As violence reigns, some flee north Nigeria

March 19, 2012 - 5:36 PM
Nigeria Fleeing the North

In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, Igbo people demonstrate on a street following the death of their leader Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in Nnewi, Nigeria. Assaults by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram have sent many Igbo people to flee the north even as state officials and others downplay the exodus, likely out of fear of sparking retaliatory violence. (AP Photos/Sunday Alamba)

NNEWI, Nigeria (AP) — A town hall meeting called by Christians to discuss funeral arrangements turned into a bloodbath in northern Nigeria when members of a radical Islamist sect opened fire with assault rifles.

At least 20 members of the Igbo ethnic group died in that attack Jan. 6. More attacks have followed, targeting the largest Christian group living across Nigeria's Muslim north.

Many Igbos are now fleeing the north, even as state officials and others downplay the exodus, likely out of fear of sparking retaliatory violence.

The Igbo are one of the three dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria. Based in Nigeria's eastern states, the Igbo became largely Catholic after being colonized by the British. Many became successful traders who spread throughout Nigeria. In the country's Muslim north, Igbo traders often dominate car parts sales and other markets.

That often leaves Igbo traders the most exposed during ethnic and religious violence that has routinely gripped Nigeria since independence from Britain in 1960.

"We're everywhere there's a clash between any two groups of people because we're a people who live all over the place," said Maja Emeka Umeh, the spokesman of Anambra state in Nigeria's east. "They end up killing our people."

A failed 1966 coup, led primarily by Igbo army officers, sparked violence targeting Igbo people throughout Nigeria's Muslim north. About 10,000 people died in the resulting riots and many fled back to eastern Nigeria ahead of secessionist leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declaring the region and much of Nigeria's oil-producing southern delta its own nation.

Most recently, the Igbo have been targeted by the Boko Haram Islamist sect, which has killed more than 360 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. In a message to journalists at the start of the year, the sect threatened to begin killing Christians living in the nation's north.

The attacks came soon after. People have been fleeing, with many taking buses to other parts of Nigeria. In Nnewi, a city in the south, attendance for Masses at St. Michael De Archangel noticeably rose from those who had returned, the Rev. Michael Onyekachukwu said.

The total number of displaced people is difficult to come by. While Nigerian Red Cross officials acknowledge Igbos fled the north, they declined to offer specific figures. Government officials also downplayed the number of those fleeing, saying many had returned to the north.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, has decried the killings by Boko Haram.

"Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won't even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house," Jonathan said Jan. 8 at a church service in the capital, Abuja.

There's another fear at play — the specter of retaliatory violence targeting Muslims living in the south. In February 2006, Christians in Onitsha burned the bodies of slain Muslims and defaced mosques following protests over the publication of cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad. A local human rights activist estimated at the time that at least 80 Muslims had been killed in Onitsha.

Umeh, the spokesman of Anambra state, said government officials would try to put down any unrest. But he made a point to mention the 1994 death of Gideon Akaluka, an Igbo man arrested over allegedly defacing the Quran in Nigeria's northern city of Kano. Rioters broke into jail, beheaded him and carried his head around the city on a spike.

"Nigerians, the federal government, the state government, other authorities, they looked the other way," Umeh said.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.