For his whole life, Hausa trader Bashiru Tanko has lived peacefully alongside the Yoruba people of Ile-Ife in southwest Nigeria.
Originally from the northern city of Kano, Tanko’s father settled in the Sabo area of the city, where he built a prosperous family business.
“I was born and bred in this town. Even though my parents came from Kano, I have not known any other place I can call home,” 41-year-old Tanko told AFP.
“We have always settled our differences. We have lived together without acrimony for ages. We marry ourselves and do business together.”
But last month an altercation between a Yoruba woman and a Hausa trader triggered a bloody conflict that left 46 people dead, around 100 injured and houses razed to the ground, according to the police.
“I was shocked that what began as a minor dispute was allowed to snowball into an unprecedented carnage,” Tanko said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Locals say that upwards of 200 people — the majority Hausas — lost their lives in the violence.
“An accurate number is difficult to get, because most people don’t go to hospital when they are injured, or they bury the deceased themselves,” said Gbemisola Animasawun, a researcher at the Center for Peace and Strategic Studies in Ile-Ife.
“But I can confirm that most killed were Hausas. They were killed inside their homes,” Animasawun said. “It’s still very tense out there.”
Tanko’s family house was not spared in the mayhem.
As he walked through the streets of ruined buildings, Tanko stopped at a roofless bungalow blackened by smoke and littered with damaged household items.
“That heap of rubble used to be my father’s house,” Tanko said.
“I, my wife and our four children, now squat with a relation whose house was not touched,” he said.
– ‘Unprecedented carnage’ –
Hadi Ali, a local 48-year-old tailor, said criminals capitalised on the violence, seizing the opportunity to loot houses and shops.
“What happened was a small matter between a Yoruba woman and a Hausa trader which was immediately settled,” Ali said.
“The following morning, the woman’s husband, who happened to be a leader in the garage (bus station) went and mobilised his boys and they started killing our people, looting our properties and burning our homes,” he said.
“We are still bombarded with reports of missing people. Those killed were our people,” he said.
Ali said Hausas have fled the town, but would be happy to return if the crisis is resolved.
“Our people are leaving because they no longer have anywhere to stay. They are afraid of being attacked again,” he said.
Ile-Ife’s leaders claim that there is no cause for alarm, with prominent politician Bashiru Awotorebo declaring that Yorubas are ready for peace.
Meanwhile, traditional ruler Ooni Adeyeye Ogunwusi has set up a panel to reconcile the two sides and “prevent a recurrence of this unfortunate incident,” said Ooni’s deputy Idowu Adediwura.
But more needs to be done to assuage fears that the Hausa community remains a threat to Ile-Ife, and in the aftermath of the violence, there has been divisive rhetoric from political leaders.
Olajire Awowoyin of Ife Progressive Forum recently blamed an influx of foreigners from Chad and Niger for the unrest.
He also accused the police of being “one-sided and unfair” after arresting only Yoruba suspects.
Yinka Odumakin of the Afenifere Yoruba socio-cultural group too has campaigned in favour of the “unconditional release of the suspects to avoid igniting ethnic tensions.”
– ‘Unity in diversity’ –
Yet experts say that the root cause of the issue has less to do with ethnicity than with Nigeria’s economic recession.
“It’s the trend all over the world that economic problems lead to social and ethnic tensions,” said University of Lagos history lecturer Dapo Thomas.
“In Ile-Ife I can see a situation where the natives perceive the Hausa settlers as appropriating the existing opportunities in terms of jobs and businesses,” he said.
“My advice is that every tribe should recognise its faultlines and accept to live together in unity. There should be unity in our diversity.”
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is home to some 250 ethnic nationalities divided between a mostly Muslim north and Christian south.
AFP PHOTO / Bisi-Hotline ADEFISAYO