Elizabeth Donnelly
Deputy Head, Africa Programme

Violent conflict in the city of Jos - and in much of Nigeria - is about rights, access to resources and access to power. In the latest attacks, more than 200 people have been killed at the hands of mobs armed with machetes. These atrocities follow a violent outbreak in late January when more than 300 people are thought to have been killed and are believed to be reprisal attacks. The violence is not tribal, it is sectarian, but its roots run a lot deeper and are more complicated than religious identity.

Nigeria's constitution makes passing mention of the concept of the 'indigene' in reference to appointment of ministers, but the concept is not defined in the constitution. The term has become a divisive tool and has led to discrimination against Nigerians within their own borders, rather than safeguarding minorities in a nation of more than 250 ethnic groups.

Historically Jos was a tin mining town and drew migrants from across the country. It remains a city with a diverse population but economic decline and population growth have put pressure on land and resources. In Jos, the Muslim population is considered to be 'non-indigene' while the Christian population regards itself as the indigenous population - with rights to control political power and the state's resources - so the concept of the indigene has led to the use of religion to pursue political power. This has created tensions, suspicions and resentment within communities, which in the past had lived relatively harmoniously with some intermarriage.

The most recent outbreaks of violence have been stoked by rumours spread through text-messaging. Individuals from both sides who sought to prevent violence or did not follow the mob may have been targeted regardless of which community they belong to.

This violence follows a pattern, with similar outbreaks occurring in 2001, 2004 and 2008. The danger facing the people of Plateau State is that such conflict is likely to occur more frequently and with greater intensity if people's grievances go unaddressed and the perpetrators of violence go unpunished. Communities and families have been destroyed, possibly thousands of people have been displaced and infrastructure has been damaged - yet reparation and justice are lacking.

The response and effectiveness of the security services has also been problematic - often seen as partisan or excessively forceful, resulting in additional and unnecessary civilian deaths. In past instances of conflict, the state government has called commissions of inquiry, but these can be slow and impede evidence gathering and hamper prosecutions.

The timing of violence is often linked to political events, for example, local government elections in 2008. Though manifested as religious conflict, this violence is in fact dominated by politics and a winner-takes-all approach to governing. To avoid the situation becoming any worse, the state government must act with local authorities to take effective measures in assisting victims and punishing perpetrators, to curb hate-speech and control rumour, to identify and prosecute those responsible for organizing the violence and to work with civil society to attempt some sort of reconciliation. However, currently there is little incentive for state and local government leaders to tackle the problem in this way - in fact a fairer and more cohesive society could well threaten their own positions.

After the 2008 crisis in Jos, President Yar'Adua threatened to suspend the state governor, Jonah Jang, if there was another outbreak of violence, and perhaps he would have during the January 2010 crisis had he been in the country. Uncertainty regarding Goodluck Jonathan's position as vice-president or acting president has limited his capacity to take firm action and slowed his response.

Even now, although Goodluck Jonathan's status as acting president has been affirmed, politics and alliances in Nigeria are such that many question his ability to act with confidence and conviction - although the recent sacking of national security adviser Abdullahi Sarki Mukhtar may suggest he is becoming more confident. Until the political culture in much of Nigeria changes, this will likely not be the last or worst of the violence Plateau State will see.