When Islamist militants set off two bombs that killed 123 people in Nigeria’s volatile city of Jos last week, many feared it would also detonate bloody reprisals in one of Africa’s most religiously tense cities. Umar Tijani, a Muslim, barricaded himself indoors, haunted by memories of seeing a mob bludgeon six youths to death four years ago when Christmas Day bombs pushed the city into a frenzy of killings.
But this time the youths who gathered in Jos’s winding hillside streets were not out for blood; they were hoping to prevent more being spilled.
“Everybody suffered, whether Muslim, Christian or voodoo [animist]. We are starting to see that, if we fight among ourselves, we will all be dead,” said Ezekiel, a 27-year-old Christian who went out that night.
With a pink baseball cap covering a machete scar from the past violence, he patrolled his neighbourhood with a group of four friends. At one point they escorted a Muslim whose six-week-old child needed to reach a hospital on a “Christian” street.
A handful of violent incidents aside, youths from both faiths have joined forces. Gestures of goodwill, repeated elsewhere in a metropolis where invisible boundaries still determine what streets a Muslim or Christian can safely cross after nightfall, may have saved this city on a cliff edge from falling off, at least for now.
As the smoke cleared to reveal the bomb’s horrific toll, an attack aimed at provoking sectarian violence has succeeded only in uniting residents in their anger at a government many believe is too bloated with corruption to stop the crisis raging through the country.
“The calculation in Jos was that within 15 or 20 minutes of the bombs going off, the whole state would be on fire, as happened previously,” said Bawa Abdullahi Wase, a professor of criminology at the University of Jos.
“They wanted to capitalise on the anger already burning there. But 99% of people realised this would be walking into a trap. People are directing their anger at the government now.”
Like a growing number of defiant citizens pushed to the wall by repeated waves of ethnosectarian violence in Africa’s most populous country, Tijani, the Muslim businessman, decided to fight back – by keeping the peace.
“I called all my boys, because we can’t just sit here and be killed. There are black spots where the police can’t go, but anybody stirring trouble in our streets is a neighbour, brother or son,” said the towering 46-year-old, recalling how he set up a vigilante force after he learned that the lynch mob after the Christmas Day bombings had dumped the dismembered youths in a communal well.
Tijani and some 70 others fanned out into streets. Twice when they saw Muslim teenagers preparing to counter the expected reprisals by setting up checkpoints they dismantled them. When they spotted a gang prowling in a street out of bounds to Muslims, they called their Christian vigilante counterparts.
Survival against all odds
Jos should never have survived. It is a microcosm of a nation in which 250 ethnic groups were squeezed together by British colonial authorities after Lord Frederick Lugard created “Nigeria” with the stroke of a pen, joining the Muslim caliphates of the north with the largely Christian kingdoms and chieftancies of the south. Straddling Nigeria’s myriad ethnic, social and economic faultlines, politicians have periodically stoked tensions over resources in the guise of religion.
Boko Haram, believed to be behind the latest blasts, previously tried to prise open these fault lines with a series of Christmas Eve bombs in 2010, followed by another round of church bombs on Christmas Day the next year.
In the past month the group has also kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls, set off bombs in the capital and the country’s second city, Kano, and razed at least four far-flung villages in their northeastern stronghold of Borno.
Undoubtedly part of the reason Jos remains calm is down to its entrenched segregation. Clumps of weeds in the shadows of charred homes are evidence of deeply rooted mutual acrimony in Congo-Russia, a neighbourhood named after the United Nations peacekeepers from Russia and Congo who formed a buffer zone between the two warring communities during the 1960s civil war.
“Over there is where the Muslim street starts,” said resident Kennedy, pointing to an invisible line. “But it’s not like before. Anyone is free to do their business anywhere. Only at night, for security, we all return to our own areas. For Jos, that’s progress.”
The city’s clerics, Catholic Archbishop Kaigama and Imam Sheikh Zakariah Dawhd, believe Jos could yet become a portent for how Nigeria’s diverse communities can live together. “I want to believe people have started to value dialogue rather than using religion for hostile confrontation,” Kaigama said.
Meanwhile, the people’s defiance remains.
“If Boko Haram, or even our own government, wants to destroy our country, they will have to kill us all first. We will die fighting,” said Tijani, the vigilante leader, over the cheerful cries of two schoolgirls playing teyete, a local version of hopscotch. – © Guardian News & Media 2014