Early last Wednesday morning, March 17, a Muslim mob swept through the Christian villages of Biye and Batem in central Nigeria. At least 13 dead. At least a dozen homes burned. Machetes. Children and pregnant women among the dead. Tongues cut from the corpses. All the usual horrors.
And all the usual responses. The state governor, Jonah Jang, declared (according to the African news service This Day) that the government is “taking necessary measures and exploring all possible avenues,” without having much to say about what those measures and avenues might be. The state police carefully explained that the responsibility for security lies with the military. And the military reacted by issuing a press statement—an extraordinary document which somehow managed both to insist that “but for the timely intervention of troops deployed at the Riyom area, carnages would have been carried out in the two communities” and to admit, a paragraph later, that at least “nine people were killed at Biye while 13 houses were burnt in both communities before the arrival of the troops.”
Perhaps such a small number of murders and arsons doesn’t count anymore as carnage in Nigeria—which is a sign of how close the nation is to collapse. The attacks on the villages 28 miles south of the state capital of Jos came just ten days after major attacks on three farming villages 3 miles south of Jos that left (according to the BBC) 500 dead and 75 houses burned.
Police who were warned of mobs gathering from out of state more than 24 hours before these attacks of March 7. A security force that didn’t even begin to move until two hours after the attacks. And emergency text messages from the governor that didn’t go through, a spokesman explained, because of “low batteries” in the cell-phones of the leading generals.
Much of this is the incompetence, corruption, and fear of encountering well-armed rebels typical of too many third-world militaries. But another factor is at work in Nigeria—for the military police forces are terrified of being perceived as taking sides in the struggles between Christians and Muslims that divide the country.
Make no mistake: What is happening in Nigeria is a battle of religion. Perhaps it has roots in the ancient divide between herdsmen and farmers. Perhaps it echoes some of the old tribal animosities among the Fulani, Berom, Hausa, Tarok, Yoruba, Ibo, and all the rest. And perhaps it is exacerbated by the geographical problems of a nation with an impoverished but politically powerful north and an oil-rich but weak south. One way or another, however, these divisions are now invariably translated into religious terms—and the blood that gets spilled is always in the name of God.
Not that anyone wants to admit it. The conflict has “more to do with disputes over access to natural resources than religion,” insisted John Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja. It is “fueled more by ethnic, social, and economic problems than religion,” said the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, according to a CNN report.
But even while they make these statements, you can hear the wishful tone—the overriding desire to make untrue the truth they all actually know. If it’s about corruption, or politics, or social problems, then it has a cause and perhaps someone to blame. But if it is about religion, what then should they do?
The population of Nigeria is almost exactly half Muslim (mostly in the north) and half Christian (mostly in the south), but the division is not stable. Christianity has grown dramatically in recent decades—the nearly complete Christianizing of sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century is one of the greatest stories of conversion in history—and the new Christians of Nigeria have no desire to stop their advance. Islam lives badly with other religions even where it is confidently dominant, and in Nigeria, it feels insecure and defensive, with the nation’s proselytizing energy arrayed against it.
There may have been more politics than religion behind the adoption of Islamic sharia law by 12 northern states in 1999; the demagogues were out in force at the time, and in Zamfara, the first state to take the plunge, the governor was desperately looking for an issue he could ride. But the reason that sharia could be such an issue—the cause of its political salience—was the deep, existential insecurity from which the Islamic population of Nigeria suffers.
They can feel themselves slowly losing—in Nigeria, almost uniquely among countries with a large Muslim population—and it should not be surprising that they lash out against the missionaries who come up to proselytize in the northern states and against the Christian communities in the central states like Plateau, with its small villages around the religiously divided city of Jos.
The Christians are hardly blameless. Accurate figures of what is called the Yelwa Massacre are impossible to find; Caroline Cox of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust has accused Islamic propagandists of systematic exaggeration: “A consistent pattern has emerged” in all these clashes, in which “Muslim militants” take all the corpses, Christian and Muslim alike, to mosques, “where they are photographed and released to the media, creating the impression that these are Muslim victims.” Nonetheless, there seems no doubt that Christians brutally attacked Muslims in the central Nigerian town of Yelwa in 2004.
But the far more usual pattern is one of Islamic attacks, with a consistent attempt by the Western media to find moral equivalence, or even to blame the Christians for provoking the attacks. Predictable “reprisal” and “revenge” for Christian violence, the Los Angeles Times sniffed after the March 7 murders.
This will not do. Over 300 Christian churches have been burned in Nigeria over the last four years. Jos has become a war zone, and the opening blow is almost always from the Islamic side. The September 2001 battle—1,000 dead—began when a Muslim mob attacked a Christian woman for crossing a mosque’s grounds during prayer. The November 2008 riot—400 dead—grew from a Muslim crowd’s violent protest of local election results. And the January 2010 clash—200 dead—started, according to the state police commissioner, when Muslims set a Catholic church on fire.
The political instability of Nigeria remains an open threat to the communities in the central states. The vice president, a Christian named Goodluck Jonathan, was appointed acting president by the legislature on February 9, after two and half months of absence by the Muslim president, Umaru Yar’Adua, who was receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua reportedly returned to Nigeria on February 24. No one other than his wife has claimed to have seen him, and rumors abound that he is in a coma. But his alleged presence in the country clouds the political situation, and Jonathan’s response came on March 17, when he dismissed the entire 42-member cabinet Yar’Adua had assembled—an act for which it is not clear he has constitutional authority.
Then, the next day, Jonathan ordered home the Nigerian ambassador to Libya, after Muammar Qaddafi called for dividing Nigeria into two countries, Muslim and Christian, in order to “stop bloodshed and burning of places of worship.” That’s not the nuttiest idea the Libyan leader has ever suggested, but it resonated badly among Nigerians who remember the civil war that followed the secession of Biafra in the late 1960s. It would require Nigeria’s Christians, moreover, to surrender to the ungentle power of permanent Muslim authority their small but growing communities in the north. And why should they agree to that?
This political confusion could easily issue in a military coup and subsequent civil war—which, given the way all conflict in Nigeria quickly translates into religious battle, would mean yet more sectarian violence. In the face of that threat, who could want a distribution of weapons to ethnic and religious communities? But when government fails, people must assume the functions of government.
If the Nigerian authorities are so frozen that they cannot safeguard their citizens—if the villages are to suffer, again and again, all the usual horrors—then there will be only two things for the churches, both in Nigeria and abroad, to do: Arm the Christian communities and damn those whose failures made it necessary.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the editor of First Things.