The leader of Boko Haram, Nigeria's deadly Islamic rebel group, said that the recent attacks on Christians were revenge for years of Muslim persecution.
Deferring blame away from his organization, Abubakar Shekau said in a video address that the Christmas Day church bombings that killed 49 Christians and other recent attacks were a direct response to the killings of Muslims in cities such as Jos, Kaduna, Zangon Kataf and Tafawa Balewa.
We are also at war with Christians because the whole world knows what they did to us, Shekau said in the video.
They killed our fellows and even ate their flesh in Jos, he added, referencing an incident in the tumultuous Plateau state where Christians killed and ate rivals after religious clashes.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is split evenly between Christians and Muslim, with the former living primarily in the south and the latter in the north. Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly to “Western education is a sin,” wants to abolish the secular system and establish an Islamic state in Nigeria.
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In its quest, Boko Haram has wantonly killed hundreds of people, including civilians, soldiers and politicians, and in recent weeks the group has specifically targeted Christian worshippers.
Everyone has seen how we were treated, people have seen what has happened between us and armed security agents and their accomplices who give them information about us, Shekau, who wore a bullet-proof vest and sat between two AK-47 rifles in the video, said.
Shekau also challenged President Goodluck Jonathan and Ayo Oritsejafor, the leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria, saying that anyone who tried to stop Boko Haram would be killed.
Last week, Oritsejafor encouraged all Christians to take up arms and defend themselves against the Boko Haram menace.
The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide will be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, churches and property, Oritsejafor stated.
I will not encourage Christians to [exact] revenge, but Christians should protect themselves... anyway you can. Why should anybody come and kill you in your house? Protect your place of worship, protect your property; it is very important.
Jonathan too has tried to use force to quell the bloody tide of Boko Haram. Last year, he formed the Joint Task Force (JTF), a military police contingent that has treated the rebels like invading combatants, at times waging gun battles in city streets as if at war. The JTF has become a controversial symbol of Jonathan's shoot-first strategy and citizens and religious leaders have pleaded with the president to try diplomacy instead.
The Council on Foreign Relation's John Campbell, a former ambassador to Nigeria, suggested that those in the north, which is generally poorer that the oil-rich south, feel disenfranchised by Jonathan's primarily Christian government. Campbell suggests that appointing northerners to high-ranking cabinet positions could begin to alleviate the palpable tensions in Nigeria.
But Jonathan been been distracted by ongoing protests across the country against the removal of a fuel subsidy. Unions finished a 24- hour strike earlier this week and protests, demonstrations and some small-scale destruction continued on Wednesday and do not appear to be stopping. Eleven people have reportedly died during the Occupy Nigeria movement, which is becoming another embarrassment to the Jonathan administration.
The Trouble Continues
After a year of near daily-attacks in parts of Nigeria, and despite the efforts of Jonathan's JTF, violence in the country is still escalating.
Boko Haram allegedly shot eight people dead at a bar in in the town of Potiskum in Yobe state on Tuesday night. Five of those killed were policemen.
The bodies included five policemen, a bartender, a customer and a 10-year-old girl, a local doctor told Al Jazeera.
Now, the violence is no longer one-sided. Perhaps in response to Oritsejafor or maybe in retaliation for the Christmas Day bombings, an Islamic school and a mosque in the southern Benin City were torched on Tuesday, reportedly killing another eight people.
Two weeks earlier, an Arabic school in the primarily Christian Delta state was attacked. Two people were injured.
The string of attacks have made Nobel literature prize laureate Wole Soyinka fear that Nigeria could be heading toward civil war.
When you get a situation where a bunch of people can go into a place of worship and open fire through the windows you've reached a certain dismal watershed in the life of that nation, the Nigerian writer told the BBC.
According to Jonathan, the violence is already worse than it was during the 1967-1970 civil war.
Even with the religious tensions aside, the militancy of Boko Haram has turned into a national crisis. Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced due to the violence, and whole towns and villages on both sides have fled their homes in fear of attacks.
After the arson attacks in Benin City, about 7,000 northern Muslims living in the area sought refuge in police stations and army barracks. In the north, Christian ethnic groups have also fled or been forcibly expelled by the rebels. About 90,000 fled from the city of Damaturu in Yobe late last month and some villages that were abandoned last summer were patrolled by Boko Haram members who prevented anyone from returning.
Alongside the JTF, the Nigerian government has initiated a number of other measures meant to curb the violence, especially in the north. This has included curfews and a prohibition of motorcycles -- the most popular vehicle Boko Haram has used in attacks.
Soldiers and tanks now regularly patrol northern cities like Maiduguri in Borno, considered the headquarters of the insurgency.
On Wednesday, Jonathan closed Nigeria's borders, part of his earlier implementation of a state of emergency. All borders will be under 24-hour surveillance to ensure total control of movement into and out of the country and to forestall the infiltration of the country by foreign elements during these trying times, Nigeria Immigration Service Public Relations Officer Joachim Olumba stated.
Additionally, all immigration officers and other officials on leave are being called back to Nigeria to ensure that the service had the full strength of its manpower to confront the challenges posed by the current threat to national security.
Video of Shekau's comments, in the Hausa language, below.