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A surge in communal violence is pitting Muslim against Christian and neighbor against neighbor in Nigeria. For extremist groups like Boko Haram, it is a holy war. For many Nigerians, it is part of a senseless fight for survival in a society where economic and political corruption is rampant. In the divided city of Kaduna, peacemakers of both faiths are working stridently to develop an 'early warning system' that can ease the bloodshed.

The quest to build an 'early warning system' to stop Nigeria's Muslim-Christian violence

The northern city of Kaduna has become Nigeria's best chance to quell a bloody, disruptive conflict.

KADUNA, Nigeria — The waters of the River Kaduna swirl forward under a bridge that spans the long, turbulent divide between this city’s Christian neighborhoods to the south and its Muslim communities to the north.

Kaduna, which literally means “the land of crocodiles,” lies in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with a total of 150 million people and the largest country in the world to be almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims.

The Middle Belt, a broad swath of grassland and rocky escarpments, forms a ragged front line of battle between Christianity and Islam as the country experiences yet another eruption of communal violence in a 15-year continuum of killing that, according to UN figures, has taken the lives of an estimated 20,000 people.

Kaduna State and the city that bears its name are in the crosscurrent of this violence. With a population of 1.5 million people, half Muslim, half Christian, Kaduna is in effect a microcosm of the deep divisions within the country as a whole. But as observers here are quick to point out, Kaduna is also an oasis of hope where an effort at interfaith cooperation is struggling to take hold and has so far produced practical results on a local level.

“Kaduna is where we are developing an early warning system,” explained Dr. Bakut Bakut, director of Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, “one that will enable us to have feelers about local conflicts before they emerge so we can stop them before they get out of control.”

“The devil has come between our two faiths.”
~Tabitha Boulous

To the northeast in Kano and in Maiduguri, where the Islamic militant movement of Boko Haram first took hold, there are no such warning systems and violence has intensified in recent months, causing some members of the Nigerian House of Representatives to suggest the Northeast be treated as a “war zone.” In the five years since 2009, when Boko Haram first turned up the heat on its violent campaign and the military answered with its own counterinsurgency, some 5,000 people have died.

Over those five years, Kaduna’s focused efforts toward healing a divided society — organized around the work of Kaduna’s Interfaith Mediation Centre headed by a local Christian pastor and a Muslim imam — have proven fateful. Kaduna has become a barometer for which way this large, oil-rich, and strategic country will go.

And lately, it does not seem to be headed in the right direction. Nigeria’s most recent spasm of fighting between Christian farmers and Muslim herders occurred in the village of Riyom in the Plateau which borders Kaduna. It resulted in the deaths of 30 people and the torching of scores of homes and reports of rampant cattle theft in a single day in early January. On February 2, the attacks and counter attacks rippled from Riyom through a string of other nearby farming villages in the Middle Belt resulting in 8 more people dead as well as 47 cows killed and an estimated 70 stolen cattle, according to reports by local authorities.

The violence kept up its pace throughout February, particularly in the northeast of Nigeria, where a government boarding school was attacked and set ablaze and 29 students were burned to death, the torching of schools has been a signature form of attack by Boko Haram.

Asked about the recent surge in violence, Eliza Griswold, the author of “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam," said, “The worsening crisis in Northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants are targeting schools and have killed a reported 300 people already in 2014, is evidence of this deepening fault line.”

But, Griswold, who has reported extensively in Nigeria, added, “This isn't about some inexorable clash between Christianity and Islam. This confrontation has a series of secular causes. Among them are climate change, post-colonial chaos, extreme poverty of people who live atop a river of oil and other natural resources, and, in the case, of Boko Haram, a group of young men with no other viable means of employment. All of these factors collide under the banner of religious violence."

The multiplicity of causes behind these eruptions of violence is difficult to discern on the ground. 

Often it begins with accusations of theft