Fresh Violence Erupts in Nigeria

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Estimates put death toll between 350 and 630.
by Obed Minchakpu

JOS, Nigeria, May 11, 2004 (Compass) -- Fresh religious violence has erupted in Yelwa town in the central state of Plateau, Nigeria, two months after Muslim militants killed a pastor and 48 members of his church there on February 23. The latest Muslim-Christian clash has resulted in the deaths of 350 people and the disappearance of 250 women and children, according to police reports.

Meanwhile, more than 120 people were reportedly killed and thousands more displaced by inter-religious violence in the northern state of Taraba in late April.

The latest crisis in Yelwa erupted in the early hours of Sunday, May 2. Victims who fled to the state capital of Jos said that more than 1,000 houses and religious buildings had been destroyed by fire.

“Not much is known about this crisis, but I can confidently tell you that we have report of its occurrence,” Plateau state police commissioner Innocent Ilozuoke told Compass in Jos the following day. “We have already deployed our personnel to the town and we will furnish you information when we have more details from there.”

Alhaji Dauda Lamba, Plateau state commissioner for information added, “We are aware that fighting broke out in Yelwa on Sunday night. We have, as a government, dispatched a team of security operatives to look into the matter.

“We don’t have the official figures but we are not unaware of the fact that after a crisis that has taken this long, casualties should be expected.” Lamba said

According to news reports yesterday from the Associated Press and Agence France Press (AFP), land disputes between members of the predominantly Christian Tarok tribe and Muslim Hausa-Fulani farmers sparked the violence in Yelwa. A Muslim city councilman told AFP reporters that at least 630 persons, most of them Muslims, had died in the fighting.

Local Christian sources said the crisis is linked to recent attacks on Christian villages in the area by Muslim extremists. They believe because only Muslims remained in Yelwa following the February 23 murders, aggrieved Christians carried out last Sunday’s attack in reprisal for the earlier assault.

Muslim-Christian violence broke out in the northern state of Taraba in late April, causing the death of over 120 people and leaving thousands more displaced.

The crisis reportedly erupted on April 27 in Sarkin Kudu and Dampar villages in Ibi local government area of the state. Local sources said an Easter Sunday attack by Muslim militants on Christian villages in the nearby state of Plateau provoked the Taraba violence.

“Christians in Plateau state believe that these two villages, Sarkin Kudu and Dampar, are operational bases for Muslim militants who use them to attack Christian villages in that state,” Alhaji Lawal Mohammed, a Muslim and the chairman of Ibi local government council, told Compass. “And because of this, the religious crisis has now spread into our state.”

The Muslim political leader confirmed the 120 casualties, adding that he is shaken by the crisis. Mohammed then called on the Nigerian government, as a matter of urgency, to deploy soldiers to the area in order to check the spread of anarchy.

In response to the tensions, Plateau state officials have created a peace committee to network with Taraba, Benue, and Nasarawa state governments. The peace committee is seeking a viable solution to the religious conflict that has engulfed the three states in recent months.

“We have contacted Taraba, Benue and Nasarawa states to check their borders to prevent unnecessary encroachment,” Michael Botmang, deputy governor of Plateau state, told Compass yesterday. “On our part, we have sent enough security personnel to the borders to prevent an influx of the Muslim militants.”

Over the Easter weekend, Muslim militants launched attacks against predominantly Christian villages in Plateau. Government sources reported only three Christian victims from those attacks, as opposed to the 20 deaths reported by eyewitnesses. About 20,000 refugees fled the area as a result of the violence.