Nigeria’s Muslim-Christian Violence Blamed For Hundreds Of Deaths

By Ahmed Saka and Jon Gambrell for The Associated Press

JOS, Nigeria — Christians and Muslims once shared their lives together in Nigeria’s fertile central belt, buying each other’s goods in mixed neighborhoods and cultivating each other’s farms across a sun-baked plateau.

But growing religious hatred, political and ethnic rivalries, and increasing poverty have led to two outbursts of savage violence already this year. Men, women, children and even babies were butchered, and that harmony seems lost forever.

Now, many people carry weapons and man impromptu road blocks, fearful of the military, the police and each other.

Sunday’s bloodshed was mostly about revenge: Christian villages near the city of Jos were attacked before dawn, less than two months after Muslims were targeted and a mosque torched. Hundreds had been killed in January, their corpses stuffed into wells and sewage pits.

Survivors of the weekend attack say simple, one-room houses were set ablaze, the flames illuminating villages that have no electricity. Residents, mostly of the minority Berom ethnic group, ran from their burning homes. Assailants with machetes were waiting. Many of those who were cut down were children. At least 200 people died.

One 20-year-old man arrested for allegedly taking part in Sunday’s attacks said his family members died at the hands of rioters in January. Of those who were attacked on Sunday, he said: “There are some people that kill all our parents. We went to avenge what they did to us.”

Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is almost evenly split between Sunni Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. The recent bloodshed has been happening in central Nigeria, where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of the nation’s fertile “middle belt.”

“Jos is a mini-Nigeria. All segments of Nigeria are here,” said state police commissioner Ikechukwu Aduba.

After the January violence, human rights groups said text messages had been sent with the addresses of mosques and churches. Texts also offered instructions on how to dispose of bodies. One read: “Kill them before they kill you.”

Survivors said the weekend attackers asked people “Who are you?” in Fulani, a language used mostly by Muslims, and killed those who did not answer back in Fulani.

Aduba, though, said some attackers had been paid by organizers to commit the killings Sunday, but he declined to give any specifics.

National leaders appear to have little control over this region in Africa’s most populous nation. The police and army failed to prevent these horrific massacres. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan promised security forces will bring the city and outlying areas where 1 million people live under control, but many of Jos’ Protestant Christians fear the Muslim-dominated police force and military.

Local youths armed with kitchen knives and machetes have formed self-protection gangs in neighborhoods and scrutinize each passing vehicle.

Sixty kilometers (38 miles) from Jos, in the village of Ku-Got, men armed with machetes, homemade swords, slingshots, and bows and arrows stand guard amid arid cornfields. Barricades made of boulders and cacti manned by frightened locals block many roads. Nigerian security forces rarely, if ever, patrol these areas. They’re usually beyond cell phone range and there’s no electricity.

“It’s clear these people are unprotected here. If you have to carry a bow and arrows in your own town, you are unprotected,” said Mark Lipdo, who leads a Christian foundation in Jos.

Despite once working on farms belonging to the Muslim Fulani ethnic group, the Berom people of Ku-Got now look out over the silhouetted mountains and worry that armed Fulani herders will be coming down the ridge. Villagers say they buried two old women killed by Fulani raiders Sunday. The attackers razed their homes, broke a glass pulpit at the Christian church and destroyed the community’s only satellite television receiver.

“They want to inherit the land,” said the Rev. Joshua T. Dafom, who preaches at the church. “They want to wipe us out to inherit the land to graze their animals.”

Fulani community leader Sale Bayari denied that Fulanis took part in Sunday’s killings.

He says groups of armed Fulanis now guard their herds of cattle rather than watching over their animals alone and unarmed as they once did. The men fear another “guerrilla war” against the ethnic group that left many of them dead during the January rioting.

Bayari says they are prepared: “My people have an instinct for survival,” he said.

Bayari is being sought by police for allegedly inciting the Sunday attacks. He spoke to The Associated Press by mobile telephone from a neighboring state.

Plateau state, of which Jos is the capital, has long been known as “The Home of Peace and Tourism.” It has unspoiled savannas, wild animals like leopards and hippos, waterfalls and curious rock outcroppings. But the monicker is now a sad irony.

Jos was also once a hub for tin mining, but its economic fortunes have waned in the last decades. Muslims are locked out of stable government jobs because the state views them as settlers, not Christian “indigenes.” Christians have a strained relationship with the Hausa-speaking Muslims who run businesses and live in the region.

All these tensions boiled over in September 2001 in rioting that killed more than 1,000 people. Mobs of Christian young men roved the streets of Jos, asking people if they were Christian or Muslim. When a person answered Muslim, the mob would attack with knives, machetes and sticks.

Another convulsion of violence hit in 2004, in which 700 people were killed. More than 300 residents died during a similar upheaval in 2008.

Now, instead of talk of peace, there is talk of more revenge and of pre-emptive attacks.

“Plateau state has become a jungle,” Bayari said.

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