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Nigeria haunted by history of violence

Miss World riots latest episode of antagonism boiling over

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KADUNA, Nigeria (CNN) -- Riots over the Miss World pageant in which 100 people died are the latest flare-up of religious and ethnic tensions that have been smoldering for decades in Nigeria.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is home to about 129 million people from more than 250 ethnic groups, or tribes. Its slight Muslim majority is concentrated in the north, where several states have operated under strict Islamic law -- Sharia -- since 2000, amid protests and violence. Many of Nigeria's Christians oppose Sharia.

The December 7 pageant became the focus of controversy after some contestants said they would boycott the event after a Nigerian court upheld the death by stoning sentence of a woman convicted of adultery.

That ruling was overruled when Nigerian government pledged to quash Islamic stoning sentences. "We restate that no person shall be condemned to death by stoning in Nigeria," a government statement said.

Nigeria will invoke "its constitutional powers to thwart any negative ruling, which is deemed injurious to its people," it said.

Riots followed adoption of Sharia law

At least 11 people were killed in the northern state of Kaduna -- site of the riots linked to disputes over the Miss World contest -- after that state instituted Sharia last year. In February 2000, Christians in the city of Kaduna marched to protest a Sharia proposal, and the ensuing riots left an estimated 200 people dead.

In previous large-scale riots in northern Nigeria:

• More than a dozen were killed in Kaduna in March 1987, reportedly after a Muslim woman slapped a Christian preacher at an open-air revival whom she accused of insulting the Koran. About 1,000 people were arrested, and outdoor preaching was banned in several states.

• As many as 300 people were killed in Kaduna in May 1992 in what was characterized as fighting between Muslim and Christian ethnic groups over a long-standing land dispute tinged with a political struggle ahead of presidential elections.

• More than 100 people died in May 2000 after two days of clashes between Kaduna's Muslims and Christians. Nigerian forces were sent to break up the violence, which was blamed on the death of a Christian at a Muslim's hands.

Sharia can also be considered more than a religious issue. Muslims are mainly ethnic Hausas and Fulanis, and Christians are overwhelmingly of other tribes.

In addition, calls for Sharia increased as power in Nigeria gradually drifted away from the north, where the military government that ruled Nigeria between 1984 and 1999 was strongest.

President Olusegun Obasanjo has maintained that a rise in violence was to be expected after years of military rule, during which soldiers suppressed religious and ethnic disputes.

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