For some time now I (and for some time before that, various commenters on the blog) have been worried about the possibility of Christian reprisals against Muslims in Nigeria in response to regular attacks on Christians by the Northern rebel movement Boko Haram. The nightmare scenario is one in which tensions caused by Boko Haram intersect with other points of political tension and with local conflicts, producing widespread interreligious violence. More immediately plausible scenarios involve continued and severe crises in flashpoint areas such as Jos and Kaduna, both of which are located in Nigeria’s highly religiously and ethnically diverse Middle Belt. One important indicator to track in assessing the likelihood of various scenarios is Christian groups’ rhetoric. Certain Christian leaders have been threatening reprisals since at least last summer. This week marks a reiteration of that rhetoric, and I am tempted to say an escalation of it, by two leaders from the powerful Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) who made headlines with statements about Boko Haram.
“I will now make a final call to the Nigerian government to use all resources available to it to clearly define and neutralise the problem as other nations have done,” Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, told reporters.
“The Church leadership has hitherto put great restraint on the restive and aggrieved millions of Nigerians, but can no longer guarantee such cooperation if this trend of terror is not halted immediately.”
The Kaduna State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has said that the continued attacks by the Boko Haram sect on Christians and churches across the Northern states, is a deliberate attempt to wipe out Christians from the region.
Chairman of CAN in the state, Reverend Sam Kraakevik Kujiyat, in a statement said the attacks and killings of Christians in Bayero University, Kano were barbaric.
“Nigerians, especially Christians should not be fooled into believing that the Boko Haram sect does not spare anyone. This is because their attacks against their Muslim brothers are either accidental or against those they see as working against their agenda. Their main targets are Christians and their places of worship.”
The first statement is important for the threat it contains, the second for the understanding of Boko Haram it reflects. Boko Haram has claimed the lives of hundreds of Muslims in addition to its Christian victims, but its recent attacks on Christians have reinforced a highly polarized view of what the movement is. Debates over who suffers most from religious violence in Nigeria are also not new; at a conference in Kano in the fall, I witnessed a testy exchange between the Sultan of Sokoto and a spokesman for CAN, with the latter emphasizing tragedies that had befallen Christians and the former arguing for an understanding of violence as affecting Muslims too. Such debates remain unresolved. But the rhetoric from CAN and other groups this spring certainly seems, to me, to be growing sharper. There is not always a clear progression from harsh rhetoric to violent acts, but at the very least the possibility of reprisal attacks on Muslims is real.
[UPDATE]: Excerpting some important commentary from Carmen McCain on the different actions and voices within CAN:
Despite the hot words from the Kaduna CAN chairman, it might be important to point out that Kaduna CAN seems to have been at the forefront of peace building efforts alongside Muslims. I also think the internal diversity within CAN should be pointed out more often. It is often seen as a united front–and from knowing a few CAN people who are frustrated that Oritsejafor’s aggressive talk, I can testify that that is certainly not the case. Although they are a minority within the organization and thus not able to stop Oritsejafor from issuing the statements that he has been issuing, there are some good, reasonable people in CAN, who are working as hard as they can for peace.
Here are three articles from the past several months highlighting the activities in Kaduna:
Muslim and Christian Women Pray for Nigeria, Kaduna:http://leadership.ng/nga/articles/23496/2012/05/02/kaduna_muslim_christian_women_pray_nigeria.html
CAN Offers praying ground for Muslims in Kaduna:http://allafrica.com/stories/201203130664.html
Kaduna: Christian-Muslim youth embark on peace initiatives:http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/03/kaduna-christian-muslim-youths-embark-on-peace-initiative/
While I too have been worried by Oritsejafor’s veiled threats, I think that often analysts pay so much attention to him that they ignore the hard work that is being done by those most at risk by BH. Since there are so many bad stories coming out of the north right now, I think it is important to highlight a few of the good stories too and not (by selective analysis) silence those leaders who are speaking reasonably and responsibly.