JOS, Nigeria - President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in the central state of Plateau yesterday, suspending its elected officials and putting a retired general in charge of a region racked for months by sectarian violence.
In an announcement on state radio and television, Obasanjo accused Plateau officials of having "wittingly and unwittingly encouraged acts that have subverted peace and tranquillity."
The president suspended the state governor, his deputy and the state assembly. Chris Ali, a retired army general, was appointed administrator for a six-month period.
Obasanjo issued the order two weeks after a Christian militia attacked the largely Muslim market town of Yelwa, killing what could have been several hundred people and forcing thousands to flee their homes. Estimates of the death toll have varied widely, from 67 to 600. The incident in Yelwa sparked retaliatory attacks against Christians in Plateau and spread to Kano, a largely Muslim city in the north, driving thousands more to seek refuge.
The sectarian violence in Plateau began with an eruption of fighting between Christians and Muslims in Jos, the state capital, in September 2001. A government inquiry found that about 1,000 people had been killed in a single week.
Presidential adviser Femi Fani-Kayode singled out Plateau's governor, Joshua Dariye, for what he called "sheer incompetence" in handling the state's religious and ethnic tensions. He said the emergency decree was issued to prevent violence from spreading to other parts of the country.
The presidential order is to be reviewed by the Nigerian legislature today. It has already prompted warnings from human rights advocates, who said they feared potential abuses by security forces in the name of restoring law and order.
Adotei Akwei, advocacy director for Africa for Amnesty International USA, said: "Given the human rights record of the Nigerian security forces, we're concerned this could turn into a case of the fox guarding the hen house, as in the past those deployed to protect civilians used excessive force against them and carried out extrajudicial killings."
Obasanjo, 66, is a former military ruler who stepped down voluntarily in 1979 and ran for office as a civilian 20 years later. His election in 1999 was seen as a landmark in Nigerian politics, ending 15 years of military rule. But political and ethnic violence has dogged Obasanjo's presidency. His re-election last year was marred by charges of fraud.