Nigerian Conflict Seen as a War Between the Poor

Clash Isn’t About Religion, Says President of Episcopate

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LAGOS, Nigeria, MAY 11, 2004 ( Conflicts that rocked the town of Yelwa last week were the result of political-economic tensions, not religious differences, says the president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference.

«It is too simplistic to describe these confrontations as a ‘conflict of religion,'» Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja told the Missionary Service News Agency. Violence left more than 200 dead in the Jos province in the state of Plateau, officials said.

«It is a war between poor, and the real problem is not religious, but political-economic,» he said. «There are ethnic groups that come from other areas who, subsequently, have settled in the Jos area, but they continue to be considered as foreigners.»

The state of Plateau, one of 36 in Nigeria, is inhabited primarily by farmers, whose extremist fringes consider nomad shepherds of the Fulani ethnic group to be «colonizers," with whom they dispute the use of the land.

The deaths resulted from clashes in Yelwa between armed groups belonging to the Tarok, an ethnic group of sedentary Christian farmers, and the Fulani, the Islamic nomad shepherds.

According to Yelwa’s parish priest, the conflict broke out May 2 when an armed group of Fulani youths entered a small nearby town inhabited mostly by the Tarok.

When they arrived, the shepherds went to one of the churches and rang the bell to convoke the faithful. As soon as some Tarok youths came out of their homes, the Fulani opened fire.

Expelled from the town, the Fulani retreated to Yelwa, followed by a group of Tarok. The Tarok reportedly had been waiting for an excuse to attack Yelwa, where in recent months the farmers were thrown out after bloody clashes with the Fulani.

According to Archbishop Onaiyekan, «What occurred is not an isolated case. It happens in many other parts of Nigeria.»

Such incidents «are quite a recent phenomenon,» he added. «For many years, communities of different ethnic groups and religions have lived together peacefully.»

«I think that the government has at least some responsibility in the disorder of our country and that, especially at the local level, it does not represent the people nor is it able to intervene effectively when incidents happen, as in the state of Plateau,» the archbishop said.

Monsignor Onaiyekan explained that in Nigeria, for example, «the Ibo and the Yoruba, natives of the southern areas of the country, are still considered ‘foreigners’ in the north, even after several generations.»

This is why «as bishops we request that the meaning of Nigerian citizenship be defined, so that one can freely choose one’s residence,» he said.

The archbishop said that in the ethnic-social maze of Nigeria, one must take into account the «classic and ancient rivalry between sedentary farmers and nomad cattle dealers.»

«A cow that invades a farmer’s cultivated land and damages the crop can become a cause of war,» he noted.

The Catholic Church in Nigeria has denied local news reports about alleged «Christian militias» organizing the attacks against the Muslim community in Yelwa.

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