Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Nigerian Muslims Rampage for Second Day: Over 30 Dead

We've seen this story before all too many times. In a strange way, it mirrors what's going on in Iraq at the moment.

Muslim mobs brandishing machetes and clubs attacked Christians in the streets of Kano on Wednesday as security forces struggled to quell a two-day rampage to avenge a massacre of hundreds of Nigerian Muslims.

Police confirmed at least 30 killed in strife engulfing this northern city, where thousands -- mostly minority Christians -- cowered in army barracks and police stations as mobs attacked victims outside. Witnesses spoke of scores more slaughtered.

"I saw them put an old tire on his neck and set him ablaze," said a 30-year old Christian, Barry Owoyemi, of a dead Christian neighbor. Owoyemi was whisked to safety by police who fired guns in the air to scare away the attackers.

Authorities ordered police to shoot rioters on sight.

The rampage exploded Tuesday following a demonstration by thousands of Muslims protesting the slaying of up to 600 Muslims by a predominantly Christian ethnic group last week in the central Nigeria town Yelwa.

The latest rioting threatened to send violence spiraling further. In an apparent response to Muslim attacks, a group of young Christians in one Kano neighborhood fired shotguns Wednesday at groups of Muslim men accused of torching houses.


Police commissioner Abdul Ganiyu Daudu confirmed 30 people dead. Rioters were torching buildings and blocking residents from escaping, he added.

A leader of minority Christian Ibo-speakers in Kano, Boniface Ibekwe, asked police in the presence of journalists to "stop this killing today or give us six months to leave Kano peacefully."

By Wednesday evening, security forces fired tear gas and shot into in the air to disperse crowds ahead of a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

On Tuesday, Kano's most influential cleric launched the Muslim protest from the main mosque, telling protesters that the Yelwa killings were part of a supposed Western conspiracy against followers of Islam.

The May 2 and May 4 attacks on Yelwa by ethnic Tarok Christians left 500 to 600 dead in the largely Muslim Hausa-speaking town, according to a Red Cross official who traveled there. Nigerian officials -- who routinely play down violence to avoid inciting revenge attacks -- put the death toll at half those figures.

In February, Muslim militants were blamed for the slaughter of almost 50 people in Yelwa -- including Christians who took refuge in a church.

It's tempting to say, in the name of fairness, that what's happening here is a straightforward case of tit-for-tat, with Christians killing Muslims and vice versa ad infinitum; at this point, one usually throws in some bit of pabulum about a "cycle of violence" before shrugging one's shoulders and moving on. That variation on an old theme is not what I intend to play out here.

The first thing to note about this latest violence is that the massacre which set it off was itself in retaliation for an earlier Muslim slaughter that seems to have been what touched off the bloodshed in Yelwa; no one atrocity ever justifies another, but the reality is that until this bout of Muslim rioting in Kano, what was going on in Yelwa was a localized ethnic conflict, which only secondarily took on a religious cast because of the religious affiliations of the majority of members of the competing ethnic groups. Yelwa's "Christians" are themselves less than exemplary representatives of their religion for choosing to butcher 600 people to death in revenge for the violence they suffered, but they could at least make a claim to be attempting to pay back their aggressors, even if outsiders would think their retribution vastly disproportionate. Kano's Muslims have no such excuse, as their Christian neighbors had nothing whatsoever to do with what was going on in distant Plateau State.

The second critical point here is that the ongoing rampage was launched by a Muslim cleric, and in fact the most prominent such individual in Kano State. Christian priests aren't always the advocates of peace one would expect them to be, as the events in Rwanda and Yugoslavia make abundantly clear, but in this particular case the religious incitement has been entirely in one direction; there are no pastors to be seen either in Yelwa or in Kano urging vengeance in the name of their co-religionists. Christianity has an ugly past, and in many ways it still presents an ugly picture around the world, but in terms of sheer propensity for violence in the name of religion (and I'm not just talking Bush-style, occasional vague mutterings about "The Almighty"), currently Islam simply has no real competitors. Even Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, for all their malignance, aren't to be found on television urging good Christians to kill as many Muslims as possible for the sake of Jesus.