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
The Running Man
Thank God It’s Friday remains a motivating mantra in most campuses across the world on the last working day of the week. Staff and students eager to regain strength from one draining week before the start of another, cannot wait for the close of business so they can either enjoy time curled up at home or paint the town red.
Back in September 2001, Sadiq Nasir was a law freshman at the University of Jos and naturally chose the latter option. All week long, everyone had been going on about the mother of all raves to happen that night in town; as ‘happening guys’, he and his friends were certain to be there.
“We couldn’t wait for night to come” Nasir who was 20 then, remembers being excited. “I was not taking any chances so I had already dropped my outfit for the night at my friend Shehu’s house, which was in-between school and Pamooda Hotel. I had all the money I would need in my pockets already so there would be no foul-up that day.”
Just before noon, he headed to the office of his mom, a professor in the faculty to check on her since she was battling a cold. Eventually, he convinced her to go home and headed to the social centre for a cigarette. There he met three female friends who looked up to him as a big brother; their names were Lily, Uren and Dooshima. They cracked a few jokes, he asked them to go home and get ready to party hard that night, so they left.
As he stood chatting with his friends Benson, Jude, Semshak and his late cousin Kefas about their plans for the big night, a shirtless guy jumped over the school fence near where they were standing. He was dark skinned, quite stocky and he was bleeding from his head. A lot.
At the turn of the millennium, cultism was still a big deal even though many students had become numb to rival cult clashes. Nasir explains: “Many of us had been around it enough to have become somewhat jaded. However, whoever attacked this person really wanted to kill him. He had an open bleeding gash from the top of his forehead, running diagonally over his nose and stopped just short of his mouth. We saw him, we made the requisite “oohhs and aahhs” and left the area. That was how things were back then. You didn’t get involved unless you were ready to be involved.”
The boys made their way towards the school gate with the sole purpose of going to chill at the nearby Semshak Hotel or the even closer Fidash Bar just across from the school gate). At the gate, there were curiously no security men at the dutypost. As they stepped outside the school premises onto the usually busy Bauchi Road, they also noticed that the streets were empty. A shiver raced down their spines simultaneously.
Till date, Bauchi Road remains one of the busiest in the Jos metropolis. During the day, there is a buzzing orchestra of okadas, hawkers, taxis, beggars and more. By night, students and other night crawlers gather at the Bauchi Park further down the road to buy bread and eggs or noodles and eggs from roadside vendors, the Mai Shayi (Hausa for tea seller or literally tea man) or roast chicken and suya from their comrades, the Mai Suya. All sorts of activities go on into wee hours of the night so it is never quiet, let alone empty.
“Stepping onto this road and finding it so bare that there wasn’t a stray dog, chicken or errant child running about was for us more frightening than anything we could have previously imagined. We stood there in silence. Each person was struggling to rationalize this, this thing that we were seeing but could not understand.”
Then they heard shouts coming from further down the road. A mutual friend of theirs, Femi, was running in their direction with a girl in his arms and blood in his clothes. He ran straight into Semshak Hotel screaming “Lock the gate!! Lock the gate!!!” and the security men did so quickly. Having lost their target, the crowd turned at Nasir and others who had gathered outside the gate but the latter found their feet first, ran back into the university and locked those gates as well.
Femi had been in another part of town when he noticed some Muslims with their dagger at the throat of a young girl, blood already dripping slowly from an incision on her neck. Knowing that he could not talk his way into saving her life, he swooped in like a hawk, picked her and began to run.
The Bauchi road campus of the University is located in a relatively Muslim dominated area, so eventually the school was also attacked. Students like Sadiq and his friends protected the school and staff with all they had. They managed to move the staff from the campus to the University Quarters despite strong resistance from the Muslim youths who would have lynched them. Armed robbers who lived in predominantly Christian neighbourhoods and cultists on campus defending home turf, brought out their weapons to fight.
“See, this thing was going to happen on Bauchi Road one day”, Nasir narrates. “For over 2-3 decades, the extremely poor inhabitants of Unguwar Rogo, Gada Biyu etc would watch wistfully as students of ‘big men’ would speed past them in cars and splash water on them; they would lose family members to a stray bullet or two from a cult clash; drunk students would run them over with a car, hit their cars or bikes. They had no recourse because the police would never be on their side. Cult boys were regularly taking their okadas from them forcefully and using them for their own purposes. So this pot of slow brewing animosity and hatred for us had been boiling for a very long time.”
The Molehill Becomes a Mountain
For a monthly salary of two thousand naira only, a teenage Rhoda Haruna Nyam spent the summer of 2001 working at a bookshop on Bauchi Road. She had just passed her certificate exams at Government Secondary School Laranto, Jos and the job was keeping her away from sitting idly at home till she secured university admission. Called MD Bookstores, it was setup by one Mr Oni, a retired librarian at the University of Jos. The shop sold textbooks for primary and secondary schools as well as novels for young children.
The house that Nyam lived in was about five minutes away. One of three buildings situated side-by-side and all owned by her businessman father, it housed him, his three wives and their fifteen children, including her, the eleventh in the sequence. Her boss was gracious enough to allow her go home between 1 and 2pm to grab lunch and return quickly to man the shop.
On the afternoon of September 7, she prepared to repeat the routine. “Mr Oni wanted to go into town that day so he told me to hurry and come back that day”, Nyam remembers. “I went home to eat acha and gote, a traditional Birom delicacy.”
Right on the path home was a small mosque just before the road branched into Congo-Russia, the joint name for the Congo and Russia residential areas. In reality, it is a small parlour between two residential houses and actually just a prayer room for the Friday Juma’at. “Both buildings belong to one Alhaji Tijani who watched me grow”, says Nyam. “He would come to our house to visit my father when I was small; we would go to fetch water in that very compound.”
During prayers, the Muslims would block the road to the mosque and pedestrians would pass the culvert beside it endlessly. That Friday, Nyam passed it and was on her way back around 1:45pm with a full belly and smiling face. “If I didn’t take that path, I would have had to go through Angwa Rukuba on the left or the COCIN church on the right and use either route to go back to Bauchi road. Each would take me almost an hour.”
The Muslims were about to pray, mats spread across the entrance to the shops like they had done for years. Then two young boys stepped menacingly in front of Nyam.
“You passed here before and you are passing here again”, one told her. “Go back.
“For what?” she challenged him.
“You pass here all the time. Go back”
At this point, an elderly Muslim came out of the mosque to hold her hand and take her home. His name was Alankwasa; he too, had watched young Rhoda grow up. “He took my hand and said “Baba’s daughter, come let me take you.” To which one of the boys retorted, “you’re even begging her, let her try to pass so we slaughter her into pieces.”
The elderly man ignored them and took her home but the boys followed behind, with some others in tow. One picked a pestle lying around – one of her brother’s wives had used it to cook and left it. “Eventually, my father and elder brother came out to know what was wrong.” She pointed at the boys and her father asked them what the issue was. The elder Nyam had hardly finished talking before a shiny piece of gravel hit him right in the forehead and blood began dripping on his jalabiya.
“The people in the mosque came out and started shouting Allahu Akbar! Next thing, someone set fire to our houses. That was how a crisis started out of nothing. It was like the Muslims had been waiting for an opportunity to fight.”
No one knows exactly how the fight spread to the rest of Jos but for the Muslims, it was a killing spree all Friday long. While the prevailing belief is that they were probably incited by their Mallams, there were so many contradictory accounts and incoherent stories that lies began to resemble the truth and facts seemed like fiction.
“We escaped to COCIN church and other people came to join us, bringing different rumours with them”, Nyam continues. One said a young girl had passed Angwar Rogo (a devout Muslim community) with a mini skirt and they killed her. Many rumours.”
By the end of the crisis, Nyam who had been smuggled out to her uncle’s house in Abuja, appeared before a commission of enquiry to state her side of the story. Alankwasa and Alahji Tijani testified that she had been innocent in the matter and soon after, they all returned to their old homes. Nyam remembers that the commission discovered that there had been isolated incidents across Jos leading to the crisis. Because she was the only ‘culprit’ involved who had appeared before it, foreign researchers identified her for their interviews, making it seem like she triggered it all.
“It’s an episode I want to wipe away from my brain and not remember”, she admits. “When I got married and gave birth, these Muslims came for my wedding and to see me in hospital. I didn’t look for trouble or cause any fight and they know it.”
Wild Wild West
The 24-hour curfew imposed by the state government calmed nerves for a second but it quickly became clear that the military’s presence was feeble and that enforcing that curfew would be impossible except on major streets. Everyone was left to their own devices, literally.
Violence spread outside Jos after the first day, taking different dimensions. Bukuru, 16km south of the city had a Hausa monarch at the time; members of his family were killed and the story was that there were so many bodies in the street that cars had to roll over them like speedbumps, just like in the movie Hotel Rwanda.
26-year-old Amina Shehu remembers that Sunday 9th September was four days away from her tenth birthday. She and her two siblings, aged 6 and 18, were the product of a marriage between her Muslim dad and her Christian mum who had fallen in love twelve years earlier. For years, the couple had lived peacefully in the Tudun Wada Ring Road among mostly those of her mother’s faith.
In the thick of the crisis, a gang of Christian youths marched angrily to their house to kill her father who had been hiding in the ceiling for days. His life was spared because an elderly Christian neighbour pleaded with them for hours. When peace returned to the town , the family moved to another area of town, Rayfield.
Jonathan Eigege, now 24 and a Masters’ degree candidate in African Studies at John Hopkins University, witnessed the pogrom as a seven-year-old. A group of armed men – suspected Muslims – invaded his predominantly Christian neighbourhood, burning churches first and then going into houses to loot household items. There were about forty of them holed up in his parents’ bedroom and bathroom.
“As the sound of shattering glass picked up, and as feet thudded as men armed to kill jumped the fence into our neighborhood, I remember pulling the blanket over my eyes”, he remembers. “I did not want to see the person who would kill me. I do not remember what happened next. My next memory is waking up, alone in the room and walking out to see a massive clean-up process already underway and thankfully everyone was alive and well.”
Ten minutes into the siege, a group of armed indigenes from neighbouring villages in the state had come into town bent on inflicting harm on Muslims. It was they who repelled the attackers. The Eigege family packed a few bags and drove to the safer part of town to stay with friends.
”That drive is still the most scary experience of my life till date. We hit several road blocks, where we were asked if we were Christians or Muslims. When we answered Christian, we were asked to recite staple Bible verses such as Psalm 23 or John 3:16.”
“At these roadblocks, there were burnt cars and what I have now come to realise was the stench of burning corpses in the air…people who had failed the “Sunday School” test. At the last roadblock, my mother mustered the courage to ask the youth why they were committing these atrocities. One of them retorted, “Mama, ba’a abun da muna yi a nan da Hausa wan nan ba su yi ma mutanen mu ba” – (loosely translated, “Mama, there’s nothing we’ve done here that hasn’t been done to our people by these Hausas).”
There is a hill in the Gwarandok area, from which it is easy to see an expanse of the city including Millionaire’s Quarters, Rikkos, Water Board, British America. Some people stayed there for days, including Emeka (last name withheld). “From the hilltop, I saw for the first time in my life, that bullets moved like fire”, he recalls. “When the army moved into Rikkos, it was crazy. The kind of gunshots you hear sounded like you’re listening to an audio device with bass.”
The situation was as chaotic as MI Abaga would describe it almost a decade later on Wild Wild West, off his sophomore album, MI2.
Blood on her street, smoke in her sky,
Can’t feel her heart beat no hope in her eye
Orphans, coffins, bastards, caskets, mass burials,
how we gonna move past this?
Better get your gun,
Better get your vest,
Cos in J town it’s the Wild Wild West,
Down here everyone curse, no one bless
MI Abaga, Wild Wild West (2011)
The Hotspot That Keeps Connecting
According to a US government memo obtained from Wikileaks, American citizens in town including the missionaries were not hurt. Essentially, it was neighbour- fighting-neighbour, Nigerian-duelling-Nigerian, one black man against the other.
Wiebe Boer was one of three Fulbright scholars working at the University of Jos and living in the city centre, in a house next to a mansion belonging to Adamu Muazu’u, ex-governor of nearby Bauchi. Boer had been born in the city to missionaries and was back to do a doctoral research in African history.
“There was no social media and mobile phones weren’t that common”, he remembers. Just a few people had emails so very little information was known. The ambassador would call periodically to check on us in the house since I was the only one with a landline. I was technically their responsibility so they reached out to us to check if we were safe.”
“We closed the cybercafé we were running near the post office and told our customers to run home. As at Sunday, indigenes were going through the GRA (Government Reserved Area) targeting Muslim houses. They attacked Muazu’s mansion and came to our gate. That was when it came close to home for me; we had no weapons.”
As they prepared to break our gate down and continue their destruction, it suddenly began to rain. “It was so strange, rain in September. But it made them leave.”
By Thursday, 13th September, over a thousand people had died and the remaining embers of the war had been extinguished but Jos would never remain the same. Things reached a crescendo in May 2004, when president Olusegun finally declared a state of emergency, temporarily replacing the state governor Joshua Dariye with a military administrator. Perhaps if that week in 2001 had not been overshadowed by the overwhelming coverage of 9/11 on local and international media channels, it would have been remembered as a week of sorrow.
Army tanks came out every Friday to forestall future episodes. Two commissions of inquiry also came into place, one appointed by the federal government and the other by the Plateau state government, each submitting reports that were never implemented.
Have any lessons been learnt?
“There was never a concerted effort to heal, no community participation or truth and reconciliatory commission”, says Okoh. “It’s like a wound still open that no one is making any efforts to stitch or to heal.”
His hypothesis is that the transition from military to democratic system of governance unwittingly hurt the status quo. “Pandora’s box opened over the land with the allocation of resources and political positions as democracy came in 1999. Abacha was no longer there to keep a lid on things with his iron fist so underlying tensions and rivalries that could not erupt under military rule, came to the fore. That year, we were running all the time. If it wasn’t Kano, Kaduna, Lagos. Democracy had become demon-crazy.”
Has democracy been an enabler of violence?
The jury remains out on that; in the meantime, there have been repeat episodes of the crisis in 2002, 2008 and 2010. The trauma remains for survivors and their families even as the Middle Belt remains a potential hotspot for violence. Even more scary is the fact that both indigenes and settlers used weapons they kept in their possession from the first crisis – and those tools of trade remain dormant but ready.
“There is an imaginary – but very real – line that broadly bifurcates Nigeria in many ways: culturally, socio-economically, religiously, and even by perceptions of what Nigeria is and should be”, says Eigege.
“Most Nigerians, on both sides of this divide, are not aware of it, and many they can afford such ignorance. The people of Nigeria’s Middle Belt cannot afford such ignorance. Moreso, the inhabitants of the city of Jos, which sits squarely on that line has in many ways since September 2001 come to mirror the Nigerian condition, with two different lived realities bifurcated by an arbitrary, but very tangible demarcation.”
As one of those straddling the line, Abdulkareem was saved by the same double identity that almost condemned him to an early death. While growing up in Lagos, he and his two siblings had attended Catholic schools so it was easy for him to recite the Lord’s Prayer. He went home with the lady who had saved him and she hid him for days until it was safe to come out. Farouk, his younger brother ran to the motor park and joined other strangers who escaped to Abuja. His uncle’s house and business premises were razed down and the man ran to Lokoja; all that remained of his several decades of labour were ashes.
A week later, Abdulkareem was on his way to his native Kogi, to the comfort of his mother’s embrace and the safety of his father’s compound with a chin shaved clean and a few clothes; everything else was left behind in the city he once called home. Neither he nor any member of his extended family has stepped in Jos since.
Eromo Egbejule prepared this story with the support of the 2017 BudgIT Media Fellowship.
Creative mind. Enthusiast. Learner. Multipotentialite. And here, an assistant editor.