Fighting to catch up in Nigeria

Last week, I was pretty hard on a New York Times report about the latest round of quote, "ethnic," unquote violence in Nigeria. This story was very light on the details when it came to describing the role that religion plays in a nation that is, literally, divided by faith. Thus, I think that it is only fair to provide an update. After all, my original post conceded that the Times team was covering a very challenging story and that more details would, obviously, emerge.

That's what happened and, sure enough, one of the later stories was much better. As the headline suggests -- "Nigerians Recount the Night of Their Bloody Revenge" -- this story was built on first-hand testimonies. Did you ever notice that when people talk, as opposed to reporters doing the paraphrasing, that religion jumps higher in the news mix?

I'll skip some of the details of the massacre a week ago, which flow easily in the words of a young killer named Dahiru Adamu. Here is the summary material that you need:

Sunday's killings were an especially vicious expression of long-running hostilities between Christians and Muslims in this divided nation. Jos and the region around it are on the fault line where the volatile and poor Muslim north and the Christian south meet. In the past decade, some 3,000 people have been killed in interethnic, interreligious violence in this fraught zone. The pattern is familiar and was seen as recently as January: uneasy coexistence suddenly explodes into killing, amplified for days by retaliation.

Mr. Adamu, a Muslim herder, said he went to Dogo Na Hawa, a village of Christians living in mud-brick houses on dirt streets, to avenge the killings of Muslims and their cattle in January. The operation had been planned at least several days before by a local group called Thank Allah, said one of Mr. Adamu's fellow detainees, Ibrahim Harouna, who was shackled on the floor next to him. The men spoke in Hausa through an interpreter.

"They killed a lot of our Fulanis in January," Mr. Adamu said, referring to his ethnic group. "So I knew that this time, we would take revenge."

His victims were sleeping when he arrived, he said, and he set their house on fire. Sure enough, they ran out. "I killed three people," Mr. Adamu said calmly.

No one doubts that the violence has cut both ways in this region.

However, that is one problem in this story. That violence last January? It seems that the details of those events -- with alleged mass killings of Muslims by Christians -- come from the testimonies of the Muslims who are justifying their actions in these new attacks.

Meanwhile, the new violence is documented by a wide variety of outside observers. For the story to be balanced, and truly believable, we need to know more about the January violence and it would truly help if the details came from authorities that are, as much as possible, detached from the vicious killing cycles in this part of Nigeria. Does that make sense?

It's easy to see the kinds of tensions and challenges that are shaping the work of journalists who are trying to do fair, balanced, accurate reporting on these stories. Pay close attention here, while recalling that authorities at the state levels in Nigeria tend to partisans linked to the ruling religions in the North and South:

"Suspicion is still rife," the state police commissioner, Ikechukwu Aduba, said in an interview in his office in Jos. "We are appealing to the youth to sheath their swords and give peace a chance."

Mr. Aduba sharply disputed the elevated death toll reported by others, saying that the police could confirm only 109 deaths.

But a Nigerian Red Cross official in Jos, Adeyemo Adebayo, deputy head of disaster management, said that the number of dead was "possibly" even greater than the 332 buried in the mass grave, since many fled into the bush and could have been cut down there by their attackers. A respected Nigerian human rights group, the Civil Rights Congress, said Monday that its members had counted 492 bodies.

Clearly, journalists face hard, hard work trying to get these stories right. All I can say is that we do not -- based on the reports that I have seen -- know much about the wave of violence in January that the killers now claim ignited their passions. We need to know more. If GetReligion readers have seen coverage with more information from neutral or international sources, please let me know.

Please give us the URLs to help provide more balance. Otherwise, this Times story still has a bloody hole in it. And let me add one other question, which has been voiced by some readers in comments. Does anyone know if these Christian victims are Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Evangelicals or all of the above?

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