At least 123 killed as anger over cartoons fuels existing tensions

At least 123 people have been killed in four days of sectarian violence across Nigeria, after protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad fuelled underlying religious and ethnic tensions.

Two-thirds of the deaths in the past six days have occurred in the mainly Christian southeast city of Onitsha, where groups of armed youths took to the streets to seek revenge against Muslims in reprisal for deadly attacks on Christians last weekend in the predominantly Muslim north.

At least 80 people were slaughtered during two days of violence in Onitsha, leading Nigerian human rights group Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), said on Thursday. “We counted at least 60 dead on Tuesday, and on Wednesday no less than 20,” Emeka Umeh, who heads CLO in Anambra State, told IRIN.

The violence erupted following the rumoured arrival in Onitsha on Tuesday of the corpses of Christian Igbos killed in the north. The reports sent angry crowds of armed youths onto the streets, bent on hunting down Muslim Hausa-speakers from the north.

The toll was expected to rise further following reports of attacks against Muslims in the nearby towns of Awka and Nnewi. Anambra state governor Chris Ngige late on Wednesday slapped curfews on both towns. Onitsha was already under curfew.

Killings of Muslims were also reported on Wednesday in the city of Enugu, the capital of Enugu State, about 100 kilometres north of Onitsha.

In northeast Nigeria last weekend, protests over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad turned violent, claiming 18 lives in the city of Maiduguri. On Monday and Tuesday at least 25 people were killed in Muslim attacks on Christians in the northern city of Bauchi.

With Nigeria’s population of 126 million people roughly split between a predominantly Muslim north and a Christian majority south, analysts say the cartoon controversy has simply served as a spark for this latest episode of sectarian violence.

“For one there are so many bottled up animosities, but worst of all is that there are so many young people who are idle and looking for the opportunity to vent their anger,” said Okey Nwiwu, a political science teacher who says Nigeria is a tinderbox waiting to be set alight.

Decades of misrule by corrupt military and civilian rulers, who mismanaged huge oil revenues from the southern oil-rich Niger Delta, brought economic difficulties for more than 70 percent of the population and deepened ethnic and religious rivalries.

Such tensions heightened in 2000 when 12 majority Muslim states in the north began implementing strict Islamic law or Shari’ah. Under the legal code, the states banned alcohol and prescribed the amputation of limbs for stealing, and stoning to death for adultery.

With most of the states making no distinction for non-Muslims in the application of the code, many Christians see Shari’ah as part of a plan to Islamise Nigeria.

Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church in Nigeria and president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), voiced these concerns in a statement on Tuesday issued after the anti-Christian violence in the north.

“It is no longer a hidden fact that a longstanding agenda to make Nigeria an Islamic nation is being surreptitiously pursued,” he said in the statement on behalf of CAN, which includes all the Christian denominations in the country. Akinola warned that Christian leaders may no longer be able to restrain their youths from retaliatory violence.

There was no immediate statement available from Muslim authorities on the violence.

But Africa’s most populous country, with its more than 250 ethnic and language groups, is beset by both ethnic and political problems.

With elections due next year, regional political differences are adding to tensions as opposition and other government critics allege that President Olusegun Obasanjo is preparing to amend the constitution to remove the two-term limit on his office and extend his stay in power.

But political leaders from the ethnic Hausa-Fulani Muslim north, the region that has produced most of Nigeria’s rulers since independence from Britain in 1960, believe it is their turn to offer the nation a president after two four-year terms by Obasanjo, an ethnic Yoruba Christian from the southwest.

Meanwhile the mainly Christian ethnic Igbos from the southeast, who attempted a failed secession during Nigeria’s civil war in the late 1960s, are alleging continuing persecution more than 35 years after the war. Along with the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba they number more than 40 million each and are the three biggest tribes representing more than 60 percent of Nigeria’s population.

The rest of the population is made up of ethnic minorities, the biggest minority being the Ijaws, the dominant tribe in the Niger Delta region that produces almost all the oil that is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy.

Armed ethnic Ijaw militants have in recent months stepped up attacks on oil installations and hostage-taking to back up demands for more access to oil wealth for the impoverished inhabitants of the oil region.

“For Obasanjo political survival means successfully juggling all the competing interests and tendencies,” said Ike Onyekwere, a Nigerian political analyst and newspaper commentator. “And it is not looking like an easy task.”