Falling Apart

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Falling Apart, Again

Even though democracy has returned to Nigeria, ethnic clashes still threaten to cripple the country

 

By

 

Simon Robinson

 

 

culled from TIME Magazine February 28, 2000


Nigeria has experienced a rare period of national unity in recent weeks. As co-host with Ghana of the bienniel African Cup of Nations, this soccer-mad West African country has cheered--and sometimes jeered--its beloved Super Eagles with a single voice. At the 55,000-seat National Stadium in Lagos, members of the Hausa and Yoruba tribes--who just three months ago fought pitched battles in a hot, sweaty market a few kilometers away--stood side by side. Muslims and Christians momentarily forgot their differences and screamed in unison for victory. "Our passion for soccer and the national team is the only issue on which we find common expression," says fan Ruyi Osaretin. "On the field we are one."

But off the field, Nigeria is falling apart--again. Since Olusegun Obasanjo took power last May as Nigeria's first democratically elected President in more than 15 years, old ethnic tensions have resurfaced. Africa's most populous nation (115 million), Nigeria contains at least 200 ethnic groups and is split almost evenly between Christians and Muslims. New tribal-based groups are demanding regional autonomy and a greater share of local wealth. Ethnic clashes in at least five cities over the past nine months have left 1,000 dead and sent many more fleeing to their homelands. Relations between the predominately Muslim north and Christian and animist south are strained, since a group of northern states announced their intention to extend the use of Islamic law. "[The trend] is not only divisive," says presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe, "but has the potential to set the country ablaze."

So far, the deadliest flare-ups have been in Lagos. Behind much of the violence is the Odua People's Congress, a fast-growing "cultural and social" group bent on promoting and defending the rights of the local Yoruba tribe, one of Nigeria's two largest. Police recently raided an OPC hideout at an abandoned housing estate on the outskirts of the city. But the next day the organization's leaders were back as feisty as ever. "We are not going to provoke violence but we are going to protect the Yoruba nation," national secretary Kayode Ogundamisi told 20 OPC "zonal commanders," each of whom claims to lead some 200 armed men.

Police blame the OPC for a series of clashes with tribal Hausa, who hail from the north and form Nigeria's other main ethnic group. Last month, OPC members took the fight to Lagos police, abducting and killing a senior officer and splashing others with acid. But Ogundamisi and Frederick Fasehun, the soft-spoken doctor who founded the OPC six years ago, blame a splinter group for such attacks and say that the "real" OPC has serious political aims. "I'm not interested in the disintegration of the country," says Fasehun. "But we need to restructure Nigeria to make it fairer for everyone."

Other groups have their own demands. In the east, the Igbo People's Congress, which claims to represent the tribe that in 1967 declared independence, wants $8 billion in reparations for alleged atrocities and injustices stemming from the disastrous 31-month Biafran secessionist war. Tribes like the Ijaw and Ogoni in the poverty-stricken Niger Delta want a greater share of the region's huge oil wealth. "This struggle has gone beyond the quest for the provision of water and electricity," says James Toyne of the Ijaw People's Congress. "We are now talking about more fundamental issues like resource control and self-determination."

A recently formed group called the Arewa People's Congress promises to protect Hausa interests against the threat of southern groups like the OPC. "We don't want to turn the north into a battleground," says the apc leader Sagir Mohammed, a former army officer. "Those who have declared war, we will go to their places and fight the battle with them."

Religious fault lines have also appeared. Last month, the northern state of Zamfara extended its use of Islamic Shari'a law, which has long been used as the basis of family law in northern Nigeria, to include criminal matters. Other northern states may follow. The law, which President Obasanjo has called unconstitutional, bans alcohol and allows the use of such punishments as amputation for those found guilty of theft. While Zamfara's governor says Shari'a will apply only to Muslims, Christians are skeptical. Chris Abashiya, leader of the Northern Christian Elders Forum in Kaduna, fears that the northerners' ultimate agenda is the creation of an Islamic republic.

One reason Nigerians are speaking out now is that they can. Under military rule, freedom of expression and calls for greater autonomy were crushed. Olisa Agbakoba, a leading human rights activist and lawyer who was jailed under the previous regime, says the climate of fear and authoritarianism produced "a kind of negative stability. Democracy creates space to do a lot more things, sometimes bad, dangerous things."

With the military gone, groups formed to fight for freedom have had to find new targets. Many of them have chosen Nigeria's constitution. When the country won independence in 1960, it set up as a loose federation of three large states. But successive governments have sliced up the country further--there are now 36 states--even as they consolidated power at the center. The OPC and other groups want Obasanjo to convene a national conference to discuss a return to a "loose federation" that would give each region a greater say in its destiny. "The unity that has eluded us in the past can even come through these ethnic organizations," says Fasehun. "Why are we not using them as the building blocks of a Nigerian federation?"

Government insiders say that Obasanjo is constrained by a conservative National Assembly wedded to the status quo, and privately fears that such a conference will lead to the country's breakup. He has appointed a task force to review the constitution and has threatened to impose a state of emergency in Lagos unless the police end the clashes there. It may not be enough. In a 60-page report on the "urgent restructuring of Nigeria," a group of 17 eminent southerners recently wrote: "If we fail to find a permanent solution to the problems of this country, everybody will see that Nigeria will soon come to an end."

There is little chance that the military will use ethnic clashes as an excuse to retake power, at least in the near future. Western diplomats say the army is in disarray and most Nigerians say they would take up arms to defend democracy. But as the recent soccer-inspired scenes of unity fade away, Nigerians are realizing they must learn to live with their differences.

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