JOS, Nigeria — Charred bodies with scorched hands reaching skyward lay in the streets and a mosque with blackened minarets smouldered Wednesday after several days of fighting between Christians and Muslims killed more than 200 people.
Sectarian violence in this central region of Nigeria has left thousands dead over the past decade, and the latest outbreak that began Sunday came despite the government’s efforts to quell religious extremism.
Jos was mostly calm Wednesday, though many terrified civilians kept indoors while soldiers patrolled the streets. The city is situated in Nigeria’s “middle belt,” where dozens of ethnic groups mingle in a band of fertile and hotly contested land separating the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south.
There are conflicting accounts about what unleashed the bloodshed. According to the state police commissioner, skirmishes began after Muslim youths set a Christian church ablaze, but Muslim leaders denied that. Other community leaders say it began with an argument over the rebuilding of a Muslim home in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood.
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said what caused the latest spark was beside the point. The deeper problem, she said, is the government’s failure to address underlying conflict.
After similar bouts of violence in the past, Nigerian authorities have “come up with analysis, but they don’t respond properly with concrete measures and policies,” Dufka said. “Tensions seethe, and months or years later you have another outbreak.”
More than 13,500 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence in the last decade, and at least 2,500 people had been killed in Plateau state alone since 2001, according to Human Rights Watch.
“It’s not just the perpetrators who often murdered people in horrific ways who have not been held accountable, but also the political leaders and sometimes the religious leaders that foment violence, as well as the security forces who’ve used excessive force to respond to it,” said Dufka.
In Jos, witnesses said rioters armed with knives, homemade firearms and stones had attacked passers-by and fought with security forces, leaving bodies in the street and stacked in mosques after fighting began Sunday.
Authorities imposed a 24-hour curfew, but on Wednesday people could been seen walking around the city.
“We want the government to come and help us,” said Abdullahi Ushman, who said he had seen rioters attacking people with firearms and bows and arrows.
Plateau State governor Jonah Jang said the violence was not provoked by a lack of opportunity in this rural farming community. He claimed many of the attackers were from Muslim-dominant northern Nigeria and from Niger and Chad.
“There are people masterminding this for their own selfish reasons,” said Jang, who is Christian.