Nigeria attacks stir fears of reprisal across ancient divide

Fri, Dec 30, 2011, 00:00

The Christmas Day bombings, claimed by Boko Haram, could inflame historical rivalries and rekindle the idea of partitioning Nigeria along religious lines, writes TIM COCKSin Jos, Nigeria

THE LINE dividing Christians from Muslims that runs along a rocky valley in the central Nigerian town of Jos may not be visible to the eye, but it burns in the minds of local people.

The mosque lies barely 200m from the main church in the Congo-Russia neighbourhood, a huddle of tin-roofed homes winding up a hill, and on its sandy pavements women in Muslim headscarves politely greet men wearing shiny crucifixes.

Jos, in Nigeria’s volatile “Middle Belt”, is historically a religious and ethnic tinderbox in the country’s sensitive North-South divide between Muslims and Christians.

Christmas Day bomb attacks by shadowy Islamist sect Boko Haram – suspected of links to al-Qaeda and with ambitions to impose Islamic sharia law in Nigeria – have stoked fears again of sectarian conflict in Africa’s top oil producer and most populous state.

“Over there is the dividing line,” said trader Anthony Baya (30) nodding at some houses cloaked in a haze of windborne dust.

“You can’t just go over to that place as a Christian. The Muslims can kill you,” he said, describing how six youths were hacked to death with machetes and dumped down a well during Jos’s last bout of inter-communal violence in November.

Nigeria’s 160 million people are roughly divided between Muslims and Christians, who mostly live side by side in peace.

But in towns like Jos, ruined buildings with charred walls sprouting weeds testify to past violence, and other flashpoints bear the material and mental scars of bouts of sectarian strife that have periodically bloodied Nigeria since its independence from Britain in 1960.

The Congo-Russia neighbourhood itself is named after the Congolese and Russian UN peacekeepers who kept the two communities from each other’s throats during Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s.

Boko Haram claimed three bomb attacks on churches on Christmas Day, including one that killed 27 worshippers in a Catholic church just outside the capital Abuja, and one in Jos which had no fatal victims.

The co-ordinated strikes by the northern-based Islamist group, whose name translates as “western education is sinful” in the Hausa language of the region, appeared aimed at prising open Nigeria’s religious faultline in a direct challenge to the government of president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner.

“Boko Haram is seeking to provoke retaliatory attacks on Muslims in predominantly Christian parts of the country,” said former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In Jos, local Muslims were wary of a possible Christian backlash.

“We are just beginning to live in peace, so we hope our Christian brothers can help us keep that peace,” said Mohammad Kabir, who like many Nigerian Muslims resents being associated with violent extremism.

“Boko Haram is not all Islam,” he said.

Stirring such fears, unknown attackers threw a crude homemade bomb into a madrassa, or Islamic school, in Nigeria’s southeastern Delta state on Tuesday, wounding seven people including six young children.

For some, such as Papa Jimba (46) leader of the Christian community in the Congo-Russia neighbourhood in Jos, the Boko Haram bombings have rekindled the idea of partitioning the country along religious lines.

“Let us divide Nigeria,” said Jimba, using his hand to trace a line between two halves of his wooden bench by the roadside.

“The Muslims go to their side and the Christians stay on our side. Then peace can come back. I’m even praying for that.”

The latest attacks in what seems to be an escalating campaign of anti-Christian and anti-establishment violence by Boko Haram are also being linked to a long-running political power struggle in Nigeria between north and south.

“There is a clear political dimension . . . there are political forces at play here that are using the religious dimension as a mobilising and amplifying force,” said Jennifer Giroux, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the university of ETH Zurich.

Nigeria’s internal politics have soured again since Jonathan assumed the presidency earlier this year.

His election victory was seen in the eyes of many northerners as breaking a tacit deal to rotate the Nigerian leadership between north and south every two terms.

More than 500 people were killed in post-election violence in the north after Jonathan’s victory, reflecting long-standing northern grievances about perceived alienation and exclusion by the central government from the fruits of national oil riches, concentrated in the south.

In Jos, the bombings also have the potential to inflame local rivalries that are really about land, ethnicity and power, but which have taken on a religious dimension that local politicians have a habit of using to settle scores.

The late deposed Libyan strongman Col Muammar Gadafy, who had long coveted ambitions of leading Africa, suggested in March 2010 that Nigeria split into ethnic regions.

The idea sparked outrage at the time, but has gained currency in some circles.

“People thought Col Gadafy was mad, but I’ve started to see the sense in what he said. If we can’t exist together with our Muslim brothers, then they can build their houses over there, and we build ours here,” said Rev Philip Mwelbish, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (Can) for Plateau state, where Jos is located.

“We have a proverb in Nigeria: if you push a goat to the wall, he will bite you.

“They’ve pushed us to the wall,” Mwelbish said.

Ayo Oritsejafor, national head of the Christian association, told Jonathan on Wednesday that the bombs were “a declaration of war on Christians” and he accused Muslim clerics of failing to take responsibility for their followers.

Muslim leaders retort that they are not to blame for the actions of a few extremists in the name of Islam.

At the green, yellow and white painted Central Mosque on the busiest street in Jos, Christian and Muslim leaders met on Tuesday in an effort to calm tensions.

“They should understand that we don’t consider the authors of these attacks to be Muslims,” said the mosque’s spokesman Sani Mudi.

“What are their teachings? Don’t forget Islamic scholars have been killed by them too.”

Concentrated mainly in the northern Nigerian states of Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna, Boko Haram became active in about 2003 and is loosely modelled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

It considers all who do not follow its strict ideology as infidels, whether they are Christian or Muslim, and its followers wear long beards and red or black headscarves.

The group made international headlines in July 2009 when its attacks led to clashes with Nigerian police and army in northeast cities, including its stronghold of Maiduguri. About 800 people were killed in five days of fighting.

In the same month, sect leader Mohammad Yusuf was captured by Nigerian security forces and shot dead in police detention some hours later, triggering vows of revenge by surviving adherents.

From early drive-by shootings against police officers in the remote northeast, the group has moved to more ambitious high-profile attacks, such as the August 26th bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja that killed at least 24 people.