Religious Violence Rages in Nigeria

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Will Connors for TIME

Violent clashes have left at least 300 people dead and thousands displaced in the central Nigerian city of Jos.

A week after violent clashes left at least 300 people dead and thousands displaced in the central Nigerian city of Jos, the fires have yet to be put out, both literally and figuratively. What remained of a grain and second-hand clothes market, for example, was still smoldering. Yusuf Muhammed Fikin, 58, a market stall owner, picked through the hot rubble. "I got this business from my grandfather, some 30 years ago. I owned 41 sheds, and we didn't get anything out, not even one kobo [a cent]. We lost about 6 million naira [$50,000]. All was burned." There is a police station directly adjacent to Fikin's market, but no police officers responded until 12 hours after it had been set ablaze.

Jos, more than 300 miles north of Nigeria's largest city Lagos, is located in the Nigeria's 'middle belt' between the mostly Christian south and Muslim north of Africa's most populous nation, and its diverse population had lived in relative peace until religious riots in 2001 left 1,000 dead and led many to ask if such a situation was tenable. (Muslims make up roughly half of the Nigeria's population; Christians of various denominations account for about 40%.) This latest episode, sparked by protests over local election results, only makes it seem less so. A curfew remained still in place as businesses were trying to recover. Soldiers and police kept vigilant watch on vehicles entering town, hoping to curb any potential reprisals. In every household, church and mosque, people blamed followers of the other religion with planning and executing the attacks with a vitriol that does not bode well for the future of the city or the region. (See here for pictures of the two sides of Nigeria.)

The violence was vicious. Ibrahim Saleh Hassan did not get angry as he watched his home looted and burned down by an angry mob, or when he when he found out later that all 31 vehicles at his car dealership had been torched. His anger finally did come when he realized that his seven year-old son had seen the mob kill the family's four dogs before the child's eyes. Hassan now wonders what will become of their once peaceful, ethnically and religiously mixed city. "My fear is that they will put us behind walls and segregate us like in Beirut and other places," Hassan said. "Some people have to live together and work towards peace. But how can you ask your family to move back to that neighborhood?"

"The government isn't guaranteeing people's safety," says Dr. Zacharys Gundu, a professor at Ahmadu Bello University and a community activist in Jos. "Security agents didn't arrive in time, if at all." Dr. Gundu predicted that Muslims with businesses or homes in predominantly Christian areas would irrevocably relocate to Muslim neighborhoods, and vice versa.

There are no answers yet to questions about who was behind the attacks and why the government did little to prevent them or react quickly enough. Local police have arrested a group of water vendors from the neighboring country Niger and accused them of being mercenaries. However, analysts say they are being used as scapegoats, and Niger's foreign envoy strongly condemned the arrests, saying the men were simply doing their jobs and had no involvement in last weeks incidents.

Controversy swirls over whether hired thugs were involved in the incident or whether the police and soldiers themselves exacerbated the problem. The state commissioner for information, Nuhu Gagara, admitted that local politicians and businessmen had paid youths to stir up violence, even buying weapons, including firearms for them. This tactic, called "godfathering," is familiar in Nigeria around election time. "I think it was instigated by influential people who used these youths and religion to inflict maximum effect and chaos in the streets," Nankin Bagudu, a local human rights activist, said. "They tried to mobilize people to fight and attack along party and religious lines."

In the one densely populated residential area of Jos, dozens of homes lay crumbling, and blood splatter stained floors, walls and the large peach-colored boulders between homes. Residents displayed three houses where they claim men dressed in army uniforms had killed eight, 11, and three people. Law enforcement officials had been given shoot-on-sight orders by the state governor and had used them. "The security that came to control the situation then started shooting randomly," says Alhaji Muhammed, chairman of one of the political parties at the heart of last week's contentious election. "Before the Army came it was the police that did that bad work. Instead of making arrests they started shooting."

Bashir Mohammed, 26, is a resident of a predominantly Muslim neighborhood that was badly affected by the violence. "We saw hell here," he says. "The police shot two of our friends. One died on the spot, the other died in the hospital. They were wearing army and police uniforms. We were about to calm everyone down when they came and started firing."