NIGERIA – pulling on the alarm
Gun shots rang out, the sound of bullets piercing a sky heavy with the smoke from burning buildings. On barricades, set up across the city, youths armed with everything from iron bars to clubs, and guns to machetes held the line, nervous and edgy.
It was February 2000, and I was driving in to the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, to report for AFP on clashes between Muslims and Christians that had already killed hundreds of people and would destroy hundreds more lives over the following days.
In a run-down building in the centre of the city, that day, I went to meet two remarkable men – Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa – once sworn enemies, leaders of the gangs of religious thugs tearing the city apart, who had put down their weapons some years earlier and were now busy building bridges between the rival communities.
“There are hundreds dead. Muslims are killing Christians. Christians are killing Muslims. The country is falling apart,” I told Wuye and Ashafa. They nodded in silence, and then, with the crackle of gunfire still audible in the background, explained why there was no reason for alarm, and why Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, deeply divided though it remained, would hold together.
Today, a dozen years on, Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa, are much less sanguine than they once were.
“Today, our beloved country Nigeria is passing through a turbulent period of insecurity and desecration of places of worship and human life is no more sacred. People are living in a state of fear and uncertainty of what would happen next,” the pair wrote in a joint letter sent to the Chirac Foundation, appealing for support for the efforts that they, and others, are making on behalf of peace in the country.
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Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with a population of more than 150 million, is a nation divided along numerous fault-lines.
Its teeming millions speak – besides the official language of English – more than 250 different indigenous languages and are pulled between two of the world’s great religions — Islam and Christianity — as well as numerous indigenous faiths.
Since civilian rule was restored in 1999, after almost three decades of military misrule, the country has seen the return of electoral politics and more than a decade of economic growth. It has also seen a series of bloody clashes across Nigeria that have left thousands dead.
Nothing is simple in Nigeria. But, at the risk of a simplification, the greatest divide is between the mainly Muslim north and the majority Christian south.
And in recent months, the tensions have escalated dramatically, most notably due to the work of a radical Islamic terrorist group, known as Boko Haram that, since 2006 has carried out a spate of dramatic bombings and armed attacks in northern Nigeria in recent months.
In recent months, these attacks have been stepped up. In January this year, more than 200 people died in a series of deadly bombings across the northern city of Kano. In all, around 1000 people have died in these attacks since 2009.
There has, of course, been no one particular cause for all the violence shaking Nigeria. It has taken place between people fighting for the right of their group to have access to land or water; between people loyal to different political parties and between people from different ethnic or religious groups, fearing domination by those they see as their rivals.
But the rise of the group Boko Haram and the rising series of attacks it has launched since 2009 has led to fears of a new cycle of violence and reprisals pitching Nigerians of different backgrounds and different faiths against each other.
When formerly sanguine community leaders such as Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa are worried enough to start pulling the alarm, the work they do is needed more than ever.
By Peter Cunliffe-Jones, author of ‘My Nigeria: Five decades of independence’ and deputy director of the AFP Foundation.