Northern Nigerians adapt to life under the gun of Islamist militants

After a series of bombs killed 41 this week, both Christian and Muslim residents of northern Nigeria are lying low to avoid becoming targets.

A man stands in front of some burnt buses at a motor park in Sabon Gari, after Monday's explosions in Kano Tuesday. Five explosions at a bus park in northern Nigeria's main city of Kano killing at least 41 and injuring an additional 44.

Two suicide bombers attacked a bus station in a mostly-Christian suburb of Kano, Nigeria on Monday, killing at least 41 and injuring an additional 44. 

The bombers – suspected to be associated with the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram – drove a blue VW Golf into a bus waiting to depart for the city of Lagos, says Musa Daura, Kano's police commissioner. Four other buses nearby were also destroyed. 

If confirmed as a Boko Haram attack, the bombing would be the latest incident in the effort by the Islamist insurgents to overthrow the government and create a “pure” Islamic state by primarily targeting the Christian minority in Nigeria’s impoverished north. The group is widely believed to be responsible for some 800 deaths last year, and dozens more have died so far in 2013. 

Christians predominate Nigeria’s central government – led by President Goodluck Jonathan – and make up the majority of the population in the oil-rich south, where most of the country’s development and job creation has been concentrated. The poorer north, on the other hand, is dominated by the Hausa ethnic group, which is 95 percent Muslim.

Both Christians and Muslims from the north have long felt the sting of what they perceive as government neglect – some 75 percent of northerners live in poverty, compared with less than half of southerners – and endemic corruption. 

But in a country where religion is tightly knotted with wealth and political power, the divide between perpetrators and victims is complicated. Boko Haram, which began its most recent insurgency in 2009, doesn’t solely blame Christians for the north’s shortcomings. In fact, many of Boko Haram’s victims over the past two years have been Muslims. A portion of Muslims in power in the north, they say, are morally bankrupt as both leaders and religious figures. The group ultimately seeks to install a caliphate – a traditional Islamic republic – in Nigeria. 

Making themselves known

For now, however, the group has concentrated their limited manpower on a more manageable goal: making their presence – and demands – known through violence.

The sect has instigated several major attacks, notably a series of coordinated bombings in the northern city of Kano on Jan. 20, 2012, which killed nearly 200 – a death toll that included both Muslims and Christians.

Another frequent target: Churches.

Among their intimidation tactics; for the past three years Boko Haram has carried out targeted attacks on Christmas day worship services. Last year, more than 40 worshipers were killed, including six victims asphyxiated in a church fire in the northern city of Yobe.

The previous night, suspected Boko Haram members on motorbikes gunned down a family of three, including a young child, as they walked to a Christmas Eve service in Kano, according to an eyewitness.

Northern Christians have reacted to the violence by making themselves all but invisible to militants, hiding their bibles and holding small, scattered worship gatherings as opposed to centralized church services.

“These people [Boko Haram] are like devils – they can penetrate at any time,” says Samuel Edwin, a Christian resident of Kano. “So I am scared of going to the church.”

He adds that he has counseled his family to dress in traditional Hausa clothing to appear Muslim and thereby make themselves less conspicuous to militants. 

'They live with us'

As Christians slip undercover, President Jonathan has called on Nigerians to force Boko Haram members out of hiding.

"The terrorists are human beings, they are not spirits,” he says. “They live with us, they dine with us. So we know them, people know them. And as long as Nigerians are committed to exposing them, we [will] get over this ugly situation." 

Assuring the Christians of their safety, Jonathan emphasized that Nigerian security agencies will redouble their effort to curtail the insurgent activities.

The attacks on Christians have touched off campaigns of retribution across the region.

But as attacks continue, many Christians wonder when that help is coming – if at all.

Reverend Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), says the attacks are "a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria as an entity.” He urged his followers not to take revenge for Boko Haram attacks, but gave them the green light to defend themselves, their property, and their places of worship "any way they can.”

"The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide will be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, churches, and property,” he says.

However, Kano-based pastor Emmanuel William says that the attacks are an anomaly in the relations between the region's Christians and Muslims, who mostly coexist peacefully. 

“My friends are both Christians and Muslims [and] I trust them,” he says. “I only fear … [these] strangers.” 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.