Nigerian. checkpoint

How Sectarian Conflicts Permanently Alter the Psychogeography of African Cities

A week ago, African leaders gathered in Kigali to memorialize the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a sectarian conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus that consumed nearly a million lives in 1994. It was 100 days of terror for those who lived it and a nightmare for the rest of us on the continent, as we watched in helpless horror while it lasted. That event remains a watershed in contemporary African history. But Rwanda has largely bounced back from its difficult past to become one of the continent’s brightest stars. Its capital city, Kigali, one of the key theaters of that violent conflict, is today touted as one of Africa’s most beautiful cities.

Sadly, however, Africa has yet to put to rest the ghosts of its sectarian conflicts. It still contends with isolated pockets of conflict in a few of its cities and towns, events that occasionally degenerate into bouts of civil unrest. The heterogeneity of African communities has often enriched the social fabric of the continent’s cities, but that diversity has also become the source of its most contentious conflicts. Currently, a handful of cities and towns are incubating latent sectarian conflicts, simmering battles that put local residents perpetually on edge. While these conflicts are nothing near the scale or intensity of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, they have nonetheless redefined the socio-spatial dynamics of the cities they occur in.

As a direct consequence of these conflicts, residents of the most troubled cities naturally enact a new set of urban rules within them, guidelines often dictated by fear, angst, and mutual distrust. These conflicts ultimately leave cities fragmented and divided along parochial lines of identities, with each group restricting social interactions exclusively to its immediate community. This social delineation and accompanying segregation deepens the societal gaps between the different communities, further perpetuating conflict. These new forms of spatial realignments make engagement between feuding groups less likely; even in fleeting moments of contact, each views the other with distrust.

Three weeks ago I visited the city of Jos, in north-central Nigeria, for the first time since 2006. I had lived there for nearly a decade and also went to university there for a few years. Jos was one of Nigeria’s leading cities, affluent thanks to mining, offering beautiful landscapes and temperate weather. Expectedly, Jos became a melting pot, attracting Nigerians from diverse ethnicities and cultures. During the colonial era, it was a favorite rendezvous point of European colonialists and missionaries. In the last decade and half, however, Jos had experienced flashes of sectarian conflicts, the earliest of which I witnessed firsthand in 2001 while living there.

In September 2001, clashes broke out in Jos between Christian and Muslim residents in a low-income neighborhood called Congo-Russia; within a few hours, these skirmishes had escalated into a violent conflict and quickly spread to other neighborhoods across the city. Before long, the entire city was embroiled in fierce riots. For the few days that the melee lasted, homes, businesses, mosques, churches, and cars went up in flames. More than a thousand people were reported killed. I was trapped in the university hostel, along with hundreds of other students, for the duration of the conflict, surviving on nothing but maize prematurely harvested from the surrounding cornfields. It was a frightening experience, the memory of which is still difficult to relive.


The conflict has permanently altered the psychogeography of the city, as residents navigate Jos using peculiar routes, depending on which group they belong to. During my last trip, my host deftly steered us through the “safe” routes, pointing out routes to take, and those to avoid, as we snaked through the maze-like city.

That conflict and the series of skirmishes that followed over the years left the city severely fragmented and divided along religious lines, as each group sought refuge among kith and kin. Exclusive Christian- or Muslim-only neighborhoods emerged, further robbing the city of the benefits of its sociocultural diversity. Today, Jos is divided down the middle, with each group occupying its own side of town, rarely venturing into the other’s territory. The conflict has permanently altered the psychogeography of the city, as residents navigate Jos using peculiar routes, depending on which group they belong to. During my last trip, my host deftly steered us through the “safe” routes, pointing out routes to take, and those to avoid, as we snaked through the maze-like city.

Even worse, the city had also come under Boko Haram attacks at various times in the past. The terrorists detonated car bombs and concealed IEDs in a few public places. This has further heightened security alerts in Jos. Today, major roads in the city are cordoned off with military checkpoints, making daily commutes an arduous endeavour. The roadblocks and military checkpoints reinforce the semiotics of a troubled city, acting as perpetual reminders of division and fear. Though reassuring to some residents, the sight of AK-47–toting security forces on the streets creates the image of a police state and does nothing to erase memories of the conflict.

The current spatial situation in Jos and other troubled cities in Africa starkly illustrates how sectarian conflicts erode the quality of life for everyone living in them, even long after the skirmishes are over. It is for this reason that city officials on the continent need to adapt to the unique urban challenges these conflicts present. They must become more deliberate in their planning, creating avenues for cross-social interaction and integration, strategies designed specifically to bring citizens together.

It’s clear why Jos still hasn’t overcome its difficult past. City officials are permanently preoccupied with policing, to prevent a breakdown of law and order, at the expense of virtually everything else. Jos has few communal public spaces: no public parks, no malls, no central market (as most other large Nigerian cities do). Ironically, the city once had the largest market building in West Africa, the Terminus market. Today, that structure lies in ruins. Since a section of it was destroyed in a fire of suspicious origin in the late ’90s, it has stood, sadly, as a metaphor, a hole in urban fabric of the city.

While it is important to secure the city, it is also equally important to maintain it. The sight of broken streetlights, dilapidated roads, unkempt greens, and crumbling public infrastructure are all signs of a distressed city. They do nothing to either inspire or to heal a city recovering from sectarian conflict. City officials must also invest in a different security infrastructure that limits the presence of gun-wielding security forces on the streets, so as to ease the tension and help erase the memories of its bloody past.

Featured image: military checkpoints similar to this one are found all over the divided city of Jos, Nigeria. Photo via The Guardian.

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