Rage and Reprisal in Plateau State
By Matt Medved
The call came shortly before 5 pm.
I sat in the shadowed interior of a Fulani Muslim leader’s home in Dadin Kowa, one of the few Jos communities where Christians and Muslims still peacefully coexist. Alhaji Shehu Umar sat to my right, dressed in the traditional pill blue khaftan and cylindrical earth-tone cap of his tribe. My friends Dalington and Bashir reclined on an adjacent couch, spent after showing me around their neighborhood all afternoon.
The preceding conversation had been cordial and commonplace. Umar expressed his regret that he was on his way out and unable to offer me food in accordance with Fulani custom. I assured him I was already stuffed from an unexpected meal bestowed upon me by the neighborhood reverend’s wife. Not to mention, my lips were still throbbing from the pepper soup’s spice.
My phone erupted in a flurry of 8-bit tones. It was Chom Bagu, the Search for Common Ground Nigeria Country Director. Unsure of proper custom, I hesitated.
“I know Chom,” Umar said softly. “Answer it.”
“There has been some violence near Barkin Ladi,” Chom spoke gravely. “Fulani herdsmen have killed a senator and a state assemblyman.”
“Oh no,” I replied. The energy in the room shifted to tense silence; all eyes fixed on me. I asked if the event was related to the previous night’s attacks on nearby Christian villages that had claimed more than 56 lives. Muslim herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group were reportedly behind those assaults as well, though they denied any involvement.
“Yes, it happened at the victims’ mass burial,” Chom continued. “Security will be locking up the town due to reprisals, so you had better get home as quickly as possible.”
As I relayed the news to my companions, palpable tension turned to incredulity and outrage.
“A senator!?” Umar gasped. I handed him the phone.
I will not soon forget the way his face fell as he listened to Chom. His cheeks drooped as though the muscles had been cut, leaving his quivering lips half open in disbelief.
“Oh no… not Senator Dantong,” Umar repeated. “No… not that nice man…”
Although I could not understand most of the Hausa they spoke, I could tell Dalington and Bashir were expressing renewed shock at the slain senator’s identity. Umar hung up the phone, sallow-faced and frightened.
“I knew the Senator. He was an honorable man and very popular,” he said, motioning to me. “The town will not be safe soon. You must get him home.”
We departed Umar’s house with hurried thanks for his hospitality. The streets of Dadin Kowa were still blissfully unaware of the impending news. Hausa children in colorful veils and beige tunics nervously waved to me from the bustling market stalls we passed, tiny visages of surprise against a crimson studded backdrop of peppers and tomatoes.
After rushing to lock up Dalington’s cosmetics store, we headed to the nearby taxi junction to hail a car. I wedged myself into a sedan packed with eight passengers and rumbled off toward Rayfield. A hushed silence fell over the cramped car as the first news reports sputtered over the radio. It was soon broken by the occupants’ overlapping chatter. Frightened of being caught in the wrong area at a dangerous time, they were arguing with the driver over who would be dropped off first. My phone shuddered with vibrations, but it was impossible to reach in the backseat’s human tangle.
“Here is Government House Road,” the driver said, coming to a halt a number of blocks prior to the junction I had requested.
“No, the road is up there,” I replied firmly to nervous outcry from the spooked passengers.
The driver continued, slowing to a halt at the correct junction. I extricated myself from the vehicle and set off for the office at a brisk pace, avoiding eye contact with the gathering crowds on the roadside.
I reached the shelter of our compound and joined neighbors in discussing the news and observing the scene outside. Senator Dantong was a beloved Berom legislator, medical doctor and peacemaker who hailed from my area of Rayfield. There were conflicting reports as to the cause of death; some reported he had been shot, while others stated he collapsed with a heart attack in the ensuing stampede. The details mattered little. Among Jos’ Berom Christian majority, the senator occupied the stature of a Robert Kennedy and his death had similarly sent shockwaves through the country. With mourners wreathing the late senator’s home a short walk away, I found myself at grief’s epicenter.
Since studying the conflicts here, I have puzzled over the indiscriminate reprisal attacks that characterize them; the misguided nature of murdering the nearest Christian or Muslim on account of unrelated attacks elsewhere. While the logic (or lack thereof) still escapes me, I witnessed firsthand that evening how collective anger can escalate into retaliatory action.
The mob’s body language spoke volumes in the ebbing Sunday sun. As the crowd’s ranks swelled, shock and sorrow swiftly gave way to outrage, evident in furious gesticulations and the chaotic din of competing shouts. Cars lay abandoned by the roadside with doors ajar as their occupants joined the throng.
“Many Muslims will die on the roads tonight,” one of my neighbors said, shaking his head. “They will want revenge.”
A roaring tumult punctuated his point. I turned to see a handful of Berom men assailing a car they had halted with handheld clubs and pipes. Wheels screeched into motion as the vehicle managed to swerve aside and speed away from the chaos. Though I had few doubts, the fleeing driver’s visible khaftan and cap confirmed him as Muslim.
Many were not so lucky. A Rayfield reverend later told me that five people were killed along that road, joining an estimated overnight death toll of more than 100 in reprisals. While the charred outline of a torched vehicle still mars the grass along our junction, the situation was direr in the flashpoint areas of Barkin Ladi and Riyom. A research contact who got swept up in the mayhem there described harrowing scenes of indiscriminate murder and arson with blackened bodies left littering the roadside as twisted warnings.
As Governor Jonah Jang declared a two-day mourning period and indefinite 7 p.m. curfew the following day, I had plenty of time to ponder the weekend’s events. Rather than being discouraged by the bloodshed, I see it as a tragic affirmation of the importance of Search for Common Ground’s work here in Jos. Our conflict management training workshops are targeted to prevent the sort of crises that raged over the weekend by bringing together various stakeholders from both sides of the religious divide. While those who committed the weekend’s atrocities may not grace our roundtables, their community and religious leaders do. Cognizant that peace is a process, not an event, we must adjust our tactics and empower such influential individuals to quell reactionary rage before it erupts into a murderous firestorm again.
Jos is not a monochrome conflict. There are murderers and peacemakers on each side. While the news media might have one believe otherwise, for every massacre in Barkin Ladi or Riyom, there are myriad unsung areas that weather tension and trauma to remain peaceful. Viewing the violence as a setback, rather than defeat, I look forward to returning to work with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose.
Matt Medved is an International Intern with SFCG’s Jos office in Nigeria. Matt is currently pursuing joint JD/MA degrees with concentrations in International Law and Conflict Resolution at the George Washington University. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Matt previously covered crime and human rights stories in Cape Town, South Africa and traveled to Harare to freelance coverage on the disputed 2008 Zimbabwean presidential elections.