Weekend clashes kill 200, as Nigeria struggles for control

Clashes between Muslim herdsmen and Christian villagers are common, but the Boko Haram insurgency and political interference have fueled the conflict to dangerous levels. 

Nigeria's three-year-long Islamist rebellion is quickly becoming a case study in how religious conflicts, if left uncontrolled, can spread. 

On Saturday, Sen. Gyang Dantong and House Assemblyman Hon. Gyang Fulani attended the mass funeral of Christian villagers murdered in the town of Matse, and were themselves killed by gunmen. 

The death toll of 63 (many of their bodies discovered in the home of a Christian pastor) in the central city of Jos would have made this weekend one of the deadliest of the year thus far. But then the reprisal attacks by Christian villagers against their Muslim neighbors – apparently carried out by youth from the Birom indigenous ethnic group – raised the toll to more than 200. 

The Nigerian government has responded by ordering a dusk-to-dawn curfew, but Jacob Abba, a sociologist at the University of Jos, says that the killing wave is so alarming that "no one can tell when this madness will end." 

Initially set off by the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, the religious conflict across Nigeria's arid northern regions has taken on a life of its own, pitting religious communities and ethnic groups against each other, with only the undermanned Nigerian police and armed forces to keep the peace.

Christian groups that initially had agreed to refrain from reprisal attacks have taken up guns, not only for protection, but for vengeance against Muslim communities or Hausa and Fulani travelers who happen to be on the road at the wrong place and the wrong time. 

The role of land disputes

The violence over the weekend was a culmination of a chain of mundane land disputes on Tuesday that turned bloody.

On Tusday, Fulani herdsmen accused the security men in Jos of destroying their houses and dispersing them from the area. By Friday, members of the mainly Christian Birom ethnic community say that Fulani tribesmen had taken revenge for their eviction by destroying Birom farms. The Birom community staged a peaceful demonstration on Friday, demanding compensation. 

By Saturday, dozens of Birom took refuge in the homes of Christian pastors, huddling together for greater safety. Instead, they were slaughtered en masse. Fulani community members deny responsibility for the killings, saying that Birom youths had started matters by violently assaulting them. 

While there appears to be no direct connection between these acts of violence and the Boko Haram insurgency, a radical Islamist rebellion to overthrow Nigeria's government across the mainly Muslim north, there is no question that the rising death toll from that insurgency has fueled tensions between Muslim and Christian communities in the north. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks since the rebellion began in 2009. 

Now, the violence is building its own momentum, unconnected to Boko Haram, and it is getting increasingly difficult to tell which community is the assailant and which one is the victim. 

"With or without curfew, we’ll not take this nonsense; it’s too much to take. No matter how long, we would kill them, too,” one Birom youth was quoted as saying by the Nigerian newspaper, P.M. News.

More than meets the eye

For Professor Abba, the religious conflict is much more than it seems to be at first glance. Far from simple disputes for land or honor, the scattered conflicts across Nigeria's north are fueled and fanned by politicians who want to build up their own power base through the anger of their constituents.

“It’s true that politicians and other religious bigots are the principal masterminds behind this crisis," Abba says. "It has already been agreed that the adherents of the two religions, Islam and Christianity, have everything to be accused of in the recent unfortunate incidences in Jos.”

It's unfortunate that religions that preach nonviolence, as both Islam and Christianity do, end up pushing their believers toward more conflict, says Abba. "A scholar of sociology, Emile Durkheim, argued that religion is a cementing factor in human society," says Abba. "So the same argument should be among different religions.”

This is not the first time northern Nigeria has seen ethno-religious violence.

In 2004, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency after a series of ethnic crisis engulfed the ethnically mixed state of Plateau, which includes Jos. But the coming to power of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, after the death of his predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua, a northern Muslim, raised tensions among northerners, who felt that a northern Muslim should have replaced Ms.Yar'Adua after his untimely death in office in May 2010. 

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