What's behind Christian-Muslim fighting in Nigeria?

The Nigerian Army was sent in Tuesday to stop violence that began Sunday, after Christians protested the construction of a mosque and after Muslim protesters attacked a Catholic church. Fighting is centered in the city of Jos – an acronym for “Jesus Our Savior.”

Sectarian violence continued for a third day in the Nigerian city of Jos, and appeared to be spreading to surrounding suburbs, as the state government announced a 24-hour curfew to bring Christian-Muslim fighting to a halt.

Officials at Jos’s Central Mosque, where most of the Muslim dead have been brought to be buried, say that 139 bodies have been found thus far, but other reports say that the death toll may be much higher, perhaps beyond 200. Residents told human rights workers that gunfire continued throughout the day, even after the Nigerian Army was called in to help police to rein in the violence.

“The cycle of violence is explained by the fact that both the two communities, Muslim and Christian, share many of the same problems, including lack of economic opportunities,” says Corinne Dufka, an Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch, based in Dakar, Senegal.

Frustration among the young is often a tool in the hands of ambitious politicians, she adds, and even after courts are presented with evidence that violence is often orchestrated or manipulated, “nobody is held accountable.”

Ms. Dufka says that calling in the Army could be a very positive step, “if the Army uses minimal force, such as tear gas to clear the streets,” but the long-term solution will come only when the government is seen to be fair by both communities, and when “the choreographers of the violence, the ones who incite violence, are held accountable.”

Rioting broke out on Sunday, after Christians protested the construction of a mosque in a Christian area, and after Muslim protesters attacked a Catholic church.

Jos – an acronym for “Jesus Our Savior” which reflects the influence of Christian missionaries – is right on the dividing line between the northern half of the country that is predominantly Muslim and the southern half of the country that is mainly Christian. Tensions between these two communities have flared intermittently since independence in 1960, and even political parties mirror the divide by splitting primarily along religious lines.

It is unclear how much the rioting in Jos is affected by national politics, but a political crisis in which the Muslim president Umaru Yar’Adua has spent the last two months in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, refusing to cede official power to his Christian vice president Goodluck Jonathan, cannot have helped relations between Christians and Muslims.

Many Muslim politicians say they would refuse to allow power to shift, even temporarily, to Vice President Jonathan, calling instead for a fresh round of elections in which only Muslim candidates could run. In order to keep peace, for many years there's been an unofficial agreement to alternate the presidency between Christians and Muslims.

Counting the dead in Jos is difficult, although if past outbreaks are a gauge, Muslims are likely to bear the brunt of the violence, especially the violence that is perpetrated by mainly Christian security and police forces.

In the violence that broke out in November 2008 – in which 340 people were killed – there were 133 cases of people killed by security forces. According to Human Rights Watch, 131 of those people were Muslims.

“The governor in Plateau State [– where Jos is the capital –] is a Christian and Muslims are very suspicious of the government,” says Eric Gottschuss, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Washington, who has stayed in touch with contacts in Jos throughout the violence. “We have called on the Nigerian government to use restraint, and to hold accountable the security forces that carry out violence against civilians.”

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