A political power struggle masquerading as religious strife grips Nigeria – with mixed-faith couples paying the price.
Jos, Nigeria – Hajiya Badamasi was a practising Christian when she married her Muslim husband in the central city of Jos 20 years ago and converted to Islam.
The Plateau State capital has been a tinderbox for ethnic and religious clashes in the middle belt region, home to a region where Nigeria’s largely Muslim north meets its mainly Christian south, encompassing many of Nigeria’s ethnicities.
The tensions began in 1991 in Jos and spread to Jos North, Jos South, and, later, Jos East. Violence started to break out in 1994, when a Hausa (a group which along with others are regarded as “settlers” in the region, as opposed to ethnic groups that view themselves as “indigenes”) was appointed as Jos North local government chairman.
According to International Crisis Group, roughly 4,000 people have been killed in sporadic outbreaks since 2001 in what Human Rights Watch described as “horrific internecine violence” .
Before Jos became the epicentre of religious strife in the region, there were no issues over “who is a Muslim, who is a Christian”, said Badamasi, having interfaith parents herself.
“My father was a Muslim, he died as a Muslim, but my mom is a Christian and she still goes to Catholic church,” she said. She was raised by a Christian uncle, and practised Christianity.
Her uncle initially wasn’t fully supportive of her marriage to a Muslim, “but at the end of the day they said where you find love, happiness, and joy, it is where you go to”.
Manufacturing religious strife
Generations of mixed Muslim and Christian marriages highlight previous religious tolerance in Jos, where the focal point is tension between indigenes and the settlers, with each struggling for control of political power and resources.
Settler groups say they have unequal access to government jobs and scholarships, political offices, and even roads and infrastructure, compared with more favoured indigenes. Distinction between individuals based on ethnic ancestry, not where they were born or reside, and its effects on privileges in each area, is a general practise across Nigeria.
Clashes followed when the Hausa challenged this distinction, demanding equal rights as they arrived in the early 1900’s and helped build Jos.
Despite the conflict’s portrayal as religious, “there is no religious doctrine that has been the focus of the fight,” said Etannibi Alemika, a University of Jos professor of criminology and sociology of law.
Incidentally, the Hausa are predominantly Muslim, while the indigenes, mainly the Berom, are largely Christian.
The two sides say politicians reframed the conflict as a religious one to expand their support, manufacturing a religious conflict which feeds into the wider middle belt region.
Inter-communal clashes in the middle belt have killed more than 1,000 people from December 2013 to mid-April this year, and more than 10,000 since 1992 in Plateau and Kaduna states alone, according to HRW. In the process, Jos has become one of the most religiously segregated Nigerian cities.
The marriage of Alhaji Abdulaziz Haruna, a 59-year-old Muslim, and Augustina Vou Haruna, a Christian, nearly 40 years ago, is another example of the religious tolerance at the time.
“When my parents went to visit my wife’s parents, they were received wholeheartedly,” said Haruna, who’s a community leader for the Shuwa Arabs, a minority group from northeastern Nigeria.
Augustina, a Berom, goes to church every Sunday, and sometimes Haruna takes her there himself. The couple have raised five children.
Targeting interfaith marriages
Among Jos’ bouts of violence, the 2008 clashes hit mixed marriages the worst.
By then, religious undertones had overtaken the conflict’s political roots, and families moved to neighbourhoods predominantly of their religion for safety. On two occasions, Augustina was compelled to stay with her parents in Christian neighbourhoods until tensions calmed.
The 2008 clashes erupted amid local government elections in Jos North, the conflict’s focal point. A minority in Jos, the Hausa and Fulani believe they constitute a majority in Jos North, where, as in the other parts of the area, local governments confirm indigenes by issuing “indigene certificates”.
“Whoever controls the local government controls the issuance of indigene certificates. This, in the final analysis, is what much of the fighting is about,” Philip Ostien, a former lecturer in law at the University of Jos, wrote in a report examining the 2008 clashes.
The Hausa suspected vote rigging after the vote counting was moved to a Berom neighbourhood. Riots erupted, followed by clashes that claimed hundreds of lives.
In the aftermath, “Churches were burned, Mosques were burned”, Isawa Elaigwu, president of the Institute of Governance and Social Research (IGSR) said in his Jos office.
“So religion is more a vehicle of expression than a cause, because it mobilises people and it’s easier to express.”
The increasing use of religion in the political space is a national phenomenon, said Elaigwu. “Suddenly from the 80’s, politicians politicised religion and made religion an item of distinct conflict of social cleavage in the society,” he said.
“All of this is perpetrated by politicians,” Sani Mudi, a spokesman for the Muslim community in Jos, said in the city’s central mosque.
Rising opposition to interfaith marriages, as well as the communities’ segregation, have reduced their occurrence, said Muhammad Lawal Ishaq, a Jos lawyer.
“There’s a sharp change from what was happening in the past,” said Ishaq.
Ishaq was involved in a case four years ago where the parents of a Muslim, Hausa woman attempted to stop her marriage to a Christian, Berom man, ultimately arguing her age, 17, rendered the union illegal. But they married after she turned 18, and she was disowned by her parents.
Rarely do couples in Jos defy these new social boundaries.
Prince Charles Dickson, a Christian, and his wife, Fatimah Dickson, who was Muslim when they married in 2000, reside in Jos.
Fatimah converted to Christianity based on her own convictions, after the birth of their second child. Neither family approved of the marriage.
Fatimah said that, ironically, her own family’s history provides a stark comparison of how mixed marriages were viewed in her parents’ generation.
“My mom was a Christian, my father married her as a Christian and she converted when she had her last child,” said Fatimah. “Her grandfather was also a Muslim, and he got converted by the early missionaries… So when she got married it wasn’t a problem,” she said.
Fatimah was born and raised in Kaduna, another central state embroiled in intermittent ethnic and religious clashes. But because her family is originally from Lagos, in the southwest, she is considered a Lagos indigene and a settler in both Jos and Kaduna.
As a settler, Fatimah says, she faces discrimination even though she’s Christian, including, she said, being denied two government jobs that went to less qualified applicants.
Respecting indegene ‘authority’
The Jos indigenes say they wouldn’t be granted indigene rights in other places, and therefore it isn’t fair, or possible, to share their ancestral rights with non-indigenes.
“We have our own people from Jos, from Plateau, residing in other states … we will always make sure they respect the culture and tradition, respect the constituted authority,” Jacob Gyang Buba, the paramount traditional leader in Jos, known as the Gbong Gwom Jos, said in his palace.
He insists that besides traditional privileges (such as representation in the traditional councils), all communities in Jos enjoy full residency rights. He also denied that there was any form of discrimination against settlers, on any level.
Initiatives by organisations such as IGSR and Operation Rainbow, a government programme, have helped to stem the violence. IGSR trained thousands of young people on early warning system protocols to stop the spread of clashes when violence breaks out through prompt communication with security agencies, said Elaigwu.
These questions over citizenship and identity are among others being discussed at a national conference that aims to resolve obstacles to “the nation’s harmonious development”.
But, as politicians bicker, a generation is growing up in a tense, religiously segregated Jos. Trying to teach children tolerance is a challenge.
“My son saw a body being burned … a couple of months later he bumps into a scene where people were being butchered, and you can imagine what that does to him. He was coming back from school,” said a father who asked to remain unnamed.
At his church, the pastor told worshippers not to buy beef from Muslims, he said. “If the pastor teaches that, what do you think the teacher is doing?”