800,000 internally displaced across country - refugee agency

Some 800,000 people have been displaced from their homes as a result of communal and religious clashes that have rocked Nigeria over the past four years, according to the government's National Commission for Refugees (NCR).

Igna Gabriel, the head of the NCR, told reporters in the capital Abuja on Thursday that areas with the highest concentrations of displaced people were Plateau and Benue states in central Nigeria, Yobe State in the Northeast, Cross River State in the Southeast and the oil-rich Niger Delta.

He did not provide any breakdown of the figures by state or region.

However, Gabriel said Plateau State had the highest number of displaced people as a result of clashes between Christians and Muslim communities there. These had led to the burning down of 72 villages over the past two years, he noted.

More than 1,000 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims in Jos, the Plateau State capital, in September 2001.

Subsequently a low intensity conflict spread to the surrounding countryside, where the mainly Christian farmers clashed repeatedly with the predominantly Muslim livestock herders.

Several hundred more people died in these skirmishes, which forced several thousand people to abandon their homes.

Gabriel said most of the displaced people in Nigeria were women and children who were psychologically traumatised and required counselling as well as food and other material assistance.

“It is not enough to provide food and other relief materials for these people,” he said. “Their problem goes beyond feeding and clothing. Most of them saw their friends, parents and relations murdered in cold blood.”

In Benue State, land disputes between Tiv and their Jukun tribes also claimed hundreds of lives in 2001. The situation became more complicated after the army found itself in direct confrontation with the Tivs.

Nineteen soldiers sent to help quell the violence were ambushed and killed by a Tiv militia group. This led to reprisal killings by the army in several Tiv villages.

Gabriel said many of the victims of these conflicts had yet to be resettled.

In the Niger Delta, people had been forced to leave their homes as a result of persistent fighting between the Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobo ethnic groups, especially around the town of Warri, he added.

Gabriel said clashes between livestock herders and farming communities in the semi-arid northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa had also produced large numbers of displaced people.

Gabriel said inadequate funding by the government had hindered the execution of rehabilitation programmes planned by the NCR.

He appealed for contributions from individuals and organizations to aid the upkeep of the displaced as well as the setting up of more rehabilitation centres where they would be taught skills to smoothen their re-integration into society.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with an estimated population of more than 120 million.