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Religious tensions stalk Jos,despite brittle peace

11 July 2014, 17:20

Jos - Sani Mudi, a Muslim leader in Jos, perhaps Nigeria's most religiously segregated city, stares out the window of the dimly lit central mosque, waiting for young men to drift in.

Some come to worship, he said, but often visitors have a more mundane purpose: help in getting valid identification, proof of residence papers or any other services that should be provided by the Christian-controlled state government.

Flanked by a crumbling market in Jos North, the Muslim ghetto, the central mosque has morphed into a job centre and city hall for a marginalised religious minority, according to Mudi, spokesman for the local chapter of Nigeria's main Islamic body, the JNI.

Muslims "have all the same obligations to the state. We have to pay tax," he told AFP. "But we are excluded at all levels."

- Tired of talking -

Jos, the capital of Plateau state, is the key city in Nigeria's Middle Belt, which splits the predominately Muslim north from the mostly Christian south.

Legally, Christian tribes are considered the area's "indigenous" people and get preferential access to public education, government jobs and other benefits.

This discrimination exists across Nigeria -- Christians in northern states controlled by mostly Muslim tribes like the Hausa face the same restrictions -- but in starkly divided Jos the battle over indigenous status has led to bloodshed.

However months of Western-backed dialogue appear to have made inroads in the combustible city.

On May 18 a double car bombing at a Jos market blamed on Boko Haram Islamists killed at least 118 people in Nigeria's deadliest ever bomb attack.

In the past such an attack likely would have sparked deadly religious reprisal attacks, even though the five-year Boko Haram conflict is considered separate to the sectarian struggle in Jos.

Leaders of both faiths credited the recent peace talks for keeping rampaging gangs off the streets.

"Our youths, these days, are listening," said Rwang Dalyop Dantong, who heads a youth council for the mostly Christian Berom ethnic group.

But he added: "If (the bombings) had been in a church, there would have been a reprisal."

And most agree that Jos remains on a knife's edge.

Violence has often been tied to elections and with potentially divisive national polls set for February, Mudi argued that, beyond dialogue, compromise to redress discrimination was needed to sustain the "fragile peace."

"We have talked and talked and we are tired of talking," he said.

- Decades of violence -

Embedded within the state of Plateau's undulating rock formations at 1,500 metres (4,300 feet) above sea level, Jos is spared the stifling humidity or desert heat that affects much of the rest of Nigeria and was once a tourist destination for workers in the capital Abuja, 300 kilometres (185 miles) away.

But the city's reputation has been tarnished by strife since August 2001, two years after the end of military rule, when Nigeria's federal government appointed a Hausa-speaking Muslim to an influential post.

Christian leaders in the city maintained that the job should have gone to one of their own, rather than someone from a group regarded as "settlers", and tensions quickly escalated.

When a Christian woman walked through a roadside mosque during Friday prayers, refusing requests by worshippers to wait until prayers had ended, tensions exploded into bloodshed that eventually left 1,000 people dead.

The city has been shaken by sporadic bursts of sectarian killings since then, including major unrest in 2008 and 2010. Boko Haram attacks over Christmas in 2010 left at least 200 people dead.

Outside the city in the Plateau countryside, there are regular deadly clashes between largely Christian farmers and Fulani herdsmen.

Thousands have been killed over the last two decades.

- 'Castles in the air' -

State officials concede that Muslims in Plateau face a fundamentally unjust circumstance.

"It is tense," said Pam Ayuba, the spokesman for Governor Jonah Jang. "Certain rights and privileges have been denied and there is resentment."

But he said there was no scenario where a Hausa-Muslim could be categorised as a Plateau "indigene", much as a Christian-Berom will always face a level of discrimination in a Hausa-controlled state like Kano.

So long as the constitution grants privileges to indigenous people, segregation will persist, he said.

The issue is being discussed at an ongoing national conference but few expect lawmakers to approve any controversial proposals that emerge from the summit.

Some Muslim leaders voiced hope of a more utopian nature, with full equality for all and even perhaps one of their own securing high political office, supported by Christian voters thanks to the strength of his ideas and character.

"I'm an optimist," said Mohammed Hashir Saidu, a state government official who helps organise the hajj to Mecca for local Muslims. "People are getting more enlightened."

Ayuba applauded such idealistic sentiment but cautioned that Plateau, despite a lull in violence, remains as religiously divided as ever and described the notion of non-sectarian voting as "very illusioned".

"It is building castles in the air," he said. "It will not happen."



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