II started with a crushed tomato that resulted in murder. Since then, clashes have occurred that have killed at least 20 people and a stalemate between northern and southern countries that has paralyzed Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
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Last month, a doorman with a basket of tomatoes in the crowded Shasha market in Ibadan, a city in southwestern Nigeria, accidentally spilled his cargo, leaving a mushy mess. An argument with a nearby shopkeeper over the cleanup soon took an ethnic turn. The doorman who spoke Hausa (a language that identifies him as originating from northern Nigeria) was beaten by a Yoruba man. When the porter struggled, his attacker collapsed fatally.
News soon spread on social media that a Yoruba man had been killed in the heart of the Yoruba country, creating long-simmering tension in a country divided between its mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. For hours, Hausa and Yoruba traders hacked each other or burned market stalls. It is believed that at least 20 people were killed. Thousands, most of them northerners, had to flee.
The clash broke out after years of increasing religious and ethnic tensions and between (mostly Christian) farmers and (mostly Muslim) shepherds. The International Crisis Group, an NGO, estimates that more than 1,300 people were killed in fights between farmers and ranchers for access to land in the first six months of 2018. Recent data is sparse, but many Nigerians believe the conflict has worsened and worsened in new forms. Since December, gangs of kidnappers have hit three schools, abducted hundreds of children and held them as ransom. Although the kidnappers have not been identified or arrested, many Nigerians believe – rightly or wrongly – that they are Hausa-speaking shepherds.
Instead of erasing ethnic hatred, politicians fueled it. Last year, the governors of six southwestern states hired local militias to form a regional security organization known as Operation Amotekun (“Leopard” in Yoruba). These guards were charged with brutality and even murder. 11 people are said to have been killed in December and January. Also in January, the governor of Ondo ordered thousands of shepherds to abandon land reserves in his state, blaming them for an increase in kidnappings and banditry. After the week-long deadline, Yoruba mobs attacked shepherds, killing some and destroying their property.
In protest, traders and cattle dealers from the north blocked the flow of food and livestock to the south. The blockage begins to bite. The usually busy Mile 12 market in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and commercial capital, has almost no meat sold. The price of tomatoes (important for making spicy jollof rice, Nigeria’s unofficial national dish) has risen. Baskets that once sold for around 5,000 naira ($ 13) are now priced at 35,000 naira. In the north, where most of the country’s fresh produce is grown, the prices of onions and tomatoes have fallen so sharply that many farmers are allowing the crops to rot in the fields.
The government has since asked the army to clear corridors where trucks can travel. And after the main agency “invited” the blockade leaders to discuss their complaints – before promptly arresting their president – the traders agreed to break off their protest and allow the food to flow south again.
It is not clear whether the government agreed to the protesters’ demands, which included compensation for those killed and police protection for the northerners in the southern states. What is clear, however, is that Nigeria needs better ways to keep its festering ailments like rotten tomatoes from popping. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print version under the heading “Armistice for Tomatoes”.