In the last couple of days, a series of sectarian, religious killings and reprisal attacks, combined with labor strike and demonstrations have destabilized the security setup in Nigeria.
Following the bombing of churches on Christmas day—claimed by Boko Haram—which resulted in the death of at least 40 people, both Christians and Muslims, there were several reprisal attacks on Muslims and further killings of Christians by the same group.
The Christmas day attack drew condemnation from many quarters. Muslim leaders and Islamic organizations in press statements and interviews denounced and dissociated Islam from the act, which they deemed dastardly.
The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Sa’ad, who is the spiritual father of the Nigerian Muslim community, visited the sites of the attacks, commiserated with the victims’ families and attended a meeting with the presidency. As usual, the security chiefs made promises to bring the culprits to book and prevent the recurrence of such attacks.
Although President Goodluck Jonathan declared a partial state of emergency in some local government areas in Borno, Yobe, Plateau and Niger states on December 31, the attacks only went stiffer thereafter.
In a move that was unprecedented in the history of the group’s infamous activities, it issued an ultimatum on January 1. “We also wish to call on our fellow Muslims to come back to the north, because we have evidence that there would be attacked. We are also giving a three-day ultimatum to the southerners living in the northern part of Nigeria to move away,” said Abul Qada, the spokesman of Boko Haram.
This created panic in the populace, but the government dispelled the threat as empty. Upon the expiration of the ultimatum, an attack was launched on Southerners and worshippers at the Deeper Life Church in Gombe State on January 5, where 6 persons, including the wife of the pastor of the church, died.
Reacting to the spate of violence, the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor, Ayo Oritsejafor said the attacks were tantamount to “systematic ethnic and religious cleansing”. He called on Christians to defend themselves with “whatever is available to them"—a declaration which sparked criticisms as being inciting. “I will not subscribe to the notion that Christians should quit the North, because of the ceaseless attacks. Rather, I will urge them to be vigilant and be prepared at all times to defend themselves, their family members and their churches, including their businesses with whatever is available to them." This call was replicated by the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Cardinal Okogie.
In what seems like a direct response to the stirring calls, Christian youth descended on Muslim worshippers on Friday, 6th January at a mosque in Edo State. The brutal attack claimed the lives of 5 worshippers and left scores severely wounded. Unconfirmed reports claimed some of the victims were roasted. Several retaliatory attacks have followed since then.
The Director of Media and Communications at the Muslim Public Affairs Centre (MPAC), Disu Kamor told “Islam Online” that the calls of the Christian leaders were provocative and blameworthy. “Calling people to arms was a dangerous and reckless thing by those who did it. It’s also short-sighted and a show of rage, rather than courage on their part. In a volatile situation that was potentially capable of setting the whole country on fire, as a leader, you do not incite mob action or promote vigilante justice which is what those calls were. If there was no correlation between the calls and the attacks, we have no choice but to conclude there was. The call itself was a break of trust and a break in law,” he said.
However, he was reluctant to tag the calls as the direct cause of the reprisal killings. “Guilt by association and collective punishment are wrong. Although they could claim they only called for self-defense. How this was supposed to be done in a country with government was left to individual discretion, the actualization of which we probably saw in Benin and other places where Muslims have suffered hate crimes,” he added.
The Boko Haram sect claims its motive is to establish Sharia law in Nigeria, but its brutal killings of innocent civilians and torching of places of worship and public institutions, have earned it condemnations from both Muslims and Christians. The group has claimed responsibility for virtually all the recent attacks on Christians and churches.
In a recent 15 minutes video message posted on YouTube, the leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, who wore a red and white turban and a bullet-proof vest with two rifles placed before him, justified his group’s attacks as retaliation for assaults perpetrated by Christians on Muslims in several parts of the country. “They killed our fellows and even ate their flesh in Jos,” he said in Hausa Language in reference reports of such cases last year.
The ensuing mayhem has ignited mutual distrust and suspicion. There have been widespread rumors of stockpiling of lethal arms by underground Muslim and Christian groups. On January 10, 61 Hausa youth who fled the Southern state of Edo for the Northern state of Gombe, for fear of reprisal attacks were almost lynched in Ibadan by residents, who suspected they were Boko Haram members. Mutual mistrust has also been heightened by an AFP report on January 11, which claimed that a Nigeria-bound truck loaded with arms and ammunitions was intercepted by security forces in Ghana.
The violence has equally strained the relations of the two communities. Disu Kamor told “Islam Online” that the mayhem “will leave an almost indelible mark and a scar that will disfigure us both for a long number of years. We will have to engage in a serious work to rebuild trust and win hearts and minds. Hopefully, we have leaders that will take courage and have the foresight to engage in all measures to ensure these.”
Many Nigerians believe religion is only a victim and that faceless forces seeking to disintegrate the country and ignite religious war are at work. The Senate President, David Mark said the violence “has nothing to do with religion, because all the clerics, both Christians and Muslims, have condemned the acts of these terrorists and people who are their sponsors. They are people who are prepared, with specific intention to destabilize this country, but they will not succeed.”
In corroboration, Mr. Oluwasegun David, a public commentator and writer told “Islam Online” that “to assert or conclude that religion is the perpetrator or motivation of terrorism would amount to nothing, but searching for an honest man with a stolen lantern. Jesus Christ was not recorded throwing bombs in the Bible. Prophet Muhammad was never a party to terrorism or throwing of missiles. If any man however claims his motive for bombing mosques and churches is in the cause of religion, I think the favor he needs urgently is a psychiatrist’s or neurosurgeon’s attention. Christianity is a religion of peace. Islam embraces love and both religions teach us to call on God and not guns.”