The quest to build an ‘early warning system’ to stop Nigeria’s Muslim-Christian violence

KADUNA, Nigeria — The waters of the River Kaduna swirl forward under a bridge that spans the long, turbulent divide between this city’s Christian neighborhoods to the south and its Muslim communities to the north.

Kaduna, which literally means “the land of crocodiles,” lies in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with a total of 150 million people and the largest country in the world to be almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims.

The Middle Belt, a broad swath of grassland and rocky escarpments, forms a ragged front line of battle between Christianity and Islam as the country experiences yet another eruption of communal violence in a 15-year continuum of killing that, according to UN figures, has taken the lives of an estimated 20,000 people.

Kaduna State and the city that bears its name are in the crosscurrent of this violence. With a population of 1.5 million people, half Muslim, half Christian, Kaduna is in effect a microcosm of the deep divisions within the country as a whole. But as observers here are quick to point out, Kaduna is also an oasis of hope where an effort at interfaith cooperation is struggling to take hold and has so far produced practical results on a local level.

“Kaduna is where we are developing an early warning system,” explained Dr. Bakut Bakut, director of Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, “one that will enable us to have feelers about local conflicts before they emerge so we can stop them before they get out of control.”

To the northeast in Kano and in Maiduguri, where the Islamic militant movement of Boko Haram first took hold, there are no such warning systems and violence has intensified in recent months, causing some members of the Nigerian House of Representatives to suggest the Northeast be treated as a “war zone.” In the five years since 2009, when Boko Haram first turned up the heat on its violent campaign and the military answered with its own counterinsurgency, some 5,000 people have died.

Over those five years, Kaduna’s focused efforts toward healing a divided society — organized around the work of Kaduna’s Interfaith Mediation Centre headed by a local Christian pastor and a Muslim imam — have proven fateful. Kaduna has become a barometer for which way this large, oil-rich, and strategic country will go.

And lately, it does not seem to be headed in the right direction. Nigeria’s most recent spasm of fighting between Christian farmers and Muslim herders occurred in the village of Riyom in the Plateau which borders Kaduna. It resulted in the deaths of 30 people and the torching of scores of homes and reports of rampant cattle theft in a single day in early January. On February 2, the attacks and counter attacks rippled from Riyom through a string of other nearby farming villages in the Middle Belt resulting in 8 more people dead as well as 47 cows killed and an estimated 70 stolen cattle, according to reports by local authorities.

The violence kept up its pace throughout February, particularly in the northeast of Nigeria, where a government boarding school was attacked and set ablaze and 29 students were burned to death, the torching of schools has been a signature form of attack by Boko Haram.

Asked about the recent surge in violence, Eliza Griswold, the author of “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam,” said, “The worsening crisis in Northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants are targeting schools and have killed a reported 300 people already in 2014, is evidence of this deepening fault line.”

But, Griswold, who has reported extensively in Nigeria, added, “This isn’t about some inexorable clash between Christianity and Islam. This confrontation has a series of secular causes. Among them are climate change, post-colonial chaos, extreme poverty of people who live atop a river of oil and other natural resources, and, in the case, of Boko Haram, a group of young men with no other viable means of employment. All of these factors collide under the banner of religious violence.”

The multiplicity of causes behind these eruptions of violence is difficult to discern on the ground. 

Often it begins with accusations of theft of cattle, a rising problem which observers say is caused in part by the impacts of climate change. An advancing Sahara Desert pushes the Muslim herders to move their livestock south to survive. The war in the North drives them south as well. And the resulting migration has caused clashes between the northern Muslim herders, or pastoralists, and the established Christian farmers in the South.

Sometimes the friction begins as a petty disagreement which escalates to sneering insults about the other’s religion and then fist fighting. Once violence starts, it has proven hard to stop, government officials say. And too often it seems to be hastily cast as a religious conflict by extremist clerics and politicians on both sides who fuel the fire for their own political and/or financial purposes.

Just about anywhere in and around Kaduna, there was evidence of the cycle of violence in the charred rubble of fire-bombed churches and burned-out mosques. Driving southeast from Kaduna center out to the village of Maraba Rido, members of the community gathered in the home of the village leader, or ‘sarki.’

“We are working every day on how we can live together and stay together,” said Joel Adamu, a young and popular sarki who has worked with the Interfaith Mediation Centre and who was praised by residents for trying to keep the peace in his village, which is about 25 percent Muslim and 75 percent Christian.

The last big incident here was in April 2011, residents said, when news of the election victory of President Goodluck Jonathan caused triumphalism among Christian supporters and rioting in some Muslim areas in the North opposed to Jonathan. Churches were burned and mosques were attacked. Remembering the chaos and retributive violence of that day, the gathering grew silent.

Here and at a separate set of interviews in a nearby school, residents of Maraba Rido described in detail the shooting and machete attacks that day. They said it involved men in military uniforms as well as a confusing clash of militants, presumed to be elements of the dreaded Boko Haram organization, and locally organized Christian militias. No one could say precisely how it started, or why. But when it was over, 140 people were killed in two days of bloodshed, according to Human Rights Watch, and nearly 1,000 were reportedly killed in various election-related flashpoints throughout Kaduna State.

“They killed my son, my only son,” said Saliha Yusufu, a Muslim woman in a purple ‘abaya,’ or traditional head covering, as she burst into tears and tried to describe the horror she felt the moment she saw the burned corpse of her son, Shehu, 26.

“He was my only son,” she said over and over again before she collapsed and was comforted by several of the other women around her.

Tabitha Boulous, 32, a Christian, wept as she spoke of seeing her younger brother lying dead in the street.

“The devil has come between our two faiths,” said Boulous. “I pray every day the violence will not return. We all pray for this. That is all we can do.”

Nigeria, like Kenya, Somalia and Mali, is in the midst of a post-9/11 surge of Islamic militancy in Africa that has crystalized here in the murderous ideology of Boko Haram. The name of the feared group is derived from a combination of the local Hausa language and Arabic which translates as “Western education is sacrilege.”

Under this ideological banner, Boko Haram rebels have bombed churches, government institutions and secular schools killing Christians and any Muslims who it deems infidels in an avowed campaign to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. The movement, founded by a Nigerian Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, is inspired by the same fiery Salafist teaching of Islam from which al Qaeda’s leaders emerged. Under Yusuf, Boko Haram began as a northern Nigeria movement that decried the government’s corruption and misrule and directed its anger at the government. But 2011, it was turning its focus to include attacking Westerners and Christians

President Jonathan’s government in Abuja says that Boko Haram is a terrorist organization and declared a state of emergency in three states in May 2013 to broaden its powers to confront the threat. The Nigerian military is currently waging an aggressive — critics and human rights activists would say too-often indiscriminate — counterinsurgency campaign against Boko Haram. Sandbags, barbed wire and bomb-sniffing dogs at checkpoints were common in Kaduna. Further to the north, highways were plied by convoys of soldiers in armored personnel carriers with mounted, .50-caliber machine guns trained on an unseen enemy. Reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented indiscriminate killing by the military during its crackdown which both organizations portrayed as heavy-handed.

In November, the US State Department added Boko Haram and its smaller offshoot Ansaru to Washington’s official list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” That move has the practical impact of allowing the US to seize the group’s assets, to prevent Americans from providing support and to block known members from entering the US. It can also form the basis for providing military assistance to the Nigerian government.

US Army General Carter Ham of the US Africa Command has sought to establish links between Boko Haram and al Qaeda-affiliated organizations throughout Africa. Ham also warned that elements of Boko Haram “aspire to broader regional level of attacks,” including against the US and European interests. Two years ago, a Boko Haram suicide attack on the UN building in Abuja killed at least 25 people. It has also been responsible for kidnapping Westerners working in Nigeria.

On the other side of the religious conflict in this former British colony, a long history of Christian evangelism from American churches has infused Nigeria’s Christian population with its own brand of arrogance and militancy that emerges in street fighting and, some critics would say, an anti-Muslim rhetoric from the pulpit that is often infused with a Christian-Zionist eschatology.

Some observers say this anti-Muslim rhetoric has begun to shape national politics and influenced the tenor of the leadership of President Jonathan, who is a self-avowed evangelical Christian. Jonathan has openly wondered if the ongoing violence was not a sign of the apocalyptic New Testament prophecy of the ‘End of Days.’

It is difficult to accurately track the historical influences that have brought Nigeria to the moment in which it is living, and suffering. But the sweep of this history — from British colonial past to the contemporary rise of militant Islamic movements and American Christian evangelicals — is captured by the author Griswold in the chapters on Nigeria in her book “The Tenth Parallel.”

As Griswold explains, the discovery of crude oil in the 1950s made Nigeria the world’s fifth-largest exporter, generating unfathomable wealth — and corruption — among the elite few while nearly 90 percent of its population scratches out an existence on less than $2 per day. This unequal distribution of the wealth generated by the country’s natural resources is most acutely felt in the North where Boko Haram uses the inequity for recruiting purposes.

The inequity felt in the North was well documented with data mapping in a story on Boko Haram in the November issue of National Geographic. It showed that in the North more than half of children under five are stunted by malnutrition. In the Northeast, 75 percent of homes do not have access to electricity. And 75 percent of women are illiterate.

Nationwide, two-thirds of Nigerians are under age 25 and the youth unemployment rate soars as high as 80 percent particularly in the sprawling urban slums of Lagos. Through the last four decades, communal violence has escalated it seems right on pace with the growing inequality and the rampant government corruption that produces it. This month, for example, lawmakers announced an audit of the state oil company in an attempt to locate an estimated $50 billion in oil revenues Nigeria’s central bank says is missing.

In 1999, military rule ended and ushered in a “political free for all of weak democracy,” as Griswold described it and the two faiths tended to vote along religious lines. In 2000, Islamic leaders implemented Sharia law in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states; after 9/11 Muslims lashed out at Christians when the US invaded Afghanistan; and the tension reached a boil in 2002 when a Christian reporter’s article about the Miss World pageant was viewed as a blasphemous insult to the Prophet Mohammed prompting riots that killed hundreds. Local elections spurred further rioting and killing along religious lines.

And all the while Nigerian evangelical preachers and the American televangelists they sought to emulate were playing up the anti-Muslim rhetoric on Christian satellite channels. Meanwhile, Salafist clerics schooled and in some cases funded by Persian Gulf benefactors appeared on their own, rival satellite channels, playing up an anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiment.

By 2011, Boko Haram was officially beginning to organize against Western influence and steadily stepping up its campaign to include a spate of church bombings and attacks on government targets. The result was an explosion of violence that remains difficult to understand. But experts, including Darren Kew, director of the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who has done extensive research in Nigeria and worked closely with the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, said any assessment has to begin with geography.

The Muslim population is predominantly in the North where the dry, paler grass lands form the “Sahel,” an Arabic word for “coast,” at the edge of the great sea of sand that is the Sahara Desert.

The Christians are concentrated more to the south in the swampy and more fertile grass lands which are abundant with dairy farms. This geography defines the historical divide between Muslims and Christians as much, if not more, than their religious beliefs. The sectarian rift has been exacerbated by the two faiths’ respective patrons and colonizers who have done so much to foster division throughout history. But, as Kew points out, the geography and the shifting line between farmers and pastoralists lies at the core of so much of the violence.

Kew, who was in Kaduna this fall as part of a conference organized by UMass’ McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, said the “bottom line” on the recent spate of violence in and around Kaduna is a combination of “a farmer-pastoralist conflict” and a “local communal conflict.”

“There is no direct Boko Haram involvement, but the insurgency in the Northeast is causing the herders to move their herds further south, leading to more disputes with farmers,” said Kew, who has been monitoring the situation through updates from the ground provided by the staff at the Interfaith Mediation Centre.

Still, it is hard not to see religious lines coursing through — and perhaps defining — the conflict.

Even the nicknames of Kaduna’s neighborhoods seem straight out of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” For example, Kaduna’s neighborhood of Regasar, which is predominantly Muslim and infused with a fundamentalist subculture in its mosques and in the modest dress of its women, is now referred to as ‘Kandahar,’ the legendary hometown of the Taliban.

The predominantly Christian neighborhood of Romi, with its protective walls built up around its churches, is referred to as Rome. The downtown area where merchants from the two faiths collide is called ‘Baghdad.’ And the area where most of the tourist hotels are located is called ‘the green zone,’ referring to the guarded compound in Baghdad where Westerners, NGOs and embassies were concentrated during the US-led occupation.

But the manifestation of this as a religious conflict is present in more than just geographical nicknames. Drive south from the bridge in Kaduna and you soon come upon a new, protective concrete wall that surrounds the white-stucco Shalom Church after a car bomb killed three churchgoers last year and sparked several days of Christian-Muslim violence. When it was over, more than 100 people were dead.

Drive north and look down the alleyways of the Muslim neighborhood and you’ll see the charred foundations that are all that remains of many Muslim family homes and the mosque which was burned to the ground after Christians turned their rage on their Muslim neighbors for revenge after the Shalom Church bombing. A small construction crew was there tinkering away on the mosque, trying to rebuild it from the ground up.

At the end of the day in Kaduna, the brown, silt-stirred waters of the Kaduna River are still flowing under the bridge. Muslim men and women, in their distinctly modest dress, are walking from the city center back to their neighborhoods on the north banks. And the Christian men and women, in their more brightly colored attire, are walking briskly the other way to get home before darkness sets in. Both sides were retreating in a city that remains divided even if the local efforts to reduce the violence have been effective.

Kew commented on the current situation, saying, “Nigeria is getting both better and worse at the moment, in the sense that the conflict picture is darkening, but the economic picture is brightening.”

“The key turning point across Africa in countries like Ghana that have moved toward better governance and development was the rise of a viable political opposition — a real movement that can push for reform — and for the first time since democracy returned in 1999, Nigeria now has a viable opposition party forming,” he said.

He added, “But the one thing that Nigeria needs politically — a viable opposition — is the one thing that can also burn the house down, because the ruling party is not going to give up power easily, and in many localities, it won’t give up without a fight.  This is heating up the polity at the same time as the Boko Haram insurgency remains a threat, as do the Niger Delta militias. This year and next year, with elections in April 2015, are going to be rough.”

By dawn on one recent morning, the bridge over the river was just starting to come alive with the early risers getting to work. It’s a busy city in a country where the national economy is picking up steam. Eventually, the sounds of chirping birds in the green marshes along the river banks and the quiet chatter of fishermen heading out with nets in wooden boats was taken over by a slowly rising cacophony of car horns, grinding truck engines and motorcycle taxis as the daily commute got into full swing.

This time, the Muslims were walking from the north bank back over to the south side while the Christians walked just as purposefully the other way. On the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, there was not much in the way of eye contact or friendly morning greetings. They just looked like tired, busy people getting by in a bustling local economy. And so they made their way, Muslims and Christians, crossing the only bridge that binds both sides of this divided city.