How one Nigerian town became a religious battleground

KACHIA, NIGERIA—Pastor Danladi Bature received the first warning in a phone call on Christmas Eve.

“I am coming for you,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “I am coming for your church.”

The man behind the threats, his voice unmistakably Fulani Muslim, continued his calls for weeks, each with the same sinister message.

The pastor brushed it off.

“I wasn’t scared at the time. I trusted God was going to take charge,” he said. “Now, look what they have done.”

A mob torched Bature’s evangelical church last Monday, one of at least six churches and mosques destroyed in three days of religious clashes that took over the town of Kachia.

As many as 40 people died, police said, and hundreds of Christians and Muslims are now living in displacement camps.

Kachia is in the northwestern Nigerian state of Kaduna, which makes up part of the middle belt splitting the country’s largely Christian south from the mainly Muslim north. These bisecting regions are often home to mixed populations and have long simmered with sectarian friction.

Kachia sits right on top of the fault lines.

Now, some say the intensifying war between Nigeria and Boko Haram is putting greater pressure on the country’s already strained religious tensions, and making towns like Kachia turn on themselves.

Kachia is under police-ordered curfew until further notice. Christians and Muslims alike watched mobs armed with guns and machetes cut down their loved ones.

They watched as their houses of worship and their homes, their clothes and their food, their sense of security and their trust in their neighbours went up in flames.

And it all started over a few broken bricks.

The morning of Sunday, May 11, leaders of Kachia’s Muslim community arrived at the large open field where the community prays twice a year for Eid. They were crestfallen: a two-metre stretch of bricks, part of a small wall they had erected around the grounds, had been destroyed yet again.

As more people gathered, disappointment turned to anger. Some blamed the vandalism on local Christian youth. As Muslim elders and police tried to calm the crowd, smoke started drifting in the skyline. The nearby Baptist church was on fire. Police rushed there as the flames chewed through the building, collapsing the corrugated zinc slabs that made up the roof. Within minutes, another call came in. Someone had thrown an explosive into a nearby mosque.

In 40 minutes, much of the town was clouded in smoke.

People tried desperately to douse the flames with buckets of water, waiting for a fire crew that would never arrive. Rioters emerged, looting shops and torching homes.

With its 130 officers stretched too thin to control the mayhem, the local police department called in the military. They instituted a 24-hour curfew, the soldiers under orders to shoot anyone who disobeyed, a police official said.

The rampage then spilled into Kachia’s neighbouring villages. The crisis would rage on for two more days.

Ahmadu Agebu was at home when the mob arrived. They shot indiscriminately, slaughtering villagers and livestock. Seven bodies still lay in the fields, he said. He hasn’t had a chance to retrieve them.

“We’ve always been making efforts to live in peace, Christians and Muslims together,” Agebu said, standing outside a government building where he and hundreds of other displaced Muslims are now living.

“What I think is this is sheer hatred for us and nothing else.”

What erupted in Kachia is emblematic of the country’s divide — one that has grown more violent in recent years. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found more than 60 per cent of Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims distrust people of the other faith.

Now, with increasing national instability caused by Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram — an extremist Islamic group that indiscriminately kills Nigerians over the purported goal of turning the country into a strict Islamic state — there is concern of more turmoil in places like Kachia.

“Boko Haram’s antagonization of Nigerian Christians and Muslim critics threatens the stability of Nigeria by risking religious wars,” concluded a 2013 report on the militant group by the U.S. Committee on Homeland Security.

For many in Kachia, those three days felt just like a religious war.

Isiaku Kasuwa, 45, said he saw a mob of Christians hack down his brother with machetes. As he ran away, he saw them burn his home and his mosque.

The same day, Bridgette Kasa was awoken by gunshots. She grabbed her three children and ran. She now sleeps on a church floor in a camp guarded by police. It’s the only place she feels safe.

“It’s not safe to go home,” she said. “If we go back, they could attack.”

When asked who could attack, Ladi Usman answers for her friend.

“We can’t call their names but we know it’s persons of the other faith,” she said.

Kachia’s curfew has been loosened. Now, there is no movement outside after 3 p.m. A government committee is investigating the riots. No one has been arrested.

The official death tally sits at four, but residents and police who are still sifting through the rubble estimate it is as high as 40.

The government has taken over the field where the Muslims pray and promises to rebuild the fence. Peter Agite, chairman of Kachia’s local government, emphasized there is currently no evidence suggesting Christians deliberately broke down the wall. There is a construction site that sits beyond the field, he said.

Perhaps someone broke the bricks — the powder keg of the crisis — because they didn’t want to go around the wall?

No matter the reason, Agite struggles to understand how his town became the battleground for a religious clash. There is a history here of Muslims and Christians marrying, he said.

“We are one family,” he said. “This thing that happened, only God can explain why.”

He believes the area’s 265,000 people can soon return to coexisting in peace.

Others here, however, are not quite ready to forgive.

Pastor Bature’s church is gone, as is his home. He said he believes certain Muslims want to eradicate Christians from Kachia and all of Nigeria — and he won’t let that happen.

“Before now, the pastors used to tell people to calm down and not seek revenge. But the situation seems not to be getting better,” he said.

As soon as the curfew is over and the omnipresent security forces disappear back to their barracks, those who attacked his church will come for him, he said.

On Sunday morning, as he stood in the government camp, his phone rang. It was same voice, the same threat.

“As long as they continue to threaten us, attack us, we will be defensive and rise up,” he said, punctuating each word with his hand, fingers firmly wrapped around his phone.

“As long as they continue to attack us, there is not going to be peace here.”