JOS, Nigeria — The invasion came in the dead of night.
The villagers of Mazah awoke to loud noises, and when they rushed outside to investigate, they found themselves blinded by bright flashlights and under attack by a gang of men armed with AK-47s and machetes.
“My house was the first place they went to,” said Jaja Kani, the ward councilor for Mazah, an isolated Christian village tucked into a valley on the outskirts of Jos city. “My mother, my father and my son were killed.”
When it was over, seven villagers were dead and many more injured. They aren’t sure who the armed men were, but they suspect Muslim Fulani herders who have attacked the village before. Nearly half of the villagers have since moved away, fearing more violence.
Communities like Mazah are potential flashpoints as Nigeria completes a month of crucial elections in regions haunted by political violence and longstanding religious conflicts. The tensions are especially high in Jos, the capital of Plateau state and a place known as the “middle belt” between Nigeria’s mainly Christian south and Muslim north.
News that the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, won the April 16 presidential election against his main challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, sparked deadly riots across the northern states, especially in the cities of Kano and Kaduna. Jonathan called for calm as thousands of people fled their homes for safety.
Jos has remained mostly calm during the first two of three elections this month — next is the important gubernatorial vote on April 26 — but the situation is fragile. Young men took to the streets in Jos yesterday to protest against Jonathan, and some residents slept at police stations for safety amid fears that the situation will
An estimated 3,800 people have been killed in brutal clashes between Christians and Muslims in Plateau state over the last decade. The violence is extreme: children and the elderly have been hacked to death with machetes, or doused with gasoline and set on fire. More recently there have been bomb attacks, including ones on Christmas Eve that sparked weeks of reprisal killings and left hundreds dead.
While the conflict in Jos is often defined in terms of religion, it is equally rooted in economic and political issues such as scarcity of resources. There are tensions between the mainly Christian groups designated as “indigenes,” or indigenous to the area, and the Hausa-Fulani Muslims classified as “settlers” by the government.
For example, in Mazah village, access to prime grazing areas is the main source of conflict between Christian farmers, considered “indigenes,” and the nomadic Fulani herders.
Many Muslim Hausa-Fulani people feel marginalized under a system in which “settlers” have less rights to jobs and education, despite having lived in an area for generations. Ethnic and religious differences are sometimes played up by those seeking political gain.
The outbreaks of violence in Jos since 2001 have rapidly redrawn the map of this city, traditionally renowned for its pleasant climate and the stunning rock formations that dot the landscape. License plates still refer to Plateau state as the “Home of Peace and Tourism.”
Today, the streets of Jos are lined with construction sites as Muslims and Christians abandon their mixed neighborhoods and move into new homes in segregated neighborhoods. Soldiers and armored vehicles are posted in Jos and surrounding villages, while checkpoints are stationed throughout the city and the roads leading into it.
Burned-out homes, mosques and churches are evidence of the violence around the city. On one stretch of road, the blackened remnants of three gas stations are still visible.
“The entire geography is being redefined. People are trying to relocate,” said Tor Iorapuu, the executive director of YARAC, a group that works to build bridges between Christians and Muslims in Jos.
Iorapuu notes the growing divisions in the city: Christians will no longer buy from Muslim shopkeepers, and vice versa. Mosques and churches now screen people with metal detectors before entry.
“Despite all that is happening, I still see hope,” he said. “People are tired of the violence. People are tired of running scared.”
One bright spot is Dadin Kowa, a neighborhood in Jos where Muslims and Christians live side by side under the leadership of imams and pastors who work closely together to try to ensure peace.
Darlington Chime, 30, who owns a small pharmacy in Dadin Kowa, is a member of a youth group that monitors the area for the early signs of violence, sometimes sparked by false rumors or outsiders coming into the community to stir up trouble. At night, the group sets up makeshift posts in the street, staying awake in shifts to guard their neighborhood.
Chime said that the group is on high alert for potential violence during election time, and will call local elders at any hint of trouble.
“When the rumor comes that there may be an attack, we keep watch all night,” he said.
However, Dadin Kowa is only one small area of about 5,000 people in a city with a population of about 1 million.
Habiba Mohammed, 23, a student who is also a member of the youth group, says young people are too often involved in the violence in Jos, and are sometimes paid to cause trouble. She hopes that Dadin Kowa can set an example of Christian and Muslim youths coming together to show mutual tolerance and respect.
Mohammed concluded: “At the end of the day, does violence cause any joy or happiness? No.”