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Reading Nigeria's Christian-Muslim violence

  • 18 March 2010
Recently over 500 Catholics died at the hands of a Muslim mob in Northern Nigeria. It would be easy to understand the killings simply as an expression of a wider Muslim intolerance of Christians. But comment by local Catholic bishops suggested a broader context.

The Bishop of Jos, where the massacre took place, situated it in a struggle between Muslims and Christians over which religion was more powerful. The Archbishop of Abuja spoke of wider social, economic and tribal roots. In communal fighting in January, too, many people had been killed, the majority Muslim. The present violence may have been planned as a revenge attack, both tribal and religious in character.

Such complex tensions and conflicts are often better understood through literary representation than through analysis. One of the stories in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them (Abacus, 2008) represents the subtle interplay of religious faith, tribal loyalties, traditional religion and group identity in Nigerian society. Akpan is a Jesuit priest, and his confronting stories describe dire situations through the eyes of children.

'Luxurious Hearses' describes a bus trip on which people are fleeing from a massacre of Christians by Muslims in the north of Nigeria. The central character is Jubal, a 16-year-old boy baptised Catholic in the South, but raised a devout Muslim in the North. He had bravely, almost proudly, endured the amputation of his hand for stealing a goat, and had stood by silently as his brother Yusuf, an outspoken Pentecostal Christian, was stoned to death.

During the riot Jubal was falsely denounced as a traitor to Islam by friends who owed him money. He was beaten, but rescued and protected by a Muslim teacher and by Pentecostal Christians whom the teacher was also harbouring. The latter bought a bus ticket for him, advising him to conceal his amputated hand and his religion.

The bus trip was confusing for Jubal. It is interminable for the reader, because it represents a series of desultory conversations, often prompted by scenes of violence shown on the television set. Each exchange is a potential threat to Jubal's life. Different passengers appeal to traditional charms, rosaries, holy water, speaking in tongues, and to democratic process.

Each speaker momentarily wins favour, only to be supplanted by another. The power of Islam is recognised by the pact made not even to mention it.

Each of these interventions calls into question Jubal's certainties as he warms to claims on