Religious violence rocks Nigeria

The Miss World contest moves to London, leaving Nigeria's world image tarnished.

The arrival of dozens of beauty queens in London Sunday closed the troubled Nigerian chapter on this year's Miss World contest.

For the contestants, the change in venue means a return to simply vying for the title of the globe's most beautiful woman. But they leave in their wake a Nigeria gripped by increasing social and political tensions that find expression between religious and ethnic groups.

Violence that started last week in response to the contest, and continued into the weekend, left as many as 200 people dead. Earlier riots have also taken place unhindered by civil authority, and the government seems to hold little sway in large parts of the north, where Islamic law has governed for the past two years.

For a country that has tried to portray itself as emerging successfully from 16 years of military rule, the recent violence is the latest indication that it has miles to go in achieving that goal.

The challenge for the government and the international community, analysts say, is to resolve some of the seemingly intractable problems that make Africa's most populous country appear to the world as if it is falling apart.

"The image of Nigeria is poor and this will make it worse," says one state government official in Lagos, the country's commercial capital. "We must address the question of our [internal] relationships."

The Nigerian newspaper that lit the fuse last week has tried to take some first steps. ThisDay cleared one-third of its front page and all of page two Sunday to run an apology to the nation's Muslims over an article that suggested the prophet Muhammad might have married one of the contestants in the Miss World beauty pageant. The mea culpa said the newspaper's ethos was "not to be offensive to any religion" nor "to denigrate the cultural and religious values" of the country's people. "We can only plead that we meant no harm," ThisDay said. "The error was totally unintended."

The length and scope of the apology - the fifth made by ThisDay on its front page in the last week - highlights the continued fragility of the country's political system and social life three years after the return of civilian rule. But ThisDay's response had little effect on the rioting.

Local residents say the trouble began in the northern city of Kaduna on Wednesday, when a mob burned down ThisDay's office in the city, and attacks on churches triggered reprisals from the area's large Christian population.

"It was terrible," says Shehu Sani, president of Civil Rights Congress, a Kaduna-based nongovernmental organization. "There was burning and looting everywhere."

The demonstrations came in apparent response to a Nov. 16 ThisDay article about the Miss World contest, which began earlier this month and was to conclude on Dec. 7 in Abuja, Nigeria's capital. The article, written by Isioma Daniel, a style reporter who has since resigned, questioned the sincerity of Muslim groups who had attacked the pageant as indecent.

"The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity," the piece said. "What would Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them."

The provocative nature of the statement, made by a newspaper based in the southwest of the country, played on longstanding tensions between Nigeria's north and south, analysts say. The two regions have had an uneasy political coexistence since the British created the modern state of Nigeria from its northern and southern halves in 1914. The south is more wealthy, more urbane, and more religiously cosmopolitan than the populous north, which nonetheless is politically powerful and has provided most of Nigeria's presidents since independence in 1960.

Observers say the north has become the center of a political power struggle since the 1999 elections that brought President Olusegun Obasanjo to office after a decade and a half of military rule. A dozen northern states have unilaterally introduced severe forms of sharia, or Islamic law, with punishments such as amputation for stealing and being stoned to death for having sex outside marriage.

The application of northern sharia, which led to the deaths of an estimated 2,000 people in rioting between Muslims and Christians in 2000, has attracted support from Islamic religious leaders and from ordinary people desperate for a release from everyday poverty and violent crime.

"I am really pleased about it," says Muhammad Sanusi Khalil, an imam in Kaduna. "What democracy means, to the best of our understanding, is that every individual should be given the chance to lead their life in the way they want."

Observers point to the actions of Muslim leaders during the latest violence as evidence of a desire to entrench the Islamicization of the north, and to turn a volatile situation to political advantage. On Thursday, the Supreme Council of the Ulema, an influential group of Islamic scholars, said that unless the authorities took action against ThisDay, it could "not restrain the Muslims here from taking whatever action they deem appropriate." One analyst, who asked not to be named, says the comments were inflammatory given previous examples of mobs "taking to the streets and killing people in northern Nigeria - and not being held accountable for it."

The government has made little public comment on the Kaduna riots beyond condemning the ThisDay remarks and appealing for calm. Mr. Obasanjo, a Christian southerner, is seen as reluctant to alienate the Muslim establishment that supported his election and whose backing he wants for polls due next year. His government has responded to international criticism of severe sharia punishments by saying no stoning sentences will be carried out, although it has yet to challenge the sharia decisions in the federal courts.

Meanwhile, the beauty queens that landed in London Sunday seemed to be relieved. "I am so excited, I feel so happy," said Daniella Luan, this year's Miss England. "I am so pleased to be back in Britain, and that's the general feeling among all of us."

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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