Observers have long tied Nigeria’s very high levels of ethnic and religious violence to impunity, that there is a history of the security services and the judiciary failing to find and punish the perpetrators of violence. That reality, among other things, leads to a cycle of revenge. Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan openly acknowledged this reality when he addressed the U.S. Congress’ House Subcommittee on Africa on February 1.
Jonathan said there had been more than ten “major incidences of ethnic and religious conflagration” in the state of Kaduna alone since 1979. But, only once did the authorities move to identify, try, and punish the perpetrators. This, Jonathan said, occurred after the 1992 Zangon Kataf riots, which resulted in an official death toll of three-hundred. The military government of Ibrahim Babangida established a special tribunal, which sentenced to death fourteen perpetrators. Babangida’s government later commuted the sentences to five years in prison. Jonathan observed that in 2011 the radical Islamist movement Boko Haram bombed a church in Madalla, killing forty-four. The 2013 trial and sentencing of that perpetrator was “the first and only” instance of the prosecution of a terrorist crime against a place of worship since the 1999 restoration of civilian government after a generation of military rule. That prosecution took place, Jonathan said, because his own administration had the political will to proceed. In his remarks to the subcommittee, Jonathan recommended that Nigeria establish a “religious equity commission” to oversee enforcement of laws in the aftermath of religious and ethnic conflicts. Jonathan also said, “The point I want to emphasize is that my administration had the political will to halt impunity in Nigeria, and that is “why killings due to religious extremism was localized in the northeast with occasional killings in other zones in the north.”
Jonathan is surely right to focus on the relationship between high levels of violence and impunity. One can only wish that there had been more specific instances of his administration having demonstrated the requisite political will he claims to arrest, try, and punish the perpetrators of religious and ethnic violence when he was chief of state.