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Religious Violence Shakes Up Northern Nigeria


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, who doesn't love a wedding? Marvel Comics just decided to hold a big one for superhero Northstar. We'll find out why even some of his alien mutant friends decided not to show. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to turn to a very different, very serious story out of West Africa, where religious violence has killed more than 100 people in just over a week. Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan sacked the defense minister and national security advisor on Friday following a spate of fatal attacks in parts of the volatile north of Nigeria by Islamic militants known as Boko Haram, which loosely translates to Western education is forbidden.

The group has been blamed for suicide bombs that targeted three churches in the Nigerian state of Kaduna earlier this month. This led to further deaths and subsequent riots and revenge attacks. There's still a 24-hour curfew in place today and the situation remains tense.

We wanted to know more, so we've called upon Yvonne Ndege. She is Al Jazeera's West Africa correspondent, and she joins us now from Kaduna.

Ndege, thank you so much for speaking with us.

YVONNE NDEGE: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: For people who have not been following this story, could you talk a little bit about Boko Haram and when these attacks started?

NDEGE: Well, these attacks date back to 2009 when the leader of Boko Haram, who was named as Mohammed Yusuf, was basically killed it's believed by Nigerian security forces. He was preaching an extreme form of Islam, according to many analysts and following his execution, that members of his organization decided to take up arms, if you like, against Nigeria's authority.

They began by attacking symbols of Nigerian authority. For example, military barracks, police stations and then turned their attention to churches. Now, this all really took place in a very specific part of Northeast Nigeria, a city called Maiduguri, believed to be the birthplace of the group.

But, over the last 18 months to two years, it has spread to affect many parts of Northern Nigeria.

MARTIN: I was wondering why Kaduna seemed to have been targeted for this latest series of attacks. Does anyone know?

NDEGE: Well, there is a very specific reason for that. Kaduna sits on the fault lines, if you like, of the Christian-Muslim divide. Remember, this is a very diverse country. You're talking about 150 million people roughly made up of Muslims and Christians, about 50-50. But Kaduna State is one of those states that has a large Muslim community and a large Christian community very much integrated.

So what people believe is that the reason why this state was targeted was to try and ignite, to try and spark some kind of wider crisis between members of the two faiths. As you can imagine, the attacks on churches, the bombing of churches has incited some individuals to react violently and there have been retaliatory attacks against some members of the Muslim community here by Christians.

So it's believed that Boko Haram's intention is to start some kind of wider conflict, if you like, or crisis between members of the two faiths, and Kaduna is an ideal place for that.

MARTIN: But, you know, you have to assume that there is a lot of anger and resentment about the way the government has addressed these attacks just by the evidence being that the president moved to sack the defense minister and national security advisor. How significant a move was this?

NDEGE: Well, it was an essential move by President Goodluck Jonathan. The popular feeling has been that the Nigerian security forces, meaning the police, the military and the state security services, have been embattled, if not failed entirely to get a grip of the situation. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped every day into security, the attacks seem to be relentless. The attacks don't seem to end, and it was simply getting to that point where people were saying enough is enough. Something has to give.

And so the feeling is that the government has basically been focusing on the wrong issue. What they need to be tackling is the high level, like I say, of unemployment, of poverty, the crisis in the education system, infrastructure and opportunity for people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're getting an update on religious violence in Nigeria from Al Jazeera's West Africa correspondent, Yvonne Ndege. Are officials in - or other actors in Nigeria contemplating any useful international role? For example, does the African Union or any other international entity to broker, perhaps, some sort of talks here or to play any useful role in resolving this crisis?

NDEGE: Well, there have been some discussions about what role, if you like, the international community can play and, in particular, what role the United States can play and I believe that there have been some meetings between senior diplomatic officials in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, American officials and the Nigerian government. But the feeling one gets is - from talking to ordinary people - is that involving the international community is not really the solution, that Nigeria must solve this problem singlehandedly because for many people these problems are self-made.

You have to bear in mind, Michel, that this is one of the richest nations in Africa. It's Africa's largest oil producer. This country has tremendous wealth; natural resources, human resources and, for many people, the poverty, the hardship, the unemployment that I talk about is all self-made. So, for many Nigerians, it's not so much about getting international partners involved. It's about leadership. It's about the Nigerian leaders recognizing the problems that exist, tackling issues like corruption in order to raise the standard of people's lives.

MARTIN: On the other hand, though, and finally - this will be the final question. The U.S. placed three leaders of Boko Haram on a watch list as, quote, "foreign terrorists with close links to al-Qaida." It would suggest to me that the U.S. is concerned - and perhaps other, you know, governments are concerned - that if this group is unchecked, it would become, you know, yet another location for al-Qaida organizing. And I wondered if there's any concern in the government to that point, that Nigeria could become, say, another host site for al-Qaida operatives.

NDEGE: Yeah. There is that concern. There is that fear that there is all the creepy - some kind of international - how can I put it? Group, if you like, aiding the situation or making the situation worse, but the way the Nigerian government has reacted to this, they've not treated it with - or they've not welcomed this move, if you like, by the United States because their fear and the fears of many Nigerians is that this will kind of - how can I put it? Stereotype or black list Nigerian travelers, Nigerian travelers who are male, who are Muslim, who are from the north of Nigeria.

And one can't forget the very recent attempt by a Nigerian from the north, Abdul Farouk Mutallab, who tried to bring down a passenger jet. You remember - I think it was 2009 and the problems and the stereotyping, if you like, that that led to. So the Nigerian government has not treated or not welcomed the black listing of those individuals. What they're worried about is that any stereotypes - many, many people who may be traveling to the United States and to other parts of the world.

But at the same time, they kind of recognize that it's very difficult for international partners not to give this kind of response, given the ongoing crisis, given the fact that the attacks seem to be relentless.

MARTIN: Yvonne Ndege is the West Africa correspondent for Al Jazeera. She was kind enough to join us from Kaduna in Nigeria. Yvonne Ndege, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NDEGE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.