Nigerian election turns neighbors to enemies

Suspected rioters are lined up to await a hearing in Kaduna, Nigeria. About 200 people were arraigned Wednesday.
Suspected rioters are lined up to await a hearing in Kaduna, Nigeria. About 200 people were arraigned Wednesday.

Despite anger, some crossed the religious divide, taking risks to help those attacked.

Posted: April 21, 2011

KADUNA, Nigeria - In the time it took to raise a machete or shout the name of a political party, neighbors became enemies over politics split along religious lines in northern Nigeria.

At least 70 people died this week after Muslim mobs targeted supporters of the oil-rich nation's ruling party, while retaliatory attacks by Christians followed with a startling speed.

Those who survived almost uniformly said they did not know their attackers, though many looked away or quickly changed the subject as their homes lay in smoldered ruins. Others displayed incredible bravery, risking their lives to rescue those of a different faith.

About 40,000 have fled their homes, and it remained unclear whether some would return to them to live among the people who wanted them dead.

"It shows you how heartless human beings can be," said Nathan Isaac, 23, who was visiting a hospital.

The rioting began Sunday across Nigeria's Muslim north as early election results showed President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the nation's south, with an insurmountable lead over Muslim opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler. Muslim rioters overwhelmed police and burned homes, churches, and police stations. Christians began reprisal attacks.

A patient, Idris Ibrahim, said he had tried to outrun an angry mob. The attackers overcame him, leaving gaping machete wounds to his back. They left him only after nearly severing his left hand, presuming he would die. Then a Christian put Ibrahim, a Muslim, into a car and took him to the hospital. "I hid facedown in the car," Ibrahim said.

The Rev. Habila Sunday said he had been saved when a Muslim man told an angry mob that was threatening to stab him: "Before you kill him, you must kill me." The stranger helped him hide for hours and provided him a phone to call for rescue.

Buhari has called the violence "sad, unfortunate, and totally unwarranted" and urged his supporters to refrain from attacks. But he continued to contend that Saturday's election, which observers call one of Nigeria's best, had suffered from massive vote-rigging by the ruling party.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN, Jonathan said the postelection violence "was not a spontaneous reaction. I don't want to accuse anybody, but we believe that people must be behind this."

Police said they had arrested more than 300 people for taking part in the rioting. Late Wednesday, officers took about 200 suspects before a local court for arraignment.

In Kaduna, patients continued to be carried into St. Gerard's Catholic Hospital on Wednesday. Administrators there said they had assisted more than 200 patients suffering from machete and gunshot wounds since the violence had begun, with at least 20 others dying from their wounds in doctors' care.

Its morgue told the story of the fury that descended over the mobs: The bloated bodies of victims bore gunshot wounds and charred flesh, while one had been disemboweled.

Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is roughly divided between the Christian-dominated south and the Muslim north. A dozen states across Nigeria's north have Islamic sharia law in place, though the area remains under the control of secular state governments. Thousands have been killed in religious violence in the last decade.

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