Only days before 9/11, a weeklong episode of bloodletting began in the central Nigerian city of Jos as Christians and Muslims, neighbours for decades, fought to the death. But what exactly happened?
by Eromo Egbejule
Countdown to Perdition
The seeds of discord were first sown in October 1945 when a minor fight between leaders of the Igbo and Hausa trading communities left the latter unconscious. Fellow traders spread the rumour that he had been killed and the Hausas decide to revenge. For two days, they went about destroying everything in sight owned by the Igbos. As Leonard Plotnicov, an American anthropology professor who visited Jos between 1960-1962 notes, by the time army and police units were drafted in from nearby Kaduna to quell the crisis, at least two people were dead.
The January 15, 1966 coup left both Sir Tafawa Balewa and Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, the Prime Minister and commander of 2nd Brigade in Lagos respectively and by extension, the highest-ranking civilian and military personalities from the North at the time, dead. Many Southerners residing in the north lost their lives, livelihoods and property all of that year.
All of this was bubbling under the surface as many returned in the 70s after the war ended and Yakubu Gowon coincidentally from Plateau, declared a ‘no victor, no vanquished’ stance without a committed plan to national reconciliation and reintegration.
In 1967, Gowon split the region into four states. This shifted the political power and majority to Christians as the Plateau Province effectively became Benue-Plateau State, his home state. In time, this became Plateau State and Christian power was consolidated, remaining so for years. The 1992 division of Jos into two local governments (North and South) by the Ibrahim Babangida administration triggered resentment on both sides and further increased underlying political tensions.
Two years later, the first match was unwittingly lit. In his book, Breakdown and Reconstitution: Democracy, the Nation State and Ethnicity in Nigeria, the Sierra Leonean scholar Abu Bakarr Bah writes that in April 1994, members of the Birom, Afizere and Anaguta ethnicities protested peacefully against the appointment of Alhaji Aminu Mato, a Hausa-Fulani as caretaker chairman of Jos North Local Government area, where the latter were minorities. Mato was initially sworn in but eventually the state government at the time caved in to pressure and suspended the process. In anger, his kinsmen slaughtered cows on the highway one day and four people the next. This was almost two full years after the Zango-Kataf crisis in nearby Kaduna between the Atyap and the Hausa-Fulanis.
On June 20, 2001, more bricks were flung into the fire when another Hausa-Fulani man, this time an Alhaji Muhktar Muhammed was named coordinator of the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP) in the same Jos North by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. Bah recalls that Muhammed had earlier been forced to step down as chairman of Jos North LGA for falsifying his credentials. There had also already been accusations against Dr. Frank Tardy, then chairman of Jos North LGA that he had refused to issue certificates of indigeneship to Hausa-Fulani. Petitions from various stakeholders as well as reports by NGOs were sent to the state and federal government even as provocative leaflets were being distributed by both Muslims and Christians. But the authorities ignored the signs.
Back in 2000, the government of Sani Yerima in Zamfara state had officially implemented the Sharia criminal code which recommended amputation and stoning to death for a variety of crimes. There was a strong outburst in the largely Christian South and trepidation among Christians in the core North as other states moved to adopt the policy, that a grand agenda for the full Islamisation of Nigeria and the execution of all Christians, was now in full course.
It was only a matter of time before the cup was full and overflowing. Friday 7th September was that day.
The Lamp Hidden Under a Bushel
Okwi Okoh was five when his parents moved to Jos and twenty-one when he moved to Lagos to pursue a career in journalism that would see him end up in Nairobi as a correspondent for Reuters, the popular news agency. For foreign journalists trying to cover current affairs in the country, getting a Nigerian visa was – and remains – akin to squeezing water out of a stone so his bosses back in Kenya were only too happy to send him in for reportage whenever the opportunity came.
In September 2001, he was in Lagos for one of such assignments when the call came. “I was told to go to Jos because Muslims and Christians were fighting”, Okoh reminisces. “It was strange because I grew up in that city not being bothered about tribe and religion. We just knew people were from different states and had different religions but that was it.”
So Okoh left as part of a three-man team that flew from Lagos to Abuja, then took a vehicle to travel three hours by road to Jos. “We got in late on the second day of the crisis. As we were approaching Jos, we saw soldiers everywhere and it took us a while to convince them that we were members of the press. Things were so heated so they didn’t bother to delay us for long but they gave us an escort into town which is when we realised how serious it was.”
“There were crazy scenes everywhere in Jos. Cars set on fire, bodies on the road, people running all over the place. It was unbelievable because this is where I grew up. I had covered conflicts in the Middle East but this was home. The streets where I used to ride my bike as a teenager were now littered with bodies. My parents were in town but I couldn’t get to them because the part of town where they lived at the time had been cut off. Later, I managed to speak to them briefly on the phone before they lost power and their phones went off. It was insane and soldiers were firing guns in a gun battle but we could not ascertain who was firing back.”
The team and their vehicle managed to dock through the city till they found a free hotel, recoiling with shock on seeing different weapons at the emergency military checkpoints erected across town – machetes, dane guns, clubs with nails driven into them etc. By this time, a dusk-to-dusk curfew was already in place. The hotel was the popular Hill Station Hotel but it was deserted; the few staff still around had stayed behind only because it was unsafe to go home. They told the pressmen how they had heard that in the places where they lived, neighbours were fighting neighbours, friends had become foes. “It was as if evil spirit had possessed our people”, one of them told the journalists.
As is the norm in other locations around the world, governments in Nigeria have developed the habit of downplaying death figures either to score cheap political points or prevent further panic. Therefore, there are different estimates of the death toll but the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a December 2001 report puts it at ‘as many as a thousand people’. Mortuary attendants at both the Jos University Teaching Hospital and the state-owned specialist hospital had to do mass burials because of the sheer number of bodies involved.
Okoh and his colleagues went around hospitals and morgues trying to ascertain the actual number of casualties but does not remember. “We were arrested at that point and only after a lot of pleading and explaining before they let us go. As we were there, people were just bringing dead bodies in.”
On 10th September, the trio eventually left with their video footage which was to be aired on the new TV channel Reuters had just setup. But it was not until the next day that they got into Lagos.
“At that point, you could only file stories from Lagos so I had to make my way back there and to Reuters to do so”, Okoh explains. As he walked into the office, everyone was gathered around a TV screen. Some looked sad, some were perplexed and some may have even been crying. Osama bin Laden, an Afghan radical had just masterminded 9/11, the most high-profile terrorism act in world history in the unlikeliest of places – the United States of America.
“I walked straight to them and saw that they were watching reruns of planes flying into the Twin Towers. From that moment, nobody bothered about my report again. My boss said: “Hey man, I’m sorry you went through hell to get this footage but nobody cares about that anymore.” His face fell.
“I learnt in a deep, painful and haunting way why we must tell our stories and teach history from our perspective”, says Okoh.
At the time, he didn’t have the capacity to make copies of the tape, so Okoh simply followed instructions to send the original by courier to the Reuters office in London where it now lies forgotten in the archives. Two weeks later, he was on his way to Kano to cover the riots that had broken out as Muslims angered by a post-9/11 US strikes in faraway Afghanistan turned on Christians in the city.
Jos had, like the tape about it, been relegated to the corner.
Eromo Egbejule prepared this story with the support of the 2017 BudgIT Media Fellowship.
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