems to be emerging: a seemingly unimportant event sets off a massive amount of violence. This time it was a locale election. In the past it was a beauty contest or a field devastated by a herd of cattle.

Unsurprising location for unrest

It's not surprising that it happens again and again in the center of Nigeria. This is where the Muslim-dominated culture of the north meets the Christian culture that has its roots in the south of the country. The numerous smaller groups of people in this mountainous region have long felt besieged by the more homogeneous Muslims coming from the north. Often the newcomers are cattle herders whose animals compete with farmers for fertile land.

Despite all being citizens of the same country, immigrants to Nigeria have had limited rights in comparison with people who established their roots there long ago. Political and economic conflicts come up again and again then lead to religious unrest. The so-called settlers demand a portion of power and resources while the so-called natives insist on maintaining their rights.

Politicians use these conflicting interests to mobilize their electoral base -- and they're not afraid to resort to violence. The large number of unemployed young people are all too willing to let themselves be recruited into violent gangs for a little bit of money or empty promises.

Political disinterest

Many politicians do not seem to have any interest in solving the problems that are causing the violence. That would mean having to share the country's resources in a fair manner instead of fattening their own pockets. Instead they have accepted -- or even promoted -- a line of reasoning that places the blame for one group's misery on demands made by their neighbors who believe in a different religion.

Luckily Nigeria also has encouraging examples that show how the spiral of violence can be broken. Overall, the religious or ethnically influenced violence in the country has decreased in recent years. In the state Kaduna, which fell victim to religious violence in the early half of this decade, one-time enemies have undertaken a drawn-out but successful process of reconciliation that could be of aid to other regions.

The violence in Jos shows that the causes of the problems have not been discussed in an open enough way. Politicians have to offer positive economic opportunities to the country's young people instead of sending them to the streets in the name of alleged religious or ethnic interests.

Thomas Moesch is the head of DW-RADIO's Hausa department (sms)