By Misbahu el-Hamza
What is the major setback for peace efforts in Jos? Is it negligence from the governments? Or the ineffective or unsustainable strategies of the security forces on the ground? Could it be that God has forsaken the city for the crime of spilling innocent blood for decades? What have we done wrong, and how can we make amends?
I think the worst thing that ever happened to Jos from September 2001 to date is the systematic and deliberate disappearance of the once cherished plural community settings into a more homogeneous cultural make-up. Even though this is a product of various influences over the historical line, the major one, inarguably, is the episodes of collective violence for two-decade now in the city.
If you’ve ever been there, the communities in the city of “Home of Peace and Tourism” are now separated based on ethno-religious identity. When a particular group began to dominate another in a place, the minority will sell or evacuate and abandon their houses to move further away to avoid being surprised during crises. Everyone now has their schools. There are few to no Muslim students in the famous schools of St. Murumba College Jos and Demonstration School Jos. There are no longer Christian students in GSS Gangare Jos (save those who come to register and sit for WAEC). Some government secondary schools, which used to house students from different cultural and religious backgrounds, are now left to no use or serve their neighbouring communities. The state authorities have (in)directly invigorated this problem: it has for long forsaken the structures; allegedly, a Christian staff is only sent to a Muslim community as ‘punishment’ and vice versa.
The most frightening thing about this systematic separation of communities is anyone who deliberately, or by mistake, finds themselves in a neighbourhood other than theirs in times of unrest might likely not make it alive. This is happening in almost all the communities in Jos. I, for instance, escaped death in 2010 when I took a passenger from Terminus Market in the heart of Jos to Satellite Market in Rukuba Road. There wasn’t any crisis going on at the time; it was the ‘usual’ ambush on anyone who enters the ‘other’ territory. Okada/Achaba men like me and travellers who do not know the city well are the usual victims of such ambushes.
Ours isn’t like the Kaduna-Abuja highway disappearance where, if you don’t hear from your relative again, you will be praying and expecting a call from his abductees. No, in Jos, as a Muslim or Christian, you spray mats and begin to welcome people as you mourn the lost person in absentia. It’s this terrible.
The actors in all this? Mostly the youth. The youths who we always sing to be the “leaders” of tomorrow. The tomorrow that’s yet to come in Nigeria. Could one be right to ask how Jos could ever find peace if this is the path it has chosen for itself?
Despite all this sad reality, we all meet up in the marketplaces (basically the ones at the borderlines, which are easy to escape should the devil blow the horn) during the day. We enter the same busses to and from Bukuru. We meet and interact in the banks. Surprisingly, our boys and girls meet up during the weekends to party. In some instances, boys take girls home for further profligacy after partying. Somehow, we all agree to live like this. We only disagree with sleeping with our eyes closed as neighbours, devoid of any quarrel.
Posing the question of whether we truly need one another in Jos, earlier this morning, a school principal, Abubakar Nasiru, made the following point on his Facebook page:
“The mai ruwa, mai nama, mai gwanjo, etc., are hawking in areas like Gada Biyu, the Jentas, Rukuba Road, Apata, Busabuji, rendering their services to those communities every day – non-Hausa, non-Muslim communities. [On the other hand] The mai doya, mai atile, mai masara, mai tumatur, etc., carry out their petty businesses in places like Bauchi Road, Dilimi, Gangare. Rikkos, Nassarawa, and Anguwar Rogo – Muslim communities.” These people spend the whole day in those communities and cannot hesitate, if guaranteed safety, to spend their nights there.
In 2006 when I was in SS3, my community leaders recruited able youths, including myself, as Ƴan Sintiri (watchmen), to serve under the Banga (a mispronunciation of “Vanguard”) group, which has its history from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Our task then was to defend our four borders against any intruder during the night and to prevent the harassment of non-community members during the day. So we worked in batches to substitute other groups. This significantly helped, and in no time, other communities adopted the strategy. This gave birth to today’s form VGN in most districts of Jos. (VGN has been a registered semi-official citizen policing organisation with Nigeria’s Corporate Affairs Commission since 1999, though.)
But does the VGN give us the peace and courage to live under the same roof or as neighbours? Certainly no. The separation of communities based on ethno-religious identity will continue to hinder any peacebuilding effort in the tin city.
We cannot have peace until we tolerate each other. We cannot tolerate one another until we accept to live as neighbours. We need to respect our identities and use our diversity as strength just as we used to be 3 – 4 decades ago, to sleep with our eyes closed without an iota of fear that my neighbour will set my house on fire.
For years now, we’ve been deceiving ourselves with so-called programmes for peace, only to gather, quench our thirst for partying and separate back into the borderlines. This, too, must stop.
Plateau state government must be sincere in its dealings. It must engage honest stakeholders from all communities to drive its mission of restoring peace on the Plateau. Schools must be treated equally, so much as every perpetrator must face the consequences of their actions without consideration whatsoever. There must be sincere and rigorous campaigns to rebuild Jos to its past glories; Jos people must co-exist as neighbours irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Otherwise, Plateau is, in general, no doubt a failed state!
Misbahu el-Hamza is a freelance journalist based in Kano and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.