The truth behind the Miss World riots

The unrest in Nigeria was more about old grudges than a beauty contest – and it has left deep wounds
The Guardian (England), Nov. 30, 2002
James Astill in Kaduna

The beauty queens had only been gone a few hours, forced to flee Nigeria by raging violence. But as the Rev Joseph Hayab raised his hands to preach in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, thoughts of Miss World were an eternity away.

“They will put you out of the churches; yeah, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think he offers God service,” he began at the Rahama English Baptist church last Sunday.

Mr Hayab, the secretary of Nigeria’s alliance of Protestant churches, chose his text well. During three days of rioting in Kaduna, ostensibly triggered by Muslim rage at Nigeria’s hosting of Miss World, 58 churches were attacked and at least 215 people were killed.

Some of them were almost certainly from Mr Hayab’s congregation. Instead of the usual 100 worshippers, only 18 people were there in the rubble.

The chaos last week was only the latest in a series of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria, and by no means the worst.

Two years ago more than 2,000 people died in a month of religious rioting in Kaduna over the new state government’s imposition of sharia (Islamic) law on the sizeable Christian minority.

This time there was someone less powerful to blame – the spark was said to have been an article in the national This Day newspaper making light of Muslim objections to the contest. Its author, Isioma Daniel, a 22-year-old Christian fashion journalist, suggested that Mohammed would probably have wanted to marry one of the contestants.

Everyone fulminated against Daniel – Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, Miss World’s British organisers, Nigeria’s fundamentalist leaders – forcing her to flee to America. On Tuesday, another northern state, Zamfara, issued a fatwa calling for her death.

But as this city of 5 million struggles with a strict curfew and still-smoking ruins, a different story is emerging.

Almost no one in Kaduna – Muslim or Christian – seems to have read Daniel’s piece. Few have any knowledge of or opinion on Miss World. It was not until four days after the publication of the article that Kaduna’s furious Muslim mobs organised themselves.

When they did, the state governor’s residence, businesses and a campaign office set up for a bitterly contested forthcoming election were primary targets. Motorists displaying the governor’s bumper stickers were torched.

“This [violence] had nothing to do with religion, these were purely political events,” said Kaduna’s governor, Ahmed Mohammed Makarfi. “The article was repulsive to Muslims, and there are people here who saw that as an opportunity. They were shouting the slogans of election aspirants, circulating their posters. No, it was not about religion.”

Nor was Mr Makarfi’s response. He admits that many casualties were shot by soldiers trying to quash what amounted to a revolt. A spokesman for the Nigerian Red Cross said it was “strange” that so many casualties had died of gunshot wounds in a popular riot.

In the Baraub Dikki hospital, the wounded say the soldiers fired at random. Mohammed Shuiabu, 20, blood still seeping from a bullet wound in his belly, said: “Soldiers shouted at me to run away but then they shot me when I did.” He had never heard of Miss World.

After visiting the hospital on Thursday, Mr Obasanjo was uncharacteristically confrontational. “This situation has to be confronted,” he declared. “A few people must be responsible. Who are these people?”

So far, more than 350 of the rioters have been detained and Mr Makarfi is promising more arrests. But it will take more than a few arrests to clean up Nigeria’s violent politics, as his own career might suggest. He is currently being sued over his plan to move Kaduna’s main medical polytechnic to his home town, Makarfi. It has been alleged that his family would benefit.

Kaduna’s miserable slums, where most of the killing took place, make it achingly clear why Nigerians might kill to win political patronage. Sewage streams down streets where children play barefoot. This is despite Nigeria’s annual oil revenues of £15bn and oil reserves which may prove larger than Iraq’s.

Godwin Eze, 35, lost all his possessions when armed strangers, carrying cans of petrol, singled out his street in a largely Christian quarter. “Look at it!” he said, walking over the rubble. “My beds, my chairs, my gifts from when I got wedded. All gone. Now I’m trying to get out of Kaduna.”

No one knows why the attacks began, though according to witnesses, it was a full day before the riots became overtly sectarian, when a Muslim mob burned the offices of This Day. Next, Mr Markarfi’s supporters were attacked and, as if to disguise this, a few churches torched.

Finally, and for two long days, a religious war raged unchecked through Kaduna’s poorest slums. “We have always been living together so you should never say there is religious hatred here,” said Jummia Fagbay, a nurse at Gwamma Awan maternity hospital, which dealt with the wounded. “But the injuries … they put a tyre round a man’s neck. They set it on fire.”

James Usman, a Christian, said: “I don’t know … why this has to happen, but they are not my brothers now.”

With religious differences inflamed by politics, even the most rational religious leaders, who signed a peace pact in Kaduna only three months ago, sound like firebrands. Mr Hayab, said: “This is the work of powerful people who want to get at the government by stirring up jobless people with religion.” Then he added: “Ours is a God of mercy, theirs is a God of violence.”

Abdulkadir Orire, the secretary general of Nigeria’s organisation of Islamic groups, which yesterday ordered that the fatwa on Daniel be lifted, said: “True religion never touches thuggery, killing, vandalism. But where you have 70% of youths unemployed … a devil can find work for idle hands.”

But he is less moderate when it comes to the rights of Nigeria’s Muslims to enforce sharia law.

“If democracy doesn’t do what we are wanting, we have to do it the other way round. As Muslims, we have no choice.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 30, 2002.
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