Nigeria election riots: How leaders stoke Muslim-Christian violence

Kano and Jos, Nigeria - In anticipation of the results of Nigeria's remarkably smooth presidential vote over the weekend, angry young men took to the streets across the country's mainly Muslim north on Monday with knives and clubs.

Despite the fact that international and domestic observers said this was the first relatively free and fair election since the tumultuous country moved beyond military rule 12 years ago, someone had convinced the mobs that the election had been rigged in favor of incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian.

Protests soon turned deadly, with churches, mosques, homes, and businesses set ablaze in the northern cities of Kaduna and Kano. In Kaduna on Tuesday, Christian neighborhoods were targeted, and known supporters of Mr. Jonathan's ruling People's Democratic Party were burned alive and hacked with machetes. Reprisal attacks by Christians quickly followed. More than 200 have been killed, according to one local rights group.

The Muslim-Christian violence underscores a bitter reality: The age of "do-or-die" politics and "thugs-for-hire" patronage networks is not dead in Nigeria. And although Nigerian politicians do have the power to tamp down local rivalries that quickly morph into brutal religious violence, more often than not, these leaders do the opposite.

On Tuesday after his official defeat in the presidential race, after dozens of people had been killed and more than 10,000 displaced, popular opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari characterized the violence as "sad, unfortunate, and totally unwarranted," but issued no direct appeal for calm. "We have commenced consultations at the highest levels to recover your stolen mandate," Mr. Buhari said Wednesday.

For his part, Mr. Jonathan told CNN on Tuesday that the violence was "not spontaneous" and thus was a planned disruption, though the president said he didn't want to accuse anybody. Jonathan also said the "crisis" was linked to the festering problem of jobless, hopeless young masses in both northern and southern Nigeria.

How religious violence pops off

In such an environment, the often intense divide between deeply religious Muslim and Christian citizens, and the always high-stakes nature of politics and power, means that political violence frequently becomes religious.

Given the "ready army" made up of thousands of discontented youth, this violence frequently escalates, with politicians using the chaos and bloodshed as leverage as they jockey for influence and a greater share of the oil-rich country's immense economic spoils.

Aside from the latest wave of violence in the north, the country's Middle Belt region – where the mainly Muslim north meets the predominately Christian south – has become a case study in how Nigerian politicians fuel religious violence.

Muslim and Christians in the Middle Belt's unofficial capital, Jos, in Plateau state, now live cheek by jowl in what many residents call a religious apartheid.

Over the past year plus, since several massacres – of Muslims by Christians and of Christians by Muslims – killed hundreds in January and March 2010, whole communities in Jos have displaced themselves out of fear of further violence.

"People should be able to do things with freedom," said Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of the Catholic Archdiocese of Jos. "But instead you must be worried about who is next door to you."

Fanning the flames

Despite the divergences in the various accounts of how Jos came to be an epicenter of horrific violence over the past decade, many residents pinpoint an issue that drives the conflict: the "'indigene" concept, which has become a discriminatory, state government-enforced policy.

The Muslim community, which makes up the majority of the population in the northern part of the city, accuses the state government of consistently denying the Muslim community their basic rights as citizens on the basis that they are "settlers" in the state, and therefore not so-called indigenes privy to citizen rights.

Mohamed Lawal Ishaq, a lawyer and a member of a Muslim affairs council, says that – like all Muslim residents in Jos – his children are unable to enroll in public schools because they lack indigene certificates, despite the fact that they were born in Jos, as were there parents.

Like many other Muslims – and moderate Christians – Mr. Ishaq holds Plateau State Gov. Jonah David Jang responsible for such discriminatory polices and says that the governor is fanning the flames of the trouble.

"You expect a leader, during a crisis, to calm a situation," said Ishaq. "But the governor provokes, worsens, and take sides."

'Delivering' the Muslim vote?

Ishaq's council seems to be playing a political game of its own, however. He said his council is currently "in negotiations" with several opposition gubernatorial candidates, suggesting that the council is capable of delivering the Muslim vote in the state governor race on April 26.

Although Ishaq says imams in Jos are continuing to call for the community's youth to remain peaceful during the tense elections period and its aftermath, the fact that the Muslim council is clearly using its religious authority to play politics indicates the ease of religious mobilization for political gain in the polarized society.

Governor Jang told the Monitor in an interview that he is "very conscious of the fact that all of the citizens " in his state are his responsibility. Jang then gave his take on the Constitution, suggesting that his state's so-called settlers are, in effect, second-class citizens who should respect, even adopt, the culture, traditions, and religion of the "indigenous" population.

The governor, an evangelical Christian who received a divinity degree from a Nigerian theological college after he retired from the Air Force in the early 1990s, is unequivocal about defending Christianity as the religion of his state. "As a result of the failure of the Muslim jihad here [in the 1800s], they still think they can get [Plateau state] back to Islamicize," he told the Monitor.

Theory vs. practice

"The Nigeria Constitution absolutely forbids any discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and circumstances of your birth ... that is in theory," says Sule Kwasau, a lawyer in private practice in Jos. "In practice, some of these absurdities [related to the "indigene" concept] are not only prevalent in Plateau state, they are prevalent all over Nigeria."

Since Governor Jang's election in 2007, the crisis in the Middle Belt has worsened. With each new, major wave of violence – notably in 2008 and 2010 – resentment between Muslim and Christians over the killings has increased, until finally reaching its current apartheid-like state in the city of Jos.

"Fighting is no good," says a waiter in a Jos restaurant, who says his mother is Christian and his father is a Muslim. "We have to learn to live together again."

Running for re-election in the April 26 elections with the campaign slogan of "REDEMPTION 2011," the current governor is not publicly seen as taking the initiative to embrace the Muslim community who he views as "settlers," despite their two century-long history in his state.

Some long-time Jos residents who did not want to be quoted publicly say that Jang has benefited from the ongoing crisis in his state. Last year's crisis resulted in additional federal government funds being allocated to Jang for bosltering security. Jang has also used the tense situation to rally Christians behind him, cultivating a savior-like image during his gubernatorial campaign.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community is busy rallying its own support base, largely behind opposition candidate Pauline Tellen – the current deputy governor who has fallen out with Jang over the crisis.

"The real problem is bad governance, says Hadjiya Khadija Hawaya, a local Muslim women's leader, detailing the discrimination her community has suffered under the indigene policy pushed by the current governor.

There is no doubt among Muslims and Christians alike that the local government must play a crucial role in the resolution of the crisis.

"All efforts boil down to the government in power," said Ishaq, the lawyer at the Muslim council, voicing a familiar refrain of his community.

Catholic Archbishop Kaigama criticized the state government for perpetuating the myth of a one-dimensional religious crisis, saying that the government's "failure to address other problems" such as poverty, underdevelopment, and youth unemployment is an important reason why the conflict persists.

"The way the leadership responds to these issues goes a long way toward knowing if the conflict will be resolved peacefully," said Chris Kwaja, a professor at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos.

Until then, Jos may well remain a city divided, with citizens living in fear and half-charred homes and bombed-out churches and mosques standing as living memorials to the ongoing tragedy stoked by the politicians in power.