Lagos erupts in street battles and looting

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The Independent Online

Street battles that have claimed more than 100 lives in ethnic rivalry since the weekend flared again yesterday in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, as dispossessed youths known as "area boys", looted and settled personal scores.

Street battles that have claimed more than 100 lives in ethnic rivalry since the weekend flared again yesterday in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, as dispossessed youths known as "area boys", looted and settled personal scores.

In the morning, authorities ventured out to collect dozens of charred corpses and clear burnt vehicles from the rubble-strewn streets of sub-Saharan Africa's largest city, of 10 million people. Paramilitary police dispersed crowds by firing into the air near the Central Bank in the main business district. Shops, offices and schools closed and the normally bustling Broad Street area was deserted.

Later, the fighting that had flared between Yorubas, the majority tribe in the southwest, including Lagos, and Hausa-Fulanis originally from the north, appeared to have moved to the Abule Egba district, about 25 miles from Lagos. Witnesses there said one person had been killed but police could not confirm this.

Lagos police chief Mike Okiro said members of the militant Odua People's Congress (OPC), which wants autonomy for the economically-mighty Yoruba south-west of the country, had moved into Abule Egba, where there is a substantial population of Hausa-Fulanis. The street battles which began in Lagos on Sunday evening are among the most severe the city has seen since elections last year brought to power a civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, after 40 years of virtually uninterrupted military rule over the estimated 100 million people who make up Africa's most populous country.

More than 2,000 people have died in ethnic or sectarian violence in the last two years. It was ethnic tension in the east of Nigeria which in the late 1960s led to the Biafra war.

Journalists in Lagos said the latest trouble was sparked by fighting last week in Ilorin, near the city, in which six OPC members died after they controversially installed a new Yoruba traditional chief in the area. On Sunday and Monday, OPC members retaliated in Lagos, chiefly targeting market areas where Hausa-Fulani traders predominate.

By yesterday, the clashes had caused a fuel shortage in Lagos because tanker drivers - by tradition largely of Hausa extraction - were said to be refusing to load their trucks for fear of being attacked.

Nigeria, which was the subject of British "indirect rule" until independence in 1960 has hundreds of tribes, and its population is equally divided between Christians and Muslims. The British used sultans from the barren north of the country, and their networks, to subjugate the economically powerful and fertile south. This division - power in the north and money in the south - survived military rule, and even the discovery, in the coastal regions, of some of the world's most valuable oil reserves.

But now, as Nigerians settle into the freedoms of democracy, they are beginning to question long-held assumptions about nationhood. Since President Obasanjo's inauguration in May last year, several ethnic and pressure groups have emerged or gained prominence. Many activists want Nigeria to change into a federation of ethnic groups.

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