Jos: The Window into a Nigerian Civil War

By Jay R.

The collapse of Africa’s most populous nation into civil war may hinge on the stability of one unsuspecting middle belt city

Nigeria’s Middle Belt region is where the country’s Christian south and Muslim north come to a head. This convergence of religion manifests in the capital Abuja, where the equally represented populations are generally tolerant of one another. In the nearby city of Jos whose societal make up is starkly similar to the capital, religious intolerance is brewing tension to a dangerous boiling point.

Security forces rush to intervene in sectarian clashes in Jos

Over the last twenty years, Jos has been plagued by sectarian violence which has claimed thousands of lives while displacing many others. In 2010, week-long riots resulted in the death of hundreds of locals and the destruction of churches and mosques alike. This steady campaign of attacks against places of worship has made chances of reconciling these populations a seemingly insurmountable feat. The people of Jos may not yet be cognizant of this fact, but the deteriorating security situation in the rest of Nigeria may have a far more tragic impact in a place with a deeply rooted history of intolerance.

Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north has become increasingly engulfed in a violent campaign by fundamentalist violence. On January 20, Nigeria’s second city of Kano was devastated by a wave of bombings by Boko Haram Jihadists against military, police, and government installations, killing upwards of 250 people. Continuous attacks like these, along with a previous Boko Haram warning for all Christians to leave the northern states, have incited nearly 35,000 people to flee southward thus far.

These newly created refugees, who are leaving with such panic and haste that they are not bothering to bring their most valuable of possessions with them, are making way for Jos. Positioned just outside of the Muslim north, Jos provides a convenient safe haven for Christian refugees as they journey towards the friendlier south. As many of those refugees opt to remain in Jos, they threaten to alter the delicate sectarian balance in the city, paving the way for shattering the city’s hard-won peace.

Given Jos’ recent history of violence, it remains clear that fierce and deadly riots may erupt from even seemingly insignificant altercations. In 2001, the appointment of a Muslim resident as the Local Coordinator to Eradicate Poverty, sparked outrage from the Christian community, which led to mass rioting and destruction. The skyrocketing death toll of those riots forced the local morgue to dig mass graves to compensate for the lack of space. The 2001 riots are a testament that Christians of Nigeria are not akin to sheep being led to the slaughter. Amidst the recent escalation in the country’s north, Christian residents have already been stockpiling arms, becoming increasingly disillusioned from the government’s willingness and capability to protect them.

Just as the Muslims carry out attacks against Christians and their places of worship in the north, the Christians are expected to respond forcefully and aggressively. In Jos, the new Christian arrivals from the north may look to seek revenge on those who made them flee, and the Muslim community of Jos may be their most viable target. Increasing fear of marginalization amongst the city’s Muslims only plays to the hands of Boko Haram extremists, who undoubtedly see Jos as a key target in their campaign to destabilize the country. As with much of Nigeria’s Muslims, many citizens of Jos already identify with the group for its stated goals of toppling the government for its widespread corruption, albeit through replacing it with a regime based on Shariah law. While the city has until now been spared from Boko Haram’s wrath, it remains’ clear that the Jos’s Muslims will eventually be forced to display where their loyalty truly lies.

Given its geopolitical position and contemporary politics, the city of Jos is in many ways a microcosm for the whole of Nigeria. As such, Jos’ descent into sectarian violence may be the first indicator for the collapse of stability in the nation’s crucial beltway area, which has until now been spared from such turmoil. Should widespread violence hit Jos, it will only be a matter of time before other mixed cities in the area take note, eventually threatening peace in the political center of Abuja. In a striking, if not tragic coincidence, Christian citizens of Jos refer to their town as “Jesus our savior.” If the city’s history is any indicator, Jos will need its savior now more than ever, as the stability of Africa’s most populous nation may just hang in the balance.

If you would like more information on prospects for stability in Nigeria, click here.