Fear and Loathing in Jos, Nigeria, by Susan Shepler

Since 2001, Jos, Nigeria is internationally known for intermittent bursts of violent, inter-religious conflict. In addition, for the past several years Nigeria has faced terror attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram, what many would call the worst violent crisis since independence. On 20 May 2014, two bombs went off in the center of Jos, killing at least 118 people and injuring 56 more. The area targeted was Terminus Market, arguably the busiest and most densely populated location in town, a market used by all ethnic groups and by Christians and Muslims alike.

I’ve been living in Jos this past year, researching connections between formal education, the state, and armed conflict and lecturing at the university whenever classes are in session. In the course of my normal activities, I pass the location of the bomb blasts several times a week. The Nigerian government seems unwilling to describe what is happening as a war, but I lived through the tail end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and this fear, these checkpoints, it feels a lot like a war to me. Actually, not knowing where or when the next bomb blast will occur feels worse (to me) than living in war.

Now, over a month after the bomb blasts, the news media has moved on to covering the more recent bomb blasts in Abuja and Bauchi. (See Nigeria Security Tracker (http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-security-tracker/p29483 ) for a complete analysis of the staggering number of violent attacks). The world is not focused on Jos anymore, but Jos is still feeling the impact of the bombs.

During my time here I’ve heard lots of stories of how Jos was before the crisis, or indeed even earlier, in the seventies and eighties. I have only known the Jos that is recovering from conflict, skittishly holding on to a fragile peace. Even before the recent bombing, one of my friends refused to go with me to a film screening at the Alliance Française, saying, “We don’t really go to places where large numbers of people will be gathered.” My group of Sierra Leonean ex-pat drinking buddies canceled our regular Friday hang out because they didn’t want to travel “in these uncertain times.”

“This hold up na war – O”

How has everyday life changed in Jos? The biggest impact felt in daily life is in the area of mobility. There is ongoing massive road construction which snarls up traffic regularly. There are newly set up informal and formal road blocks all around town. And the police have severely restricted parking in town, so the shop keepers are suffering from a lack of customers. And now the state government is trying to stop street trading at Terminus Market (http://www.premiumtimesng.com/regional/164675-jos-explosions-plateau-set-to-enforce-ban-on-street-trading.html )

Violent attacks have happened around the state during my time in town, but they are what are known as “Fulani herdsmen” attacks, all rural, and apparently not a threat to people in town. But nobody really knows what’s behind those attacks. Are they simply bandits? Are they backed by certain politicians? Are the security forces involved? The security forces say they are protecting us, and then one hears rumors of army men behind village attacks. We just don’t know. Even about Boko Haram, we don’t know. The Jos conflict has been high jacked and used by so many for so many reasons for so long, one simply does not know what is happening. This is not just the ignorance of the foreign researcher. My Nigerian colleagues are also analytically frustrated by the complexity and secrecy of recent violent events.

For example, although the powers that be agree that the bombings in the market are most likely the work of Boko Haram, also circulating in Jos is the belief that the bombings are just a continuation of the Jos crisis. That is, local powerful people of some political stripe or another stand to profit somehow from continued insecurity. There is also the story circulating that a soldier in the nearby Rukuba barracks, a munitions expert, warned a women not to go to Terminus market that morning. She later praised him for saving her life, but suspicious Nigerians see proof that the military knows more than it’s saying.

Mythologies of security
In the face of such insecurity and ignorance we turn to the magical power of security technology. After the mall bomb blast in Abuja, the cry went up: “Why aren’t the CCTV cameras working?” As if CCTV could have prevented anything. One night in Abuja, after an evening of Star beer and “point and kill” catfish, we went into “the villa” (the Nigerian Presidential Complex) so one of our group could drop off his laptop. On our way out, he pointed out big white trucks parked on the sidewalk. He claimed there were machines inside the trucks that could scan us down to our underwear as defuse any bomb we were carrying as we drove past. I kept to myself my doubts that any such technology exists.

What’s the score?
One last vignette: Watching the World Cup match between Nigeria and Argentina in a local beer parlour the night of an Abuja bombing. People around us are looking at their smart phones for the group standings to see who will advance, sharing the numbers with neighboring tables. People are simultaneously looking at their smart phones for the number killed in Abuja, sharing the number with neighboring tables. I have the troubling sensation that these two tournaments are somehow parallel, as Boko Haram and the Nigerian government tally up numbers killed in an ongoing daily contest, where the lives of ordinary Nigerians are the dirt beneath their feet.

Susan Shepler is an Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., U.S.A. She spent the past ten months as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos in Plateau State, Nigeria.

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