Jonathan’s guns loom over Jos

By Simon Allison 14 September 2011

After months of violence, President Goodluck Jonathan’s given his army a blank cheque to sort out the problem city of Jos. Citizens of Jos, be afraid. The Nigerian army doesn’t have a stellar record of conflict resolution, preferring their justice rough and their executions summary. By SIMON ALLISON.

Jonathan has had enough. The violence in the north and central parts of his large, disparate country has grown worse since he came to power six months ago, with bombings, shootings and sectarian violence becoming a feature of daily life, almost unremarkable in cities like Jos and Maiduguri. In Jos alone, more than 100 have died in the past two weeks. The latest incident was a twin explosion in the centre of Jos on Sunday night, which,despite not killing anyone, left the population badly rattled. It was immediately followed by a meeting of governors of northern states who’ve said they would resort to vigilantism to solve the crisis if necessary.

So Jonathan is doing what Nigerian leaders do best when they find themselves with their backs to the wall, facing a situation they don’t know how to control: he’s sending in the guns. In a chillingly ambiguous statement, the president’s office said it was authorising the chief of defence “to take full charge of the security situation in Plateau State immediately and take all necessary actions to stop the recent spate of killings in the state”.

Plateau State, the central Nigerian province of which Jos is the capital, bills itself rather optimistically – misguidedly – as “the home of peace and tourism”. It is the faultline of the Muslim-Christian divide in Nigeria and has been synonymous with sectarian clashes for years. Not that the violence has all that much to do with religion; after all, Muslims and Christian live together all over Nigeria in peace. In Jos, the religious element is most often a grand pretext for inherently local issues.

“I think, having been to Jos, the central issue there is the relationship between the indigenous people and the settlers from other parts of Nigeria,” said David Zounmenou, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, in an interview with iMaverick. “For example, if you want to run for political office in Jos, you’ve got to be a settler or you’ll have problems. It’s all about access to resources, and access to political power. What is happening in Jos has nothing to do with religion.”

Jos already has some taste of what it might mean when the military takes “all necessary actions” to solve its problems. Take this account from an interview conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2009, detailing the military response to a ostensibly sectarian clashes:

“I saw a dark-green military vehicle pull up on the road with five soldiers. This was around 10am. Seven people were coming from the direction of the mosque. When they saw the military, they ran into a house. My brother was behind them and also ran into the house. At the time they [the people coming from the mosque] were carrying nothing in their hands. One of the military men went into the house and brought them out of the house to the road. The military man told my brother to stand to the side. He then shot the group. Some were hit in the chest and stomach. He then said to my brother: ‘You go’. When my brother started moving he shot him in his leg. My brother went down. He then shot him in the side and the chest. He was shot with three bullets and died at that time. The military man then turned and left.”
Given the army’s broad mandate from the president it seems unlikely that more restraint is going to be shown this time. “The decision to send in the military is an act of desperation from Jonathan. If you are giving the military full power and asking them to do everything possible to solve the problem, this will come at the price of human rights,” said Zounmenou.

Zounmenou suggests Nigeria’s government might be better served by focussing on the social and economic issues which underpin the violence, rather than fuelling the fire by sending in more guns and people who use them with abandon. But Jonathan’s already made his decision, and the streets of Jos will echo with its ramifications for many weeks to come. DM

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