Quotes of the Day

A woman walks through the wreckage of Sabon Gida, destroyed last week
Sunday, May. 23, 2004

Open quoteThe line dividing Africa's Muslim north from its predominantly Christian south runs straight through the Nigerian state of Plateau. The boundary is normally hard to discern. For one thing, people in the same town can belong to different religions but work next to each other, cheer the same football team and even intermarry. But in Nigeria, every few years the divide becomes obvious and stark. Made desperate by poverty and joblessness, and often goaded by manipulative politicians, extremists on both sides go at each other in vicious battles. Plateau state, where cattle herders from the north and farmers from the south vie for control of the fertile plains of Nigeria's middle belt, is "right on the fault line," as one Western diplomat puts it.

That fault line ruptured again in February. In the town of Yelwa — whose some 10,000 residents are mostly Muslim — a suspected Muslim militia killed 48 Christians after a months-long dispute over land and cattle. Three weeks ago, Christian militiamen took revenge. Backed by two jeeps mounted with machine guns, the guerrillas systematically destroyed buildings and shot and bludgeoned Muslims, killing somewhere between 67 (the police estimate) and 630 (the Red Cross figure). "If you hear the sound of their guns you will think the heavens want to fall," says Mallam Mohamed Ahmed, 33, who fled on his motorbike. With the violence spreading to other states last week, President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Plateau, suspended the elected governor and appointed a retired army general in his place. These steps, which were later ratified by the National Assembly, were necessary "to stem the tide of what has become near mutual genocide," according to Obasanjo.

The state of emergency is unlikely to mend Nigeria's fractures for long. An estimated 130 million people live in Africa's most populous nation, divided about equally between Christians and Muslims, but they are further splintered into about 250 tribes. In the past, religious and ethnic tensions were suppressed by Nigeria's military rulers, who led the 404 Not Found

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country for 29 of the 44 years since independence. But since returning to democracy in 1999, Nigerians have been freer to vent their frustrations. More than 10,000 have died in clashes prompted by everything from Muslim protests at U.S. bombing in Afghanistan to the decision to hold the Miss World beauty pageant in Abuja, the capital.

Many Nigerians argue that the real reason for the violence is not ethnic or religious division — most Nigerians have peacefully coexisted for centuries — but the scramble for scarce resources and political clout. Though Nigeria produces some 2.4 million barrels of oil a day, most Nigerians live in poverty. The average person earns $290 a year. Because the money from oil exports trickles down only through a corrupt system of patronage, those in office hold huge power. To gain that power, politicians manipulate religious and ethnic differences. At the center of the web is the all-powerful central government in Abuja.

Nigerians have long called for a national debate on the way the country is governed. Many want greater autonomy for the states and a fairer distribution of the oil wealth. Obasanjo, a retired general and born-again southern Christian who was re-elected for a second term last year, has repeatedly rejected such a discussion, because, says another Western diplomat, "it would just be a long-drawn-out exercise of Nigerians complaining about the obvious instead of getting on with fixing the country." But with the government struggling to bring economic growth, the clamor for change continues. On May 15, protesters marched in the southern city of Lagos. "The protest was to try and check the dictatorial tendencies of this regime," said Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who helped organize the march and was briefly detained by police who broke it up. "When dialogue is missing, you have monologue."

In Yelwa there was not much of either last week. Most of the surviving residents have fled, leaving a few hundred Muslim men and a handful of soldiers. Suspended state governor Joshua Dariye, a Christian whom Obasanjo called "weak and incompetent," defends his record. "You cannot provide security in every village," he says. "I can't be everywhere. I am not God." True enough, but Nigerians of all faiths must be hoping for a little divine intervention.Close quote

  • Religious conflicts in Nigeria mask a fight over money and politics
Photo: GEORGE OSODI/AP | Source: In Nigeria, money and politics — not religion — have Muslims and Christians at each other's throats