WASHINGTON-Back in November, Nigerian President Umar Yar'Adua jetted off to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and hasn't been seen in public since. In February, his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a man who had been a scientist most of his life, took the reins of leadership in the country.
During the acting president's first public appearance in Washington Monday, Jonathan, wearing a black fedora, addressed a crowd of diplomats, advocates, and think-tank types at the Council on Foreign Relations. He named electoral reform as one of the biggest challenges facing Nigeria. The country will hold elections early next year, and Jonathan isn't likely to be a candidate.
But Nigeria's leader faces more immediate security issues. In the weeks since Jonathan took office, violence has broken out again in the "Middle Belt" of the country, with Muslim extremist groups murdering hundreds of Christians in the area, mostly women, children, and the elderly. The area has been a bed of violence since 2008. (See "Boiling point," by Jamie Dean, April 10, 2010.)
Jonathan, himself a Christian and from the predominantly Christian south of the country, dismissed the outbreaks as "purely ethnic," saying outsiders had misperceptions about the violence.
"The conflict has come up between the settlers and the natives," he said, adding that settlers to the area have dominated that economy. "There is no conflict between the Christians and the Muslims. . . . The conflict is not a religious conflict."
The Nigerian government, according to Jonathan, would not be setting up a commission to look into the killings-that task is the prerogative of the state, which has declined to set up its own commission, separate from law enforcement.
"The police must do their work. . . . Anybody who was directly or remotely involved in the crisis must be arrested and prosecuted," he said, adding that with so many involved in the killings, "It takes time."
And despite disputing that the violence has been religiously motivated, Jonathan said government officials are meeting with religious leaders in the area on a weekly basis.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom designated Nigeria as a "country of particular concern" a year ago, a title reserved for governments that are enabling or encouraging egregious attacks on religious freedom. The commission said the government's response to the violence has been "inadequate and ineffectual." About half of Nigerians are Muslim while about 40 percent are Christian.
The government is also trying to address ongoing violence over its oil-rich Delta region.
Jonathan, who is in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit, met privately with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday.