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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Tuesday 7 June 2005

NIGERIA: Armed police patrol northern city after violence by Muslim groups

KANO, 6 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Hundreds of armed riot police have been deployed in Nigeria’s northern city of Sokoto, where Sunni protesters razed a government building in escalating violence with rival Shi’ites that could engulf the mainly Islamic region, government officials said on Monday.

Hundreds of protesters who besieged the Sokoto North local government secretariat and set it alight on Friday were angered by the arrest of a Sunni cleric Umar Dan-Maishiyya, accused by the authorities of inciting violent attacks against the Shi’ite minority, Sokoto state government spokesman Mustapha Shehu said.

“In their anger they completely burned down the secretariat building,” Shehu told reporters. “The government has reacted by deploying policemen to prevent further violence,” he added.

More than a dozen people have died in Sokoto since February in tit-for-tat violence between the Sunni majority and Shi’ite minority, centred on demands by Shi’ites for access to the city’s biggest mosque to preach their brand of Islam.

Founded after a jihad launched by revered cleric Shehu Uthman dan Fodio in the early 19th century, Sokoto, which lies 450 km north west of the federal capital Abuja, is regarded as the most important Islamic centre in Nigeria.

It is also the home to the Sultan of Sokoto, a direct descendent of dan Fodio and the spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, who make up nearly half the country’s population of more than 126 million people.

In the past three weeks there has been fighting every Friday, the Islamic days for prayers, between the two groups at the city’s main mosque as Shi’ites tried to gain access and Sunnis tried to keep them out.

Two weeks ago a Sunni mob attacked the Shi’ite seminary in the city and burnt it down, and last Thursday a prominent Shi’ite leader was attacked and killed in his house.

Sokoto State governor Attahiru Bafarawa, who is a Sunni, has attracted the anger of Sunni preachers such as Dan-Maishiyya by suggesting that Shi’ites be allowed to use the city’s main mosque. Dan-Maishiyya’s consequent arrest for provocative preaching sparked Friday’s violence.

Traditionally Sunni Islam has held sway in Nigeria, but in recent years more militant Shi'ite groups have attracted support.

Sokoto police commissioner, Abdul Bello, said on Sunday that 20 people were arrested for Friday’s violence but have yet to be charged.

“We now have the situation under control,” Bello said.

Last week 38 people arrested for previous violence were taken to court for public order offences.



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