Attacks Might Not Be About Religion in Nigeria

At the urging of the international community, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Nigeran authorities arrested and charged 49 people with the horrific slaughter that took place last weekend in villages around Jos. (It's worth noting that police have confirmed only 109 dead instead 500 as was previously reported.) In January, 150 people from the same Muslim community responsible for Sunday's attack were brutally killed. The March 7th attack drew considerably more international attention than the previous incident.

Jos lies smack-dab in the center of Nigeria where the Muslim north and Christian southern parts of the country converge. As one might expect of a place that is experiencing a population boom, exists on top of limited arable soil and is also on the fault line dividing two ethnic groups, the area is prone to violent confrontation.

It has been repeatedly noted that those murdered were Christian and that the perpetrators were Muslim when in fact religion may have little to do with the violence. In a commentary in The Guardian March 8th, Peter Cunliffe-Jones said:

Certainly, religion is one of the many dividing lines in Jos and elsewhere in Nigeria. But it is not the main one.

In Jos, as elsewhere, the cause of fighting has, more often been the struggle for resources than it has religion. In Jos, my AFP colleague Aminu Abubakar reports that the original cause of the latest clash was the alleged theft of cattle, blamed by a group of settler-farmers on a group of cattle herders. Often the fighting in the north is between the semi-nomadic cattle herders (who happen to be mostly Muslim) and settler-farmers (who happen to be mostly Christian), fighting about the diminishing access to land.

"For all those who will go out and fight their Muslim or Christian brothers on the streets, there are many more (Nigerians) who will take them into their home to protect them, when fighting breaks out," a Nigerian Islamic law student once told me, attending an animist festival in the south.

A curfew has been in place throughout the area since the last round of attacks in January, but it obviously didn't hold and villagers on both side fear further reprisals. If, going forward, there are to be arrests and people are to be brought to justice, than these proceedings should be two-sided and transparent. If only one side is brought to justice and the killers from previous attacks are left unquestioned it could serve to only deepen divisions and instigate further violence. 

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Jessica Olien is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She has previously worked as a reporter in Asia and the Middle East.

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