Fighting to catch up in Nigeria

Last week, I was pretty hard on a New York Times report about the latest round of quote, “ethnic,” unquote violence in Nigeria. This story was very light on the details when it came to describing the role that religion plays in a nation that is, literally, divided by faith.

Thus, I think that it is only fair to provide an update. After all, my original post conceded that the Times team was covering a very challenging story and that more details would, obviously, emerge.

That’s what happened and, sure enough, one of the later stories was much better. As the headline suggests — “Nigerians Recount the Night of Their Bloody Revenge” — this story was built on first-hand testimonies. Did you ever notice that when people talk, as opposed to reporters doing the paraphrasing, that religion jumps higher in the news mix?

I’ll skip some of the details of the massacre a week ago, which flow easily in the words of a young killer named Dahiru Adamu. Here is the summary material that you need:

Sunday’s killings were an especially vicious expression of long-running hostilities between Christians and Muslims in this divided nation. Jos and the region around it are on the fault line where the volatile and poor Muslim north and the Christian south meet. In the past decade, some 3,000 people have been killed in interethnic, interreligious violence in this fraught zone. The pattern is familiar and was seen as recently as January: uneasy coexistence suddenly explodes into killing, amplified for days by retaliation.

Mr. Adamu, a Muslim herder, said he went to Dogo Na Hawa, a village of Christians living in mud-brick houses on dirt streets, to avenge the killings of Muslims and their cattle in January. The operation had been planned at least several days before by a local group called Thank Allah, said one of Mr. Adamu’s fellow detainees, Ibrahim Harouna, who was shackled on the floor next to him. The men spoke in Hausa through an interpreter.

“They killed a lot of our Fulanis in January,” Mr. Adamu said, referring to his ethnic group. “So I knew that this time, we would take revenge.”

His victims were sleeping when he arrived, he said, and he set their house on fire. Sure enough, they ran out. “I killed three people,” Mr. Adamu said calmly.

No one doubts that the violence has cut both ways in this region.

However, that is one problem in this story. That violence last January? It seems that the details of those events — with alleged mass killings of Muslims by Christians — come from the testimonies of the Muslims who are justifying their actions in these new attacks.

Meanwhile, the new violence is documented by a wide variety of outside observers. For the story to be balanced, and truly believable, we need to know more about the January violence and it would truly help if the details came from authorities that are, as much as possible, detached from the vicious killing cycles in this part of Nigeria. Does that make sense?

It’s easy to see the kinds of tensions and challenges that are shaping the work of journalists who are trying to do fair, balanced, accurate reporting on these stories. Pay close attention here, while recalling that authorities at the state levels in Nigeria tend to partisans linked to the ruling religions in the North and South:

“Suspicion is still rife,” the state police commissioner, Ikechukwu Aduba, said in an interview in his office in Jos. “We are appealing to the youth to sheath their swords and give peace a chance.”

Mr. Aduba sharply disputed the elevated death toll reported by others, saying that the police could confirm only 109 deaths.

But a Nigerian Red Cross official in Jos, Adeyemo Adebayo, deputy head of disaster management, said that the number of dead was “possibly” even greater than the 332 buried in the mass grave, since many fled into the bush and could have been cut down there by their attackers. A respected Nigerian human rights group, the Civil Rights Congress, said Monday that its members had counted 492 bodies.

Clearly, journalists face hard, hard work trying to get these stories right. All I can say is that we do not — based on the reports that I have seen — know much about the wave of violence in January that the killers now claim ignited their passions. We need to know more. If GetReligion readers have seen coverage with more information from neutral or international sources, please let me know.

Please give us the URLs to help provide more balance. Otherwise, this Times story still has a bloody hole in it. And let me add one other question, which has been voiced by some readers in comments. Does anyone know if these Christian victims are Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Evangelicals or all of the above?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Don

    What I’ve found interesting is the desire of the media to use the possible religious beliefs of the attackers and victims of the violence in Nigeria. I say “possible religious beliefs” because I find it doubtful that an orthodox follower of Islam or Christianity would butcher other humans with machetes.
    An interview with the Catholic Archbishop of Jos points out that the violence is not a conflict due to religion, but rather an economic and ethnic conflict between herdsmen and farmers.
    Zenit – interview with Archbishop of Jos

  • Ira Rifkin

    I’ve no idea of what you mean by “orthodox” followers of Islam and Christianity.

    But so-called religious orthodoxy, however defined and as history and current events attest, by no means keeps individuals from commiting the most heinous of crimes.

    Orthodox followers often are no better than the most unorthodox non-followers. They just frame their arguments differently.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I thought that GetReligion readers would be intersted in the analysis offered by the Catholic bishop of the region, who said that the violence has little or nothing to do with theology. The Muslims are nomadic herders and the Christnas are farmers, and he sees it as a dispute over land rights.

    Nigeria Clash Isn’t About Religion, Clarifies Prelate

    Cites Economic Issues Between Herdsmen and Farmers

    ROME, MARCH 9, 2010 ( Last Sunday’s violence near Jos that caused the deaths of perhaps several hundred people is being portrayed as a Muslim-Christian conflict, but according to an archbishop of the area, the real issues are political and ethnic.

    Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, a city slightly south and west of the Nigerian capital, explained to Vatican Radio that the violence is a “classic conflict between herdsmen and farmers, only the Fulani are all Muslims and the Berom all Christians.”

    The attackers belonged to the mainly Muslim Fulani tribe, whereas the villages were mainly Christian Berom.

    Archbishop Onaiyekan noted that the international media is quick to “report that it is Christians and Muslims who are killing one another; but this is not true, because the killings are not caused by religion but by social, economic, tribal and cultural issues.”

    Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos echoed the same sentiments in a peace committee meeting Monday. The committee was established by the government and includes elders of various tribes, as well as religious leaders, and former civil and military directors.

    The archbishop told Aid to the Church in Need: “We need to look for solutions. It’s too simplistic to say it’s just Christians fighting Muslims, that it’s a religious war.

    “We need to look beyond that, we cannot say it’s just religious, we need a political and social solution — I said this at the [peace committee] conference.”

    Sunday’s violence is held to be a type of retaliation for fighting in January in Jos, when the majority of those killed were Muslim.

    And a side factor that favors violent outbreaks, Archbishop Kaigama observed, is the wide circulation of weapons in the area.

    “It’s very easy to find persons who will come to fight only for a handful of dollars,” he said.

    Archbishop Onaiyekan lamented that the victims are simply poor people “who know nothing about, and have nothing to do with, any of this and are completely innocent.”

    He said that members of the Church continue to work to promote good relations between Christians and Muslims.

    “We pray for peace, for good government and for truth,” he said. “And we pray also that people may realize that the only way to survive in this country is to recognize one another as brothers and citizens of the same nation.”

  • Will

    I remember the NYT reporting on “clashes” between “ethnic groups” in East Timor, which were not further identified.
    I think that if it was happening in Europe, they would identify the “ethnic groups” involved.