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Addressing Sectarian Violence In Nigeria

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The latest suicide bombing in Jos that killed four people and injured 30 is once again a stark reminder of the inability of the Nigerian state to address the spate of violence that has engulfed the country in the recent past. On February 26, 2012 the Christian

community in Jos was thrown into mourning when a suicide bomber drove a car bomb into a church, killing four people and injuring about 30. This is only the latest attack targeting Christians since the Christmas bombing that killed 44 people in Madalla in 2011.

The aim of the perpetrators seems to be to trigger retaliation and provoke more sectarian violence in the country. Sadly and most often, many people take the bait all too easily and call for reprisals. For them, it would appear there is no difference between Boko Haram and law-abiding members of the Muslim community. And indeed, given Nigeria's complex mix of religious and ethnic interests, and the competition for scarce services and resources, it can be hard to identify the true enemy.

The reality on-ground is that Nigerians are tired of the inability of the state to provide concrete responses to this scourge such as effective policing and dealing with its root causes. Every day, seems to bring one story or another of audacious attacks by Boko Haram and the inability of the state to check these attacks. People are increasingly losing faith in the capacity of the state to protect them. Much of the approach adopted by government has yielded disappointing results. It does appear that government is unable to articulate a comprehensive and coherent policy for dealing with this challenge.

Attacks on places of worship are routinely blamed on Boko Haram but facts are gradually emerging to suggest that other elements are riding on the notoriety of the sect. Christians feel that their silence and practice of peace is being unduly exploited. Yet instead of targeting their anger at bad governance and the activities of Boko Haram, they blame the Muslim community who themselves are victims of insecurity. On the other side, Muslims complain that the punitive and scattergun security operations in the north intended to target Boko Haram are also being illegitimately targeted at Muslims. Misinformation and truth-spinning are booming and things are getting out of hand. As much as Boko Haram poses a great threat to Nigeria, sectarian violence across the nation could as easily destabilize the country.

The Sultan of Sokoto placed the narrative in proper context when he said that there is no war between Christians and Muslims but rather a war between good people (Nigerians) and bad people (Boko Haram). The important question is, how far has this message travelled? Unfortunately comments from some other religious leaders appear to supports the theory that Christians and Muslims are at war. This is the message that sometimes emanate from the pulpit to the faithful of both religions. This message is then further amplified by international media and some provocative local media. It is not fashionable to be seen as a moderate who looks for the underlying drivers of the crisis. In certain parts of the country, trying to counter the language of hate puts one directly under physical threat. Even worse; government is not doing enough to counter the hate speech that is being stoked around the country. Interestingly, the best counter-measure to all this would be adequate security capable of preventing further attacks. From what we have seen so far, this is not going to happen anytime soon.

Countering sectarian violence is not the exclusive job of government, particularly not a government overwhelmed with myriad of challenges. Nigerians must be part of the solution. We have to start talking across the religious aisle.

Since such a discussion needs an environment of trust, each group should give the other the benefit of the doubt. We need to express our fears and disappointment but we also need to create the conditions for hope to thrive. In moving the discussion forward, it is important that we educate each other and begin to debunk stereotypes that have made it difficult for us to forge healthy relationship. Christians should be able to differentiate between Boko Haram and Muslims while Muslims should be able to differentiate between political views of Christian hardliners and the genuine desires of the majority of Christians to live peacefully in a Nigeria they can call home.

The risks of unchecked sectarian hostility are not so difficult to imagine. The signs are already there. Exodus of Southerners from the North-West and North-East and of northerners in the other direction is illustrative of the simmering crisis and loss of trust amongst groups. When and how is this is going to end? If we leave the answer to these questions to the voices that seem intent on worsening the tensions, Nigeria will be the worse off.

Udo Ilo writes from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.