The view from the ground on the eve of Nigeria’s vote

JOS, Nigeria–A series of bomb attempts, explosions, and other security incidents struck across Nigeria yesterday, on the eve of Nigeria’s parliamentary elections (which got off to a false start last Saturday when polling was postponed after voters had already turned out in droves). In the hilly and pleasant city of Jos, capital of Plateau state, where the license plate slogan is “Centre of Peace and Tourism,” Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 3,800 people have been killed since 2001 in brutal intercommunal violence that has taken on a sharply religious angle.

Last month, in the run-up to the elections, the international news wires and local press reported on a number of ominous incidents in the city: “military apprehends an explosives-laden truck,” “riot police fire teargas on youth at a political rally,” “two die in a foiled bomb attack on a church,” read some of the headlines. In recent days though, the situation has been remarkably calm in Jos, a city that has experienced enough “crises”–almost a euphemism for the spasms of violent killings that have periodically erupted here over the past ten years–to have impacted every resident and to have fundamentally changed the social, economic, political, and religious make-up of the community.

Buzzing around town on an achaba (a motorcycle taxi) yesterday to interview some religious and community leaders on their views on the “Jos Crisis,” I observed what appeared to be business as usual in Jos: street vendors sold pineapples and mangoes and oranges skillfully piled high for display to passers by, young children hawked rat poison and hankerchiefs to drivers stuck in traffic, and the city chugged along until about 1:30 pm when the call to Friday prayer caused a massive traffic jam near the central mosque in town. However, after a few interviews with local leaders and with men and women going about their daily lives in the city, it quickly became clear that the veneer of calm and order in Jos could easily be shattered, as it has been many times in the past decade, should tensions ignite for one reason or the other.

“Since 2001, it has become obvious that to hold an election in Jos North…it is not only dangerous, it is also deadly,” said Hajiya Khadija Ganbo Hawaya, a Muslim community leader and activist who is also an articulate spokeswoman for the Hausa Fulani community in Jos. Hajiya Hawaya, who says she likes to listen to the addresses of popular Egyptian imam Mohammed Hussan and who has followed the Arab revolutions with keen interest in the hope that her fellow Nigerians of all backgrounds will follow suit, links the violence that has devasted her people and Jos as a whole to one thing: the selfish interests of local politicians who are systematically destroying Jos by “engineering” problems between Muslims and Christians.

Recounting the story of how horrific violence came to be commonplace in Jos, Hawaya starts the story back in 1994, but keeps a razor-sharp focus on the role of the federal and governments, both under military rule and after “democracy” was instated in 1999, in instigating violence through unjust and corrupt policies.

Aside from the scores of lives lost in the violence, another tragic impact of ongoing “Jos Crisis” has been the complete reshaping of the human landscape in Jos. “You can call them ‘separatist settlements,’” said Solomon Dadalung, a local opposition candidate hoping to be elected administrator of a town outside Jos. “People have restructured [their communities] based on their faith or race,” he added. As an outsider it is not easy to know whether one is passing through a Muslim or Christian neighborhood, and many Nigerian men of all faiths wear traditional robes and hats that often only Muslim men don in other countries. Stop anyone on the street, though, and he or she will bring you up to date.

“There are no-go zones,” said Levi Gowon, 55, a civil servant working in the local judiciary. His friend, Sunday Agwom, 47, who works at the bank next door to the judiciary agreed, saying “the Muslims will kill us if we go to their areas, and same for them if they come to ours.” Asked if this arrangement was a good thing for the people of Jos, both reacted instantly: “It’s not good!”

“We are all Nigerians,” said Gowon, “we should all live together.” Despite these remarks, as the discussion veered into questions about which residents of Jos are “native” to the plateau region and which are “settlers,” opinions hardened on who should enjoy full access to the fertile land in the area and full rights as citizens.

As in a number of electoral constituencies across Nigeria, elections in the Jos North and Jos Central local government areas–the city is divided into three of these areas–have been postponed for the third time in the past week due to problems with ballot papers and other logistics; parliamentary elections in these areas will now occur on April 26, the same day as the state governor elections. Some residents of Jos will still head to the polls today, amid tight security around town and checkpoints manned by Nigerian military officers sent to Jos as part of a “special task force.”

“Our prayers are that people will go into this amicably,”said Imam Ashafa, someone who has seen the consequences of the violence and suffering in Jos over the past decade as an inter-faith peace activist working across religious lines to mediate with community members in the Middle Belt who have fought each other along these same lines.