Insight: Islamist attacks strain Nigeria’s north-south divide

December 29, 2011

(A sign is seen at a police check point near the main market following recent violent clashes in Nigeria's central city of Jos February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)

The line dividing Christians from Muslims that runs along a rocky valley in the central Nigerian town of Jos may not be visible to the eye, but it burns in the minds of local people. The mosque lies barely 200 meters (yards) from the main church in the Congo-Russia neighborhood, a huddle of tin-roofed homes winding up a hill, and on its sandy pavements women in Muslim headscarves politely greet men wearing shiny crucifixes.

Jos, in Nigeria’s volatile “Middle Belt,” is historically a religious and ethnic tinderbox in the country’s sensitive North-South divide between Muslims and Christians. Deadly Christmas Day bomb attacks by shadowy Islamist sect Boko Haram – suspected of links to al Qaeda and with ambitions to impose Islamic sharia law in Nigeria – have stoked fears again of sectarian conflict in Africa’s top oil producer and most populous state.

“Over there’s the dividing line,” said trader Anthony Baya, 30, nodding at some houses cloaked in a haze of windborne dust. “You can’t just go over to that place as a Christian. The Muslims can kill you,” he said, describing how six youths were hacked to death with machetes and dumped down a well during Jos’s last bout of inter-communal violence in November.

Nigeria’s 160 million people are roughly divided between Muslims and Christians, who mostly live side by side in peace. But towns like Jos, where ruined buildings with charred walls sprouting weeds testify to past violence, and other flashpoints bear the material and mental scars of bouts of sectarian strife that have periodically bloodied Nigeria since its independence from Britain in 1960.

The Congo-Russia neighborhood itself is named after the Congolese and Russian U.N. peacekeepers who kept the two communities from each other’s throats during Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s. Boko Haram claimed three bomb attacks on churches on Christmas Sunday, including one that killed 27 worshippers in a Catholic church just outside the capital Abuja, and one in Jos without fatal victims.

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