Nigerian Riots Pit Muslims Against Christians

In Nigeria, Christian youths burned the corpses of Muslims on Thursday in the streets of Onitsha. The city has been badly hit by the religious riots that have killed nearly 150 people across the country in five days. Steve Inskeep talks to government spokesman Chief Femi Fani-Kayote, and NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week's violence in Iraq overshadowed another episode of religious violence in Africa. It happened in Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation and a major supplier of American oil.

Nigeria's population is divided between Christians and Muslims. And the latest attacks started as a protest against those newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A number of Christians were killed in the heavily Muslim North and that led to a response a city in the heavily Christian South.

Yesterday reporters saw people burning the bodies of Muslims and leaving them strewn in the streets.

Today, we've called Chief Femi Fani-Kayote. He's the spokesman for Nigeria's president.

Good Morning.

CHIEF FEMI FANI-KAYOTE (Government Spokesman, Nigeria): Hello, good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the government telling those who are responsible for this violence?

Mr. FANI-KAYOTE: Well the government has condemned violence in any shape or form or for any reason in the strongest terms. And the government has urged religious leaders on both sides of the divide to ask their followers and adherents of good faith to actually espouse the tenets of Islam and of Christianity by ensuring that peace prevails in the land.

The local authorities in the states that have been affected have taken the necessary measures to curb the violence. And that indeed is what has happened.

INSKEEP: You mean there's been a crackdown on people who have been attacking others in the streets?

Mr. FANI-KAYOTE: What I've seen is that in some of these towns that these unfortunate instances took place, curfews were actually imposed by the local authorities at specific times when these things were happening.

And as we speak now, it appears that peace has returned to the areas that experienced these disturbances.

INSKEEP: Chief Fani-Kayote, as you know, there have been various episodes of religious violence dating back at least to the year 2000 which is when some Muslim communities in the north began trying to impose Islamic law. Given that it's gone on for a number of years, how serious is the problem in your view?

Mr. FANI-KAYOTE: I think you have to look at it in the context that we have a situation in Nigeria which is very peculiar. You have a 50/50 divide between Christians and Muslims who have been pockets of violence over the last few years.

But, the way you measure it is by looking at it like this: let's say this could have been a lot worse had it not been for the fact the Nigerian people, generally speaking, are tolerant of one another and believe in worshipping their God in peace. And despite all these disturbances, I think we can proudly say that we still have a lesson to teach the rest of the world in terms of peaceful cohabitation especially in the kind of world that we live in today, where sectarian violence seems to prevailing everywhere.

INSKEEP: Before I let you go, your boss, President Obansanjo, as you know is nearing the end of his second term.

Mr. FANI-KAYOTE: Yes.

INSKEEP: There is some discussion as to whether he will seek to change the constitution and go for a third term. Will he?

Mr. FANI-KAYOTE: Well, the issue of seeking a change for the constitution by the president himself really doesn't arise. That is a call for the Nigerian people to make and it's their decision to make whether or not the Nigerian constitution will be amended in a number of ways to reflect the wishes and the will of the people. And right now we're going through a process of constitutional reform and constitutional amendment and once we have the new provisions in place, then Mr. President will look into the possibilities.

INSKEEP: Let me ask if I may, sir. Has the talk of the president--and we should mention, a Christian president--has the talk of the president staying in office and not stepping down added to the tension in Nigeria?

Chief FANI-KAYOTE: Well, I wouldn't say so but whether you are pro-this or pro-that--whatever you feel, whatever you want--let the people decide not just about what our constitution says, but also about what and who--how they will be ruled and who will rule them in the future.

INSKEEP: Chief Femi Fani-Kayote is a spokesman for Nigeria's president. Thanks very much.

Chief FANI-KAYOTE: Thank you very much; my pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR reporter Ofeibea Quist-Arcton regularly reports from Nigeria and she's been listening and with us and to Chief Femi Fani-Kayote and Ofeibea, you heard the talk just now of changing the constitution in Nigeria to give a third term to the president. How much is that adding to the tension and the violence there right now?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Observers and analysts in Nigeria are saying this is really the underlying cause in growing political tension in Nigeria. It's seen as religious, ethnic, sectarian violence but people say Nigeria's political future and the uncertainty of it and feverish speculation about whether President Olusegun Obansanjo will seek a third term is really what's causing all this violence. And often we see this in Nigeria in the build-up to the elections and, of course, there is a key election next year.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that political leaders are taking advantage of people's religious feelings?

QUIST-ARCTON: That's precisely what Nigerians say happens all the time; that is, the case of manipulating people and then there are clashes, killings, and mayhem as has happened in the north and in the southeast.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from her base in Senegal.

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