Nigeria violence an echo of nation's bloody past

AP News
Posted: Apr 23, 2011 4:28 AM
Nigeria violence an echo of nation's bloody past

Whole sections of towns are burned out, the smell of rot is in the air, and people are escaping with whatever they can carry across the rural lands that separate Nigeria's Christian south and Muslim north.

The religious rioting that swept Africa's most populous nation days after its presidential election likely killed hundreds of people, though government officials remain hesitant to offer death tolls for fear of sparking more violence.

To the nation's president and his top political rival, however, the rioting evokes memories of the nation's bloody post-independence chaos.

"These acts of mayhem are sad reminders of the events which plunged our country into 30 months of an unfortunate civil war," President Goodluck Jonathan said in a recent nationwide address.

"As a nation we are yet to come to terms with the level of human suffering, destruction and displacement, including that of our children to faraway countries, occasioned by those dark days."

There are stark differences between today's violence and that of 40 years ago. Those dark days began with what many thought would herald a new beginning for West Africa _ Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960. A civilian government led by Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa promised change in the oil-rich nation, though his administration quickly became known for graft.

Then a 1966 coup led primarily by army officers from the Igbo ethnic group of Nigeria's southeast shot and killed Tafawa Balewa, a Muslim northerner, as well as the premier of northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello. The coup failed, but the country still fell under military control.

Northerners, angry about the death of its leaders, attacked Igbos living there. Historians say tens of thousands of Igbos died during that period, while others fled back to their southeastern homelands. There, separatists formed the breakaway republic of Biafra.

Nigeria thus plunged into a civil war that saw more than 1 million people die, the first images of skeletal African children broadcast on televisions around the world.

In today's Nigeria, many northerners wanted the country's ruling party to nominate a Muslim candidate this year because Jonathan _ a Christian from the south _ had taken power only because the Muslim elected leader died before finishing his term.

Under an unwritten power-sharing agreement in the ruling party, the presidency should have been held for another term by a northerner because a southerner had it for the first eight years of democracy in the nation. However Jonathan prevailed in the ruling party's primary and became its candidate for president.

After Saturday's election, violent protests erupted in cities throughout the north. That rioting immediately took on religious tones, as rioters burned churches and attacked Christians. Christians thus retaliated by burning mosques and attacking Muslim neighborhoods.

One burned mosque outside the hard-hit city of Kaduna bore expletives written within the burned remains targeting Islam while exhorting Christianity. Even before the violence hit, young men gathered around a ballot counting in neighboring Katsina state, chanting "God is Great" in Arabic as they saw a vote for Buhari.

During a tour of Kaduna state Thursday, Associated Press journalists traveling with Nigerian military leaders saw the religion-focused violence continue. In the town of Maysirga, rioters burned mosques and houses, while churches suffered no damage.

In Kafanchan, gas stations lay burned as the curious gathered on the street to see the convoy. Both mosques and churches were also razed to the ground, as were election offices for the ruling People's Democratic Party, which has controlled Nigerian politics since the nation became a democracy in 1999. Whole neighborhoods and markets sat in smoldering ruins.

Military officials stopped at a police station in the town, where several hundred refugees _ all Muslim _ were taking shelter. In Zonkwa, where witnesses say several hundred died, as many as 1,000 Muslims sought refuge at a police station.

Brig. Gen. Isa Raphael, an army spokesman, told The Associated Press that officers wanted to "see the truth on the ground."

"It's unfortunate and unwarranted, that's just all I can say," Raphael said of the violence.

What happens next appears unclear. Election officials hope to hold state gubernatorial elections Tuesday, with two-day delays for Kaduna and Bauchi states because of security concerns there. Federal authorities say more than 65,000 people have been displaced across the north since the violence began.

Those able to leave filled the highway out of Kaduna on Friday morning, their possessions crammed into vans and automobiles, idling carefully past armed soldiers who were peering inside each vehicle to escape feared future attacks.

Many did the same 40 years ago.


Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.