KADUNA, Nigeria — The mobs poured into the streets by the thousands in this dusty city separating Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south, armed with machetes and poison-tipped arrows to unleash their rage after the oil-rich nation’s presidential election.
Muslim rioters burned homes, churches and police stations in Kaduna after results showed Nigeria’s Christian leader beat his closest Muslim opponent in Saturday’s vote. Reprisal attacks by Christians began almost immediately, with one mob allegedly tearing a home apart to look for a Quran to prove the occupants were Muslims before setting the building ablaze.
The rioting in Kaduna and elsewhere across Nigeria’s north left charred bodies in the streets and showed the deep divisions in Africa’s most populous nation, as politics mesh with religious and ethnic identity in the country of 150 million people.
While curfews now stand in many areas, it remains unlikely the unrest will be soothed before the nation’s gubernatorial elections next Tuesday — meaning even more attacks could threaten this young democracy.
“Nigeria has spoiled … there is no peace,” said Rabiu Amadu, a 33-year-old technician in Kaduna. “I don’t think any of us are safe.”
Christians and Muslims have lived and worked alongside each other for centuries. However, results from Saturday’s election showing President Goodluck Jonathan’s more than 10 million vote lead over Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari spread accusations of rigging in a nation long accustomed to ballot box stuffing.
In Kaduna, 111 miles away from the country’s capital of Abuja, burned corpses with machete wounds dotted a highway Tuesday morning. Skullcaps and sandals mixed with the charred remains of burning roadblocks, left behind by those who frantically fled amid the chaos.
The protests began as initial election results showed Jonathan winning the nation, said Haruna John, the interim federal police commissioner in Kaduna state. While young men initially protested the election and caused minor disturbances, by night the crowd grew into the thousands and became emboldened. Across the state, mobs engineered two prison breaks, burned down the home of one powerful traditional ruler and attempted to destroy the home of Nigeria’s vice president.
“They almost overwhelmed us,” John told The Associated Press.
Authorities and aid groups have hesitated to release nationwide tolls after the riots across northern Nigeria for fear of inciting reprisal attacks. But authorities in Bauchi state confirmed 16 people had been killed in the violence, state police commissioner John Abakasanga said.
Officers recovered 31 corpses from the city of Kaduna alone Tuesday, with more likely yet to be found, the commissioner said. Police arrested more than 300 people during the rioting, but many citizens remained inside their homes Tuesday as police and military helicopters flew overhead and soldiers filled the streets.
Jonathan, who picked up a certificate Tuesday declaring him Nigeria’s president-elect, again called on the nation to reject violence.
“Most of the youths who are involved in these acts, from what they say, look like unemployed young people,” Jonathan said. “These are people who are central to us. These are people that we are committed to change their lives.”
Yet opportunities remain few for those in the arid north, as jobs are scarce and a formal education remains out of the reach of many in a nation where most earn less than $2 a day. Meanwhile, politicians spend billions of dollars of oil revenues with little or no oversight — fueling popular dissent.
Jonathan’s closest rival in the polls, the former military ruler Buhari, promised to fight corruption in his campaign. Many supported his campaign as it promised change in a nation ruled by the same ruling political party since it became a democracy 12 years ago. However, religious sentiment also swayed voters still hesitant to support Jonathan, who became president after the death of it s long-ill elected Muslim leader in May 2010.
Thousands have been killed in religious violence in the past decade in Nigeria. In Kaduna alone, more than 2,000 died as the government moved to enact Islamic Shariah law in 2000. In 2002, rioting over a newspaper article suggesting the prophet Muhammad would have married a Miss World pageant contestant killed dozens here. But the roots of the sectarian conflict across the north often have more to do with struggles for political and economic dominance.
Yet the violence also saw members of the two faiths risk their own lives to save others. In the northern town of Kano, an armed mob at a bus station threatened an evangelical pastor before a Muslim man nearby spirited him to safety.
“What brought together religion and politics?” the Rev. Habila Sunday in the local Hausa language, who said he owed his life to that stranger on the street. “I want to know why when politics happen do they burn churches?”
Nigeria has a long history of violent and rigged polls since it abandoned a revolving door of military rulers and embraced democracy. Legislative elections earlier this month left a hotel ablaze, a politician dead and a polling station and a vote-counting center bombed in the nation’s northeast. However, observers largely said Saturday’s presidential election appeared to be fair, with fewer cases of ballot box thefts than previous polls.
The U.S. said that Saturday’s ballot marked a “a significant improvement” over the 2007 presidential election.
“Certainly, we condemn the acts of violence related to the elections and call upon all candidates, political parties and supporters to respect the results of the election, channel any grievances and challenges peacefully through established administrative and legal redress,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.
Still, the unrest is unlikely to subside soon as more elections loom next Tuesday, said Sebastian Boe, an analyst with IHS Global Insight.
“Security forces in the north are unlikely to be able to pacify the region in the coming weeks, particularly as the state governorship and local assembly elections are due to go ahead,” Boe said. The polls “are likely to rekindle animosity between supporters of rival political parties, as well as further highlighting and exacerbating religious and ethnic divisions.”
AP writers Krista Larson and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria; Maggie Fick in Kano, Nigeria; Shehu Saulawa in Bauchi, Nigeria and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.