Jos killings: not a religious conflict

Over 500 die in destruction of three villages in the Jos area of Plateau State

Once again an outbreak of ethnic conflict in the Plateau State area of Nigeria is portrayed as an inter-religious conflict. BBC, the UN Secretary General among others are reporting that the events last weekend were the result of clashes between Muslims and Christians. It is true that over 500 people, mostly women and children, were massacred at three villages near the Shen in Du District of Jos South Local Government Area of Plateau State by Fulani herdsmen. Fr Dan O’Neill SMA (Meath) worked for many years in this area before returning to an appointment in Ireland.

There is no doubt that the conflict has its roots in the long-standing tensions between the indigenes of the area and the more recently arrived settlers. The basis of recent conflicts is the right to land and its use. The majority of indigenes are Christians and most of the settlers are Muslim. This fact allows commentators to quickly presume – and publicise – that any conflicts between them are of a religious nature. Speaking with missionaries working there it is clear that this is a distortion of the situation. Read Vatican statement here.

Another commonly-publicised ‘fact’ is that the area is predominantly Muslim. This too is a falsification of the truth. Plateau State is about 80% Christian of which Catholics are about 30%. The remainder are of traditional religions and Islam. Muslims are to be found in small groups scattered throughout the state but principally in North Jos and Bukuru.

The Prefecture of Northern Nigeria was established in 1934 with Fr William Lumley (from Dublin) as the Prefect Apostolic. Even before that time the Society of African Missions (SMA) has missionaries in the area. Nineteen of the 37 SMA priests working in 8 diocese in that part of Nigeria are from Ireland. The remaining 18 are from several African countries (including Ghana, Tanzania and Togo), India and Italy. The nearest SMA priests are about 25kms from the affected villages. The Archdiocese of Jos is led by the Most Rev Ignatius Ayau Kaigama who is very prominent in mediating between both groups. He has very good relations with Muslim leaders in the country.

In an article for the British magazine The Tablet this week (before this latest violence), Archbishop Kaigama, stated that the real underlying causes of conflict are poverty, corruption and tensions between “indigenous” and “settler” communities, adding that religion is been used as a cover. “The aggressive use of the mass media and the promise of material prosperity give the impression that religion is not about eternal or supernatural values but about earthly progress and domination,” he wrote. “It is against this backdrop that the violent clashes in Jos took place in January.” Religious leaders, he said, “need to reclaim its integrity and promote peace and reconciliation” and political leaders need to address the underlying causes, work for the common good, and stop using religion to score political points or “more bloodshed will follow.” Another cause of the ongoing violence is an absence of justice for the victims. Outbreaks of violence in 1994, 2001 and last year have never resulted in any one been held to account, despite two commissions of inquiry. Many see a link between the rise in tensions and the introduction of Sharia (Muslim) Law into parts of Nigeria in the 1990’s. Archbishop Kaigama has called for an end to “bigotry and extremism” but prefers to focus on constructive cooperation and dialogue with his Muslim counterparts. “Either we learn to accept and appreciate our differences, or we destroy one another and ourselves,” he wrote. “Islam and Christianity are both present in Jos and the surrounding Plateau State. So if we take the view that either or both is the problem, then we are stuck in the inevitability of violence.”

Concerning this latest outbreak the attack began in the dead of nigtht, as the people slept. When the attackers arrived they began to shoot into the air. This caused the people to come out of their homes. As they did so they were attacked with guns or machetes and killed. At least 45 children were among the victims.

Three villages have been destroyed: Dogon Na Hauwa village where most of the killings were done as well as Ratsat and Jeji villages. More than 75 houses / huts were destroyed in Dogon Na Hauwa.

The Commissioner for Information for Plateau State Mr. Gregory Yenlong confirmed that about 500 corpses would be given a mass burial adding that security has been strengthened to deal with the situation. However, other reports state that some of the people are blaming the Army for not doing more to protect them, as the Gbong Gwom Jos had alerted the authorities to reports of imminent attacks.

Students held a demonstration on Sunday in Jos against the inaction of the authorities. One student was reported to have been shot during this event. Later in Kuru, on the outskirts of Vom where the SMA have a mission, a soldier tried to calm the people and he was killed by one of the angry crowd.

The Gbong  Gwom Jos, Da Gyang Buba visited the area and expressed his sadness at the gruesome murder of innocent people. He said he received information of planned attacks on villages and had informed the security agencies of this. But he wondered how the attacks were still allowed to happen. Appealing for calm the Gbong Gwon Jos cautioned against any form of reprisals and begged the people not to take the law into their own hands and to avoid doing anything that would aggravate the situation.

Let us pray for the people who have lost their lives and for their surviving families. Let us also pray that all women and men of goodwill will work for peace among all in the area and that the situation will not be exploited for sectional interests. Let us not forget to pray for the Archbishop of Jos and the Muslim leaders who are trying to mediate and build a lasting peace for all.

May almighty God watch over all the priests, religious and faithful in the Archdiocese of Jos at this time of need.