JOS, Nigeria — The terrorists who blew up a busy market in this central Nigerian city Tuesday, killing at least 118 people, may have been hoping that the attack would reignite a historic tinderbox of religious and tribal enmity that has been easily goaded to violence in the past.
Instead, the powerful twin car bombs, which left charred body parts strewn along two city blocks, seemed to have had the opposite effect on the horrified inhabitants of this rural state capital, at least for now.
While both Muslim and Christian residents here Wednesday acknowledged their history of mutual grudges and resentments, they expressed similar revulsion and anger at the bombing. Many instantly attributed it to the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram, which has staged other attacks in this region but has not claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s blasts.
“To be honest, there is still some suspicion between Muslims and Christians here. We don’t generally get together, but none of us believe in this insanity,” said Michael Tyem, 22, a Christian working with a crew to pick up rubble. “We know these terrorists want to divide us and destroy our country. It cannot be allowed to happen.”
Nigeria, roughly half Muslim and half Christian, is a country steeped in spirituality and crammed with religious symbols. Here in Plateau State, the two faiths have vied for power and influence for the past half-century, with each group seeing the other as interlopers. Muslim Hausa tribespeople from the north have competed with local Christian tribes and migrants from the south, who settled and prospered in the aluminum mining and agro-business fields.
As the region’s Christian community has grown, its faith has become increasingly visible. Along the main road to Jos, there are dozens of churches with names such as Gospel Faith Mission, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry, and Spirit and Soul Revival Church. Many local businesses also use Christian or biblical references in their names, such as Miracle Curtains, Divine Success Mechanics and Devotion Hotel.
Boko Haram, which became globally notorious in April after it kidnaped about 300 schoolgirls from a northern village, comes from the same roots as the Hausa people who once dominated the Plateau region. In the past several years, Boko Haram has tried to fan the flames of sectarianism here, bombing churches and seeking to enlist impoverished young Muslims in its radical agenda. In turn, local leaders and experts said, some young Christians began to organize vigilante groups and fight back.
“When Boko Haram started bombing and killing people here in 2011, the reaction of some young Christians was to find and attack any Muslim they could,” said Chom Begu, a native of Jos who is director of a national nonprofit group called Search for Common Ground Nigeria. Since then, he said, “a lot of inter-ethnic and religious dialogue has taken place. There is less segregation and more interaction, and tensions are being managed.”
On Tuesday, as word of the deadly Jos bombings spread, many Nigerian commentators expressed concern that they would revive the sectarian hostility that had only recently receded in this region that lies along the fault line between the country’s Muslim-dominated north and Christian-majority south.
In fact, residents said a riot did break out briefly between young Muslims and Christians near the market after the blasts, but community leaders quickly helped police contain it and the tension subsided. “There will always be youths who drink or take drugs and act out, but I think we have reached a level of understanding among the leaders,” Begu said. “They know that Boko Haram is not made up of local Muslims.”
On Wednesday, as rescue workers and survivors picked through the rubble of more than 200 destroyed shops, a pall of horror and grief lingered in the smoke-
tainted air. Muslim-owned carpet stalls lay in ruins next to Christian-owned appliance shops. Hajjia Aisha’s snack stand was a charred shell; so was the Father X-Mass shoe shop next door.
Gabriel Ucheodum, 32, pointed to blackened yams and oranges in front of his electronics shop where a pair of elderly women had been selling produce when the bombs exploded. The first woman’s head and legs were blown off in front of him, he said shakily. The second woman was torn in half.
“I can barely believe God let me live,” Ucheodum said. “I saw such horrible things and I lost so many neighbors. Some were Christians like me, some were Muslims, but none of them deserved to die like this.”
Nearby, Muslim trader Alhajj Harun, 55, fingered his prayer beads and peered into the blackened shops. He said he had lived through some of the area’s ugliest sectarian clashes and then helped work to overcome them. He proudly mentioned that he had been to Jerusalem as well as Mecca and that he had three daughters in college or in professional jobs.
“There were problems between us, but everyone has worked hard to manage them, and things have been calming down,” Harun said. “None of us want to have our religion and our country blamed for these terrible things. If these barbarians want to divide us, let them die trying.”