Religious Violence in Nigeria: A Tragedy Foretold

By Madeleine Bair

Last weekend’s horrifying attacks on more than a dozen Christian villages in Nigeria are a tragic reminder of the need to address religious and ethnic strife in the West African country.  News sources first reported 58 dead after Muslim attackers swept through Christian villages on Saturday. But the next day, perpetrators followed mourners to the cemeteries, where they continued their bloodshed. Reprisal attacks have reportedly raised the death toll to more than 200.

What is most tragic about these atrocities is the fact that more can be done to try to prevent them. Tensions between Muslims and Christians have escalated since 2001 and religious based violence in the provinces between the Northern and Southern parts of the country has left thousands of Nigerians dead and tens of thousands displaced. Poverty, land disputes, and inflammatory political rhetoric have exacerbated the conflict. And yet, in over a decade, little if any meaningful attention has been paid to this situation by Nigeria’s foreign allies. As the situation threatens to spiral into mass atrocities, time is ticking for the Nigerian government and its allies to act.

Since March when Human Right First condemned a series of arson attacks on secular schools in Nigeria by the Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, we have noted that the policy debates in the United States center on whether or not Boko Haram merits the designation of a “foreign terrorist organization.” Such debates appear to focus on the potential threat that a group like Boko Haram poses to U.S. national security, with a significant lack of attention directed toward the larger question of how the U.S. government can play a leadership role in helping Nigeria curb the bloodshed and protect civilians.

In April the Obama administration took a landmark step and named atrocity prevention as a matter of national security by creating the Atrocities Prevention Board. The stated goal of this interagency board is to “anticipate, understand, and counter atrocity threats.” The targeted religious violence in Nigeria perpetrated by Boko Haram offers one such context where the board’s attention may make a difference. A separate U.S. government commission has already expressed concern about the situation, but it is not apparent that all possible steps that can be taken to mitigate the escalation of tensions have in fact been implemented.

Specifically, the U.S. government should make a public statement that it takes atrocities prevention as seriously as it does counter-terrorism efforts, and it expects equal focus and engagement from the Nigerian government.  Early warning signs of escalating religious violence and widespread hate speech are issues that should be on the top of the agenda for U.S. diplomats working with the Nigerian government and Nigerian civil society to swiftly find solutions to curb these attacks before they explode into mass atrocities.

As Nigerian sociologist Jacob Abba told the Christian Science Monitor, “no one can tell when this madness will end.” It is incumbent upon both the new Nigerian government and the international community to try to avert the loss of any more life.

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Published on July 11, 2012

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