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Nigeria ‘vulnerable’ to religious violence ‘unless government acts’


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has called for immediate intervention by the Nigerian government after the deaths of hundreds of people in religious and ethnic violence in the West African nation.

"Without a swift, firm government declaration to demand an end to such violence and actions to investigate and implement preventive measures to head off such unrest in the future, Nigerians will remain vulnerable to more deadly conflict," said Felice D. Gaer, chairperson of the independent U.S. government-backed commission in a 3 December statement.

Two days of violence broke out on 28 November after a rumour claimed the majority-Muslim All Nigerian Peoples Party had lost a local election to the mainly Christian Peoples Democratic Party. The violence has killed several hundred people and displaced at least 10 000, according to media reports.

Jos is Nigeria’s 10th largest city located in a central region where the traditionally Muslim northern part of the country and its traditionally Christian southern section overlap and it is home to more than half a million people.

Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, deplored the violence. He said this was not only due to the lives and property destroyed, but also because of the spiritual damage caused to efforts at building and fostering good relations across lines of ethnic, political and religious differences.

"There is the risk that the recent events might compromise or at least slacken these laudable efforts. This risk must be avoided by all means," the Catholic Information Service for Africa on 2 December quoted the archbishop as saying.

Onaiyekan urged a thorough and transparent investigation of the violence. "The State ought to be in a position to fish out the real and often faceless planners, promoters and sponsors of these incidents, and hold them accountable, no matter who they may be," he stated.

Nigeria’s security forces appeared to have used excessive force to end the violence, during which mosque officials counted close to 400 bodies brought for burial, Georgette Gagnon, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency.

Nigeria has since 2002 been on the U.S. religious freedom commission’s watch list, a group of countries that merit close monitoring because of a significant pattern of restrictions on religious freedom. Since 1999, more than 10 000 Nigerians reportedly have been killed in sectarian and communal attacks and reprisals between Muslims and Christians. The response of the government to such violence, particularly bringing perpetrators to justice, continues to remain inadequate, according to reports by the U.S. commission.

"The Commission has long called for expanded U.S. support for communal conflict prevention and mitigation in Nigeria," Gaer said. "The first steps, though, must come from the Nigerian government, which is obligated to restore respect for religious freedom and associated rights and to punish perpetrators of extremist activity."

(c) Ecumenical News International