(CNSNews.com) – The violence that erupted across northern Nigeria’s shari’a belt following the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, is taking a deadly toll on Christians, according to religious freedom advocates.
“From the cities of Maiduguri to Sokoto, both in northern Nigeria, the destruction inflicted upon Christians is enormous,” Open Doors USA said Tuesday.
“More than 60 churches were torched, thousands of houses belonging to Christians were destroyed, and both pastors and church workers killed. Christians in the villages were also not spared; many Christians were seen fleeing, abandoning their homes for fear of attack.”
Nigerian officials and media accounts attribute the violence largely to disgruntled supporters of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and former military ruler who lost the election to Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by a 59-32 margin.
Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in the country’s far north-east, is a city of more than one million people. Sokoto, with a population approaching half a million, is the capital of Sokoto state, in the far north-west.
Borno and Sokoto are two of 12 Muslim-majority states, all in the north, where Islamic law (shari’a) has been implemented since 1999. Muslims account for around 50 percent of Nigeria’s 155 million people, while about 40 percent are Christians.
Rioting was first reported in two other shari’a states, Bauchi and Gombe, soon after the polls closed in Saturday’s presidential election, and spread as results released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) pointed to an overwhelming Jonathan victory.
Violence has since been reported in several other shari’a states, including Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, Kano and Yobe, as well as in Adamawa, a state adjoining the Nigeria-Cameroon border that is not one of the 12 under shari’a.
Open Doors said it had received reports from Katsina about the deaths of several pastors, the torching of the houses in a mission compound, and the destruction of numerous churches. Churches were also torched in Kano and Yobe states.
International Christian Concern said it understood that more than 100 Christians have been killed and more than 40 churches burned down, and noted that even Muslim supporters of Jonathan were being targeted.
“Disputes over elections shouldn’t have been allowed to lead to religious violence against Christians,” said the organization’s regional manager for Africa, Jonathan Racho. “We have repeatedly seen Muslims attack and kill those of other faiths at the slightest provocation.”
ICC urged the authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Nigeria was the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. in January, after Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
In a country split along regional, religious and ethnic lines, the election results underlined the rift between the predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south.
Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change won all 12 of the shari’a states, by margins ranging from 52 points in Kaduna to 82 in Bauchi. Jonathan of the PDP meanwhile swept most of the rest of the country, recording huge majorities in the far south Niger Delta region.
Although foreign observers generally described the election as fair – and a big improvement over the last two presidential polls held since the end of military rule, in 2003 and 2007 – the Congress for Progressive Change is contesting results in a number of states, including Adamawa, where INEC gave Jonathan a 56-38 point victory over Buhari.
Apart from overall victory, the winning candidate was also required to receive more than 25 percent in at least two-thirds of the states, to avoid a second round runoff.
Although Buhari won the 12 northern states, Jonathan’s second-place result exceeded 25 percent in eight of the 12.
Nigeria’s Next news service said Congress for Progressive Change supporters in some of those states were angered by size of Jonathan’s vote count, deeming it to be bigger than should be the case.
“The fact that Mr. Jonathan was able to get the requisite 25 percent in states that are traditionally CPC strongholds and also win between 90 percent and 99 percent of votes in some south-south and southeast states, also made many of them suspicious,” Next commented.
Another potential flashpoint is central Plateau state, which lies roughly along the dividing line between Muslim north and Christian south.
The News Agency of Nigeria reported a heavy security presence in Jos, the state capital, in a bid to prevent violence there. Jonathan beat Buhari in Plateau state by 73 points to 25.
Jos has frequently been plagued by Muslim-Christian clashes, including episodes in 2001, 2008, January 2010 and again last Christmas Eve, when more than 30 people were killed in bombings targeting mostly Christian parts of the city.
“Last year there were more martyrs in Nigeria – approximately 2,000 Christians killed in the northern part – than in any other country in the world,” Dr. Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA said in a statement Tuesday.
“Nigeria is such a key country in the spread of Christianity all over Africa. Please join me in prayer for the Christians there, especially for those in the north.”
Saturday’s presidential election was held after parliamentary elections on April 9, and will be followed by elections for governors and legislatures in the 36 states on April 26.
Barnabas Fund, a charity focusing on supporting Christians in Muslim-majority countries, voiced concern Tuesday about the April 26 vote in Plateau state in particular, noting that the date “coincides with the Easter season, a time when Christians are already vulnerable to increased attack.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday the presidential election, although “far from perfect,” was a “substantial improvement” over the last one, in 2007. She called on the INEC to investigate allegations claims of ballot stuffing and “inordinately high turnout in some areas of the country.”
“The United States condemns the acts of violence related to elections and we call upon all candidates, political parties, and supporters to respect the results of the election and channel any grievances or challenges peacefully through established, administrative and legal redress,” she said.