15 March 2010

Throughout the MyWar exhibition, FACT will be publishing guest blog posts from looking at war and politics in the media. Matthew Taylor is a "twentysomething lawyer with interests in arts, music, philosophy, politics, and sci/tech..."
Religious violence is as old as religion itself. Christians grow up reading about the enslavements of the Israelites by the Egyptians, Muslims about the wars fought by Muhammad against the Meccans. Today it continues to be one of, if not the, greatest cause of conflict around the world.

From a vantage in the UK, it would be tempting to think that religious sectarianism is waning. After all, last week saw the completion of devolution in Northern Ireland, with the devolution of policing and justice powers from the British Parliament at Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Completing that process required the two parties which had once exemplified the divisions in Northern Ireland - Protestant/Unionist DUP; Catholic/Republican Sinn Fein - to reach agreement.  

But their agreement came too late for Tomás Mac Giolla, the Republican politician who, as leader of Sinn Fein in the 1960s, had first tried to break the party's links to paramilitary violence. He died on 4 February 2010, a day before the DUP and Sinn Fein reached that agreement.

In the late 1950s, Mac Giolla had been interned and then imprisoned by the Irish Government, but his response was to seek to turn his party into a conventional political force, opposing the policy of abstaining from holding elected offices, and working with the leadership of the IRA to end the use of violence.  

Ultimately, he failed: both Sinn Fein and the IRA fractured, with the Provisional IRA continuing and escalating a campaign of violence. Paying tribute to him, Eamon Gilmore, the leader of the Irish Labour Party said, "Had more people listened to him in the late 1960s, 30 years of violence, and more than 3,000 deaths, might have been averted."

But an observer in Nigeria might well look at such statements and wonder at the minimal violence which accompanies sectarian conflict in the UK. After all, the same week in which Northern Ireland's devolution was formally completed saw bloody killings in Central Nigeria.

Christian villages near the town of Jos were the scene of a massacre, which locals blamed on Muslim herders. Official figures put the dead - including many children - at over 100, but that figure had risen from 50 just a few days before, and the Nigerian Red Cross told the New York Times that 332 bodies had been buried in one mass grave alone.

One survivor, Pepe, from the village of Dogo Na Hawa, told the BBC what he saw: "I went to my neighbour's house. I saw all the wives – they killed them, cut their bodies, put fire on them. And the babies. They killed all the children."

It seems likely that this attack was reprisal for a previous massacre of Muslim residents of the town of Kuru Karama, 30 kilometers south of Jos. On January 19th, men armed with machetes and guns attacked the town and killed at least 150 people. It was an appalling event, but in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake it went largely unnoticed in the Western media.

This part of Nigeria, and indeed the city of Jos itself, is no stranger to sectarian violence, with previous mass killings in 2001, 2004, and 2008 leaving hundreds dead on each occasion. The sectarian conflict is not confined to this region: across Nigera, Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 13,500 people have been killed in similar attacks and clashes since 1999.

The causes of the violence in Nigeria are partly religious, but as in Northern Ireland in the 1960s they are also partly political. Much of the tension between communities stems from discrimination against those considered "non-indigenes" - people who are either not descended from, or unable to trace descent from, the so-called "original inhabitants" of particular areas.

Nigerian security forces arrested several hundred people following last weeks massacre, charging around 50. It seems unlikely this will do anything to prevent further violence.