Cover Story

Nowhere to run

"Nowhere to run" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

Jos, Plateau's state capital, has long been a hotbed for religious violence. In 2008 a Muslim-led riot killed 300, displaced 7,000, and destroyed many businesses, churches, mosques, and homes. In 2010 rioters killed an estimated 500 mostly Christians in Jos and nearby villages, hacking them to death with machetes or burning them.

In 2011 a steady toll of attacks continued: At least 37 separate attacks by Muslims on Christians in 2011 resulted in over 100 deaths in Jos, according to Stefanos Foundation.

Sources told me to consider Jos "a safe haven" in 2012 compared to Kano, but the tension between Christians and Muslims, who would like to enact Sharia law in Plateau state, for now is only tamped down.

Mark Lipdo, director of the Stefanos Foundation, is working to keep eyewitness logs of the attacks-in part because he sees Western media and human-rights activists using secondhand information that's misleading: "They have misrepresented violence as a clash when it was an outright attack from the Muslim minority."

Lipdo himself was on hand in 2010 when Muslims gangs raided three predominantly Christian villages near Jos on March 7, slaughtering hundreds of mostly women, children, and the elderly. He saw another village attacked 10 days later where Muslim gangs killed at least a dozen people and burned at least 15 homes.

The New York Times on March 8 reported the attacks as "in reprisal" for earlier attacks that killed 150 Muslims. Human Rights Watch also reported on March 8 that the attacks "appeared to be in retaliation for previous attacks against Muslim communities in the area and the theft of cattle." Both reports were datelined Dakar, Senegal, and cited "officials" as sources. Lipdo says those officials were Muslim commanders, police, and civil servants in the area. "We were there when the whole conflict started. We saw a Muslim military commander release people caught carrying out the attacks with their weapons. Where Muslims were outnumbered, Christians were portrayed as killing Muslims, but this is not what was happening."

Neither the news outlets nor the officials were able to provide eyewitness accounts of the attacks that killed 150 Muslims. But the photos of mass graves bearing hundreds of Christians were real. Local media reported police on the scene who did nothing to stop the Muslim attackers.

"There were military men in uniform, who were marching in front, and they were shooting, scaring people while Fulani men carrying machetes and clubs and axes were following them behind," one villager told the Daily Champion, asking that his name not be published. Another, whose wife and two children Muslims killed in the attack, said, "As they were killing and burning our homes, they were chanting 'Allahu Akbar,' meaning 'God is great.'"

Lipdo acknowledges that Christians have retaliated for attacks with violence, just not to the level overseas media and government reports imply. And few organizations have investigated the government's lack of prosecution or aid to victims.

The reporting slant shows up in U.S. policy, as well. The 2011 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) describes "sectarian violence" in Nigeria driven by "religiously motivated actions" without ever saying that the overwhelming number of deaths involve Christians. Last year USAID awarded a five-year, non-competitive contract of $4.5 million to the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna "to provide conflict mitigation and management assistance in northern and middle belt Nigerian states."

Yet Plateau and Kaduna are the only Nigerian states where "Christians have defended themselves against attacks," according to U.S.-based Nigerian human-rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe.

"This is because though Plateau is predominantly Christian and is viewed as the Christian capital of the northern 'Bible Belt,' it is facing strident challenges from a burgeoning occupationist and expansionist thrust," Ogebe said. "Kaduna is also balkanized along Muslim-Christian lines and is the state with largest Christian population that was forced to impose Sharia law. Because of the controversy and crisis that trailed this action, thousands were killed then and everyone is on the defensive."

The failure of the United States and other Western governments to name Muslims as the overwhelming perpetrators of violence has given them "a free ticket" to continue attacks with impunity, said Ogebe.

Yet with the added threat of Boko Haram, Lipdo believes security in Jos for now is improving. That's because protection since Jan. 20 has come from a joint national army and police force that includes Christians from the south along with northerners.

An al-Qaeda-linked menace, though, means "things will get worse before they get better," said Lipdo. "But the best thing that has happened to us is Boko Haram. Now the world knows, because Boko Haram has come out claiming it clearly, that terrorists exist in Nigeria. This we in the north have known all along."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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