Before the blasts came, the Nigerian city of Jos was busy preparing for Christmas. Worshippers showing up for Christmas eve mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church were dressed in their Sunday best, men and boys in their suits, women in brightly flowered prints, and little girls in frilly dresses.
But the scene at Sacred Heart turned quickly turned from one of celebration to horror. The Church was one of four targetted by almost simultaneous explosions.
Husbands could not help their wives and children went astray from their mothers in confusion. Market women left their items in their opened shops and disappeared down narrow alleys. Buildings collapsed over one another at the vibration from the blasts. Vehicles collided headlong as each tried to escape.
The blasts claimed some 38 lives and injured another 70 or so. Nigerian police are rushing units to Jos and neighboring Maiduguri – where a militant Islamist sect called Boko Haram also carried out attacks – in order to prevent reprisal attacks. On Christmas day, small groups of youths went from house to house in Muslim neighborhoods and burnt them down, although many of the occupants had already fled in fear of reprisals.
The return of violence to Jos, a capital city of a transitional state between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south, is a troubling sign for Nigeria, a country that has struggled with ethnic and religious violence from its independence in 1960. In this year alone, nearly 1,500 lives have been lost because of religious violence in Nigeria, and as the country prepares for presidential elections in May 2011, the potential for more religious tension is high.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon condemned the attacks and supported the government’s pledge to arrest the perpetrators. The local police commissioner, Abdulrahman Akano, swears that the situation is under control. But local residents have been vocal, condemning the police for failing to protect them.
“The secretary-general is appalled by the violence that caused the loss of so many innocent lives,” the UN said in a statement yesterday, adding that Mr. Ban backs “efforts by the Nigerian authorities to bring those responsible to justice.” Tensions between the ethnic Berom community, which tends to be Christian, and the ethnic Fulani community, which tends to be Muslim, have been a staple for Jos from the days when British missionaries arrived at this central Nigerian outpost, and realized they had reached their limit.
Militant Islamist preachers often say that Nigeria would have been been turned into a wholly Islamic state, led by the powerful sultanate of Sokoto, if not for the arrival of British colonial administrators in the late 19th century, which halted any further Muslim expansion. This viewpoint represents the fringe, and border towns in the central region generally see peaceful coexistence between the two communities, until a militant group from one side or the other decides to stir things up.
"The aim of the mastermind is to pit Christians against Muslims and spark off another round of violence that will eventually culminate in the scuttling of the ongoing electioneering activities," Plateau state governor Jonah David Jang said in a radio broadcast.
Governor Jang added the blasts were an attempt to scuttle the efforts of the Federal and State governments to consolidate the hard-won peace that followed the last round of ethno-religious violence in Jos in January and March of this year.
In an election year, small town conflicts take on larger implications, and the violence between Christians and Muslims mirrors the tensions between political elites in the Muslim North and the mainly Christian south. The country’s current ruling party attempted to ease those tensions by voluntarily alternating between Muslim candidates in one presidential election, and Christian candidates from the south in the next. That deal fell apart when the People’s Democratic Party president Umaru Yar’Adua died in office, and was replaced by his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian.
Many northern Muslims have cried foul, saying that President Jonathan should step down after the May 2011 elections, but Jonathan says he plans to run.
Plateau State Police Commissioner Abdulrahman Akano says the current crisis in Jos is not driven by religious divides, but rather over politics, and he advised the political class to resolve their differences in the interest of peace.
Bomb experts will now be dispatched to places of worship (church and mosque alike) to ensure that religious attacks are not repeated, Mr. Akano said.