ABUJA, NIGERIA— After the former Niger Delta militant group known as MEND threatened to attack Muslim interests in retaliation for Boko Haram attacks, Christian leaders and ex-militants are calling on MEND to revoke the threat, and not turn the security crisis in the north into a religious war.
Religion, politics, ethnicity and economic interests all are fault lines in Nigeria that sometimes turn violent, but it is hard to say which of the divisions is most divisive.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, used to fight against oil companies and the government over Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth, which is all located in the southern Niger Delta region and does little to help the impoverished local people.
But now MEND - or people claiming to be with MEND - say they will fight over religion. They say they will attack Muslim interests at the end of May in retaliation for years of attacks against Christians by Boko Haram, an insurgent group that advocates a harsh form of Islamic law.
At a church in the Niger Delta, Pastor Sylvester Odemapkore said Christians are not the only victims of Boko Haram attacks. Boko Haram-related violence has killed thousands since the uprising began in 2009, and the group has attacked churches, schools, security forces, government buildings, media houses and marketplaces.
Nearly all the victims, the pastor said, have been in the mostly-Muslim north.
“It’s not only the church that is victims. Both the church, both the Muslim, both the [non-religious body], they are all victims of what is happening too about the killings and all that,” said Odemapkore.
Simeon Efenudu, a former secretary to the Delta State governor and a regional ruling party leader, said that besides calling on MEND to revoke its threat, the government is reaching out to MEND itself.
“Of course there is dialogue with them. The governor is leading the team to dialogue with them. The governor has a lot of influence and he can always call them and talk to them,” he said.
Other Niger Deltans, including former MEND allies, also are calling on the group to drop their countdown to violence.
Tony Mezeeh, a lawyer, provided legal advice for MEND in the days of the uprising, which ended in 2009 with a general amnesty. He said Boko Haram attacks are staged by the northern elite to destabilize the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner.
“MEND should know that the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is their own brother from the Niger Delta. So anything they do, they should consider that government,” said Mezeeh.
Andrew Ebire is a former militant who traded in his gun for a chance to learn how to fix computers and a small stipend from the amnesty program. He said he does not think the threat even comes from the organization he knew as MEND, which was fighting for economic freedom.
"However, the threat may be real because any group of people can attack anyone and call themselves MEND," said Ebire.
Besides issuing the threat, MEND this month claimed responsibility for killing 12 police officers and causing a massive oil spill.