Nigeria: Chilling messages sent before killings

Lagos, Nigeria - Chilling text messages urged both Christians and Muslims to commit violence during rioting that left more than 300 people dead, a human rights organization said Wednesday, with one message reading: "Kill them before they kill you."

Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress in Nigeria, said his group has collected about 150 text messages that were sent before and during the violence in Jos.

Even as the military kept an uneasy calm in the central Nigerian town, another pastor said Wednesday that agitators are sending new text messages to those in surrounding communities to re-ignite the sectarian violence.

The messages gave readers addresses to mosques and churches, suggesting that some structures be set ablaze, he said. The texts also offered instructions on what weapons to use and how to dispose of bodies, he said.

"Slaughter them before they slaughter you. Kill them before they kill you," one message read, according to Sani. "Throw them in the pit before they throw you. Encircle and suppress them before they encircle and suppress you."

The chance of prosecuting those sending the messages appears to be small. In Nigeria, the government does not require cellular phone owners to register their SIM cards - the portable memory chips that tell a phone what its number is and what carrier it uses.

Sectarian violence in this region of Nigeria has left thousands dead over the past decade. The latest outbreak came despite the Nigerian government's efforts to quell religious extremism in the West African country.

What started the killings in Jos remains unclear. A state police commissioner initially said the violence began after Muslim youths set a Christian church ablaze, but Muslim leaders denied that. Muslims say it began with an argument over the rebuilding of a Muslim home in a predominantly Christian neighborhood that had been destroyed in November 2008.

The text messages inciting people to violence began as the unrest spread across Jos last week, Sani said.

"The violence started at a low scale and in every measure the text messages played a role in spreading rumors and inciting people," Sani said. "They reacted violently based on the kind of information they received from their text messages."

In a predominantly Muslim village south of Jos, searchers discovered the bodies of men, women and children shoved three-at-a-time into communal wells and sewage pits.

Sani said the text messages suggested attackers take up locally made weapons like bows and arrows, machetes, scythes and axes. Many of the victims' bodies bore signs of being attacked with those weapons, he said.

Even after the military brought the city under control, text messages circulating as far away as the Nigerian capital of Abuja still sought to restart the violence between the two faiths.

The Rev. Joseph Hayab, an official with the Christian Association of Nigeria in the north, said text messages in northern Nigeria warned that the state government in Jos wanted to cut off water supplies to Muslims. Another warned Christians not to buy from Muslim street vendors as "those foods have been poisoned," Hayab said.

Some text messages bore the names of low-level church and mosque officials, though Hayab said agitators likely used the names to sow discord. The reverend said he called Christian religious leaders across northern Nigeria about the hoax text messages and many warned people not to trust the fake messages.

"The purpose was just to create chaos in the community," Hayab said.

While the violence may not be new to the region, Sani said the killings appeared to be the first where text messages played such a large role in Nigeria.

Sani said it would be impossible to trace the messages back, though he said police received many of the same messages during their investigation. Emmanuel Ojukwu, a national police spokesman, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"Unfortunately with this kind of thing, it is not possible for anyone to pinpoint who is sending these kind of messages," Sani said. "They can buy it on the street, use it and throw it away."