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Christians and Muslims Live in Tension in Northern Nigeria - 2002-02-19

Tensions between Christians and Muslims remain high in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, where the government this month dispatched troops to ward off possible violence between the city's Muslims and Christians.

The city, an ancient Muslim stronghold, has been the scene of deadly confrontations between the two groups several times in recent years. The administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo in recent days has voiced concern that ethnic tension could threaten democracy in a country that has only three years ago emerged from a long succession of military governments.

Kano State is among the majority of Nigeria's northern states that have adopted the Islamic code, Sharia, over the past three years.

Muslim leaders have repeatedly said the code will not -- in most cases -- be applied to non-Muslims. But the adoption of it in Kano and other states has nonetheless caused distrust, and fear between Muslims and Christians.

The city of Kano is markedly divided in sections defined along religious lines.

The old city is the ancient home to Muslim members of the indigenous Hausa ethnic group. Outside the walls of the old city is the Sabon Gari quarter, which is home to Christians who are mainly Yorubas and Ibos originally from eastern and southern Nigeria.

There was peaceful coexistence until three years ago, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian Yoruba from the south, was elected president. His election ended a long string of military governments that were headed, for the most part, by Muslim Hausa-speaking northerners.

Some southerners charge that Sharia was introduced as a political strategy to destabilize the government of President Obasanjo. The code was adopted despite protests by Nigeria's federal government.

Muslim leaders say Sharia is a means to rebuild a moral structure, in a country rife with corruption and violent crime. In the beginning, some northerners embraced it as a way to escape what many saw as the lawlessness that resulted when military rule gave way to civilian government.

Sheikh Aminudeen Abubakar heads Kano's Hizbah Committee, which is charged with enforcing Sharia in the state.

"We want Sharia to be the way of life. You go the market. [You see] A Muslim who is praying, worshipping, praising God, but he will cheat you. So this kind of behavior must be corrected through the implementation of Sharia. Before, you could see everywhere alcoholism, bribery, corruption, cheating, gambling. Now you see a reduction of these kinds of evil. But what we want Sharia to be is not the cutting of hands, or lashes given to people. We want to correct the behavior of the people," he said.

It appears that neither Muslims nor Christians in Kano know what each other's intentions are and that has fueled suspicion between the two groups. This Christian woman, who preferred not to give her name, says fear and lack of information are what caused the friction. "The Muslims don't know what we have in mind and we don't know what they have in mind. That is the biggest problem we have here. Every Friday now, there are rumors. Whether [they are] true or not, because of that nobody wants to go out between 1:30 and 3 o'clock when they [the Muslims] go for their prayers. Eventually, they will have their prayers and nothing will happen. But Friday has become a day of fear for everybody: Muslims and non-Muslims alike," she said. Young Muslims took to the streets of Kano to celebrate, following the terrorist attacks on the United States last September. When the United States began its bombing campaign of terrorist targets in Afghanistan in October, Muslim youths attacked Christians in Sabon Gari.

This 64-year-old Christian man says mobs attacked his home. He says he does not understand why he was singled out as being pro-American.

"The bin-Laden case is not supposed be something religious. It is a war against criminals somewhere and justice is still beginning. But unfortunately, they [the Muslims] thought all the alliance forces that were fighting bin-Laden are predominantly Christians. Because of that, all the Christians in Kano were targeted for attack. It's not supposed to be so," he said.

In Kano's Koranic schools, students are sometimes taught that America is the enemy of Islam. It is not only in the Koranic schools, however, that this view is presented of America. Professor Shehu Umar teaches at the Bayero University of Kano. He angrily blasts the government of President Obasanjo, and the United States.

"Obasanjo serves the interests of America. Obasanjo hates Muslims. He hates the black race. And he succeeded in turning you against us. America is very crude, very coarse, very rude. It doesn't conceal its hatred. You hate us and you don't conceal your hatred," he said.

The anti-government and anti-American rhetoric by teachers like Professor Umar is reflected in the words of some of Kano's young people, like this law student at Bayero University who did not provide his name.

"They told us so many things about the United States of America, so I believe that the United States of America wants to dominate the world. Our religion, Islam, has already told us that the Jews and the Christians will never do something which is beneficial to you as a Muslim unless you follow their ideas," he said.

The student says that while he dislikes America, he would like to study in the United States and obtain a master's degree.