For decades, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully in Nigeria. In 2009, Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, began its armed insurgency against he Nigerian government and began targeting Christians living in the northern states of Nigeria. Since then, the group has killed over 3,000 people, many of whom were Christians attempting to worship freely. For three long years, Boko Haram has consistently been bombing churches, targeting Christians worshiping on Sunday. Will all of this violence lead to the collapse of Nigeria as we know it?
1/6/2013 Nigeria (TheStar) – “I was born and bred in Jos, thinking that Muslims were my brothers. But they are snakes.”
Sitting in a barber’s chair, just a few metres from the church he saw explode two years ago, 35-year-old David Raphael struggles to make himself understood due to the scarring on his lips.
“I can’t do any hard work or play football anymore, because my intestines would come out,” he says, lifting his Chelsea Football Club T-shirt to show a long scar that runs vertically across his stomach. “It took me three months to recover. Even pregnant women died in that blast.”
A shopkeeper in the predominantly Christian area of Kabong, in the Nigerian city of Jos, Raphael is one of the victims of five simultaneous bomb attacks that hit the neighbourhood on Christmas Eve 2010. Two of the attacks targeted the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, where people were attending mass.
Raphael was outside the church when the explosion, set off by dynamite hidden in a nearby electric panel, hit him. “It was like a dream” he says, his hands playing nervously with a pair of sunglasses. “I lost consciousness for 20 minutes. When I woke up, I was at the hospital.”
The blasts, which killed at least 32 people and injured another 74, were later claimed by Boko Haram, the Islamic armed group operating in northern Nigeria. The group’s name translates as “Western education is sinful.”
Boko Haram, whose actions have killed more than 900 people since 2009, is a galaxy of loosely connected armed cells under a murky leadership with alleged links to Al Qaeda. Its main goal is to overthrow the federal government and impose Islamic law in Nigeria.
It was the first time the group had targeted a church, although many more attacks against Christian places would follow.
Inter-religious clashes have been all too common in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where 170 million people are almost equally divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.
Boko Haram’s targeting of churches has deteriorated an already volatile situation, pushing Nigeria to the brink of a religious war.
The situation is particularly serious in Jos, a city of 1 million people and the capital of Plateau state, which has experienced the most serious ethno-religious clashes in Nigerian history: politically controlled by Christians, who are the majority in Plateau, Jos is geographically a wedge into the Muslim north. In 11 years of violence, thousands of people have died and tens of thousands have lost their homes.
It wasn’t always like this. Founded in the early 1900s as a tin mining city, Jos attracted migrants from all over Nigeria and became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country.
“I used to live in a mixed neighbourhood and I had a lot of Muslim friends,” says Davou Dangyang, the 30-year-old director of a vocational centre whose aim is to put Christians and Muslims back together by enrolling them in training classes.
But in 2001, when a minor protest set off a round of deadly clashes that killed more than 1,000 people, Dangyang’s house was targeted by an angry Muslim crowd.
“Many of those who attacked me were people I used to mingle with,” he recounts. “It was both heartbreaking and disappointing.”
Dangyang sold his house and moved to a Christian area, but the memory of how good life used to be haunts him. “Even though I was attacked, I feel bad that I cannot get in touch with my former friends. You feel you have lost something.”
Years of ethno-religious clashes have slowly but constantly set the two communities apart, sometimes breaking decades-long personal friendships in just a few moments of intense violence.
Christians and Muslims now have rigorously segregated lives, with minimum interaction: there are even separate street markets. What were once mixed public schools have become de facto segregated institutions.
On Sundays, the city is sealed off by security forces to prevent armed attacks and suicide bombings at churches. There are military checkpoints on the access roads to Christian places of worship, where the entrances are protected by metal detectors.
“When I visit a church I come prepared, knowing that anything could happen,” says Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, 54, the archbishop of Jos.
On March 11, the precautions were not enough to spare the worshippers at St. Finbarr’s Catholic Church, in the upscale neighbourhood of Rayfield. A car laden with dynamite exploded in front of the church gate during morning mass, killing 15 people, including three Boko Haram suicide bombers.
John Kim Richard, the security guard on duty that day, survived only because he had to fetch a metal detector a few minutes before the explosion. “When I came back it was hell. There were pieces of flesh everywhere, two people had disintegrated. We found some pieces of body in the parish house, hundreds of metres away.”