When I hear of the Muslim-Christian conflicts in Jos, Nigeria, my heart aches for the people I know there. I remember the smiles, the hospitality, the kindness. And at the moment, I am thinking of some of our American students who were visiting there as well.
Violent conflicts in this part of Nigeria are not new, and they are often followed by conflicting accounts of what happened. To my knowledge, there is little dispute that the first conflicts over the years were started by jihadists. Over time, however, as people lost loved ones and began to retaliate, mistrust widened between the Christian and Muslim communities, though probably the majority live in peace most of the time and would like to continue to live in peace. Many undoubtedly also realize, however, that many wishes for peace will not make the danger go away.
In the past, Christians have complained that international media outlets have often depended largely on the Muslim-dominated Hausa media of northern Nigeria. In one recent case, when according to some reports many Muslim young men were gunned down charging peace-keeping soldiers, their bodies were displayed to the media in the mosque as if "Christians" had slaughtered them there. Yet both churches and mosques had been burned in the conflicts; no one seemed to ask how so many young men would have died defenselessly from bullets inside a mosque, without damage to the mosque.
Years ago I visited Yelwa-Shandam, a location in the majority Christian Plateau State (the state in which Jos is the chief city); the long road from Jos was full of churches. Yelwa-Shandam had many churches, and I taught 60 pastors there.
Within a year after I left that town, Christians were slaughtered and driven out, and churches destroyed. Eventually many of the displaced local people from around that area attacked the town, killing large numbers of Muslims. I was astonished at an international media report claiming that Christians had attacked the "Muslim town of Yelwa." If it was an exclusively Muslim town, it was such only because Christians and others had been driven from their homes and land. Western reporters have sometimes flown in for some interviews with locals, then simply flown out with anecdotal reports and quotes. But even among local residents (including Christians), there is often no consensus on details.
Accounts of how the current crisis started vary. According to one source, a Muslim who had lost his home in the last round of violence contracted some Christians to rebuild his house, but after they finished the project, he repeatedly refused to pay them, and finally met their demands with physical assaults by some Muslim young men. After hearing this account I read a media report citing a Muslim man as saying that Christians had refused to let him build a house, and that this provoked the trouble. I have only hearsay; more truth, and probably more rumor, will emerge as time goes on. What is hard to dispute is that a Catholic Church was attacked and burned on Sunday, the time when attackers could expect worshipers to be gathered. A COCIN (Church of Christ in Northern Nigeria) church was also burned that day. It would not be unlikely that other church burnings and retaliatory mosque burnings occurred during that time.
Much remains unclear about how the current crisis started, but the tragic effects of this crisis on human life are all too clear. In what follows, I omit the names of my informants out of respect for their privacy, because it has been difficult for me to reach them (since learning that a report was needed quickly) to confirm their willingness to be named. The reports feel very personal to me; in some cases, sites where people were reported killed are places where I have stood and chatted with friendly men, women, and children. In one of these places, a short walk from where I stayed on multiple occasions, an eyewitness reported Hausa youth pulling a young man off his motorcycle and plunging a knife into his neck. The killings also affected people I knew. One young man with whom I spent time there lost his cousin Monday morning; a school teacher, he was on his way to work when he was killed. A young woman I met lost two people she knew.
After Sunday's violence, many parts of Jos experienced calm on Monday morning, with Muslims and Christians talking with each other like normal in some markets. Nevertheless, killings (including two mentioned in this article) were occurring, and automatic weapons fire was being heard. A friend reports that a witness noted the number of Muslims buried in a burial ground on Monday, and it was consistent with a Muslim leader's claims of 149 burials. Under what circumstances these people died, and how many other Muslims and non-Muslims died, is harder to say, but tragedy was widespread. University graduates in Nigeria do a year of service for the National Youth Corps, traditionally in a different part of the country. It is said that at least four of these young people were captured and beheaded.
Violence reportedly increased on Tuesday, as word spread about the real numbers killed on Sunday. One friend told me about a kind and helpful neighbor, who had lived beside him in a fairly safe area for 18 years. The new property owner asked the man to move, so shortly before Christmas, the man moved to the area of Russo, where he was proud to finally own his own home. Hearing fighting outside, he took his gun and fired some shots, dispersing some Muslim youth and possibly saving the lives of the people they had been attacking. As he was returning home, however, security forces saw him with a gun and, wasting no time with questions, quickly ended his life. On the whole, improved military and police protection have apparently significantly decreased the death toll in comparison with some previous incidents of unrest. Every death and home lost is nevertheless an unspeakable tragedy to those personally involved. As of Wednesday morning, the part of the city where some of my informants are appeared calmer, though gunshots (some of them possibly warning shots) were still being reported.
Some students from our seminary in the U.S. had traveled to Jos for an immersion experience, only to experience an immersion in local life more demanding than the original itinerary had led anyone to expect. On Sunday they were visiting various churches, and learned of the attack on a Catholic church in the northern part of the city only when they had regathered for lunch.
One of our students who is close to my wife reported the group's experience on Monday morning. A seminarian from an evangelical seminary in Jos had been en route to his theological field assignment when Muslim rioters caught him and beat him to death; his body was brought in to the hospital while the group was waiting there for the treatment of two of their number. Afterward they reached the evangelical seminary, where believers were gathered in prayer and mourning for their fellow student. I have only brief summaries; our students will have a much fuller story to tell on their return. They can let the outside world know better what it feels like to live with the uncertainties of sudden violence experienced by our brothers and sisters in the Middle Belt of Nigeria.
Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Eastern University's Palmer Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See today's related article, "More Human Smoke Rises in Jos," by Sunday Agang.
Recent coverage of the Jos riots include:
460 Killed in Jos Crisis (Daily Champion, Nigeria)
Keener's writing for CT includes the 2004 article, "Mutual Mayhem: A plea for peace and truth in the madness of Nigeria."
More coverage of Nigeria, including articles on past violence, is available in our full coverage area.