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Nigeria’s Middle Belt Braces for Possible Election Violence

Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'
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Nigeria’s middle belt has been the scene of violence between Christians and Muslims in past elections. In the city of Kaduna, community leaders are trying to prevent that from happening in the aftermath of next month’s polls.

The city of Kaduna in Nigeria’s middle belt is divided by more than just the river that bears the same name. Christians dominate neighborhoods on the city’s south side. The north is filled mostly with Muslims.

Local leaders say the two communities usually get along. But after the 2011 presidential elections, rioting broke out in the city and in towns across Kaduna State. Muslims in the city fled Christian neighborhoods; Christians living in majority-Muslim areas did the same.

So with Nigerians again heading to the polls on February 14 to choose their next president - again pitting President Goodluck Jonathan against his main opposition challenger Mohammadu Buhari - community and religious leaders say they are working to prepare people to accept the results of the election, and to refrain from a repeat of inter-communal violence.

So what brings Christians and Muslims in this religiously mixed city together? In the opinion of Alhaji Kabir Adanladi, it’s football.

Adanladi has been arranging games between young people from the majority Muslim neighborhood of Tudun Wada and Christians in a neighborhood on the other side of the river.

“For my own belief, it’s the only way I can unite the youth is through football matches," Adanladi said. " Cause if you can see, all over the world, once there is football matches, you see how people unite all together. … They forget about their differences.”

And those differences here are many - not just religious and political.

Imam Muhammad Ashafa of Kaduna’s Interfaith Mediation Center says conflicts between farmer and herdsmen, along with longstanding economic inequality between the north and south of the city has played a part in fuelling past violence.

“There’s a long history in the case of the southern Kaduna, a long history of perceived injustice, perceived political domination from the northern part against the southern part of the city,” he stated.

Alhaji Alhatu Alkali is the district head of Tudun Wada. He says the root cause of the fighting in 2011 in his area was unemployment. With the district’s youth unable to get jobs, many turned to violence to express their disagreement with the election’s outcome.

“Whatever election, there is supposed to be a winner and a loser. People tend to show their grievances, but the best way to show their grievances is formal. There are courts. There are law places that this thing can be taken to," Alkali noted. "But youth took it to themselves, because, you know, if there is unemployment and the youth don’t have anything to do, they are ready and they just want to go about it.”

Ashafa is hopeful that this time around, the preparations put in place over the years since 2011 will prevent a repeat of the violence.

“We have hope that the 2015 elections will come easier in Kaduna State. And, it’s tense, but the end will be managed in a way with the system, if well-used, the system we put in place, it will be managed to go non-violently with a high reduction of backlash,” he said.

Ashafa says the center has set up a regional council to monitor for threats of violence and coordinate responses by local, religious or government leaders to ensure they aren't acted upon.