Nigerian security forces intensified efforts yesterday to halt renewed religious violence in the northern city of Kaduna, in which more than 200 people have died.
Hundreds of buildings - including mosques and churches -have been burned to the ground since fighting broke out Monday.
These intense religious clashes are a reprisal of the bloodshed sparked in February by protests from the Christian community against Muslim demands for the imposition of strict Islamic law.
This comes a year after President Olusegun Obasanjo - the country's first southern Christian president in more than 20 years - wrested rule from the long-ensconced military. But despite his advances toward civil society, the religious and ethnic divisions now surfacing threaten to derail Mr. Obasanjo's attempts to redress a legacy of institutional collapse, political oppression, and economic ruin.
And some observers say the country's spiritual leaders are partly to blame.
"No one has really been able to coordinate the religious leaders," says James Wuye, joint leader of a Christian-Muslim conflict resolution association in Kaduna. "The bishops and sheikhs should have been seen on the streets together preaching peace with megaphones."
Nigeria is divided about evenly between Christians and Muslims. In Kaduna, where the two meet in roughly equal numbers, the cultural divisions have proven particularly explosive.
The dilemma at the heart of Nigeria's religious differences remains: the desire among the Muslim population in the north, to live according to the strict edicts of the sharia penal code, which includes the use of amputation and capital punishment.
In areas where they are in the minority, many Christians fear that sharia will lead to their subjugation to the laws of another faith. Moreover, across Nigeria most Christians believe that the country's religious and ethnic diversity necessitates an essentially secular constitution.
And Obasanjo seems to be delivering on that call. In recent weeks, his combined use of military muscle and low-profile negotiations through religious and traditional leaders appeared to have allayed the immediate crisis. There seemed to have been a relatively stable hiatus in the fighting.
But that appears to have been a false hope. "People have been exploiting the continuing tensions," says Shehu Sani, a leading Kaduna-based human rights activist. "In such a climate rumor-mongering can have an explosive effect. Not enough has been to done to reconcile the two groups since [February's violence]."
Since the turn of the 20th century, when the British conquered the Sokoto caliphate and extended colonial rule into what is now northern Nigeria, the application of sharia in Muslim communities has been restricted largely to civil and customary law.
But popular demand for its extension into other areas of life - including criminal law- has spread rapidly across the mainly Muslim north of the country since October. It was then that the governor of the rural state of Zamfara unilaterally declared it the governing legal system of his state.
In the process, alcohol was banned, open-air cinemas closed down, prostitutes driven away, and sexes segregated at schools and on public transportation. Everybody who was anybody in the provincial capital, Gusau, began growing a beard. The rumor that businessmen without this trademark of radical Islam would not be eligible for government contracts, was only half a joke.
"The sharia issue must be laid to rest at least until the immediate tensions have died down," says Mr. Wuye - once the leader of a militant Christian youth gang involved in vicious fighting around Kaduna. Ever since he lost an arm in an earlier conflict, Wuye has been preaching peace along with a Muslim militant who had himself lost much of his family to the violence he had helped to fuel.
Analysts say this recrudescence of sharia is in direct response to years of corrupt military rule and the subsequent erosion of both the political and traditional authority in the north. The political power shift to the south, under President Obasanjo, and his agenda to cut back the patronage systems on which many better educated northerners had thrived, have contributed to a sense of powerlessness among northern populations.
In a context of deepening poverty and continuing corruption, sharia has become a clarion call for change.
"The move towards sharia is an expression of a lack of confidence in the political, spiritual, and traditional leaders of northern Nigeria.
"Islam is a religion and a political system, and it offers an alternative to the obvious failings of the status quo," said an official who served under former military regimes. "People are tired and frustrated, and unlike other parts of the country, leaders are not articulating that frustration or channeling it."
But their example remains rare. "In some areas our message has helped to save lives. But it is the troops who have enforced the peace this time," says Wuye.
In many other incidents, too, the new civilian government has had to resort to the use of force, devoting much of its time to crisis management while the root causes of the crises remain unresolved.
What can be done in the meantime?
Wuye insists that "there needs to be a concerted effort at conflict resolutions on ground." And young people should be given jobs. "When they are busy, they will not have time to do what they are doing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society