Nigeria’s Religious Violence Comes Amid Political Crisis

By Patrick Goodenough | January 20, 2010 | 4:31 AM EST

A poster used by Nigerians protesting the lengthy absence from the country of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. It says the president “was last seen 50 days ago wearing light blue caftan boarding the presidential jet to Saudi Arabia.” (Image: Citizens for Nigeria)

( – The latest surge of interreligious killings in Nigeria comes at a sensitive time for Africa’s most populous country, already in crisis over the prolonged and destabilizing absence of its president.
Responding to the outbreak of Muslim-Christian violence in the central city of Jos, which reportedly has killed several hundred people, deputy president Goodluck Jonathan -- after a high-level security meeting Tuesday -- ordered the army to move in to support the police and sent security chiefs to Jos “to assess the situation and advise on further steps.”
The violence presents a major challenge for Jonathan, ostensibly in charge since ailing President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua left Nigeria two months ago.
The president, believed to be undergoing treatment in Saudi Arabia for a serious heart condition, was not heard from for weeks, sparking speculation that he was dangerously ill, on life support, or even dead.
On Jan. 11 he spoke briefly to the BBC from Jeddah, and claimed he was getting well, although prominent Nigerians are among those saying they doubt the president will recover sufficiently to resume his duties.
In a centralized system where significant powers are vested in the presidency, the fact that those powers were not formally transferred to Jonathan in Yar’Adua’s absence had left a political vacuum and sparked several legal actions. A federal court on Jan. 14 eventually ruled that the deputy president could begin assuming acting presidential powers.
The crisis is not resolved, however. Constitutionally, the deputy president should take over if the president departs office, but there are complications, arising from the fact that while Yar’Adua is a Muslim from the predominantly Islamic north of Nigeria, Jonathan is a southern Christian.
When Nigeria emerged in 1999 from the latest of several periods of military rule, an unwritten agreement held that the north and south would alternatively hold the presidency. 
First up was President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner. He won a second term in 2003 following which he left the presidency after an attempt to amend the constitution to allow a third term failed.
The bitterly contested, violent and allegedly fraudulent 2007 election that brought Yar’Adua to power was meant to usher in the north’s term at the helm. Any move to upset that arrangement by elevating Jonathan to the presidency now could trigger massive unrest, along both ethnic and religious lines.
Relations between Muslims and Christians, comprising some 50 and 40 percent of Nigeria’s 140 million population, respectively, have long been marked by tensions and sporadic violent flares, as witnessed again this week in Jos where the torching of a Catholic church by Muslims Sunday and reprisal attacks set off three days of violence.
Jos is located in the central area of Nigeria where the Christian and Muslim regions meet. Hundreds died in earlier outbreaks of violence there in 2001 and 2008.
Islamist target
Nigeria has Africa’s second-largest economy and is the world’s eighth biggest oil exporter. Viewed as a leading power in West Africa, it has frequently been touted as one of two or three African contenders for a permanent seat in an envisaged expanded future U.N. Security Council. (Nigeria this month began a two-year stint as one of 10 nonpermanent Security Council members.)
Weighing against the leadership aspirations, however, are perennial religious and ethnic turmoil, attacks by militants on oil installations in the Niger Delta, and a history of military takeovers and political volatility.
There have been signs that Islamists view Nigeria as a target and prize as they seek to expand Islamic influence.
Last July, at least 800 people were killed in clashes between security forces and members of a radical Islamic sect in the north nicknamed the “Nigerian Taliban.”
Osama bin Laden in 2003 named Nigeria as one of six “most qualified regions for liberation” in the drive “to establish the rule of Allah on earth.”
Since 1999, 11 northern Muslim states have implemented shari’a law, moves which in some cases stoked tensions with minority Christians. In one of the states, Katsina, a shari’a court in 2002 ruled that a Muslim woman who had a child out of wedlock should be stoned to death, although the federal government intervened after an international outcry. Yar’Adua was governor of Katsina at the time.
Nigeria’s attempts to portray their country in a more positive light a decade after the restoration of a multiparty electoral system were dealt a severe blow when a Nigerian Muslim attempted to bomb an American aircraft on Christmas Day, allegedly on behalf of an al-Qaeda group in Yemen.
The group said in a later statement it had provided Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with the explosive device he managed to smuggle onboard the Detroit-bound plane but failed to detonate.
The attempted bombing led to new Transportation Security Administration rules. Nigeria was included in a list of countries meriting special attention. People headed for the U.S. holding passports issued by those countries, as well as anyone traveling to the U.S. from or through those countries, face “enhanced screening” before boarding their flights.
The decision prompted Citizens for Nigeria, an organization led by U.S.-based Nigerians, to write to President Obama, urging him to reconsider lumping Nigeria with “other nations with demonstrated and proven history of state-sponsored terrorism and ties to international terrorists.”
The other countries on the list are Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria – all designated state sponsors of terror by the U.S. government – as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow