A wave of devastating attacks and reprisals in the southern part of the state is a chilling reminder of rural Nigeria's vast security vulnerabilities and communal tensions.
Over the past two decades, Nigeria's Kaduna State has experienced a sharp segregation along religious and ethnic lines precipitated by about a dozen outbreaks of violence. Kaduna's Hausa-Fulani residents, who are mostly Muslim, are the majority in the northern half of the state, while the people of southern Kaduna are predominantly Christian, although tribally and linguistically diverse. The river that runs through the city of Kaduna, the state capital, highlights the starkness of the divide: the northern half is unofficially called Mecca; the south, Jerusalem.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 people are estimated to have died in incidents across Kaduna State since 1980, a pattern of violence that peaked in 1992 and again from 2000 to 2002. In 2011, when tensions boiled over across 10 northern states triggered by protests against the presidential election results, more than 500 people were killed in southern Kaduna alone.
Outbreaks of violence in this area have now reached an unprecedented scale and frequency over the past five years. Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency reports that 204 people were killed in southern Kaduna between October and December 2016 - the bloodiest period since 2011- though these figures are hotly disputed by various local and religious groups.
A history of violence
Southern Kaduna straddles the centre of Nigeria, and has a long record of intense political and ethno-religious struggles for power, territory, economic opportunities and agricultural resources. Under successive periods of political transformation in Nigeria, many of the tribal groups in southern Kaduna have shaped their histories and identities around deeply held grievances and the perception of suppression by the more politically influential Hausa-Fulani people.
A lack of development, declining education, poverty, weak and distrusted government, the diminishing influence of traditional leaders, political exclusion and rivalries, and the lack of opportunity for southern Kaduna's youth population have all played a part in escalating the crisis. The result has been a slow-burning, poorly-tracked cycle of bloody intercommunal violence mainly involving nomadic or semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen and local farmers.
But though ethnic tensions inflame the conflict, there are multiple challenges intertwined with sectarian tensions, including rural banditry, cattle rustling, land use and access disputes, farm and herding differences, transhumance and grazing disputes, electoral violence, criminal gangs, arms proliferation, high youth unemployment and even the prevalence of drug abuse.
Walking the tight-rope
The Kaduna State government, led by Governor Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, now faces enormous pressure to act. In office since 2015, his administration, and that of the federal government, have been accused of a conspiracy of silence, and are facing mounting popular criticism on the ground and on social media.
The governor must walk a tight-rope over the state's gaping majority/minority divide. His identity as a Hausa-Fulani and Muslim is already being used by some to measure his neutrality. El-Rufai's statements regarding compensation to transhumance herders - an occupation associated with nomadic Fulani communities - have come under sharp criticism, and play easily into long-standing local narratives of preferential treatment for certain ethno-religious and cultural groups.
Avoiding these controversies while at the same time restoring civil order, managing local instigators and pursing justice will be a defining test for El-Rufai's first term in office. The state's history of violence suggests the ongoing crisis cannot be ended simply through military or law enforcement means alone- no matter how sincere these actions may be. It will require a long-term, multi-pronged and well-resourced security and rural development plan.
It must also address the longstanding justice deficit and end impunity. This is a high bar for Nigeria's inefficient and corrupt criminal justice system.
In the past, the causes of violence and key instigators were identified by a succession of tribunals and commissions of inquiry, but authorities failed to tackle drivers of conflict, reconciliation processes were abandoned and perpetrators let off by law enforcement.
All sides feel strongly about their grievances and group rights. So, difficult though it may be, engaging traditional, religious and community leaders, elders and influencers in inclusive, representative and reflective dialogue is critical. Even hard-line critics of the government must be accommodated to an extent in negotiations.
Most important is that the government actions against security threats, and the settlement offered to victims, must be transparent and delicately balance ethno-religious and livelihood anxieties. A commitment to non-violence facilitated by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue - the Kafanchan Peace Declaration - was signed by key stakeholders on 23 March 2016, and can constitute a strong and realistic starting point for conflict prevention and building long-term arbitration and mediation mechanisms in southern Kaduna. With support from the state government, the dialogue process and agreement was adopted by local leaders from 35 communities spread across five of southern Kaduna's eight local government areas.
Resolution of the southern Kaduna crisis will present a significant challenge to state and federal government - but the stakes are high for Nigeria as a whole. Facing a precarious economic climate and ongoing security challenges of Boko Haram and in the oil-producing Niger Delta, Nigeria can ill afford the continuing disruption of rural agrarian and pastoral economies across its middle belt, which could cripple the economy further and have a direct effect on food security.
To blunt the sharp political and ethno-religious narratives that loom over the situation, the local, state and federal government must mobilize and empower the population in inclusive dialogue and dispute resolution processes. Moderates on all sides must also speak up. Resolution will only be successful if it starts from the principle that the fortunes of all southern Kaduna's people, regardless of ethnicity, occupation or religion, rise or fall together.
Leena Koni Hoffmann
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme