Nigerian president playing with ethnic fire

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Rabi' al-Thani 19, 1420 1999-08-01


by M.A. Shaikh (World, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 11, Rabi' al-Thani, 1420)

The Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo - former military dictator and retired general before his controversial election as head of state last February has stepped up his purge of Hausa and Fulani officers in the security forces, largely replacing them with members of his own Yoruba tribe. The move, which affects top posts in the army, navy and the police, comes at a time of ethnic unrest in the country involving the Hausa and Yoruba, among others, and runs the risk of escalating clashes or of provoking a pre-emptive military coup by the targeted northern officers, who dominate the Nigerian army.

Obasanjo has so far appointed nearly 200 Nigerian officers, most of them from the centre and south of the country. On taking office at the end of May, he immediately imposed travel and other restrictions on officers. In June more than 100 officers were forced into retirement to remove those suspected of nursing political ambitions. The majority had held political office during previous military governments.

The president’s decision to intensify the purge of northern officers coincided with fighting between Hausa and Yorubas in the south-west of the country. Villagers who had previously lived together in peace engaged in clashes on Obasanjo’s return from the summit in Algeria of the Organization of African Unity on July 14. The Yorubas, who outnumber the Hausas in the area ,launched the attacks on the grounds that their traditional annual march had been disrupted because of the Hausas’ failure to stay indoors during the rituals.

The fighting led to many deaths, with officials putting the number of casualties at 25. But security sources were quoted in newspaper-reports as saying that a better estimate was at least 60 dead. The Hausa villagers were also forced to flee their homes - a development that was certain to add to their anger and bitterness. Many of the victims and other members of their peoples were likely to conclude that this calamity would not have befallen them under a Hausa president; while the Yorubas were likely to see the episode as a victory possible only under a Yoruba president. This is not surprising in a society whose members view high public office as a source of ethnic as well as personal protection and enrichment.

Moreover, many Nigerians, whatever their origins, would consider the fighting a sign of weakness typical of civilian regimes. Such belief, if widespread enough, provides a congenial environment for military interference or even intervention.

Fighting between the Ijaw and Itschikiri broke out on the day after Obasanjo’s inauguration on May 29, resulting in the death of more than 200 people. By June 7, the situation appeared to be out of control and led to accusations of weakness against the new regime.

But the clashes in the Delta state are negligible compared to a serious face-off between the Hausas and Yorubas, who are the country’s two largest ethnic groups. For one thing, Obasanjo is not seen as having any ethnic stakes in the violence in the Delta State, whereas he has a clear ethnic interest in his purge of Hausa and Fulani officers and in the outcome of any fighting between the two groups; and for another, the Hausas, unlike the Ijaw and the Itschikiri, dominate the army and will not see their privileged position attacked without a fight.

Nigeria cannot afford another civil war or, for that matter, another military coup. Obasanjo would be well-advised to halt his provocative military purge, if only to save his own regime.

Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1999

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