The impact of Jos’ December harmattan was telling on the face of Ajida Isa. But the hurt he felt inside was even more evident as he spoke about a night raid on his community four months earlier.
On the night of August 24, 2021, attackers — whom Mr Isa claimed were their Hausa neighbours in Yelwa Zangam in Jos North Local Government Area of Plateau State — had broken into his compound, gunned down seven members of his household and set the house on fire with the dead in it.
His wife Suzaina, 50; son Titus, 15; daughter-in-law Monica Ishaya, 40; granddaughter Salvation Ishaya, 14; and grandsons Barnabas Hosea, 12, Ephraim Hosea, 9, and Timura Ishaya, 6, were all felled and incinerated that night.
Mr Isa, who is the Mai Unguwa (ward head) of Yelwa Zangam, managed to escape as the attackers decimated his household.
There were bullet holes on the door of his house now under reconstruction. The charred remains of the victims were buried a stone throw away. PREMIUM TIMES counted 32 graves. Mr Isa said some of the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition.
“[Before] the police and soldiers came, the attackers had gone. They killed 37 people in the village,” Mr Isa said. “This is what is happening here. We don’t know why it is happening so.”
Mr Isa’s neighbour, Bala Asabulu, lost five female members of his own household to the attack, including his 99-year-old mother, Halima, and four-year-old daughter, Goodness.
His wife, Deborah, 32, his daughter, Rejoice, 15, and his sister, Paulina, 42, were also murdered in the attack.
The youth leader of the community, Yakubu Bagudu, had a similar story to tell.
He was in a friend’s house when the attackers went berserk in his house. By the time they left, his brother, Bulus, 45, had been beheaded and butchered, after which his house and car were burnt down.
“There is nothing we can do. We had to run away. I saw fire burning my house. My car and everything was burnt down,” Mr Bagudu told PREMIUM TIMES.
“I cannot imagine why these attacks happened,” he continued. “We can’t understand what we had done (wrong). We leave it to God.”
His late brother left behind two wives and seven children whom Mr Bagudu now cater for alongside his own wife and five children.
The 13 casualties PREMIUM TIMES traced were among the 37 people killed in the night raid by gun-toting criminals in Yelwa Zangam, a silent agrarian community in crisis-prone Jos North Local Government Area (LGA) of north central city of Jos. The killings had sparked outrage with mourners taking the corpses to both the Government House and the Plateau State House of Assembly before the government responded with curfew and made a couple of arrests.
Meanwhile, troops of the Operation Safe Haven struggled to get to the area as the attackers had destroyed the bridge linking the targetted villages. The only police station serving the area is decrepit. So, whenever there is an attack, troop mobilisation and reinforcement is slow.
Attack was possibly a reprisal
Survivors say they believe the attack was a reprisal to an ambush on travellers 10 days earlier. In that incident, 22 followers of a Kaduna-based Islamic cleric, Dahiru Bauchi, were massacred and 14 others injured by a group of youth along Rukuba road in the same LGA, according to the record of casualties provided by the police spokesperson in the state , Ugah Ogaba.
While reports suggested “suspected herders” were behind the attack on Yelwa Zangam, the three men who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES accused the neighbouring Hausa community of responsibility.
“Three weeks before the latest attack, there was a disagreement between the Anaguta and the Hausa people,” Mr Isa recalled. “But the chairman of the local government and the Ujah of Anaguta met us and it was resolved. Then this attack.”
However, the youth leader of the Hausa community, Ahmad Muhammad, denied culpability, saying his people were punished unjustly. At the time of visit in early December 2021, 14 members of the community, including the community head and two of his children, were being held in police custody for months. The police declined comments on why the children were held and why all were held without trial.
Land Dispute Is Underlining Cause
At the heart of the dispute is a tussle between the Anaguta and the Hausa communities over the ownership of a parcel of land measuring about 1000 by 1000 square metres. The two communities are situated side-by-side in Yelwa Zangam.
The Hausas use the land as their burial ground, while the Anaguta said it is their ancestral land.
“It is our forefathers’ land. The Hausa people came to settle here. We asked them to buy it but they said it is against their tradition to buy a burial ground,” Mr Bagudu said.
Mr Muhammad, the Hausa youth leader, too said the land belongs to his forebears whom he said had settled in the village for almost 280 years, trading and living peacefully with their neighbours.
“We own the place and if you can get a 100-year-old person in this community he will tell you that his parents were buried in the graveyard,” he said in Hausa.
Trouble over the land began to brew when the road near the graveyard was flooded and passersby had to pass through the graveyard, trampling on the graves.
“We didn’t like that, so we closed the road. There was a misunderstanding and so we went to meet the traditional ruler of the entire community. But he said it was a neighborhood crisis and we can resolve it amicably at home.”
Mr Isa said the tussle to stop burial on the land has continued to spark hostility between his people and their neighbours.
“Before the Hausa people came to the burial ground, it was used to mine kuza (tin) by the Turawa (European colonialists),” he said.
Large-scale exploitation of tin in Plateau began in 1904 upon the arrival of Europeans invaders and has made the state one of the world’s major suppliers of tin, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. But years of tin mining has also left the mountainous state strewn with deep gorges and lakes.
“Anaguta people are not angry with anybody. We are calling people to tell them we are all the same. But some people are instigating the conflict,” Mr Isa said, and for the first time during the tense atmosphere of the interview, there was laughter in the room.
Mr Muhammad said his people too are open to peace talk which he said is “a continuous process. We are still holding meetings and we are very excited about the outcome.”
Conflicts on the Plateau
As the sun set over the bumpy landscape of Yelwa Zangam, long-horn cows herded by a teenager descended into a rocky stream that holds the bridge that was destroyed three months earlier. At the other side of the bridge were farmers harvesting cucumber and cabbages with sprinklers whirling in the background.
The scenic serenity obscures the hostility that claimed 37 lives months back, one that nearly threatened to tear the community apart.
That attack in Yelwa Zangam was just another of the bloody protracted conflicts that have for long defined certain communities in Plateau State.
With about 50 ethnic groups, the state is eco-climatically cold and rainy, straddling the sub-humid Middle Belt zone between Nigeria’s semi-arid north and humid south.
It comprises Christian groups – among them, Afizere, Anaguta, Berom, Irigwe, Ngas, Tarok and Ywom — on one hand, and on the other hand, Muslim Hausa/Fulani, whom the former commonly regard as “settlers” and “usurper.”
Stoked by political standing and religious sentiments, clashes between these heterogeneous groups often had to do with mutual animosity, manipulation of information and struggles for self-determination, control over land resources and chieftaincy affairs, interviews with residents and security operatives and historical records showed.
As the arid lands across northern Nigeria, as is in most parts of northern Africa, continue to creep outwards, coupled with the shrinking of the Lake Chad basin, the abundance of fertile green land keeps diminishing, pushing Fulani pastoralists down south for forage and into clashes with farmers over grazing rights.
So these criminal attacks are a battle for survival and supremacy exacerbated by poverty and unequal access to social benefits. But there are also non-discriminatory attacks, which have to do with pure criminalities, including kidnapping and banditry.
The Hausa-Fulani group, who are largely Muslims, are seen as a threat by some of the predominantly Christian smaller Middle Belt groups.
In a country which is “not as socially cohesive as it ought to be,” according to the 2021 Nigeria Social Cohesion Survey published by the Africa Polling Institute (API) which puts the national cohesion index at 44.2 per cent, sub-national solidarity and allegiances easily become people’s solace during conflicts.
Likewise, there is also the indigene-settler dichotomy. The Muslim Hausa/Fulani community would not accept they are not indigenous as they said they have nowhere else to call home as their forebears had lived there for centuries.
Like Mr Muhammad of the Hausa community in Yelwa Zangam, the chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) in Barkin Ladi LGA, Muhammed Muhammed, said he could not tell how and when his lineage got to Barkin Ladi the same way people of other ethnic groups may not.
“I was born here. My father told me he was born here. My grandfather told me he was born here. What I know is that I am from Barkin Ladi,” he said with a note of finality.
Meanwhile, the Berom/Anaguta/Afizere group insisted that they sold land to the Hausa-Fulani when the latter arrived, a report published by Crisis Group, noted. Different commissions of inquiry into the crisis have shared this view.
“The Anaguta people would go as far as saying that Jos started from Naraguta (derived, according to them, from Anaguta, their ethnic name) but that they accepted the two other groups (Afizere and Berom) as co-natives because they have lived together for long and share similar history and interests,” the report further read.
According to the 1994 Fiberesima commission report, an indigene of Jos is “one whose ancestors were natives of Jos, beyond living memory. This may not include any person who may not remember from where his father or grandfather left his native home for Jos as a fixed home, domiciled there as of choice for life; or who is ignorant about where his family moved to Jos permanently in quest of better living or in the process of his business.
“In the light of the above consideration or careful thought,” the report continued, “we concede to the claim of the Afizere, Anaguta and Berom tribes, and… declare that they are ‘indigenes’ of Jos.
“But as to the Hausa-Fulani people’s assumption, we make bold, on the evidence at our disposal, to advise that they can qualify only as ‘citizens’ of Jos .”
The concept of indigeneity was given constitutional force at independence in 1960 to protect and preserve the cultural and political makeup of ethnic minorities from being submerged by the larger Hausa, Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba groups. It has in turn weakened national allegiance and strengthened ethnic solidarity.
About a third of Nigerians identify more with their ethnicity than with Nigeria, compared to only nine per cent that feel more Nigerian than ethnic, according to the API survey.
The senior pastor of the Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN), Sylvester Dachomo, said lofty as the idea of undoing indigeneity may be, it has to be done across board.
“If we want to promote nationalism, it should be across [the] board,” he said.
“Jos cannot be a scapegoat for trying [nationalism]. I cannot go to Kano and say I am an indigene of Kano and own every right an indigene of Kano owns even though I am an indigene of Nigeria,” he told PREMIUM TIMES, further citing what, he said, was the control of Lagos by the Yorubas despite its cosmopolitan demography.
(Support for this story was provided by the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) under its ‘Strengthening the Delivery of Peace and Security (SDPS) project’).
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