Religion and politics a deadly mix in Nigeria
By Lydia Polgreen The New York Times
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2006
ONITSHA, Nigeria Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial capital Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors.
Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper.
The tumult erupted here after attacks on Christians in northern Nigeria last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons.
Old ethnic and political tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians here in the south have been reignited, with at least 35 bodies still visible on the streets of Onitsha on Thursday as the city slowly returned to normal after being paralyzed by the riots.
The escalating cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence pushed the total death toll in the last week toward 100 and perhaps beyond, making Nigeria the worst hit country so far in the caricature controversy.
The main thoroughfare leading into the city across the Niger River was covered in carrion - the bodies of Muslim Hausas trying to flee rampaging bands of youths, witnesses said. Many of the victims appeared to have been beaten to death; most of the bodies had been doused with gasoline and burned.
Residents combed through the destroyed shops and homes of northern Muslims, looting whatever the flames had not carried away.
"These things belong to Igbos," said Sunday Tagbo, 25, referring to the dominant tribe of this region, as he helped himself to sooty car parts left behind by fleeing merchants. "This is Igbo land. No more Muslims can live here."
Officials urged calm, and the city's streets returned to a semblance of normality Thursday, with markets open and heavy traffic on the streets.
But the damage of three days of carnage was evident. At the central mosque, rioters burned the building and hacked down trees.
Someone wrote in chalk on a charred wall: "Jesus is Lord. As from today know more Muhammad."
Thousands of Muslim residents fled the city, some on foot over the bridge leading to Delta state, taking refuge in neighboring cities. Thousands more huddled in police and army barracks in Onitsha and surrounding towns.
"What has become of us?" lamented Father Joseph Ezeugo, pastor of Immaculate Heart Parish. "This cannot be Nigeria today. We have been living side by side with our Muslim brothers for so long. Why should a cartoon in Denmark bring us to civil war?"
But the cartoons, political analysts say, were simply a pretext to act on very old grievances rubbed raw by political tensions.
Nigeria is entering a period of great political uncertainty in which it must elect a new president to replace Olusegun Obasanjo, who is barred by term limits from running for re-election. Speculation has been rife that he may try to extend his term.
"At the end of the day, it is all politics," said Kayode Fayemi, a political scientist and head of the nonpartisan Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria. "Everything else is just pretext."
Conflicts between religious and ethnic groups are common and deadly in Nigeria. In 2002, riots over a beauty contest held in Kaduna in northern Nigeria left more than 200 people dead, and thousands of others have died in such clashes over the past few years.
The most recent cycle began in Borno state recently, where riots broke out over the Danish caricatures, killing at least 18 people. Muslim rioters burned churches and the homes and businesses of Christians.
In Bauchi state, riots were also sparked last week when a Christian teacher took a Koran away from a Muslim student who was reading it without permission in class, according to Nigerian newspaper accounts. Muslims were incensed because it is considered desecration to touch the Koran without performing ritual ablutions. Twenty-five people were killed.
The riots here were ignited when a busload of the bodies of Igbo victims of violence in the north returned home this week.
The violence has picked at a very old wound one inflicted by Nigeria's bloody civil war in the late 1960s, in which Igbo-led insurgents tried to form an independent state, Biafra. The war and the mass starvation it caused killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Some Igbo leaders still nurse a hope that Biafra will be resurrected, and the government recently arrested the leaders of a militant group advocating the re-establishment of an Igbo state.
An echo of that sentiment could even be seen in graffiti scrawled on a wall here. "This is Biafra," it read. "Rejoice."
The Igbo claim to self government is but one of many of the fraying threads in Nigeria's complex quilt of 200 different ethnic groups. Tensions between northerners and southerners, and Muslims and Christians, are a staple of Nigeria's contentious political scene, and the nation has always struggled to make sense of its vast diversity.
Its population of 140 million is evenly split between Christians and Muslims, and while most Muslims live in the North and Christians in the south, large numbers of both groups have settled all over the country. But Igbos nurse particular grudges, making the conflict between them and the Hausas, Muslims who are the dominant group of the north, particularly violent.
"Since 1970, the northerners have been stealing our wealth and ruling us like we are slaves," said Innocent Okafor, a motorcycle taxi driver who brought his 12-year-old son Jindo to see the carnage in Onitsha on Thursday, so that he might "know our history and our struggle."
"Thousands of Igbos have died in the north," he said.
"So why should some northerners not die here? We must avenge our brothers."