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Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's government is scrambling to restore calm to the religiously-divided country following Christmas Day attacks on churches. An unclaimed attack Wednesday on an Islamic school has raised concerns that Nigerian Christians may be seeking vigilante justice, and religious leaders have entered the fray as well.
"Retaliation is not the answer, because if you retaliate, at what point will it end? Nigeria must survive as a nation," said government spokesman Owoye Azazi on Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse.
The leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria, which represents the country's churches, said the Christmas Day attacks on churches that killed more than 40 people amounted to a "declaration of war" on Nigeria's Christians and that while he did not want to encourage violence, "Christians should protect themselves ... in any way they can" because the government was not doing so, the BBC reports.
Meanwhile, the Sultan of Sokoto, the country's main Muslim cleric, called for calm. He cast Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group claiming responsibility for this and other attacks on Christian and Western targets, as a fringe group unrepresentative of Nigeria's mainstream Muslim population.
"I want to assure all Nigerians that there is no conflict between Muslims and Christians, between Islam and Christianity," said Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, according to BBC.
Nigerian newspaper Vanguard reports that in the same speech, Christian leader Ayo Oritshejafor said that Muslim religious leaders efforts to undermine Boko Haram had been lacking, putting them at fault.
“The Christian community has found the responses of the Supreme Council for Islamic affairs and other Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and abdication of their responsibilities over their extremist members. It is on record that most religious, traditional and political leaders in the North have not come out openly to condemn the extremist activities of Boko Haram, we hold them responsible for what is happening, because they have not taken concrete steps to check the excesses of their members.
Nigeria has been waging a low-intensity war with Boko Haram for years. The group, whose name means "Western education is a sin," seeks the imposition of strict Sharia law in Nigeria. For many years, its attacks and influence were limited to the country's mainly Muslim north, but in recent months it has staged attacks beyond its northern base with increasing frequency, The Christian Science Monitor reported from Abuja, the capital, in September. In August, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for an attack on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja that killed 23 people.
The government has stepped up its monitoring and crackdown on Boko Haram in the last two years, leading to more clashes in the north as police and security forces clashed with the militants. Clashes following the death of the Boko Haram founder while in police custody in 2009 led to the death of roughly 700 members of Boko Haram.
The concern now is that Wednesday's attack on an Islamic school, or any similar attacks, could be the spark Boko Haram is waiting for as an excuse to launch large-scale attacks, Associated Press reports. The motives of the attacks are unclear because no one has claimed responsibility and the perpetrators, who threw a homemade bomb into the school from a moving car, remain at large.
“Sapele just seems like the most unlikely place for a retaliatory attack to take place,” criminologist Innocent Chukwuma said. “But if it is, this would play right into Boko Haram, which has been looking to escalate the conflict to make the country ungovernable.”
Boko Haram's targets used to be limited to Christian and Muslim religious leaders, politicians, policemen, and government forces – mostly via hit-and-run assassinations from the back of motorcycles, according to AP. But at least 504 people, many of them civilians, have been killed this year alone as Boko Haram's campaign became more sophisticated and substantial.