Reports on the recent spate of killings in Jos have highlighted the confusion over the causes of such events in divided Nigeria.
Much of the media puts the clashes in Plateau State down to sectarian conflict quickening under threat of a political vacuum due to the absence of the President, Umara Musa Yar’adua.
The alternating arrangement of Christian and Muslim premieres has sought to allay fears of sectarian dominance at the national political level, but does not explain adequately the causes of localised violence.
What is clear is that both Muslim and Christian communities have suffered great losses, not least the estimated 17,000 displaced people in Plateau State, according to the Red Cross. However, the cause of such tensions has not been allowed sufficient explanation.
Whilst some, including The Independent, allude to poverty and corruption as decisive factors, others particularly The Times and The Telegraph put the continued conflicts down to ‘sectarianism’. The Guardian makes no reference to the conflict, an interesting lack of coverage. The BBC in its handling of events has cited various figures of the Christian and Muslim dead, according to the prominence of sources used on the ground.
The details of the recent conflict are disputed. According to the Church Mission Society (CMS) website, ‘reports from the Anglican Diocese of Jos said Christians were going to or coming from their various church services on Sunday morning when about 200 Muslim youths who had been working on a building site began molesting Christians near St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Nasarawa, Jos’.
A spokeswoman for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told Lapido Media that ‘local sources’ reported Muslim youths gathering to renovate a house next to St Michael’s Catholic Church owned by a Muslim man who had allegedly murdered three Christians during violence in Jos North in November 2008.
She added that instead of renovating the house, the youths are reported to have launched an unprovoked assault on a female passer-by before attacking St Michael’s Church, killing and injuring several members. After the violence had subsided, the police commissioner of Plateau State later confirmed an unprovoked attack on the church.
‘They also set fire to a score of local houses, businesses and churches, including a Christ Apostolic Church and an ECWA Church (Evangelical Church of West Africa) in Dutse Uku, and another ECWA Church in Rikkos. Angered by the violence, Christian youths gathered to launch a counter attack, and the violence soon spread to other areas of Jos North,’ added the spokeswoman.
CSW’s Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas, writes on the website that ‘this incident is the latest in a series of attacks on the Christian community of Jos that began in 2001.
‘Unfortunately, since perpetrators of religious violence are rarely brought to justice, many in northern and central states no longer trust the authorities to guarantee their safety. This must be addressed by state and federal authorities if we are to see an end to the tragic cycle of religious violence in Northern and central Nigeria,’ Mr Thomas added.
Reverend Yunusa Nmadu, CEO of CSW Nigeria also writes, ‘If the people arrested in connection with the November 2008 violence and reportedly transferred to Abuja for trial had indeed been prosecuted, this would have been a deterrent, and perhaps the current violence may not have occurred.’
Gideon Para-Mallam is the Regional Secretary for English and Portuguese-speaking Africa with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) based in the Jos area. Having returned under security escort he came back greatly dismayed at what he saw: ‘Rows of shops of Christian traders burnt down, in their section of the town, not to mention churches burnt all over Jos. A number of different churches are yet to count their deaths as, sadly, some are still lying out there on the streets.’
His calls to action and prayer for peace echo those of other Christian leaders working in the area. Once again, these accounts are not being sufficiently represented in the media.
‘Fake soldiers’ – vigilantes posing as legitimate military forces - have been apprehended in nearby Hwolshe and were seen close to Anglican Archbishop Ben Kwashi’s home, according to CSW. ‘They have routinely carried out murders in people’s homes during curfew hours’ says their spokeswoman.
These scandalous so-called ‘secret killings’ are not being reported properly. Questions of how military uniforms were obtained and what measures are being taken to prevent such dire abuses of military status are not being asked in the media.
Of all the current reportage, the Financial Times appears to have the most in-depth historical analysis behind the situation but with scant reference to fake soldiers and a woefully unbalanced perspective as to the Christian view on the ground.
Speaking to Lapido Media, Archbishop Kwashi confirmed the recent situation on the ground. ‘At the moment we are trying to resettle some of the wounded persons and provide assistance as much as we can. I have been taking reports from the churches and some agencies are beginning to render help for the sufferings of the people.
‘It seems that in most parts of the city the police and army have things under control. Shops and businesses have reopened and the curfew has been reduced to operating between 6pm and 6am. This is very encouraging but people are saying that other issues are at hand.
‘Most Christians were in the church when the attacks happened - this is key to understanding what took place here in Jos.’
When the violence spread, the majority of people were attacked in their homes, he added. ‘This overwhelmingly suggests total invasion.’
To make the distinction between spontaneous rioting on the street and a more premeditated set of targeted killings of residents in their own homes is absolutely fundamental in the reporting of such violence.
Of the media coverage of the attacks, he continued, ‘My plea to the Western media is not to take a one-sided story in a religious context and enflame our situation here in Nigeria. It should be possible for everyone in Plateau State to live and eat together in peace, and the sooner we begin to sit down and deal with the issues at hand the better.
‘If it is a political issue we must find a political means of dealing with it. If it is a commerce issue we need to sit down and deal with it using the appropriate means. The aggressive stance adopted by biased media reporting prevents us from treating the root of the problem.’
However the triggers for the recent attacks are interpreted, there are certainly preventative measures that need to be taken by bringing to trial those committing previous violent acts in the region. This is largely going unreported in the mainstream press. The message coming from the NGO Human Rights Watch is clear: ‘Use restraint in curbing Jos violence; investigate killings and end discriminatory policies’.
Human Rights Watch refers to the problem of ‘indigeneship’ – systemic inequality - as lying behind the on-going unrest. Although sometimes understood as affecting primarily Hausa Muslim Nigerians, the preferential treatment of indigenous tribes is inscribed in the Nigerian constitution and affects every member of a non-indigenous tribe in every one of Nigeria’s 36 states, be they long term settlers or otherwise.
But CSW says the issue of indigeneship is one of national, not just regional, concern. ‘This is a red herring and an attempt to divorce the violence in Jos from violence committed in other northern or central states,’ according to their spokeswoman.
Such an underlying issue cuts across the sectarianism being reported and points rather to the causal factor of enshrinement and enforcement of rights under the law. Religion should not take the blame for the failure of politico-legal mechanisms to address poverty and inequality of opportunity, though it is integral to ethnic identity and can become a rallying point when deeper issues of justice are at stake.
The media is picking up on superficial religious tension without going deeper into the failure of the political system. Without better facts, and a more nuanced grasp of the religious dimension of ethnic and political realities on the ground, coverage of complex foreign affairs will leave us little the wiser.
Stresses on the coverage of world affairs where there is a religious dimension are illustrated by the tussle CSW is currently having with the BBC’s online coverage over its factual reporting. Approaches have been formally made to the Media Ombudsman.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s press office 020 8329 0045.
The UK Representative for the Anglican Diocese of Jos is Ben Enwuchola, who can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org