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NIGERIA: Plateau state IDPs face daunting obstacles to return to "home of peace and tourism"

YELWA, 1 February 2005 (IRIN In-Depth) -

Allocated land for IDP resettlement near Marrabaran Bauchi state.
Credit: IRIN
Throughout Plateau state in central Nigeria, colorful billboards urge people to "give peace a chance", to "stand united" and to "restore Plateau the beautiful".

However, almost one year after spiraling violence between Christians and Muslims left more than 1,000 people dead and over 200,000 others displaced, many of those who fled are still too scared to return to the "home of peace and tourism", as this picturesque hilly state is officially known.

A six-month, state of emergency was imposed in Plateau by President Olusegun Obasanjo in May 2004 to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of mainly Muslim cattle herders by Christian farmers and retaliatory attacks by the Muslims, which were equally bloody and horrific.

Yet the state of emergency was lifted in mid-November. Many fear the lifting of exceptional security measures could presage a slide back into the bloody cycle of revenge attacks. Worse still, people fear that such killings could spread to other parts of Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 126 million inhabitants.

It would not be the first time.

The massacre of several hundred Muslims in the small town of Yelwa in southern Plateau state last May, sparked deadly reprisals in Kano, Nigeria's second largest city, 350 km to the north. Yelwa's Muslim majority went on the rampage against Christians from the south of the country.

The destruction wrought in last year's clashes is still plain to see in a string of towns and villages in and around Yelwa, where the violence reached its climax.

In Yelwa itself, life remains grim. The Nigerian Red Cross reported at least 600 Muslims were killed in the town during one particularly bad fight in May 2004. This incident finally triggered the imposition of a state of emergency.

Several mass graves in both the Muslim and Christian areas of the town attest to heavy losses on both sides over a period of intermittent skirmishing during the preceding four months.

According to an assessment mission led by the European Commission's Humanitarian Office in July 2004, up to 80 percent of houses in Yelwa were destroyed, decimating the population of about 26,000.

The Plateau state government calculated the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the state at almost 220,000 in September 2004, representing a cumulative total since ethnic and religious violence erupted in the state capital, Jos, in September 2001.

Some of those who fled Yelwa have returned and are trying to pick up the pieces among the rubble and charred remains of their homes. Still, few have the means to start rebuilding.

Esther Joseph and her nine children, who live in the one small part of her compound that remains relatively intact, are among these impoverished returnees.

Joseph witnessed her husband being hacked to death when gangs of Muslim Hausa-Fulani attackers killed some 70 people from her own, predominantly Christian, Tarok tribe, as they hid in a church in February 2004. Her house overlooks both the church, which was burned to the ground, and the mass grave where her husband and scores of others are buried.

"I never know what tomorrow will bring," Joseph said. "But I am not afraid because I have faith in God's protection."

The church is slowly being rebuilt, as are several mosques that were destroyed in the violence. Pastor Sunday Wuyep described the reconstruction of these places of worship as a "confidence-building measure" to help heal wounds and encourage the community to return.

Some of the wounds run deep, though, and will not heal easily.

Since news of the crisis in Plateau disappeared from the headlines within Nigeria and further, humanitarian assistance has been virtually non-existent.

The only relief agency present in the area, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Holland), is treating around 150 people a day, mostly for malaria and diarrhea, but also for trauma.

Many people witnessed their own relatives being mutilated and killed, and hundreds of women and girls were abducted. Some were raped.

Six-year-old Abdul Majid haltingly described how his Christian captors forced him to do domestic work and to drink alcohol. Relatives managed to trace him after he had spent seven months in captivity.

Although some of those who fled their homes at the height of the violence have returned, many others are too afraid to come back. These include several thousand displaced people who remain stuck in camps in neighboring Bauchi and Nassarawa states. Many others have been taken in by friends and relatives and are effectively hidden within their host communities.

As a result, there is no reliable data about the overall number of displaced people. Zanna Muhammed, the deputy director of Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency, said there had been no registration or verification of numbers of IDPs and many of the estimates in circulation were "grossly misleading".

Displaced girls awaiting feeding at Womens' Centre camp Bauchi.
Credit: IRIN
In Nassarawa state, to the south of Plateau, only 250 people remain in the Shinge IDP camp near the town of Lafia.

Some of the camp's former residents have integrated into the local community; some have joined relatives in other states, while others have returned to the Yelwa area to try and salvage what they can of their homes.

Many of those who remain cite a lack of shelter as the main obstacle to their return.

In Bauchi state - which is predominantly Hausa-Fulani and administered under Islamic Sharia law - about 3,000 IDPs from Plateau are living in a variety of public buildings in and around Bauchi city. They have even occupied two primary schools.

In the Muazu House camp, 32-year-old Maimuna Adamu, who lost her husband and five of her seven children in the May 2004 attack on Yelwa, spoke for many of those who fled.

"I definitely don't want to return there - ever," she said. "This will be my home now. But I need help to get shelter."

In the nearby Women's Centre, camp leader Husain Mohamed echoed the same sentiment.

"The great majority of people here will never return," he said. "In this place our own brethren welcome us. As long as Yelwa is under Shendam [the Christian-dominated local government authority] it won't be safe for us to live there."

Conditions in the IDP camps are generally good, with the Bauchi state government providing food and other relief items, as well as allocating some land for resettlement.

"It is not our policy to encourage resettlement in Bauchi," said Mohamed Babayo, director of the Bauchi state Task Force Committee set up to look after the people displaced from Plateau. "But with an estimated total of 24,000 internally displaced people still staying here, who may never return to their homes, we have to do something about it. Of course we have to be careful that we're not inundated with bogus IDPs trying to claim land, so we're proceeding very slowly and waiting for IDPs themselves to show genuine commitment to staying here and trying to rebuild by themselves."

More than 2,000 plots of land have so far been allocated to displaced families near Bauchi city, but conditions vary greatly.

At Baram there is electricity, there is a newly built primary school and a few new houses are going up.

Meanwhile, at Marrabaran, a handful of people have started trying to clear the rocky land to put up new houses, but there is no infrastructure for them. There has been some ad hoc assistance with building materials, but nothing at all in terms of income-generation projects.

Babayo blamed this on financial constraints and a lack of donor interest. He acknowledged that it could take "a very long time" for people to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

"But people are extremely enterprising," he added. "Host communities have also been extraordinarily generous and accommodating, so ultimately, people will succeed in resettling here."

Despite the high levels of fear and animosity, the majority of Muslims and Christians in Plateau state agree that land disputes and a long history of ethnic rivalry are the underlying cause of the simmering conflict between them - not religious differences.

Hausa-Fulani Muslims in Plateau have long complained that predominantly Christian farmers steal their cattle and prevent them from grazing, whilst the farmers counter that the Hausa-Fulani cattle encroach on their land.

"The crux of the problem is that a lot of people are coming to this part of the country and trying to stake a claim to land that is not rightfully theirs," said Sheikh Yusuf Gomwalk, an Islamic scholar of the Jama'atu Nasril Islam organisation in Jos.

He was referring to the entrenched divisions throughout Nigeria between people who are considered indigenous to an area, and those regarded as settlers. Even though settlers may have lived in an area for hundreds of years, they are consistently discriminated against in terms of land ownership, control of commerce, jobs and education.

In predominantly Christian Plateau state, the majority of "settlers" belong to the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, who have gradually trekked south from northern Nigeria and even Niger as the expanding Sahara desert has dried up their traditional grazing lands.

"It is only the politicians who play the religious card," Gomwalk said. "This whole crisis is part of a larger scheme by the northern power base to dominate the country's Middle Belt. But there is particularly intense resistance to this in Plateau."

IDP resettlement in Baram, where some houses are slowly going up.
Credit: IRIN
Some Plateau residents, including prominent community leaders, remain convinced that the state government initiated the recent crisis in order to rid the area of Muslim settlers. To them, the state of emergency was a blessing, which helped to restore confidence.

Others are adamant that the recently re-instated state governor, Joshua Dariye, was made a scapegoat for the crisis. He was ejected from power six months ago, while Chris Ali, a former army general, handpicked by Obasanjo, was put in charge of Plateau.

Nigeria has experienced numerous outbreaks of serious violence since the end of military rule in 1999, yet such emergency powers had not previously been invoked.

Obasanjo will be forced by the constitution to retire after serving two consecutive, four-year terms as Nigeria's elected president, but there are already two main candidates limbering up for the presidential nomination of his People's Democratic Party (PDP).

One is Vice President Atiku Abubakar. The other is former military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, who like Obasanjo, is a former army general.

Both these contenders are powerful northerners. However, Obasanjo, a Christian from the Yoruba southwest of Nigeria, is widely regarded to favor Babangida, who supported his own bid for power.

Yet one of Abubakar's key supporters is the disgraced Plateau state governor, who lost his power.

Against this background of Machiavellian politics at a national level, there are many who fear that the federal government's attempts to bring peace to Plateau state are largely empty gestures.

One set event that formed part of this process was a Plateau state peace conference in September 2004, which President Obasanjo personally attended.

This event was described by Yelwa councilor Abullahi D. Abdullahi II as "superficially good, but definitely not truly representative of the Plateau state residents and if anything, entrenching divisions even more deeply".

Questions are also being asked about a proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"This may be just a cover to avoid the issue of prosecuting and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the violence - including the security forces," said one Yelwa resident. "Until this happens there can be no forgiveness and no chance of peace."

Further violence could trigger potentially massive population movements with a destabilising effect on the entire country. Ordinary Nigerians can only hope that the politicians will see this as a risk too far.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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