Christians, Muslims At War In Nigeria Africa's most populous country Nigeria has long been plagued with violent internal battles between its Muslim north and Christian south. On Sunday, in the central city of Jos, hundreds of Christians, including women and children, were killed by Muslim herders in retaliation for an earlier attack in January. But is religion alone the sole division between the two groups of Nigerians? Host Michel Martin talks with Eliza Griswold, Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the upcoming book The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam" about the roots of the conflict and the intersection of the two faiths.
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Christians, Muslims At War In Nigeria

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Christians, Muslims At War In Nigeria

Christians, Muslims At War In Nigeria

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Now to Nigeria, where another round of sectarian violence has shocked the country and the international community.

On Sunday, near the city of Joss in Central Nigeria, a group of Muslim herders reportedly attacked several Christian villages with guns and machetes, reportedly killing hundreds of people, including many women and children. It's believed to have been an act of reprisal for an earlier attack in January that left hundreds of Muslim villagers dead.

This is only the latest bloody episode in an ongoing series of clashes that have left thousands dead over the last decade. Obviously, one wants to know why. So, to answer some of these questions, we've invited Eliza Griswold. She's a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the upcoming book "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam." For years, Eliza has been traveling in Africa and South-East Asia studying the intersection between the two faiths, and she's with us now from New York. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. ELIZA GRISWOLD (Author, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam"): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all, do you know what set off this latest round in Nigeria?

Ms. GRISWOLD: It seems that this latest round was set of as reprisal killings. That there was some violence perpetrated by Christians several months ago, and that these latest killings were in reprisal for that.

MARTIN: As I've mentioned, this has been going on for a decade. One act of violence begets another act of violence. And so, this has been sort of ongoing cycle. Do you have any sense of what started this in this particular region?

Ms. GRISWOLD: In this particular region, the end of military dictatorship in 1999 and the opening up of democratic space paradoxically helped lead to religious violence, as different groups started to vie over who would hold power. Plateau State, in which Joss is located, is part of the middle belt which is the space where Christianity and Islam largely meet.

MARTIN: We say that this is religiously inspired, but what does that mean?

Ms. GRISWOLD: On one hand, one doesn't want to oversubscribe this kind of violence to religion because it has so many complex causes rooted in resource conflict and also longstanding ethnic division. At the same time, when the killings begin, religion does become the marker by which people kill and protect each other.

So, you know, whether one is a Christian or Muslim does become the dividing line, especially in the middle belt. In Nigeria, in general, people's rights are tied to something called indigeneship. Meaning, whoever can claim they came first from the land itself has the rights to scholarship, jobs, and help from the state.

Plateau is particularly fraud because both these Christian and Muslim groups claim that they came there first. So, this issue of indigeneship underlies a lot of the conflict. Whoever gets this right to say, I came here first, this is my home, and they use religion to underguard those claims, they get the right to basically the help from the weak state.

MARTIN: And what's the government's rule on all of this? Is the apparatus of government controlled by one or the other group? Is power shared? What role does government authority play in this?

Ms. GRISWOLD: Really, one of the leading causes of this violence is the weak democratic state, and democratic in name only that Nigeria is. You know, over the past several years, state officials in Nigeria, the government officials, have embezzled between four to eight billion dollars annually according to Human Rights Watch. So, being in the government is basically a passport to wealth.

The way that that functions from a state to state level is that in the middle belt, in Plateau state, the government is Christian, but this is a southern edge, historically, of the Muslim north. And so, there is a lot of historical anti-northern, anti-Islamic sentiment saying, you know, you enslaved us as ethnic minorities for centuries and we now will defend ourselves by defending our faith, defending our Christian faith, against the incursion of Islam.

And actually in Plateau state, the Muslims are the minority. And so, they end up in a position where they frequently don't get rights to things as very fundamental as land, water, electricity and these small-scale conflicts explode with some frequency.

MARTIN: And finally, Eliza, in a number of parts of the world, people complain all that we ever hear is this cycle of violence, that cycle of violence. Is there any effort being made to intervene in this cycle? Are we just going to see this for a while?

Ms. GRISWOLD: Unfortunately, Michel, the answer is yes. Nigeria's problems, many emanating from its vast oil wells, you know. It's - Nigeria is now the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States. And as we've seen in so many other places, oil wells being a curse rather than a blessing, largely. So, my sense is, I mean, international pressure or international interest goes where the money is, and that's primarily the delta and that's primarily oil.

So, in places where - like the middle belt, there's very little oversight. And while we may have concern at a distance, oh my gosh, how is this happening again. On the ground, there are almost no social institutions to address the cessation of violence.

MARTIN: Eliza Griswold is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. She's the author of the forthcoming book, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam," and she was kind enough to join us on the phone from New York. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, the amazing story of Henry "Box" Brown, an enslaved American who escaped the south in a clamped shipping crate.

Mr. JEFFREY RUGGLES (Curator, Virginia Historical Society; Author, "The Unboxing of Henry Brown"): He created himself a new life. And I think if Brown were alive today, the kind of power that he had and the imagination, I think we would have all heard of him.

MARTIN: The journey of Henry "Box" Brown. We'll tell you more, coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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