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20 April 2011

Nigeria: religious violence erupts despite ‘fairest election for decades’

Nigeria's presidential elections which took place this month have been hailed as the country's fairest yet. But while commentators have heralded a new era for a country whose political system in recent decades has been riddled with corruption, it remains one divided on tribal and religious grounds.   

Violence has erupted and many have been killed following the announcement on Tuesday (19 April) that Goodluck Jonathan, who had been acting president since Umaru Yar'Adua died last year, took 22.5 million votes (57 per cent), beating Muhammadu Buhari's 12.2 million (31 per cent).  

Jonathan is a Christian, from the south of the country, while Buhari is a Muslim from the north.  

In Nigeria, this matters.  

The country is still split along religious lines, with the south predominantly Christian and the north mainly Muslim. In recent years, clashes between Muslims and the Christian minorities have resulted in bloodshed. Some 2,000 Christians were killed in religious riots in the area in 2010, placing it at number 23 in the Open Doors World Watch List.  

Following the end of military rule in Nigeria in 1999, the People's Democratic Party - which splits its leadership on religious grounds - ruled with Olusegun Obasanjo as president until 2007. Since Obasanjo had been a Christian, northern Muslim politicians had insisted a Muslim should lead the country until at least 2015. 

But these plans were scuppered when Yar'Adua died in office, and was replaced by his vice president Jonathan - a Christian.  

Now violence has once again broken out and possibly scores killed in the northern states following the election results, with supporters of Buhari's party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), claiming the votes were rigged. 

This is contrary to independent verification of the electoral process, which hailed the elections as the country's fairest in decades. 

Buhari is a former military ruler who draws support mainly from northern states. Following the results, many of his supporters have taken to the streets taking part in violence, destruction and looting targeted at churches and the Christian minorities.  

One man was reportedly murdered while trying to stop CPC supporters burning a church, while a bomb attack took place at a hotel in Kabala West on polling day (16 April).  

In a statement, Buhari said: "In the last 24 hours, there has been a spate of violence in the country: this has included the burning of churches and is a sad, unfortunate and totally unwarranted development.

"I must emphasise that what is happening is not ethnic, religious or regional." 

According to the Nigerian Red Cross, many more have been murdered as homes, churches and mosques have been set on fire.  

Umar Mairiga of the Red Cross told Reuters: "There has been trouble in at least Kaduna, Katsina, Kano, Adamawa, Niger and Jigawa. A lot of people have been killed but early reports are still coming in and we are not in a position to give a figure. All our volunteers are on standby so when the situation calms down they can be deployed." 

An estimated 15,000 people have been displaced in the northern states since the violence started at the weekend and a further 276 have been injured. 

Alliance member Christian Solidarity Worldwide has urged prayer for the minorities in the north, saying: "The voting showed a politically polarised Nigeria… Christian and other non-Muslim communities in Sharia states are particularly vulnerable at this time."