Militias Fracture Nigerian Society ; over the Past Two Years, More Than 2,000 People Have Died in Sectarian and Ethnic Feuding

Article excerpt

"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. …