For decades Tivs and their Jukun neighbours in
Nigeria's central region have engaged in intermittent fighting, mostly over land and sometimes as political rivals. But in recent weeks, fighting between the two groups has assumed a wider, dangerous dimension, posing a challenge to President Olusegun Obasanjo's administration.
The Tivs, one of the biggest of Nigeria's numerous ethnic minorities, form the majority in Benue State. But smaller numbers are also found in neighbouring Taraba, Nasarawa and Plateau states. The Jukuns, however, are the majority in Taraba, which lies to the east of Benue, near the border with Cameroon.
Following a fresh outbreak of violence in Taraba State between Tivs and Jukuns early this month, the federal government began to deploy troops around the borders between Benue and Taraba to end the bloody feud. But on 10 October, a contingent of 19 soldiers was ambushed and captured at Vatse, near the border, by a Tiv militia. A few days later their mutilated bodies were found in a primary school in nearby Zaki Biam, a Tiv stronghold.
The militia's action, local people said, was prompted by previous
incidents in which armed men in uniform have attacked several Tiv
communities. Among the Tivs, there is a strong suspicion that elements in the military were backing their Jukun rivals either in sympathy with Nigeria's Minister of Defence, retired Lt-Gen Theophilus Danjuma - who is Jukun - or with his approval.
Indeed, the Tiv Progressive Movement, in a petition to Obasanjo, has accused the government of backing their rivals, alleging imminent ethnic cleansing against the community. The organisation purports to defend the interests of the community and is led by prominent politician Paul Unongo.
"The Tivs appear now resigned to a serious, long war, believing that they will never get justice from the government in their dispute with the Chamba-Jukun people [Jukun are also called Chamba-Jukun] because government is unashamedly firmly on the side of these people owing to the paramount influence of their big men in government," the petition said.
"Your Excellency, if allowed to proceed, this war will be vicious, bloody,and would be fought with a ferocity that it may produce consequences worse than, or at least, similar to the horrible spectacles seen in disasters of Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even Rwanda", the petition added.
At the moment, the Tivs feel that they are fighting a three-front battle. Apart from the Jukuns, they also have to contend with Fulani nomads with whom they have had bloody disputes over grazing land. In Nasarawa State, there are still bloody remnants from clashes in June involving the Tivs and the Hausa-speaking Azeri over land ownership. While camps set up outside Makurdi, the Benue State capital, for people displaced by the fighting in
Nasarawa, were still not completely empty, a new influx from the fighting in Taraba has filled them up. Local officials estimate that some 30,000 people are now living in the camps, in need of urgent relief assistance.
But perhaps more worrying are reports from hospitals in the area, where many of those injured in the fighting have been taken. At the Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, there are several patients whose limbs were cut off, not by the Jukuns they said, but by Fulani herdsmen who raided their villages near the border with Taraba State. Hospitals in Dananacha, Katsina-Ala and Vandekya, have also reported similar injuries in addition to scores of deaths.
At the funeral of the 19 soldiers killed by militants on Monday, Obasanjo reiterated his resolve to ensure that those who carried out the killings will be punished. "I have directed the security agencies to track down and bring the perpetrators to book. We will make sure this despicable act is never repeated", Obasanjo said.
But many Nigerians are keenly awaiting the form the punishment will take. By the military's antecedents, the expectation is that sooner or later troops will be sent in to ransack the rural towns of Vatse and Zaki Biam where the soldiers were respectively abducted and killed to serve as a lesson to other
communities around the country that may want to emulate the Tiv militia blamed for the killings.
At least this was the precedent set in 1999, when soldiers were sent into the town of Odi, in the Niger Delta, where twelve policemen had been abducted and killed by militant Ijaw youths. Two years later, Odi is still in ruins.
"Odi was a public relations catastrophe for Obasanjo," political analyst Charles Ige, told IRIN. "It will be foolhardy to apply the same tactics again in the current circumstances but again people in the Niger Delta are waiting to scream double standards if the same sledgehammer is not used. And that is a tricky poser for the government".
Thousands of people, expecting the worst, have been fleeing Ukum and Katsina-Ala local government areas where the two towns are located. And as if to confirm their fears Benue State officials report that the special forces deployed in the area last week confronted a contingent of soldiers that came over from Taraba to burn villages in Ukum. Apparently the soldiers that came over from Taraba were acting with the sole aim of avenging the death of their colleagues, one Benue official told IRIN.
Many analysts link the current bloodletting in central Nigeria to political problems dating to the colonial era. During this period the British delegated powers over this vast region inhabited by many ethnic minorities to its ally, the Hausa-Fulani Muslim caliphate that held sway in many parts
of northern Nigeria. The Tivs were one of non-Muslim minorities who vehemently opposed Hausa-Fulani influence, resulting in a major eruption of violence in the early 1960s that required military intervention to contain. While the Tivs preferred political alliances with southern political parties, the Jukuns teamed up with the Northern Peoples' Congress, controlled by
the Muslim feudal oligarchs of the north. Violent eruptions between the two groups were recorded in 1959, 1964, 1976 and 1991-92.
According to Ige: "The Tiv, Jukun conflict falls into the now familiar pattern of communal violence that has been sweeping Nigeria since the end of 15 years of military rule in 1999. They are symptoms of deep-rooted grievances and discontent that need to be addressed by the government. A military solution will not do".