Ethnic Tensions Ignite Christian-Muslim Clashes in Nigeria

"Both Muslims and Christians have realised that religion is an extremely effective way of mobilising large numbers of people"

A new report documenting Christian-Muslim clashes in north and central Nigeria that killed 900 last year, states that religion is being used to ignite ethnic tensions between those who consider themselves original inhabitants of an area and those viewed as "settlers."

The report explains how a localised dispute in the north Plateau state between ethnic groups competing for political control, land and economic resources turned into a full fledged religious conflict, extending beyond the boundaries of the state.

"Both Muslims and Christians have realised that religion is an extremely effective way of mobilising large numbers of people...local leaders on both sides have cynically manipulated religion with disastrous consequences," said Peter Takirambudde, director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.

The writers of the report say that unless the Nigerian government does away with official recognition of "indigenes" (locals), and "settlers," the potential for further conflict remains.

The report, entitled "Revenge in the Name of Religion: The Cycle of Violence in Plateau and Kano States," analyses "the incidents and factors that continue to threaten the stability of central and northern Nigeria."


In particular, it cites outbreaks of violence in Yelwa, Plateau State, in February and May 2004, and a reprisal attack in the northern city of Kano in May 2004.

On February 24, 2004, mostly armed Muslims killed 75 Christians in the town of Yelwa, at least 48 of them inside a church compound, according to the report.

On 2-3 May 2004, hundreds of armed Christians surrounded the town and killed 700 Muslims. Scores of women were abducted, and many raped. Both attacks were well-organised and the victims were targeted on the basis or religion, the report said.

A week later, on May 11 and 12 in the northern city of Kano, Muslims turned against Christians and killed more than 200.

The report says that the Nigerian government "bears a heavy responsibility for the massive loss of life in these eruptions off violence fueled by religion," according to Takirambudde.

He said security forces were not present when hundreds of people were being killed in Yelwa. He said that instead of protecting, police and soldiers "shot people on sight in Kano."

Since then, there have been many more incidents. The report states that various initiatives by the government to call impose a truce have not been implement. In addition, many people have been arrested but those involved in the planning and organising of the violence have not been prosecuted.

Roots of Conflict in Plateau State

In Plateau State in Central Nigeria, the report says that most "indigenes" have tended to be Christians, while the "settlers" had tended to be Muslims.

The Fulani are a nomadic and predominantly Muslim tribe which takes its cattle to graze, causing damage to land belonging to "indigenes" who happen to be Christian. In retaliation, "indigene" groups of various communities have been suspected of stealing cows belonging to Fulani, leading to revenge attacks.

The report says that in conflicts like this in Plateau state, religious identity has gradually taken over other considerations, with its "strong emotional appeal." The report says that in recent years, "religious rhetoric" has escalated not only in local communities, but at the national level. People of the same ethnic group have clashed because they were from different faiths, the report stated.

The Fulani claim to have lost over 1,800 human lives and 160,000 cows between September 2001 and May 2004.

Francis Helguero
Christian Today Correspondent

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