Nigeria's religious divide in spotlight after riots

Nigeria’s religious fault line was in the spotlight on Tuesday after sectarian riots in the central city of Jos, nestled between the Muslim north and the Christian south, claimed hundreds of lives.

Human Rights Watch squarely blamed the government for the latest spurt of bloodletting in Africa’s most populous nation and called for a probe “to find who sponsored and carried out the killings”.

The clashes were triggered by a rumour on Friday that the majority-Muslim All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) had lost a local election to the mainly Christian Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), according to a police spokesperson.

“Nigeria is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. More than 12 000 people have died in religious or ethnic clashes since the end of military rule in 1999,” the New York-based organisation said.

“Government policies that discriminate against ‘non-indigenes’ - people who cannot trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of an area - underlie many of these conflicts,” it said.

“In Jos, members of the largely-Muslim Hausa ethnic group are classified as non-indigenes despite many having resided there for several generations,” it added.

Georgette Gagnon, Human Rights Watch Africa director, said: “These discriminatory policies relegate millions of Nigerians to the status of second-class citizens and fuel the flames of ethnic and religious violence, which have often erupted during elections.”

On Monday about 2 000 angry youths stormed a mosque in Jos, calling for the resignation of the governor of Plateau state, as thousands of troops and police patrolled the city.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meanwhile urged calm and restraint.

OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu expressed “deep regret” over the clashes and “appealed to Nigerians to shun violence and embrace dialogue, tolerance and the rule of law as means of resolving disputes”.

A 24-hour curfew in four districts of Jos that saw the worst of the fighting has been replaced with a night-time curfew applied to the city as a whole, Plateau state information commissioner Nuhu Gagara said.

“The situation has improved in the state capital,” he said, adding that the curfew might be further relaxed on Tuesday.

The state government has said about 200 people died in the clashes, although other sources have given a toll twice the official figure.

A Red Cross official spoke of “well over 300 people killed” and Khaled Abubakar, an imam at the central mosque, and another Muslim official spoke of about 400 bodies taken to the mosque.

A Christian clergyman spoke of “several hundred” killed.

Corpses that were still visible in large numbers on Sunday had all been removed from the streets of the town and buried by Monday.

Security has also been beefed up in three major cities in the north - for fear that violence could spread. Residents of Kaduna and Katsina reported increased police patrols on Monday morning.

Thousands of people sought refuge in churches, mosques and army and police barracks after the Jos troubles, according to the Red Cross.

Muslims and Christians for the most part cohabit peacefully in Nigeria.

But Jos, in the “middle belt” between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, already witnessed violent clashes between the two religious groups in 2001 when hundreds of people were killed.

Another town in the same state, Yelwa, was hit by similar violence in 2004.

Hundreds of people also died in religious-based clashes in Kaduna state when it tried to impose Sharia law in 2000. - AFP

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