CHRISTIANS in northern Nigeria have said that inaccurate reporting of riots in Jos at the weekend could fuel further Muslim violence against them. The worst sectarian violence in recent years claimed around 400 lives, a figure which the Bishop of Jos, the Rt Revd Ben Kwashi, said was likely to rise.
Confusion surrounds the events. First reports in the international media said that the attacks on businesses and homes, which began in the early hours of Friday morning, were the result of spontaneous post-election violence after electoral workers failed to post ballot results. The ruling People’s Democratic Party, perceived to be mainly Christian, defeated the All Nigerian People’s Party.
Later reports of “Christian-Muslim clashes” appeared to suggest that Christians had killed 300 Muslims. The rioting was then said to have expanded along religious and ethnic lines. It became clear, however, that the rioters had been well prepared and heavily armed, and that many were wearing fake military or police uniforms.
Bishop Kwashi said that he had woken to screams, flames, and smoke. Later, when the government announced that it had taken control of the situation, he had been hopeful it was a skirmish, he said.
“People began to go outside to see what had happened. They ran into the attackers. The government underestimated the number of people who had come into town for the attack, and many, many lost their lives. The majority of Muslims killed ran into the bullets of the government army.”
The attacks appeared to have been aimed at Christian churches, businesses, and clergy homes. Sixteen churches were razed. Medical personnel had taken many dead to the hospital, said Bishop Kwashi, and the total fatalities were likely to be between 500 and 600.
The Bishop was both furious and despairing on Tuesday. “We are the victims of any Islamic anger. Two years ago, it was the Danish cartoons. Now they are trying to lay it at the feet of the elections. We have become a convenient scapegoat and target for those with grievances about events both home and abroad.
“The Church in northern Nigeria is in an unfortunate situation. We have always received negative press from the international media. The report seemed to show that we killed Muslims. We didn’t. The fact is the reports portray the Church in a constant bad light. I honestly don’t know where to turn to any more. When we tried to say no to sharia, the whole world turned against us.”
Baroness Cox of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), who visited sharia states in Nigeria in July, said the way the fatalities had been originally reported could be interpreted as the killing of Muslims by Christians. “The reports made it look as if both were equally culpable, and it was just a kind of interreligious thing,” she said. “It’s very dangerous. Unhelpful reporting could ignite the tinderbox. It’s essential to get truth on the record.”
The advocacy director for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Tina Lambert, said that it was “a grave indictment of the international media that they failed to report accurately on such terrible events.” Patrick Sookhedo, the international director of the Barnabas Fund, said that the apparently pre-planned anti-Christian violence formed part of a pattern of repeated rioting in Nigeria, usually started by Muslims. “It is tragic when Christians respond with violence, as seems to have happened this time,” he said.
Bishop Kwashi described the weekend’s violence as “a wake-up call to state and federal authorities . . . to ensure that truth is told, truth is maintained, and justice done.” He said on Tuesday, “It’s our usual call and I’m tired of making it.”
To international media, he made the plea: “Please, if you have evidence of anywhere where Christians have sparked off a riot or done anything wrong, please be honest in telling it. But if not, stand up for justice.
“We want the support of the Church worldwide to understand that we have never initiated crimes against the Muslim people.”