Life and Death in the Middle Belt A Clash of Civilizations in Nigeria

Muslims and Christians are both growing more radical in Nigeria, home of the would-be underwear bomber. Almost nowhere else in the world does the rivalry between religions lead to bloody conflict quite so often.


In Bauchi, there are rumors that militant Muslims are preparing to attack Christians in Jos, 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. Is it true? Or just an attempt to spark fear?

Nothing is certain in Jos, a city of close to a million inhabitants in central Nigeria's so-called "Middle Belt," a broad region between the 8th and 12th parallels north. Somewhere in this region, a shifting line separates Nigeria's predominantly Islamic north from its Christian south. Many Christians fear that followers of Allah are trying to expand southward, and Jos lies in the midst of the conflict.

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Photo Gallery: Nigeria's Religious Divide
Violence erupted again last week, shortly after the would-be Detroit bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was identified as a Nigerian Muslim. "The Hausa-Fulani are not part of us," Christians wrote on Internet forums, referring to the country's largest Muslim ethnic group, to which Abdulmutallab traces his origins. "They are bastards, mixed with Arab blood to terrorize the world. They do not like education. They hate civilization and I wonder why they still exist as part of the human race."

The Former James Wuye

Pastor James has come to Jos for a few hours. This is not a good sign, because wherever Pastor James turns up, terror isn't far away. He has just come from Bauchi, and he too has heard talk that the Muslims there are arming themselves.

The 50-year-old pastor is one of the most prominent peace activists in Nigeria. One reason he's so famous is that he appears often with Imam Muhammad Ashafa from Kaduna in north-central Nigeria. The men preach the same message: "No matter whether you are Christians or Muslims, live your religion but don't kill anyone." Another reason the pastor is so prominent is that 20 years ago, going by James Wuye, he was known as a feared Christian militia leader in Kaduna, about 200 kilometers west of Jos. He lost an arm battling the people his current partner at the pulpit represents. "I hated the Muslims," he says. He came to his senses in the mid-1990s, and since then he has called himself a "conflict manager." Pastor James is a busy man today, preaching peace throughout Nigeria.

The country has a population of about 150 million; its roughly 400 ethnic groups speak more than 400 languages. Half the nation prays to "Allah" and the other half to "God." Hardly anywhere in the world has the ongoing rivalry between Christians and Muslims claimed so many victims, with at least 10,000 dead.

There has been killing everywhere. Muslims have been hunted down in the southern port city of Lagos, while Christians have been victimized in Kano in the Muslim north. But the majority of deaths occur in the Middle Belt, in places like Kaduna and Bauchi, and particularly Jos, where followers of the two religions live relatively close to one another.

In almost no city in the world is the clash of civilizations more evident. Without a wall, Jos is a divided city. Entire neighborhoods go up in flames, over and over, most recently in November 2008. Each new conflagration claims hundreds of lives. In 2001 Muslims set fire to the enormous indoor market buildings in downtown Jos, which house more than 10,000 market stalls. Most of the casualties were among members of the primarily Christian Ibo tribe. After each new conflict, the divide between religions becomes more raw.

A Colonial Divide

Arab traders brought Islam to the Sahel zone about 1,000 years ago, but for a long time it played only a secondary role as a religion. Trade, including the slave trade, was more important to the caliphs and emirs than faith. Christian missionaries penetrated up from the south a little over 100 years ago, following the country's British colonial masters. But the British allowed the emirs to prevail and prevented the missionaries from advancing any further. One consequence of the colonial masters' decision is that schools and universities in the south today are much better than those in the north.

The military governments that ruled Nigeria until 1999 used authoritarian means to hold together the multiethnic nation. Then came democracy. A new constitution and informal agreements brought a measure of stability -- for example, under new rules, the presidency will change hands between Christians from the south and Muslims from the north at least once every two terms, while the vice-president and the president will each be from one of the two religious groups.

But such agreements have not guaranteed the peace.


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newzinfo 01/07/2010
1. Truly a clash of civilizations
When one part of a country looks up to the Arab world as role models while the other adores Europe and USA idols, it's predictably a clash of civilization. But the political system and the politicians have not helped. The system is erratically structured to accommodate a merge of civilizations. The politicians appear either lazy or ignorant to practically acknowledge that the true cure for this national disease is to merge the civilizations via a practice of true federalism. Many are in denial! Moslems cover their inadequacies with bloody trouble-shooting. Christians fail to accept the reality that Nigeria is simply not a Rome. Christianity is very provocative in Nigeria. Islam is too destructive in the country. These two complement each other in the quest to drown the country in a sea of religious fanaticism. The only differences are that while one is soft, the other is hard; while the other is poor, one is rich, while one is knowledgeably miseducated, the other is unknowledgeably ignorant. The victims appear to be the neutral or reasonable souls inhabiting the country. That is what I have experienced and observed -as a patriotic Nigerian.
Tilmeeth 01/07/2010
2. Not just a religious problem
I suspect that the religious problems stem from inter-tribal conflicts exacerbated by colonial expansion. This is a major problem throughout the world. One only has to read the history of the Middle East to see how our European ancestors actions have caused so much turmoil, as we left much of the world with no real cohesive identity and deep poverty. On the other hand, you could see the current issues facing Nigeria as an extension of the pre-colonial Fula Jihads and the establishment of the Jihad States. Once British rule had been effectively imposed upon the Emirates in the region, there must have been an awful lot of bad feeling towards the overtly Christian masters of the Empire, and now masters of the Emirs, though they were left to their own devices for much of the time, as long as the money kept rolling into imperial coffers. A once proud series of states, including several Islamic empires, reduced to a colonial territory and forced to accept that their wealth would now be sent overseas, to a Christian power, was bound to have consequences for the relations between the older, Islamic populace and the huge part of the population that accepted the new imperial religion. As a Christian, I find the whole situation extremely sad, given that both our faiths share so many, many aspects. Not only that, but the ramifications of conquest by force and the establishment of empire have never brought lasting peace and justice, only resentment, hatred and death. Not just the history of Nigeria, but of the whole of Africa is riddled with these faults.
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