Chris­tian eth­nic group finds it­self a tar­get in Nige­ria again

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY JON GAM­BRELL

NNEWI, NIGE­RIA | Gath­ered for dis­cus­sions about a fu­neral, a town hall meet­ing held in north­ern Nige­ria by mem­bers of a Chris­tian eth­nic group turned into a blood­bath as mem­bers of a rad­i­cal Is­lamist sect opened fire with as­sault ri­fles.

At least 20 mem­bers of the Igbo peo­ple of Nige­ria’s east died in that Jan. 6 at­tack. More at­tacks have fol­lowed, specif­i­cally tar­get­ing the largest Chris­tian group liv­ing across Nige­ria’s Mus­lim north.

Many Ig­bos now are flee­ing the north even as state of­fi­cials and oth­ers down­play the ex­o­dus, likely out of fear of spark­ing re­tal­ia­tory vi­o­lence.

The Igbo are one of the three dom­i­nant eth­nic groups in Nige­ria. Based in Nige­ria’s east­ern states, most Igbo be­came Catholic af­ter be­ing col­o­nized by the Bri­tish.

Many be­came suc­cess­ful traders who spread through­out Nige­ria. In the coun­try’s Mus­lim north, Igbo traders of­ten dom­i­nate car parts sales and other mar­kets.

That of­ten leaves Igbo traders the most ex­posed dur­ing eth­nic and re­li­gious vi­o­lence that has rou­tinely gripped Nige­ria since in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1960.

“We’re ev­ery­where there’s a clash be­tween any two groups of peo­ple, be­cause we’re a peo­ple who live all over the place,” said Maja Emeka Umeh, the spokesman of Anam­bra state in Nige­ria’s east. “They end up killing our peo­ple.”

A failed 1966 coup, led pri­mar­ily by Igbo army of­fi­cers, sparked vi­o­lence tar­get­ing Igbo peo­ple through­out Nige­ria’s Mus­lim north.

About 10,000 peo­ple died in the re­sult­ing ri­ots and many fled back to east­ern Nige­ria ahead of se­ces­sion­ist leader Chuk­wue­meka Odumegwu Ojukwu declar­ing the re­gion and much of Nige­ria’s oil-pro­duc­ing south its own na­tion.

Most re­cently, the Igbo have been tar­geted by Boko Haram, which has killed more than 360 peo­ple this year alone, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press count.

In a mes­sage to jour­nal­ists at the start of the year, the Is­lamist sect threat­ened to be­gin killing Chris­tians liv­ing in the na­tion’s north.

The at­tacks came soon af­ter. Peo­ple have been flee­ing, with many tak­ing buses to other parts of Nige­ria.

In Nnewi, a city in the south, at­ten­dance for Masses at St. Michael De Ar­changel no­tice­ably rose from those who had re­turned, the Rev. Michael Onyekachukwu said.

The to­tal num­ber of dis­placed peo­ple is dif­fi­cult to come by. While Nige­rian Red Cross of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge Ig­bos fled the north, they de­clined to of­fer spe­cific fig­ures.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials also down­played the num­ber of those flee­ing, say­ing many had re­turned to the north.

Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan, a Chris­tian, has de­cried the killings.

“Some con­tinue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won’t even know the per­son who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb be­hind your house,” Mr. Jonathan said Jan. 8 at church ser­vice in the cap­i­tal Abuja.

There’s an­other fear at play — the specter of re­tal­ia­tory vi­o­lence tar­get­ing Mus­lims liv­ing in the south.

In Fe­bru­ary 2006, Chris­tians in Onit­sha burned the bod­ies of slain Mus­lims and de­faced mosques fol­low­ing protests over the pub­li­ca­tion of car­toons por­tray­ing the prophet Muhammad.

A lo­cal hu­man rights ac­tivist es­ti­mated at the time that at least 80 Mus­lims had been killed in Onit­sha.

Mr. Umeh, the spokesman of Anam­bra state, said gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials would try to put down any un­rest.

But he made a point to men­tion the 1994 death of Gideon Akaluka, an Igbo man ar­rested over al­legedly de­fac­ing the Ko­ran in Nige­ria’s north­ern city of Kano. Ri­ot­ers broke into jail, be­headed him and car­ried his head around the city on a spike.

“Nige­ri­ans, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the state gov­ern­ment, other au­thor­i­ties, they looked the other way,” Mr. Umeh said.

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