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Nigeria's Muslims get stern warning

Chika Unigwe

Many say the attacks are not religious in nature and are an attempt to overthrow the president.

This week, still reeling from bloody bombings in the northern city of Kano on January 20, Nigeria is bracing itself for more violence. The bulk of the casualties in the attacks on churches belonged to the Igbo people and this has already led to retaliatory attacks in parts of southeastern Nigeria. An Igbo group, Ogbunigwe Ndigbo, gave all northern Muslims in the region two weeks to leave or face their wrath. In Lokpanta, where my mother is from, the Muslim Hausa community—which settled there many years ago—were seen leaving in truckloads.

With the deepening crises, it has become normal—not just in the media but among ordinary Nigerians—to argue that the violence is a sectarian or religious matter, an issue of north versus south, Muslims versus Christians.

I have spoken to friends who are convinced that it is not just southern Christians who are the primary targets of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Igbos in particular.

Well-meaning Igbo leaders are calling on their brethren to “return home”, referring to the attacks as “systematic ethnic cleansing”. A friend shouted to me over the phone that “Igbos should just secede. Igbo blood is being spilled and the government is doing nothing at all about it.”

However, as tempting as it is, polarising the crisis is misleading. First, the position of Boko Haram, the name of which translates as “Western education is prohibited”, is not representative of Nigerian Muslims. Before its rise to prominence, Nigerians coexisted tolerably well, respectful of each other’s faith.

As a child, I spent six years in a boarding school in the north. We said Muslim prayers and Christian grace before all our meals.

Although there is an undeniable religious element to the assaults, the targets of the attacks in the Islamic heartland of the country clearly illustrate the problem with holding such singular interpretations of complex situations.

There have, for instance, been suggestions that some politicians in the Muslim north feel betrayed by President Goodluck Jonathan for not honouring the power-rotating pact within the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which would not have allowed a southerner to run for the presidency until 2015 and that they are using Boko Haram to try to unseat him.

Last May, there were bomb blasts in two separate northern cities just hours after Jonathan was sworn in, one in the home city of the vice-president, Namadi Sambo, who is a Muslim himself.

Obviously, these are troubled times for Nigeria. Many who lived through the Biafran War of 1967 are fearful that events might escalate. In an address to the nation, the president referred to the deepening crisis as “worse than the war”.

The escape from custody of the prime suspect in the Christmas Day bombings has shown, as a friend said, “that Boko Haram is stronger than the president”.

Yet, in spite of everything, if the Occupy Nigeria movement’s protests of the past weeks have taught us anything, it is that there is still hope. The images that I hang on to are the photographs posted on Facebook during the protests: Christians keeping watch over their Muslim brothers as they prayed and young Muslim men in Kano visiting churches across the city. The Igbo have a saying that the hunger that has hope of being stilled does not kill. These photographs convince me that one day we will save Nigeria.

The enemy is Boko Haram and the government needs to do whatever it takes to crush this group before it becomes any more powerful.—

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