Nigeria’s religious fault line was in the spotlight yesterday after sectarian riots in the central city of Jos, nestled between the Muslim north and the Christian south, claimed hundreds of lives.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) squarely blamed the government for the latest bloodletting in Africa’s most populous country and called for a probe “to find who sponsored and carried out the killings.”
The clashes were triggered by a rumor on Friday that the majority-Muslim All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) had lost a local election to the mainly Christian Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a police spokesman said.
“Nigeria is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. More than 12,000 people have died in religious or ethnic clashes since the end of military rule in 1999,” the New York-based organization said in a statement.
“Government policies that discriminate against ‘non-indigenes’ — people who cannot trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of an area — underlie many of these conflicts,” it said.
“In Jos, members of the largely-Muslim Hausa ethnic group are classified as non-indigenes despite many having resided there for several generations,” it said.
Georgette Gagnon, HRW’s Africa director, said: “These discriminatory policies relegate millions of Nigerians to the status of second-class citizens and fuel the flames of ethnic and religious violence, which have often erupted during elections.”
On Monday, about 2,000 angry youths stormed a mosque in Jos calling for the resignation of the governor of Plateau state, as thousands of troops and police patrolled the city.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), meanwhile, urged calm and restraint.
OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu expressed “deep regret” over the clashes and “appealed to Nigerians to shun violence and embrace dialogue, tolerance and the rule of law as means of resolving disputes.”
A 24-hour curfew in four districts of Jos that saw the worst of the fighting has been replaced with a night-time curfew applied to the city as a whole, Plateau State information commissioner Nuhu Gagara said.
“The situation has improved in the state capital,” he said, adding that the curfew might be further relaxed yesterday.
The state government has said that about 200 people died in the clashes, though other sources have given a toll twice the official figure.
A Red Cross official spoke of “well over 300 people killed” and Khaled Abubakar, an imam at the central mosque, and another Muslim official spoke of about 400 bodies taken to the mosque. A Christian clergyman spoke of “several hundred” killed.
Corpses that were still visible in large numbers on Sunday had all been removed from the streets of the town and buried by Monday.
Security has also been beefed up in three major cities in the north — for fear that violence could spread. Residents of Kaduna and Katsina reported increased police patrols on Monday morning.
Thousands of people sought refuge in churches, mosques and army and police barracks after the Jos troubles, the Red Cross said. Muslims and Christians for the most part cohabit peacefully in Nigeria.
But Jos, in the “middle belt” between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, already witnessed violent clashes between the two religious groups in 2001 when hundreds of people were also killed.