Nigeria Roiled Again by Muslim-Christian Clashes

By Patrick Goodenough | December 27, 2010 | 5:10 AM EST

Bystanders gather around a torched car outside the Victory Baptist Church in Maiduguri, northern Nigeria, on Saturday, Dec. 25, 2010. Authorities say dozens of assailants attacked the church on Christmas Eve, killing the pastor and four other people. (AP Photo/Njadvara Musa)

( – The season of good will brought little to celebrate in a city straddling Nigeria’s religious fault line, where Muslim-Christian clashes continued Sunday following a series of deadly bombings on Christmas Eve.

Elsewhere in the country, police blamed a radical Islamic group nicknamed the “Nigerian Taliban” for attacks on two churches in the north which left six people dead, including a pastor.

The violence comes a year after Africa’s most populous country and the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter made international headlines over a failed attempt by a Nigerian student to bomb an aircraft approaching Detroit. Like that incident the latest flare-up again highlights the simmering conflict being fed by Islamist sentiment in the West African nation.

Nigeria’s population is roughly 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, and the introduction of shari’a law in 12 northern states a decade ago has exacerbated tensions between the two communities, with periodic eruptions of rioting and violence.

According to a U.N. body focused on racial discrimination, more than 13,500 people have died in “ethno-religious” violence in Nigeria over the past 10 years.

The latest is taking place in Jos, a city in the central Plateau State which is located roughly on the divide between Muslim north and Christian south and has frequently witnessed flare-ups, including deadly clashes in 2001, 2008 and last January.

At least 32 people were killed and more than 70 wounded in three bombings there on Friday, targeting public places in mostly Christian parts of the town, including a busy market where people were doing last-minute Christmas shopping.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika on Saturday called the bombings an act of terrorism and President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to track down those responsible.

A spokesman for a Jos-based military security taskforce told a Nigerian news agency that no arrests had yet been made and that no group had claimed responsibility for the blasts.

Despite security patrols and the imposition of a night-time curfew a familiar pattern of violence erupted following the bombings, with groups of angry young men taking to the streets to retaliate for the earlier destruction.

A Nigerian newspaper, Punch, reported Sunday that at least eight more people had been killed in clashes between Muslim and Christian youths, with firearms and machetes used in the fighting. Buildings including churches and mosques had been set alight.

“Most streets remain deserted as people huddle indoors in fear of the worsening security situation,” reported another Nigerian daily, Next.

The violence was condemned by Pope Benedict XVI, the U.S. government and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, among others.

Election tensions

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella group, issued a statement voicing suspicion about how the Jos bombers had managed to smuggle explosives into a town that has been under tight security for months.

The statement signed by CAN’s Plateau State head said the government and security agencies appeared to have a hidden agenda in dealing with the crisis in Jos.

“Common sense will dictate that with the heavy presence of both uniformed and plain security operatives in the state such movement [of explosives] cannot go undetected,” it said. “That it went ‘undetected’ means that there is some collusion between the security agents and the perpetrators.”

CAN expressed concern about ongoing security and stability in the critical months leading up to presidential elections scheduled for April.

Religious tensions have already spilled over into the election campaign.

Jonathan, who has held the presidency in an interim capacity since the death last May of President Umaru Yar’Adua, announced in September that he would contest the elections. He faces a party primary next month.

Jonathan’s decision to run is a controversial one, since he is a Christian southerner. In terms of an unwritten agreement within the dominant People’s Democratic Party, the mostly Christian south and predominantly Islamic north rotate the presidency.

Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, succeeded a two-term Christian from the south in 2007. Since Yar’Adua’s term ended prematurely Muslims believe the next person elected to the presidency should also be a Muslim.

In a Christmas message, the head of the Anglican Church in Nigeria, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, raised concerns about the looming election season.

“We call upon the youth to resist being used as cannon fodder by desperate political leaders,” he said. “We call upon the political parties to prevail upon their members to ensure that the Nigerian nation survives this 2011 elections by avoiding extreme behaviors such as violence, maiming and killing, arson and the breakdown of law and order.”

‘Qualified for liberation’

Christmas also was marred for Christians in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno, where around 30 armed men attacked two churches in the state capital Maiduguri during Christmas Eve services.

A pastor named as Bulus Marwa was among five people killed in an assault on a Baptist church, while a security guard was killed in a separate attack on a church belonging to the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), an evangelical denomination.

COCIN has lost several prominent members in violence this year, including a pastor and his wife who were abducted and killed in a shari’a-ruled state bordering Plateau State last April, and the murder of two reporters on a COCIN publication in Jos later the same month.

Police said the Borno attacks were carried out by Boko Haram, an obscure fundamentalist sect that opposes non-Islamic education, science and culture and has waged deadly battles against Nigerian police.

Known locally as the “Taliban,” the group actively recruits young men and wants universal enforcement of shari’a law in Nigeria. Its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody in July 2009 but the group’s activities continue.

Although no evidence has emerged of any direct links between Boko Haram and Taliban organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nigeria has been identified as a key target for al-Qaeda.

In an audio message released in 2003 Osama bin Laden named Nigeria as one of six “most qualified regions for liberation” by Islamic warriors (the others were Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan.) He called on Muslims in the six countries to take steps “to establish the rule of Allah on earth.”

Opinion surveys indicate significant support for radical views among Nigeria’s Muslims.

In a poll of Muslims in seven key countries released early this month, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 34 percent of Nigerian respondents said suicide bombings could be justified in defense of Islam.

Only respondents in Lebanon scored higher (39 percent), while comparative scores in the other countries surveyed were 20 percent in Egypt and Jordan, 15 percent in Indonesia, eight percent in Pakistan and two percent in Turkey.

Asked their views on extremist groups, 49 percent of Nigerian respondents expressed favorable opinion of al-Qaeda. (By comparison the other countries were: Jordan 34 percent, Indonesia 23 percent, Egypt 20 percent, Turkey four percent and Lebanon three percent. Pakistan was not included in this question.)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow