We sat in the back of a 4X4 discussing sectarian violence in Nigeria while we toured dirt-poor villages outside Jos, Plateau State, in the central belt of the country. He was the Nigeria researcher at the Washington office of international NGO Human Rights Watch and I was making my second visit to Jos.
My previous visit in November 2010 (here) had been so disturbing that I pulled together a small group of London-based Nigerians and we formed LoveJos (here), an organisation aimed at increasing awareness of the deteriorating situation in Jos and Plateau State amongst the UK Nigerian diaspora. We staffed an information stall at the massive Festival of Life at ExCel in Docklands (here) in April, held a conference in September and a vigil outside the Nigerian High Commission in January.
So I went back last month to assess the latest situation and spent a day visiting outlying Christian villages that had been attacked by Fulani Muslim settlers. In one we met a young man who lost all his family. We examined the bullet holes in the mud-brick and corrugated-iron huts that serve as homes, and paid our respects at the earthen graves out the back where he’d buried his family.
In another we sat in the shade with 20 villagers while in their Berom tribal language they quietly recounted a horrific Fulani assault on their community one night. A boy still has a bullet lodged in his body and women showed us their appalling machete wounds. A number of villagers died during the attack and the grief and mourning continues unabated for the rest…
During our back-of-the-car discussion it became clear that my HRW companion made no moral or political distinction between Muslim and Christian violence. He drew attention to Christian attacks on Muslims and argued that for virtually every instance of Muslim violence he could point to comparable Christian attacks. He made a simple mathematical equivalence between the two.
His neutrality is right in part of course. All sectarian violence is to be deplored wherever it comes from. And certainly Christians have killed and maimed Muslims, occasionally in substantial numbers.
Furthermore (he didn’t mention this naturally) insofar as Christians participated in retaliation attacks rather than self-defence they denied some of the central tenets of their faith. Forgiveness, loving your enemy and leaving ultimate justice and judgement to God – these are vital distinctives that Christianity offers the world, for “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.
Also the New Testament has no concept comparable to Islam’s jihad or war in the cause of Allah so that the Crusades, for instance, while plausible on straight geopolitical grounds, were an unacceptable religious aberration when carried out in Christ’s name. Jesus doesn’t do war; the only violence known to him was that which was done to him.
But I was puzzled at my companion’s detached mathematical equivalence for, as someone said, context is everything. And the dominating issue which dramatically changed the context in north and central Nigeria is the abrupt imposition of Sharia law by local Muslim authorities and traditional leaders in twelve northern states in 1999/2000, and the consequent dhimmi (second-class) status of non-Muslim minorities. Straightaway religious identity came to predominate, religious differences were highlighted, and the major Nigerian fault-line became that between the Muslim-majority north and the chiefly Christian south. It was Nigeria’s political 9/11, a constitutional earthquake that many predict will lead eventually to the Sudan-style breakup of the nation.
Minorities in the north protested (here) but to no avail. And as Nigerian Islam continued its increasingly assertive path, suspicion grew that there were further expansionist Islamic aims and that neighbouring states like the predominantly Christian Plateau State were to be targeted for similar Islamification. The explosion of violence and mass slaughter following an incident outside a mosque in the Congo-Russia area of Jos, Plateau’s capital, on 7th September 2001 showed how tense inter-faith relations had become. Other violent sectarian crises followed in the city and its surrounds in 2004, 2008 and 2010 (here).
Formed two years after Sharia law was instituted, nurtured in this assertive and increasingly zealous Islamic atmosphere and fuelled also by poverty, unemployment and corruption, the violent Islamist group Boko Haram burst onto the national scene in 2009 with attacks on the security forces in northeast Nigeria. Probably affiliated with Al Qaeda and supported by some local Muslim leaders (here), their aim is to create chaos, fear and paralysis in order to further establish Sharia government.
Suspicion of Islamic expansionism was vindicated when Boko Haram declared recently they intend to force another seven states including Plateau State to embrace Sharia law, and Jos as Plateau’s capital became a target for their deadly campaign. While I was in the city in February they threatened an attack and since I returned home they have undertaken two suicide bombings at city-centre churches (here) and (here).
Sectarian reprisal attacks are never acceptable, especially by Christians. But there is a moral difference between offensive and defensive violence – I met a Jos pastor who legitimately reached for a gun when he saw a baying mob coming down the road towards his home and church.
So in the light of the aggressive and fundamentalist Islamic darkness descending from the north, my companion was plain wrong to sweep all Plateau State’s Muslim and Christian violence together as equivalent. Context and back-drop are indeed everything.