Ethnic Militias Guard Tribal Divides

Nigeria Ethnic Violence
Bala Idris, a member of Lagos' Hausa community, reads the newspaper after ethnic clashes between Lagos' Hausa minority and Yoruba majority left 100 dead (Photo: AFP).

The crowded Lagos suburb of Idi Araba is still a ghost of its old self—weeks after ethnic violence erupted on its bustling streets. The Feb. 2 clash between two ethnic groups, the Hausa and Yoruba, left 100 people dead and destroyed scores of homes, shops, schools, and markets in Nigeria’s commercial capital. The violence marked the latest of 40 recorded ethnic and religious clashes in Nigeria since democracy returned in May 1999.

Across this West African nation today there is an upsurge of violent conflicts, many fueled by ethnic militias—armed “protectors” established by virtually every major ethnic group in the country. In Idi Araba, one dominant ethnic militia, the Yoruba-backed O’dua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), declared war against the Hausa, who support the Arewa Peoples’ Congress (APC). Ordinary Nigerians are caught in the cross-fire between the feuding militias. Victims of clashes can rarely return home. Their recourse is often refugee camps—and these have become breeding grounds for ethnic militias to recruit ever new and aggrieved members.

Affiong Obong, a victim of the latest violence, explains while staying in a makeshift camp at Lagos University Teaching Hospital: “I cannot go home because my tenants have refused to come back home. I cannot live there alone. People are afraid,” the 65-year-old said. “Anything can happen anytime. Hoodlums also come at night to loot and molest the few people who have the courage to stay.”

The Hausa are a substantial minority here, while the Yoruba dominate the city, Idi Araba, and Nigeria’s southwest. The two, along with the Igbo in the east, form the country’s major ethnic groups, although there are at least 250 such groups with varying cultures and languages. Lagos State—with jurisdiction over Idi Araba—is a microcosm of ethnic relations in Nigeria. “[Lagos] is the most heterogeneous state in Nigeria, every ethnic group is represented in Lagos,” Lagos State Gov. Bola Tinubu said. “Whatever affects Lagos has an impact on the entire country. It is obvious that anyone who wants to cause mayhem in Nigeria and destroy our fragile democracy will begin by destabilizing Lagos State,” he said.

Tinubu insists that February’s clash had no ethnic basis and, in common with some other leaders, says these outbreaks are the handiwork of faceless “enemies of democracy,” engaging in a “calculated and systematic attempt to undermine the stability of Nigeria.” Those hired to protect ethnic groups argue differently. APC leader Sagir Mohammed says the recent mayhem was the handiwork of members of the OPC, which promotes Yoruba interests, sometimes by force. Ironically, Mohammed’s group has been accused of sponsoring Islamic fanatics to attack and kill non-northerners, especially in the city of Kano. OPC leader Fredrick Faseun rejects Mohammed’s claims. “It is rather unfortunate that when anything anti-social happens in this country it is ascribed to OPC,” the 67-year-old man said. “It’s our detractors who gave a bad name to a good dog so as to hang it. I abhor violence.”

Nonetheless, these militias are doing the bidding of Nigeria’s ethnic peoples—everything from enforcement and protection to vigilante activities and violent confrontations. They came up seven years ago after military ruler Ibrahim Babangida annulled the 1993 presidential elections won by Yoruba businessman Moshood Abiola. Abiola’s incarceration by Babangida’s successor, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, and the murders of prominent Yorubas and other southerners led to the formation of the OPC. Other groups soon followed.

Ethnic militias are often hired by the wealthy and, in the case of the eastern region, by state governments to hunt down robbers and assassins or prevent violent crimes. Virtually all these groups follow existing tribal or religious divides within Nigeria.

The APC protects Hausa interests in northern Nigeria. It insists it is a nonviolent organization, but reports suggest it actually recruits unskilled youth to carry out assignments, including violent ones. The Bakassi Boys mostly operate in Nigeria’s five eastern states, home to the Igbo. This militia gained prominence in 2000 when they sought to rid their states of armed robbers. Members usually wore black T-shirts and red bandanas and often clashed with police over their extreme crime-stopping methods—alleged robbers were often burned or hacked to death.

The Egbesu mainly represent the Ijaws, the fourth largest ethnic group, and operate in the oil-rich Niger Delta. This group, which seeks control of the region’s oil resources, is known to kidnap foreign and Nigerian staff of oil companies.

An unemployment rate of about 7.5 percent has given rise to more recruits into these ethnic militias. The problem of ethnic militias is rooted in Nigeria’s colonial history. The 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates by the British into present-day Nigeria allowed the north to dominate the rest of the country.

Solutions to the crisis, argues Bola Akinterinwa of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, should include a national commission on ethnicity to provide an avenue for consultation and early warning signals. Ledum Mitee, president of the nongovernment Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, said that one solution is for Nigerians to elect their true representatives. “I think ethnicity is a healthy thing,” Mitee said. “Even the founding fathers of independent Nigeria recognized Nigeria’s diversity. What we have now is diversity in unity.”