Civilians have consistently born the brunt of Boko Haram’s war against the Nigerian state; the radical Salafist group's gun and bomb attacks have so far killed hundreds of worshippers (both Christian and Muslim), military relatives, UN staff and other innocent citizens, whilst its plans to attack major hotels only underscore the commitment to causing mass casualties.
The weekend suicide bombing of a Church in Jos however, has highlighted an even greater danger that Boko Haram poses beyond the immediate carnage of its attacks. Within hours of the explosion, which killed three and injured scores more, Christian youths had launched brutal reprisals, killing several Muslims and setting fire to their shops.
Such a backlash is hardly surprising considering the critically strained relations between the city’s two religious communities, which in recent years have erupted in riots killing hundreds and displacing thousands more. Yet whilst Boko Haram stated that the attack was in retaliation for the atrocities committed against Muslims during such incidents, this claim carries little weight. After all, the majority of Nigeria’s Muslims deplore the organisation’s warped version of Islam, and its fighters have shown little concern for Muslim lives- deliberately targeting Mosques as recently as last week.
Undoubtedly, the aim of the attack was rather to stoke fresh sectarian violence, much of which will fall on innocent Muslims who are simply trying to get on with their day-to-day lives. The Christian community’s anger at the bombing, which killed at least one young child, was compounded by fear following Boko Haram’s statement that: “we attacked simply because it's a church and we can decide to attack any other church…we have just started." After such provocation in one of Nigeria’s most volatile cities, a new outbreak of sectarian clashes was seemingly inevitable.
This is not the first time that Boko Haram attacks have raised the spectre of religious strife between ordinary civilians and it almost certainly will not be the last. To their credit, Christian and Muslim leaders both locally and internationally have so far played a strong role in calming tensions. From individual Imans working to ensure that youths do not fall under Boko Haram’s influences, to Vatican pleas for Christians not to partake in reprisals, they have used their influence to help keep a lid on full-scale and widespread violence.
Sadly however, they look set to face many more challenges before the Nigerian government finally wins what is turning into a long, hard battle against the biggest threat to the state since independence.