Recent ethnic clashes between Yoruba and Hausa groups in the Nigerian cities of Shagamu in the South and Kano in the North, seriously threaten Nigeria's stability. The mainly Muslim Hausa, based in the North, and the mixed Muslim, Christian and animist Yoruba, based in the Southwest, are Nigeria's two largest ethnic groups. While ethnic and religious groups have enjoyed largely peaceful relations in Nigeria, reports from Africa's most populous nation indicate that tensions are on the rise.
The dispute between Yorubas and Hausas erupted in Shagamu on July 17, with rioting in Kano as recently as July 26. Fighting began between animist Yorubas and Muslim Hausas in Shagamu during celebrations for the Oro cult. Although Hausas and Yorubas have lived in peace for centuries in Shagamu, according to the BBC on July 20, followers of the traditional Yoruban religion attacked a Muslim Hausa woman for allegedly violating a cult prohibition on the street presence of outsiders during the Oro celebrations. Yorubas then rampaged through the streets, burning houses, mosques and killing over 60 Muslim Hausas, according to BBC sources.
Security forces established calm in Shagamu shortly after the outbreak but hundreds of Hausa had already fled the city and returned to the North. In the ancient Muslim city of Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city with one million people, the stories of Yoruban atrocities sparked a Hausa riot on July 22 in which police confirmed three deaths among Kano's Yoruban minority, according to Nigeria's Post Express Wired on July 27. Police subdued the riots but attacks began again on Sunday. Reports indicate the latest round of violence has been perpetrated by mobs of Hausa youths.
The attacks came despite calls for peace by Hausa elders and religious leaders, according to the Lagos-based Guardian on July 27. Post Express Wired says the most recent riots began when a group of friends "drunk themselves to stupor" and became incensed over rumors of a Yoruban vengeance mission in Kano. The Vanguard reported on July 26 that a verbal dispute between Hausa and Yoruban youth early Sunday morning degenerated into a violent melee with as many as 2,000 Hausa youth joining the riots by Monday, in violation of a city wide curfew.
About 30 people, mostly Yorubas but others as well, have died in the most recent outburst, according to a variety of reports.
According to the Guardian report, police are afraid the violence will spread to Nigeria's largest city and commercial center, Lagos. While the report indicates that calm may have returned to Kano on Tuesday, authorities have warned that individuals could take advantage of the ethnic and religious tension to disrupt affairs in Lagos. Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu Sunday warned against the spread of the ethnic riots, strongly condemning the rioters as "enemies of freedom, democracy and progress," as quoted by the Guardian on July 27.
The fear of a spread of ethnic riots reveals the tenuous religious and ethnic balance in Nigeria. Similar ethnic riots in the 1960s snowballed into a civil war. Yorubas and Hausas fought against the third largest ethnic group, the mainly Christian Ibo of the Southeast who were trying to secede from Nigeria. Over one million people died in the civil war. Nigeria's fledgling democracy and weak economy could not withstand another such civil war. As a July 27 Guardian editorial concludes, "Nigeria cannot afford another such crisis now."
And even widespread instability, increased by continued tensions over oil in the southern Niger Delta region, could undermine prospects for Nigeria's revival, a necessity to which the success of Nigeria's most recent democratic experiment is inevitably linked. Local authorities in Nigeria's major cities have acted wisely to stem ethnic and religious tension. But, according to the Guardian editorial, "The Federal Government should take immediate steps to support" the pacifying efforts of local authorities. In view of its turbulent history and present weakness, the Nigerian government would be wise to act quickly to end the riots between Hausas and Yorubas.
But the recent agreement to ensure permanent peace in Shagamu shows signs of the over-hastiness that must be avoided in any future settlement between ethnic and religious groups. Local authorities in Shagamu dismissed the city's Hausa police chief immediately following the riots there in a move that can be seen as little else than an appeasement to Yoruban intolerance that seems to have started the riots in the first place.
In a communique issued by the Shagamu local government following the riots, carried by the Guardian on July 27, authorities resolved that building a lasting peace in the city necessitated the immediate release of all those detained in connection with the violence and the expulsion of all "religious fundamentalists" from Shagamu.
But the release of the riot instigators may only serve to excite Yorubas and further alienate the Hausa victims in Shagamu. But the lack of the terms' specificity, especially in the light of the global media tendency to equate fundamentalism immediately with Muslims, means that the mostly Yoruban authorities will most likely expel the Muslims of Shagamu sooner than they will expel cult leaders of the Yoruban majority.
Lest the efforts to crush the riots plant the seeds of future strife, authorities must take care to negotiate lasting resolutions rather than
short-term band-aides to gaping wounds. In the Yoruba dominated Shagamu as well as the Hausa dominated Kano, peace settlements must not simply be an appeasement for the criminal elements of a particular ethnic or religious group. In the complex web of Nigerian kinship, ethnic and religious links, tolerance for violence and crimes against a group in one place run the risk of leading to unrest somewhere else.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com