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Ideas about ‘belonging’ lie behind conflict in Kaduna: this insight could help deliver peace

Kaduna state has experienced several violent attacks and destruction of property. GettyImages

When I was seven years old, my family and I sought shelter at a military barracks of the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna. This was in 1992, during the Zangon Kataf violence between the Christians and Muslims in my community. It was during that disturbing incident that I realised the complicated nature of social relationships among members of the two main religious groups, despite an enduring friendship and good neighbourliness.

Kaduna has been embroiled in several episodes of violent conflicts. These conflicts include the 1981 Kasuwan Magani crisis, the 1987 Kafanchan crisis, the 2000 Sharia crisis, the 2002 Miss World crisis, and the 2011 post-presidential election violence. The frightening intensity of these crises led to Kaduna becoming synonymous with violent conflicts and crime.

The consequence has also been that fear among the various groups has deepened, shrinking them into two visible religious geographic camps.

In my book, I set out to make sense of this situation. I sought ways of effecting some fundamental changes. I engaged with 50 participants in Kaduna – 27 were Fulani while 23 were members of other ethnic minority communities in the state.

The book is a response to the intercommunal conflicts and crime pervading Kaduna. But it goes beyond stereotyped narratives about group identities, particularly regarding the Fulani who are mainly in the northern part of Kaduna. Instead, I have sought to explore the people’s stories of violent conditions in their communities and ideas about achieving peace.

There are about 30 ethnic groups that share a similar heritage and language, based mostly in the south. The region, and the ethnic groups, are commonly referred to as Southern Kaduna.

For their part, the Fulani have a complex identity. Some participants in my study insisted there were Kachecheres or the settled groups in Kaduna, and the Bororos or the wandering or nomadic Fulani who straddle different West African states.

The history of the group is complex too, but its inroads to Nigeria is often traced to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Sokoto in 1809. The British favoured the Fulani (especially those they considered urban and literate, as opposed to the ‘rural backward’ group) as indirect administrators of the minority ‘pagans’ of the Middle Belt.

I found that the nature of the conflicts in Kaduna centred on controversies over what group belongs to the state in Kaduna and what group is the foreigner or non-indigenous community. It is simply the conflict of “who is who” in the state.

Uses of land

Most participants in my research assert that the disturbances in Kaduna are sponsored by a range of factors. These include:

  • the encroachments of Fulani cattle on the ancestral land of other communities,

  • the establishment of grazing reserve areas for the Fulani in territories which other ethnic groups consider their ancestral home,

  • the criminal, exploitative activities of bandits, cattle rustlers, and kidnappers, and

  • the perception of the expansionist tendency of the Fulani in Nigeria.

Within this context, it becomes convenient for various groups to invoke the language and politics of “belonging” in order to hold dear to a “homeland” they feel is ebbing away from them. The use of this language is what often sustains and incubates the conflicts between the Fulani and other groups in several parts of Nigeria.

What it means to belong

The ethnic minority groups of Kaduna mostly identify themselves as indigenous or the first comers and ancestral people. When conceived as such, they have a more durable connection to the land as the people whose ancestors were the first to establish themselves in the area.

I found that this sense of identification to the land is largely a reaction or response by the minority groups to their loss – perceived or real – of political and economic autonomy of their home.

The Fulani equally imagine themselves as indigenous citizens. They, however, insist they are a cosmopolitan-nomadic group who move and settle easily in places they find appealing. This identity is based on the idea that the land in southern Kaduna is a God-given resource to which no group can lay ownership claim.

The other ethnic groups reject this nomadic idea of belonging because it threatens their own sense of identity and rooted-ness as the “first people” of southern Kaduna.

On the whole, the crisis of belonging in Kaduna is a reflection of a deeper issue that is rooted in ethnic nationalism . And fuelled by contestation for power and control, and a struggle for ownership of a living space – or homeland – endowed with natural resources of fertile land, vibrant people and vegetation.

For the minority groups, it is a struggle to take back control of this “homeland” as a moral duty to themselves and posterity.

For the Fulani, it is a struggle for continued relevance and control of their power base and citizenship rights, not only in southern Kaduna but in other areas of the state and the federation. There is hardly any compromise in this endeavour as none of the groups is willing to leave the land for the other.


Read more: Why history matters in understanding conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo


The way forward

The troubles between the different groups in Kaduna are not absolute and do not mean the groups are permanent enemies. There are many cases of positive intergroup interactions. To focus only on their conflicting relationship is to obscure the reality of intercommunal life in the area.

This history of intergroup coexistence and solidarity, as well as the people’s resilience and willingness to build their own peace, could provide an alternative to the ongoing crisis of belonging.

But the Kaduna state government also has a role to play. It must ensure equal representation of all groups in power. The government must also respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the different communities in the area. It must allow them the rights to choose their own leaders and govern their chiefdoms, free from excessive state intrusion. And the state must engage – rather than suppress – demands for a just social order.

The prospects for enduring peace will also depend on the attitudes that groups adopt to finding peace. They cannot enter talks unless they are respectful and inclusive. They cannot negotiate based on first-comer or ethnic status, religious identity or colonial leverage, but on the value and dignity of people as legitimate entities in and of themselves.

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