At least 50 killed in ethnic clashes in Nigeria

Mon, Jan 2, 2012, 00:00

ONITSHA, Nigeria – Clashes between rival ethnic groups in eastern Nigeria’s Ebonyi state on Saturday killed at least 50 people, the state government spokesman has said, and according to police, mobile units had been sent to the state to quell the violence.

The clashes erupted from a long-running rivalry between the Ezza and Ezilo people of Ishielu district that periodically flares up.

There was no suggestion it had anything to do with wider security problems in the country stemming from a violent Islamist insurgency that set off a wave of deadly bombs on Christmas Day.

However, they are likely to add to President Goodluck Jonathans mounting security woes at a time when his forces are stretched.

“Up to 60 people died in the violence. It is difficult to give the exact figure because when we visited Ezilo community, which was the scene of the incident today . . . villagers were still bringing out corpses,” Ebonyi state spokesman Onyekachi Eni told Reuter. “Fifty corpses were shown to us.”

Violent disputes over land are common in Africa’s most populous country because the majority of its 160 million people are subsistence farmers living in rural areas with few means of arbitrating disputes.

Hundreds of people are killed every year in such clashes, many going unreported because of a lack of reliable information about them.

Chioma Oke, an Ezilo who survived the clashes, said they started around 5am.

“We heard sporadic gunshots and we began to run. They burned our houses. They said they were retaliating for an attack on them last year,” she said.

Meanwhile heavily armed troops and tanks were patrolling the streets of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria yesterday after the president declared a state of emergency in parts of the north affected by an Islamist insurgency.

Mr Jonathan imposed the state of emergency on the northeast, the conflict-prone central city of Jos, and part of Niger state near Abuja on Saturday, and closed the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger in the northeast.

Nearly a week after the radical sect Boko Haram set off a series of bombs across Nigeria on Christmas Day, including one at a church that killed at least 37 people and wounded 57, Mr Jonathan told state television his aim was to restore security in troubled parts of the north.

A Reuters reporter in Maiduguri, a remote city in the northeast and the centre of the Boko Haram insurgency, saw several tanks patrolling the city and groups of a dozen or more soldiers at a time out on foot patrol.

“We woke up this morning only to see armed soldiers all over the place and some tanks patrolling. We fear what may happen next,” said Maiduguri resident Buba Guduf.

Mr Jonathan said he had told his chief of defence staff to take other “appropriate” measures, including setting up a special counter-terrorism force.

The blasts at churches have raised fears that Boko Haram, a movement styled on the Taliban, is trying to ignite sectarian strife in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and top oil producer.

Mr Jonathan has been criticised by the opposition and Christian groups for what they said was a slow response to the bombings.

Residents of Maiduguri, located on the threshold of the Sahara Desert, have borne the brunt of previous clashes between Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is sinful”, and security forces.

Gun battles between security forces and Boko Haram killed at least 68 people in two days of fighting in the nearby city of Damaturu on December 22nd and 23rd.

Mr Jonathan, a Christian from the south, upset many northerners by running for and winning the presidency in April, tearing up what many saw as a tacit deal to rotate the top job between a northerner and a southerner every two terms.

On Saturday, he visited the scene of the deadliest Christmas attack, on St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Abuja.

“We will crush the terrorists,” he told weeping relatives of the victims gathered in the church for a vigil. – (Reuters)