Nigerians touched by communal violence talk in the absence of justice

KAFANCHAN, Nigeria — The highway from Kaduna wove through a maze of military checkpoints and then continued past the rusting hulks of abandoned factories and textile mills that long ago left Nigeria, as did the jobs they once produced.

Down the highway, we came upon the shiny oil refineries that have steadily replaced the old industry as Nigeria has transformed into a petroleum economy. Economists say a small, corrupt elite profits greatly while the vast majority of the country’s population sees virtually none of the largesse.

The highway eventually narrowed as we left the sprawling city limits and turned onto a dirt road, approaching the small village of Kafanchan, with a small central market and a patchwork of Muslim and Christian neighborhoods. Communal violence has flared periodically here since early 2011.

The tension was immediately apparent on the faces of the people standing in shop doorways and outside homes made of locally produced brown bricks. Shops burned during a recent spate of violence dotted the dirt road, and the charred hulk of a mosque and a church in the same condition stood as blackened landmarks of the recent history of the Christian-Muslim divide.

The guides on this journey were Farouk Lawan and Sampson Auta, two community outreach workers for the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, and Associate Professor Darren Kew of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, an expert on Nigeria’s communal violence who has worked closely with the Centre.

I was riding along with them in a beat-up, white van to see how these field workers do their jobs trying to quell vicious fighting that can ignite as quickly as a brushfire in villages like this.

We came to a school off a small, dusty town square near a large mosque and a newly fashioned concrete building that served as the court of sharia, or Islamic law. Inside the school, community leaders had brought together a group of Muslims and Christians who wanted to tell their stories about a recent spate of violence and express their frustration that the government seems to do little to stop the fighting or pursue justice for the victims.

The Interfaith Mediation Centre’s Lawan and Auta opened the discussion by establishing ground rules for respecting each other’s narratives and allowing each side of the bloody divide to tell their stories. Lawan is Muslim and Auta is Christian. One of the Centre’s primary rules is that its field workers always travel in pairs representing both faiths entangled in Nigeria’s religious conflict.

About 25 members of the community, some of them religious leaders from both sides of the divide and some residents who lost loved ones, were clustered together in plastic chairs on a cement floor as late morning light filtered through old, cracked windows. The stories they told were filled with nearly unspeakable violence and unbearable sadness at the enormity of their loss. Some could not hold back tears as they talked and some simply broke down, unable to finish their stories but comforted by supportive members of their community.

A pastor in a black shirt and white collar named Danjuma Jatau said his son Bege, 16, was killed in April 2011 at the height of Christian-Muslim violence connected to the national election at that time which brought President Goodluck Jonathan, an evangelical Christian, to power. He said his son was coming home from school when the local Muslim population began rioting in response to Jonathan’s election.

“I buried him with my own hands,” Pastor Jatau said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And we have never had justice. No one has ever been arrested for these crimes and we know who did these things. We know exactly who they are.”

Abubakar Idris, 30, spoke of the day more recently, just a month earlier, when his brother, Abdullahi Ayuba, 21, was killed doing his job as a motorcycle taxi driver on a day when he ended up dropping off a fare in a Christian neighborhood.

Kafanchan was once a more vibrant town as it was located at a railroad crossing, but the tracks are now in disrepair and the trains are less utilized. And so the motorcycle taxis are an essential mode of transportation in a country lacking in public transportation, particularly in a more remote area like this one.

Motorcycles driven by Muslims have become a particularly alarming sight in many Christian neighborhoods, as they have been used by suicide bombers in attacks by Boko Haram and at times to shoot up villages.

Irdris, dressed in all white, said his brother was a peaceful person who was simply doing his job as a driver when he was attacked by Christian residents. He found out the horrible news when he tried to call his brother’s cell phone and the killers answered, telling him, “Your brother is already dead.”

They announced where he could pick up the body and when Idris arrived he found his brother’s charred remains left in a heap in a Christian neighborhood.

“They killed him and burned him to death,” he said.

Residents explained that this killing came amid a spate of five such killings of Muslim motorcycle drivers by youths in Christian neighborhoods. Then, some residents explained, young Muslim men decided to answer the violence with violence and began killing any Christian motorcycle taxi drivers who might stray into a Muslim enclave.

In about one month from mid-September to mid-October of 2013, they estimate about 10 motorcycle taxi drivers were killed.

This cluster of 30 people in this school, a small but representative knot of grief in Nigeria, each told stories like this, each one sadder and more brutal than the next. Both Muslims and Christians expressed frustration and anger that the culture of corruption which thrives amid the failures of government has meant that there is no functioning justice system.

They seemed surprised when I asked the group if any of them had seen justice, if there were any arrests or prosecutions of the perpetrators of the violence that took their loved ones. They looked puzzled and virtually all of them shook their heads no in response. Here were more about two dozen murder cases in a small village and there had not been one arrest.

As UMass Boston McCormack School Associate Professor Kew later pointed out, there can be a sense of catharsis, if not justice, in allowing people to tell their stories. He said, “We become like the eyes and ears of the world for them, and they want the world to hear about the injustices here.”

But at times the emotions can start to run hot and there was a moment on this day when it felt like the level of grief and anger was reaching a tipping point. The two Interfaith Mediation Centre field workers seemed to sense this, and stepped in to tone things down and to try to find teaching moments.

One thing they wanted to focus on was how false rumors can spread like wildfire via text messages and the religious radio stations, to which both sides listen.

The IMC has recently set up a pilot project of what they call “an early warning system.” It is a central operation in Kaduna that relies on a network of community field workers to gather rumors and put them on a data map. They then use the map to systematically dispel the rumors through text messages which are sent out en masse to communities before violence can start.

At that point, UMass Professor Kew raised a question for the group.

“All conflicts have signs that things are coming. What are the signs you saw before the conflict happened,” he said, adding, “And how can we react to those signs and work together to stop violence before it stops?”

John Ojo, 50, tried to answer by telling his own story. He explained how his brother Dunni Ojo, 55, and a father of four, was attacked with a machete and killed in connection with election violence in April 2011. And, he said, even though they know the trigger was politics, he was at a loss to explain how small tensions tear open into horrific violence.

He said, “We don’t know what happened, what brings all this mess. Before, we were together. When you ask what caused the fighting, nobody can say how.”

The gathering sat silently, a few people, Muslims and Christians, nodding in agreement. At gatherings like these in a country still writhing with communal violence, people have more questions than answers in trying to understand the violence all around them.