Nigeria seeks to contain violence after Christmas attacks

The Christmas bomb attacks on Christian churches has Nigeria seeking to contain a possible outbreak of religious and sectarian violence.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
People look at a burnt area after an explosion in Nigeria's central city of Jos on Dec. 25. Explosions in the region killed 38 people over the Christmas holidays.

Nigerian state police are rushing once more into the central Nigerian state of Jos, after a series of bomb blasts in Christian churches – presumably set off by Islamist militants – killed 38 over the Christmas holidays.

United Nations 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.”

The attacks in Jos and in the nearby town of Maiduguri are just the latest of an estimated 1,500 killings this year. They are a sign that long-brewing tensions between the ethnic Berom community, which tends to be Christian, and the ethnic Fulani community, which tends to be Muslim, continue to simmer.

Analysts fret that a return of ethnic or religious violence here, on the cultural border between the northern Muslim community and the southern Christian and animist community, could easily spread into a much broader conflict throughout the country. A spread of violence could also have a profound effect on upcoming presidential elections scheduled for May 2011.

"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 was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.

Tensions have flared between Nigeria’s north and south since the days of independence in 1960. Militant Islamist preachers claim that Nigeria would have 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. However, 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.

In an election year, small town conflicts take on larger implications, and the break out of 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 YarAdua, 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 in the May 2011 elections, but Jonathan says he plans to run.

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