After last month’s sectarian riots, Fr Alex Longs explains why life is becoming increasingly hard for Christians in the mainly Islamic north One thing should be clear: when violent conflict breaks out in northern Nigeria between Christians and Muslims, it is never Christians who provoke it.
Regrettably, however, our Muslim brothers have so far proved quicker off the mark to tell their version of events. Thus on January 26, in the wake of another Jos crisis, BBC World television carried the news that 150 bodies of Muslims had been discovered at the village of Kuru Korama south of Jos. The source of the story? The Jama’atu Nasirul Islam, a powerful organisation that seeks to promote Islam in Nigeria. It also seems that for news about northern Nigeria the BBC relies heavily on its Hausa Service, and I want to take this opportunity to plead with the British public to investigate this body and see that its proMuslim bias is corrected.
Nigeria is a very complex country, and it is not easy to summarise the background to the latest crisis. When the British assumed control of northern Nigeria in 1900, the Fulani Caliphate of Sokoto had already conquered much of the area, so extending the frontiers of Islam. The Hausas, the principal ethnic group among their subjects, were themselves Muslim; hence the Fulani ruling class intermarried with them and began to lose their own identity. Today we sometimes call this key player on the Nigerian political scene the “Hausa-Fulani”, but for convenience they are often known as “the Hausas”.
Many smaller ethnic groups in the north escaped or resisted the Fulani conquest and Islamic penetration. They included the Berom, Afizere, and Anaguta of the area around Jos, the capital of the present Plateau State. Around 1900 they were still somewhat backward in their way of life. Soon, tin was discovered in the area and Jos began to develop as a mining town. Hausas began to move in from further north as traders and artisans; so too did Urhobos, Igbos, Yorubas and others from southern Nigeria. Christian missionaries also arrived, bringing western education along with other benefits. They had considerable success among the indigenous Beroms and others, and Jos became the northern headquarters of many Protestant organisations. Someone has said that “Jos” stands for “Jesus Our Saviour”. A Catholic bishopric was created, later becoming an archbishopric, and the Augustinians established first a seminary (now diocesan), then a monastery. British rule also encouraged throughout the north the spread of the Hausa language, which today is used by millions of northern Christians as a lingua franca and as the main language of worship.
Under colonial rule and subsequently, the Beroms and other indigenous people of the Plateau made considerable progress and they formed 80 per cent of the population when the state was created in 1967. Yakubu Gowon, an Anglican, led Nigeria’s Federal Government from 1966 to 1975. For their part, the Jos Hausas began to demand special recognition, with their own emir and local authority. United and vocal, their selfconfidence grew because they had the support of their Muslim “kith and kin” in other parts of the north. Undoubtedly, too, their confidence was a sign of the greater Islamic militancy that has been a marked feature of Nigeria, and of the world as a whole, since about 1980. In 1990, the then federal government, headed by General Babangida, a northern Muslim (as the majority of Nigeria’s heads of state have been), appeared to have conceded to their demands when he divided Jos metropolis into two local government areas, Jos North and Jos South. The grand design of the Hausas then became to capture Jos North, through the electoral process and through more intensive settlement, and eventually to control the state government. But, quite apart from the fact that elections in Nigeria are not free and fair, the Hausas are not in the majority in Jos North and have not won any election. On the other hand, they have become firmly entrenched in a ghetto stretching for a mile or so to the north of the centre of the metropolis.
Conflicts between “indigenes” and “settlers” have occurred in many parts of Nigeria, because, although the Nigerian constitution says that any Nigerian citizen is free to live anywhere in the country, in practice only the “indigenes” of a state are allowed the full rights of citizens there. The Jos Hausa settlers claim to be indigenes of Plateau, but Christian settlers are not treated as indigenes in states where Hausas are in the majority, such as Kano or Katsina. The “true” indigenes of Plateau, as I might call them, have not helped their own cause because they are not united, and have in the past allowed Hausas to acquire prominent positions in the state, and to acquire land. They have also tended to show as much suspicion of southerners, mostly their fellow Christians, as of the Hausas.
In the series of crises that gripped Jos in 2001, in 2008, and now in 2010, the Hausa strategy has followed a pattern: to launch attacks on Christian lives and property (naturally including churches) in poor areas of mixed population lying on the periphery of the ghetto, so as to end the Christian presence there. When the dust settles, Christians are persuaded to sell their destroyed properties to willing Hausa buyers. The strategy has succeeded to the extent that the area under Hausa control has steadily grown. After the 2001 crisis they proudly called it “the Taliban republic”. Within it, sharia law has been imposed, no functioning church remains, and no Christians live. On the other hand, in each crisis non-Hausas have fought back, and exacted revenge on such a scale that in the grisly calculations that follow, the number of Hausa deaths probably exceeds that of non-Hausas. Revenge killings of Hausas also occur in other parts of Plateau State.
The crisis that erupted on Sunday, January 17 followed just the same pattern. But this time both sides used more guns than ever before. Moreover, the Hausas had the boldness to attack Christians even in areas where the Hausas are relatively few in number, such as Bukuru, lying beyond Jos to the south. As always, it is not easy to establish how the trouble started. But the story most commonly heard, at least among Christians, is that, that very morning inside Nasarawa, a peripheral area just east of centre, a Hausa man brought a large number of Hausa youths allegedly to help him rebuild (or extend) a building, which lies close to a church. The sand they shovelled (perhaps with deliber ate carelessness) fell on Christians coming from the church; an argument started; verbal aggression soon led to physical violence. At once, Christians were attacked in peripheral areas throughout the city. But though taken unawares they fought back. The trouble continued on and off until Tuesday, when the federal government ordered the army to take complete control and a 24-hour curfew was imposed. The coming of the army proved a mixed blessing for Christians, because it is unanimously believed that a number of soldiers were Hausa militants in disguise and that they fired on Christians for no good reason.
Our monastery and the adjoining seminary are now surrounded by the ghetto, and even in normal times our peace is remorselessly invaded by prayers and sermons beamed from the powerful loudspeakers of a hundred mosques. During the crisis of 2008 gunmen fired into the seminary from the minaret of a mosque built right opposite the seminary gate. I had to tell the seminarians to lie flat on the ground. The grounds of the monastery were also invaded by a Hausa mob and a few of our students were injured. Since then we have enjoyed the special protection of the army, and we emerged almost unscathed from the present crisis. But in other parts of Jos, and beyond, poor Christians and poor Muslims did not enjoy such protection; and even if they are still alive, many of those who already enjoyed little enough of the world’s goods have now lost everything.
Will the powerful people inside or outside Plateau State who undoubtedly instigated the crisis be identified and punished? Past experience suggests it is unlikely. Meanwhile, for the long term, community leaders in Plateau State, notably our Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama for the Christians and the Emir of Wase for the Muslims, continue on the path of dialogue, while the federal government has established a powerful 15-man committee to try to bring about permanent peace. The rest of us must hope and pray – and be vigilant: for international terrorist organisations have their eyes on this country, and Farouk Mutallab, the would-be Christmas suicide bomber, may not be the last young northern Nigerian Muslim to be recruited by them.
Fr Alex Longs is the prior of the Augustinian monastery in Jos