Back in school I took a course on international conflicts in which Africa's future was projected to be, and I'm quoting directly, "kind of like that movie Mad Max." That is, if they continue on their current trajectories, many countries in Africa may end up as failed states possessing only notional governments and rocked by nearly perpetual conflicts over resources. States like Somalia have pretty much already degenerated to this point, while others, most notably Kenya1 seem to be defying these grim expectations.
Nigeria falls somewhere in the middle: Despite the fact that it's an oil-rich country with the 33rd highest GDP in the world, its inadequate infrastructure and penchant internal instability also mean it has the 9th highest death rate in the world. The median life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 47 years, meaning that it ranks 216th out of 224 countries according to the CIA World Factbook.2 These troubling lifespan figures stem in part from high rates of AIDS and other serious diseases, but they're also influenced by frequent spates of internal violence. Therefore, despite recent positive press regarding government reform and fairly rosy expectations for the Nigerian economy, the violence that has recently erupted in and around the Nigerian city of Jos isn't entirely unexpected.
In case you've been living in a cave for the last few days, roving bands of machete-wielding rioters embarked on a rampage through Jos over the weekend, hacking to death up to 500 people. A huge proportion of the victims were members of Nigeria's (large) Christian minority, and the attacks are assumed to be at least partly in retaliation for similar anti-Muslim riots that claimed around 300 lives in the same city back in January.3 The media at large has been quick to draw attention to the religious divisions evident in the violence, but it's worth taking a deeper look. All politics are local, and while their is undeniably a religious dimension to the recent atrocities in Jos, there are also non-religious issues at play.
The Jos Plateau, on which the city of Jos lies, is the only temperate region in all of Nigeria. While it hasn't historically been subject to the same levels of resource-related strife as the Niger Delta to the south, there's considerable rivalry among various local groups for control of the precious, and scarce, fertile land in the area. Because the Jos Plateau lies along the border between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, this resource anxiety often manifests itself along religious lines, but it's not explicitly religious in nature.
For example, in 2001 the Jos region experienced even more widespread Muslim/Christian fighting that killed more than 1,000 people. Is this yet another shocking example of religious violence? Not exactly: The riots weren't sparked by any particular doctrinal issues but instead stemmed from the appointment of a Muslim to an a locally powerful anti-poverty program. It wasn't a case of "we have to fight the heretics", it was a case of "one of them is in charge of something we want a part of". It was classic "in group" vs. "out group" fighting that simply happened to organize along religious lines.
Admittedly the recent violence doesn't have such an obviously secular catalyst4, but it's certainly worth noting that the apparent Muslim/Christian violence could just as easily be characterized as Hausa vs. Yoruba violence: These two ethnic groups jockey for resources in the Jos Plateau and it just so happens that in recent times the Hausa have largely adopted Islam while the Yoruba populations contain large numbers of Christians. I'd argue that it's fair to say that both ethnic and religious enmity catalyzed underlying resource-related tensions and sparked the current bloodshed. Simply calling it religious violence oversimplifies the situation, as does simply calling it ethnic violence. The circumstances "on the ground" in Nigeria are complicated, and we do ourselves (and the people who've lost their lives to the fighting) a disservice if all we don't take this into account.
There's always a temptation to look for magic bullets - simple, easy to understand causes for complex events. Unfortunately, our tendency to look for quick and easy answers often results in us coming up with bad answers. When we look at outbreaks of ethnic and religious violence like the strife going in Nigeria, it's important to take in the entire situation rather than succumb to the urge to reduce it to nothing more than factoids and caricatures. Otherwise the only lesson we'll come away with is the useless old trope of "us vs. them".
1.) With the notable exception of the widespread violence that followed the 2007 presidential elections there, Kenya has long been considered an island of stability in Africa.
2.) All the figures in this paragraph come from the CIA World Factbook, an indispensable (and free) online reference for anyone interested in getting the skinny on foreign states.
3.) Christians comprise around 40% of the Nigerian population, while Muslims account for something like 50% according to the CIA World Factbook.
4.) Reports from Jos as to the exact circumstances surrounding the current eruption of violence vary so widely that at this point I think it's fair to say that for the time being we don't know exactly what the flashpoint was.