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Digging Up the Roots of Persecution in Plateau State , Nigeria

Mere tribal land disputes, or a zealous drive to create an Islamic state?

by Obed Minchakpu

JOS, Nigeria , September 23 (Compass) – The causes of persecution of Christians in central Nigeria ’s Plateau state are often similar to those in northern states, except that here Muslims strike with the added fervor of a supposedly repressed minority.

Unlike 12 northern states where the imposition of Islamic law (sharia) frequently sanctions hostility toward Christians, persecution in Plateau state is often rooted in the political aspirations of a Muslim minority.

For much of this Muslim minority, politics and religion are hardly distinguishable. Both Christian and Muslim leaders point to the fight for political recognition as one of the top factors in conflicts setting off religious fighting that, from 2001 to 2004, resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 people in Plateau state. Continued mistreatment of Christians here ranges from murder to discrimination.

Christian and Muslim leaders may agree that political aims are central in the violence, but they differ sharply on how. Christians are more apt to frame the violence as a by-product of Muslim fundamentalists bent on the Islamization of Nigeria through otherwise subtle manipulation of the political process. Muslims say the infringement of their fundamental rights has led to political struggles.

Plateau state’s Committee of Rehabilitation and Reconciliation of Internally Displaced People has described the violence as rooted in land disputes between mostly Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim traders and livestock herders from northern Nigeria . If control over land is seen not only as economic but as part of the political struggle, and if the Muslim mind sees religion and politics as one, then even this component reflects a jumbled mix of motives.

The Rt. Rev. Benjamin Kwashi of the Anglican Communion and the Rev. Alexander Lar of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), both based in the state capital of Jos, assert that Muslims have fanned the flames of religious conflict with the sole aim of destroying the church in Plateau state, enslaving Christians politically, and working towards the Islamization of Nigeria.

Evidence of marginalization of Christians, they said, can be seen in the appointments of only Muslims from Plateau state into positions of power in the federal government, while Christians do not get appointed. Hence Rev. Kwashi, bishop of the Jos diocese of the Anglican Church, is perplexed that Muslim extremists have destroyed churches without provocation.

“Here in Plateau, the Muslims in the state are not in the majority – it baffles everybody why Christians here would be under attack,” Rev. Kwashi said. “Churches have been burned, Christians killed. The amount of destruction in Plateau has been incredible.”

Hitting the Church Hard

Statistics on the number of persons killed have remained as controversial as the conflicts themselves. Bishop Kwashi quotes press figures of more than 10,000 people, while the Committee of Rehabilitation and Reconciliation of Internally Displaced People puts it at nearly 53,800.

Bishop Kwashi believes that the rise in attacks on the church in Plateau state, as well as in northern Nigeria , is based in the desire to oppress Christians politically.

“We are trying to understand why the Muslims are bent on hitting the church hard on the Plateau, because if you talk with some of them honestly, you find the reasons for the crisis have nothing to do with the church,” he said. “They will tell you the problems are equality in political sharing of offices.”

That is, Muslims who feel their tribal or religio-cultural interests are not recognized have misdirected their frustration at the church. “When they want to fight for political recognition, they attack the church, so the church has become a scapegoat,” Rev. Kwashi said. “You can go through all the reasons they give, and not one is a concrete reason that the church has offended the mosque. Not one!”

Plateau state has a population of more than 2.1 million, of whom Christians constitute well over 90 percent. It is the only state close to northern Nigeria that has a high concentration of Christians. Mission agencies and churches in northern Nigeria have their headquarters in Jos, the state capital. Pastor Dan Manjang, director of church relations at the Nigerian Bible Translation Trust (NBTT) in Jos, is one of many Christians who believe Muslims have targeted Plateau state because it is the only state near northern Nigeria that serves as a hub for Christian missions to the Islamic north.

Rev. Alexander Lar, former president of the COCIN, noted that the crisis in Plateau state is based on “a political agenda that found itself in religion, because the easy way to achieve that aim is to insulate it in religion.” Translating political aims into religious terms helped to secure the support and popularity that sparked the 2001 crisis, he said.

“If somebody were not seeking any power, and if power had not been in the hand of somebody else, the crisis on the Plateau would not have arisen at all,” Rev. Lar said. “If someone wants to take back his power, then he’ll say, ‘How am I going to do it? Let me generate something religiously.’ Then religion came in – that was how it started.”

Colonialists Remembered

The views of a key Muslim leader in Plateau state agree at points with those of Christian leaders. Sheikh Zakariya Balarabe Dawud, chairman of the Council of Ulama in Plateau State , a Muslim umbrella organization, said political officials have manipulated religion for their causes.

“The conflicts in Plateau state have their bearings in politics and jealousy,” Sheikh Dawud said. “Politicians use religion to stir up sentiments among their followers.”

Sheikh Dawud believes that Christians have discriminated against Muslims. “Those who are not Muslims do not want to see Muslims in leadership positions in Plateau state,” he said. “They do not want to see Muslims prosper economically, and that is why they have discriminated against us.”

Aggrieved Muslims recall, he said, that when British colonizers assumed power of Plateau state, they eroded Muslim leadership by appointing a Christian to take over Jos.

“Right from the beginning, Jos was under the leadership of Muslims,” Sheikh Dawud said. “The Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups had 11 leaders that ruled this city before the colonialists came to Nigeria , but the colonialist usurped us of this position and gave it to Christians. It is this that has infuriated us, the Muslims, and that is why we are demanding that this injustice be corrected.”

But Sheikh Dawud denied that Muslims aspire to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. “We have nothing against Christians,” he said. “Politicians create the impression that we Muslims don’t like Christians, that we want to convert Christians into Islam, and that we want to Islamize the state. This is not true. It is politicians who are inciting Christians against Muslims.”

Sheik Dawud, who is also legal adviser to Jamma’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), another Muslim umbrella body, said that Islam teaches Muslims to live in peace with Christians “so long as they allow us to live in peace with them, and allow us practice our religion.”

“However,” he added, “we are enjoined to fight to defend Islam if we are not allowed to practice our religion.”

Sheikh Dawud concluded that Nigerian Muslims and Christians can live together peacefully only if the rights of Muslims are respected. These rights include the rights to vote and be voted for, he said, and equal representation in government. “Our religion and culture as Muslims must be respected.”

Pastor Manjang, however, said Muslims in Plateau state enjoy all such rights and face no opposition to practicing their faith.

“Muslims here are appointed into political positions of power,” he said. “They have commissioners in the government cabinet; they have permanent secretaries in the government, their children get scholarship grants like Christian children, Muslim schools are grant-aided by the Plateau state government, and they have had contested elections and won. So what are they complaining about?”

In other Islamic states in northern Nigeria , Christians are denied these privileges, he said. “While Muslims in Plateau state get land to build mosques, build houses, etcetera, Christians in Islamic states like Zamfara, Borno, Bauchi, Kano, and the rest are denied land to build churches.”

Pastor Manjang, who served on the board of Plateau State Radio and Television Corporation, said all Islamic programs receive equal airtime on radio and televison in Plateau state. But in Islamic states, Christians are denied broadcast of even paid-for programs. “In radio and television stations in Islamic states of Bauchi, Sokoto and Kano , you can never find a single Christian program,” he said, “yet in Plateau state, Muslims have enjoyed all these privileges.”

Manjang concluded, “The claim of Muslims in Plateau state that they are being discriminated against is a farce.”

Revenge Cycles

Violent reprisals by Christians may help fuel Muslim claims that they are religiously, economically, or politically obstructed.

Certainly Christians have mounted counter-attacks on Muslims in Nigeria . COCIN’s Rev. Lar said that within his denomination, “There has never been on our side a clear attack or an open attack on anybody, except a reprisal on our attackers, because not all of us are people who will run away. There are people who want to defend themselves, and they embark on reprisal.”

Rev. Lar said violence in Plateau state from 2001 to 2004 led to 173 churches being burned down. “Eight pastors were killed,” he said. “One of them had his whole family killed.”

Rev. Kwashi said Muslim attacks have brought the church to her knees. The Anglican Church alone, he said, lost 60 congregations in 2001. “Churches were burned, destroyed, wiped out.”

Muslim extremists destroyed churches in Wase, Langtang North, Langtang South, and Yelwa. The entire archdeaconry in Yelwa was wiped out, as were churches in the villages of Kuka, Damshi and the surrounding villages, he said. “We lost quite a number of churches, property and some members,” Rev. Kwashi said. “In Langtang we lost many churches and members, and in the city of Jos , too, we lost property, churches, and some members.”

Violence broke out in Jos on September 7, 2001. Pastor Manjang of the NBTT said that his father, the Rev. Bitrus Manjang, was killed by Muslim extremists who attacked Rim village on December 12, 2002. “My late father, who had been the vice president of COCIN before retiring, had just returned to the village from Jos when the fanatics struck – killing him, my sister-in-law Victoria Manjang, and her 6-year-old son, Doro,” Pastor Manjang said. “ Victoria was also pregnant at the time she was killed.”

Pastor Manjang said that his father had worked for peace by housing displaced Muslims and stressing forgiveness toward violent extremists.

“There are many instances of him taking the initiative to house Muslims displaced by the religious conflict in our family house in Rim village,” he said. “This was before the village was attacked by the Muslim fundamentalists. Our house became a house of refuge for displaced Muslims.”

Pastor Manjang’s father was also instrumental in the Rim church’s initiative to accommodate displaced Muslims in its building, he said. “These Muslims were cared for by the church for over two weeks,” he said. “Ironically, my father and the very Christian community of Rim that assisted displaced Muslims became the target of the mayhem and violent orgy of the Muslims.”

The younger Manjang said that because his dad was a peace-maker, even fellow pastors hated him as they believed he was protecting Muslims who were attacking Christians. They sought counter-attacks, but he would not consent.

“He rejected the idea of revenge because he believed forgiveness is the central theme of the Christian message and wondered how this can be reconciled with the desire by some Christians for revenge,” Pastor Manjang said. “My dad had always said his refusal to allow Christians to carry out reprisal attacks on the Muslims was because Christ talked about his followers being peace-makers.”

Provoking someone to attack, thus providing a pretext for “defending” oneself, is an ancient tactic. The ruse reached a disturbing new high during the 2001-2004 crisis. Rev. Lar said Christians who were attacked and injured were taken to Christian hospitals, only for government security agents to invade the facilities and arrest the hospitalized Christians.

“Somebody who is wounded and has been brought to the hospital is taken away? That’s an easy way of taking people who have done no wrong,” Rev. Lar said. “Security personnel went to the Vom Christian Hospital and took the wounded persons and said, ‘You are the killers of those people who were killed.’ No! That to me is injustice.”