Cycle of violence

Nigeria is being torn apart by violence between Christians and Muslims. Hundreds of Christians have been killed over the past week in violent attacks that are believed to be in retaliation to fighting earlier this year when over 300 Muslims were killed. The epicentre of the current bloodletting is the city of Jos, located in central Nigeria. Violence between religious groups is not new to Nigeria. More than 1,000 people lost their lives in religious riots in  2001 and roughly the same number perished in 2004. The communal bloodshed that has consumed the country since January this year is merely the latest episode in a longstanding cycle of violence and counter-violence. Nigeria’s population is equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with Christians dominating the southern part of the country and Muslims the north. The recent riots have occurred in towns that lie in central Nigeria, ie along the religious faultline.

The roots of the rivalry are not in religion, but can be traced to socio-economic and political issues. In Jos, where Muslims are looked upon as outsiders they are reportedly excluded from government jobs. But they dominate local business. So relations between the two communities are hostile. The violence is said to be a struggle for fertile land and other resources in the central belt. Religious identities are being mobilised by powerful sections to further their interests. Nigeria’s inept and corrupt authorities have done little to halt the violence. Under international pressure to act, they have — rather belatedly — arrested around 60 people. It is believed that the violence is aided and abetted by the local administration. Many officials have reportedly taken sides and in fact, instigated the killings. But few of them figure among those who have been arrested.

Extremists on both sides of the religious divide are dominating the discourse and directing the agenda in Nigeria. They need to be countered by moderates. A section of Nigeria’s parliamentarians is proposing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to end the distrust that has fuelled the violence for years. This is an idea that should be taken forward. Reconciliation with those who have carried out acts of savagery might seem impossible at the moment but it is the only way that Nigerians can break the cycle of violence and put their lives back on track.

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