International Papers

Pageant of Violence

At least 105 people were killed in Nigeria this week, after newspaper comments about the prophet Mohammed’s attitude to the Miss World beauty pageant, which had been scheduled to take place in the capital city of Abuja Dec. 7, sparked a wave of sectarian violence. On Friday night, pageant organizers moved the finale to London “in the overall interests of Nigeria and the contestants participating.” According to Britain’s Guardian, the venue switch did little to calm the “passions aroused by the kitsch competition.”

In a Nov. 16 This Day column, Isioma Daniel, a Christian, wrote: “The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would Mohammed think? In all honesty he would probably have chosen a wife from among them.” The same issue featured photographs of more than 60 pageant contestants. The paper published an apology for Daniel’s comments in its next two issues, followed by a more comprehensive mea culpa in Wednesday’s paper. In the apology, This Day’s management admitted the portrayal of Mohammed “was not only unjustified, but utterly provocative.” They claimed an editor had tried to remove the offensive section from the column, but a technical hitch with the computer system allowed the unedited version to go to press: “[T]echnology failed us, and gravely too.” The apology concluded, “We have learnt that we cannot always rely on technology, and that we have to do more to improve our processes so we can continue to pursue the path of truth and reason.”

On Wednesday, a mob burnt down the paper’s regional office in the southern city of Kaduna. (In a similar move, protesters destroyed the printing presses of Pakistan’s Frontier Post in February 2001 after the paper published a reader’s letter that some felt insulted the prophet Mohammed.) The unrest quickly became a general protest against the Miss World pageant and eventually degenerated into a sectarian battle. According to South Africa’s Independent, “Kaduna was the scene of clashes in 2000 between Muslims and Christians in which more than two thousand people were estimated to have died.”

Britain’s Independent saw the violence as a manifestation of “the inter-communal tensions in a nation artificially mapped by the imperialists’ pen. Northern Muslim Nigerians dislike and distrust southern Christians and animists, and conflict has been growing for years, most notably over the attempts to impose Islamic Sharia law in northern provinces.” An Independent backgrounder explained that the Miss World pageant was to have been “the biggest international event to be staged in Nigeria since independence in 1960, and its success is vital to President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Baptist, who faces an election next year. … The north in effect controlled Nigeria after independence until the end of military rule in 1999. Not only is that power now reduced but Mr Obasanjo has become a valued ally of the US. Nigerian ‘sweet crude’ oil suits American refineries and the country’s large reserves are convenient for President George Bush’s ambition to dismantle the Opec cartel and get oil from non-Arab countries.”

A This Day columnist rejected the economic arguments for holding the pageant in Abuja, likening it to “hanging a satellite dish on a thatched roof. It is an unnecessary distraction that we can hardly afford at this critical time.” He continued, “Julia Morley, President of Miss World, said the contest would put Nigeria on the map of international beauty. … [S]omeone who lives here ought to have told her that she would be making herself more useful if she directs her energy into deleting Nigerian children and women from the international map of poverty, prostitution and human trafficking.”

It wasn’t us: The Guardian of Lagos ran a long piece about the violence and its causes, with particular attention to the article that set off the riots, without ever mentioning its rival publication’s name. This Day was referred to either as “the said publication,” or “a national newspaper (not The Guardian).”