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20yrs after Jos riots, plateaued economy yearns for growth

20 years ago, within six days from September 7 to 13, 2001, an estimated 1000 people were killed when Jos, the capital of Plateau State, became the scene of mass killing and destruction never seen in its history up till that time.

Nobody in Jos at the time thought such violence could occur, and it has left tens of thousands of those who witnessed the carnage traumatised, and many, still unable to come to terms with that reality. The state itself, despite several peace and reconciliation reports, has not really moved forward. Economic development in the state appears to have plateaued out in 2001, and remains stuck there.

James Kpanto, a driver with a missionary organisation at the time, recalls trouble started with the appointment of a Hausa-Muslim into a federal position, a move that angered ‘indigenes’ who felt sidelined in a slot meant for the state. He claims tensions had been building up since the military era where mostly Hausa-Muslim officers posted to the state allegedly favoured people considered by indigenes as settlers, giving them appointments that made locals felt they were being cheated.

However, a report by the Human Rights Watch in December 2001, stated that; “in reality, the conflict was more political and economic than religious. It stemmed from a longstanding battle for control of political power and economic rivalry between different ethnic groups and between those labelled ‘indigenous’ or ‘non-indigenous’ inhabitants of the area.”

One thing was clear, resentment had been building up for several years, and it took one issue that may not have descended into violence under normal conditions, for the once peaceful state to unravel.

Kpanto recalled the burning of his pickup truck that was being used to haul things from the village, parked in his area, where both Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together at that time.

Read Also: What might have caused killing of travellers in Jos?

“It was even parked by the police station in that area but it was still burnt. A lot of people suffered destructions of their properties, more importantly a lot of lives were lost,” he said. For him, it remains sad that the political class has not been able to resolve the indigene debacle, not only in Jos, but across the country.

The losses persist till today mostly for two reasons; trust is yet to be rebuilt and insecurity remains a nightmare

“What happened was no joke and it’s still no joke, and had far reaching consequences,” says Okwi Okoh, a video producer, who was a journalist in Jos at the time of the riots.

“Our family didn’t suffer material losses but it was more of a mental and an emotional eruption,” he recalls. “Everything you thought you knew, everything you hoped for, all going up in flames.”

Okoh recalls the conflict started at a pivotal time because a lot of young people were trying to figure out what to do in Jos. The internet had started presenting opportunities, and some of his schoolmates had even ventured into internet-based investments, including setting up cybercafés, internet service provision, software developments etc.

“There was this cultural Internet investment, things were on the verge of kicking off and people my age were thinking we probably didn’t have to leave for Lagos or Abuja or the US like everyone does,” he says. Many would later vote with their feet following the violence, and some are only just starting to come back.

“A lot of people are coming back but simply for one reason; Abuja is too expensive to live so people are gradually coming back home but no businesses,” says Jonathan Zang, a businessman whose father was one of the pioneer miners and a leader of the Plateau elders forum.

Zang, along with his two friends, Kichime Gomwalk, whose father was the first military governor of Benue/Plateau State, and Eei Emmanuel Ayuba, a real estate manager and political activist were all born and bred in Jos and are some of the few people of their age-group that have remained there.

They took out time to share insights on what they recall from 20 years ago (when they were 27/28 years old), and the limitations for the economy struggling to shrug off the ghosts of that deadly past. For them, everything appearing to go wrong in Plateau today can be traced back to the violence from 20 years ago.

“Before 20 years back, Jos was a tourist haven with a lot expatriate presence,” recalls Gomwalk. “Major companies used it for their retreats, had guest houses etc but that stopped.”

Following the violence, there was a lot of shifting in safe zones, a lot of demographic realignment in terms of where people thought was okay for them to stay. “Communities shifted and remoulded after that. It has taken a lot of time to rebuild the trust that has broken down”, he says.

Ayuba, on his part, recalls there used to be a major distribution outlet for Dunlop tyre, which had one of the biggest warehouses in Jos for Northern Nigeria, there was also Kingsway, which handed over to a company called Lantana, which also later closed, as well as ANAMACO in the auto industry, now also closed. While the riots were not the sole reason for these businesses to collapse in Jos, Ayuba and his friends believe it contributed to it.

There was also the Terminus Main market that was patronised by people from other northern states from Maiduguri, Yobe, to even faraway Chad and Cameroon. The market, they recall was one of the earliest casualties of that riot as it was burnt down and till today struggles to be restored 20 years later.

“Up till now there hasn’t been a resolve to restore the damaged market because it is in a volatile area and I don’t think the state even has the resources to do it now,” says Zang.

For Kichime, subsequent administrations had tried to put the place back in shape but it has become a cash cow for successive governments. The market is described as a major revenue earner for Plateau state government and business owners, but, now, essentially a ghost of itself.

Wiebe Boer, was born and raised in Jos, leaving for the US to study but in 2001, returned primarily because of his PHD research. He also had two businesses at the time; one was a form of transport business with a friend. They owned a small fleet of vehicles and a couple of Okadas when they were very new in Jos. In the course of six days of fighting and killing, everything was wiped out. The pickup truck was burnt, some Okada riders were killed and the business was wiped out.

The second company was called Afrione, and set up along with some friends from Jos. It was initially a small internet service provider and also had a chain of Internet cafes mostly on Ahmadu Bello way in downtown Jos. Boer recalls it was booming and thriving before the conflict happened.

“It was the beginning of problems and forced us to start relocating to Abuja and eventually the company couldn’t sustain anymore,” he says. “The conflict made investors less confident in Jos and Plateau state. Less talent was willing to go there and work and eventually it was no longer sustainable.”

Guyit Nanpan, another business owner recalls his grandmother’s house was burnt and barely making it out alive. “It was one of the situations where those people destroying your house are people you grew up with, people that you know in the area,” recalls. “Those things are quite traumatic and it did bring a lot of uncertainty to relationships in Jos and also we had to automatically severe relationships with other parts of the area.”

Businesswise, it created a problem with the workforce. There was a time Nanpan had about nine workers mostly from Kebbi state, as labourers from there were more eager to work, but with the crisis people from faraway would not come to work and there were certain areas people would not go.

Uncertainties in the vegetables and generally perishable food industry caused by the crises, affected farmers as whatever harvests were not promptly sold became losses. Jos, because of its climate had a reputation for production of high quality tomatoes and some other vegetables not easily grown in other parts of the country.

“The key things as far as economy is concerned in Jos will hover around mining and agriculture, which is greatly untapped,” says Gomwalk. However, Plateau state is majorly known as a civil service state, so there are not much major businesses. According to him, those key industries that left really affected the state as well as decline in tourism since 2001.

“The domino effect of that over time are; people have lost jobs, people have lost opportunities, the opportunities the state has lost for the past 20 years I don’t think can be quantified,” he says.

The losses persist till today mostly for two reasons; trust is yet to be rebuilt and insecurity remains a nightmare. Until these two factors are fixed, it is unlikely Plateau state will achieve its potentials, buried deep under soil to be mined, and valuable crops that can be grown on top of its fertile soils.

“We need proper government presence, so everyone will feel it, because it has now become government of my party, not governance for everybody,” says Zang.

As Okoh told BusinessDay, “I haven’t really made sense of (the violence), but something died in me over those days (of rioting) and it hasn’t come back to life,” the same situation remains largely true for much of Jos, Plateau state as a whole, and its economy. Building trust among people who were once brothers and sisters, and ensuring security of lives and property remain key in achieving this.

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