- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

JOS, Nigeria — Christians vowed to defend their land and faith in strife-torn central Plateau state yesterday as fresh violence undermined President Olusegun Obasanjo’s efforts to stamp his authority on the increasingly divided western African nation.

Nigeria’s National Assembly voted to endorse the president’s decisions to impose a state of emergency in Plateau and install a former military governor there to quell a three-year conflict between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups.

The latest clashes, in particular a Christian militia attack that killed more than 200 Muslims on May 2, sent shock waves across the country.

But Christians in the state expressed anger at the decision to oust their elected leader, Plateau Gov. Joshua Dariye, and accused Mr. Obasanjo of backing a Muslim holy war to drive them from the state’s fertile farmland.

Meanwhile, official spokesmen said security forces had been fighting since Monday with militants in a remote eastern region on the border with Cameroon, where “many people were killed,” as well as in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where one gunman was killed and one soldier injured.

The renewed fighting in the south and east was unrelated to this month’s bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims in Plateau and the northern city of Kano, but the ongoing lawlessness underlined the challenge Mr. Obasanjo faces as he battles to keep control of Nigeria’s 130 million people.

In Jos, the capital of Plateau, Christian groups accused the president of caving in to Muslim demands that action be taken against the state after the massacre of Muslims on May 2, which took place in the market town of Yelwa.

They also said that Mr. Obasanjo, a Christian, had turned a blind eye to the fate of several dozen Christians killed last week in Kano when Muslims protesting the Yelwa massacre ran riot.

“There is a grand plan to Islamize Nigeria. They are waging a jihad in Plateau state, which is considered to be the nerve center of Christianity in Nigeria,” said the Rev. Mathias Nbian, chairman of the youth wing of Plateau state’s chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

“We call on Christians worldwide to condemn the declaration of the state of emergency. It’s a ‘jihad,’ and therefore should be resisted and shall be resisted, no matter the military presence in the state, because this has to do with our faith and our land,” he said at a press conference in Jos.

“Joshua [Dariye] may go, but Jesus will never leave Plateau,” he said.

Mr. Dariye’s successor as governor, retired general and former military governor Chris Ali, began work yesterday, hosting a meeting of senior security officials to try to find a way of stemming the conflict.

But as he reviewed the situation in Plateau state, unrelated unrest was mounting in the east and south of Africa’s most-populous nation.

On Sunday, a heavily armed militia employing “guerrilla tactics” raided villages in the Kwande local government area of Benue state, in eastern Nigeria, state police spokesman Bode Fakeye said.

“Many people were killed in the incident and hundreds of houses burned. I don’t want to volunteer any figure on casualties, because it is only when bodies are recovered that the police will have a figure,” he said.

Mr. Fakeye and Benue state government spokeswoman Becky Orpin said the fighting was part of a political feud over Nigeria’s March 27 local elections, and was not linked to Muslim-Christian clashes farther north.

“Our men are there to ensure peace, but I must confess we are overwhelmed by the guerilla warfare of the militiamen,” Mr. Fakeye said. “They use grenades and other sophisticated weapons. They attack policemen on sight.”

Meanwhile, military spokesman Maj. Said Ahmed said in the southern oil city of Warri that an army patrol had clashed with an armed gang trying to extort money from one of the oil giants operating in the Niger Delta.

“There was a gunbattle between soldiers and youths from Jeddo community on Monday. One of our men was injured. The soldiers fired back and shot dead one of the youths and injured two others,” he said.

The new bouts of violence came as Mr. Obasanjo’s government grappled with one of its worst crises since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 and began what is called its “democratic experiment.”

More than 10,000 people have been killed in ethnic and sectarian violence since Mr. Obasanjo’s 1999 election marked an end to the country’s latest bout of military rule. On Tuesday, the president described the latest violence as a “threat to the unity and security of Nigeria.”

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