"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
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
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.
This set off a cycle of violence between the country's ethnic
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
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. …