JOS, NIGERIA // "Welcome to our beautiful, troubled Jos," Esther Ibanga said wistfully. Sitting in her plush office in this central Nigerian city, the evangelical Christian minister gazed out at the mango trees and rocky escarpments dotting the arid plateau, the view made hazy by the last of the dry, dusty trade winds that blow in from the Sahara each year.
Her description could not be more fitting. Two decades ago, Jos was a cosmopolitan city, home to Muslims and Christians as well as to ethnic Hausa traders from the north and ethnic Igbo businessmen from the East.
After Nigeria gained independence in the early 1960s, missionaries from many corners of the globe and representing Christian denominations of every sort set up their headquarters here. Foreigners working in other Nigerian cities also thronged here for holidays, attracted to its pleasant climate.
Today, Jos is a paralysed and segregated city, where Christians and Muslims are divided into near ghettoes and motorcycle taxi drivers are frequently killed when they venture into the wrong neighbourhood.
With each wave of violence that has swept over Jos, attitudes have hardened further and larger numbers of people have died, in more brutal ways each time. Since 2001, Human Rights Watch estimates that nearly 4,000 men, women and children have been killed with machetes, AK-47s and bombs, or burnt alive.
As in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, there are many divides among the 152 million people of Nigeria: ethnic, tribal, economic, political and religious. However, during periods of escalating tension - as in the case of presidential elections tomorrow when much power and patronage are at stake - it is religion, as well as ethnicity, that become the affiliations around which Nigerians rally with most zeal.
Also, it must be added, with the most calamitous results, when fears for the prosperity, even for the survival, of one's ethnic group or religion are fomented and manipulated for political ends. Such has often been the case in Jos.
The failure of Nigerian leaders to address intercommunal violence is one of many factors preventing the resolution of the conflict in Jos, said Ignatius Kaigama, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jos.
Archbishop Kaigama said he is in the minority among both Christian and Muslim religious leaders who have refrained from stoking the crisis through the extreme rhetoric they feel is merited by the fear of being dominated by the other.
In January 2010, Archbishop Kaigama went on local radio to deny a statement made on air by the Jos police commissioner that a Catholic church had been bombed by Muslims. By the time he debunked the story, Christians had already entered Muslim neighbourhoods to begin vicious "retaliatory" attacks.
Each successive killing or attack on a holy place - or rumours of such - reverberate through mosques and churches, regularly bringing tensions in Jos to a breaking point on Fridays and Sundays.
"Talking as a Christian, the problems we have been experiencing are almost beyond man," Rev Ibanga said. "It's getting to a point where these problems need divine intervention."
Jos is rampant with rumours explaining who is running guns, who is paying youth to kill, how the attacks became increasingly well-organised, and when the next explosion will happen.
Last week, a Hausa Muslim motorcycle taxi driver went missing, recounted Mohammed Lawal Ishaq, the head of a Muslim affairs council at the Jaama'atu Nasril Islam mosque in northern Jos. A few days ago, the young man's corpse was found in a well.
Mr Ishaq, a lawyer, said that the public message delivered by imams at the mosque is that despite the horrific violence his community has suffered, the youths who want to respond must remain peaceful.
"It's difficult because the youth react," said Mr Ishaq. His council, however, is overtly political, a self-appointed group of men who like leaders of other religious and ethnic groups in Nigeria carry out a time-honoured practice: directing members of their community how to vote.
With a secure bloc of voters behind him, Mr Ishaq says his council is currently "in negotiations" with two gubernatorial candidates who have pledged to offer more support to the Muslim community than has the current governor, who is widely criticised by the Hausa Muslim community and by moderate Christians for pursuing an exclusionary agenda against Muslims in the state.
"I'm very conscious of the fact that all of the citizens in my state are my responsibility," said the governor, Jonah Jang, in an interview with The National.
Governor Jang's interpretation of the constitution and of the history of his state draws a clear line between the "indigene" - mainly Christian people in the central region of Nigeria known as the Plateau - and "settlers" - Hausa Muslims from northern Nigeria and nomadic Fulani cattle herders who migrated or were forced to come to the region to work in tin mines during the period of British colonial rule.
Many of these migrants brought their culture, traditions and language to the area. Today, Hausa is the lingua franca in Jos, and many of the markets are dominated by Hausa traders.
Christian fears of Muslim domination, or another jihad like the 19th-century conquest by Usman Dan Fodio, seem to personally drive Gov Jang, who became an evangelical Christian after he retired from the air force as a one-star general in the early 1990s.
"They still think they can get [the Plateau region] back to Islamicise it," he said, referring to the "failure" of Dan Fodio's jihad to conquer the Plateau.
Although Gov Jang asserts that the crisis is not purely religious, he has been accused of perpetuating sectarian strife by denying Muslims from the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups rights that the Nigerian constitution guarantees them as citizens. His administration has allegedly denied positions in his government, treatment at public hospitals, and places in secondary schools for Muslim children.
Although the governor denies practising anti-Muslim discrimination, his government has repeatedly refused to grant its Hausa and Fulani residents "indigene" certificates, which are required in order to gain access to health care, state education, and other services.
Besides the governor, others appear to have an institutional stake in the conflict.
"Too many people are making too much money off of it," said a long-time resident of Jos, who detailed the ways in which the government, the military, and religious authorities benefit financially and otherwise from the ongoing insecurity.
To Hadjiya Khadija Gambo Hawaya, a Hausa Muslim women's leader, the use of religious differences to explain the conflict in Jos is a canard.
"This is madness," she said. "We must coexist peacefully ... the real problem is bad governance."
Some here recall a more peaceful time.
"Before, the Christians came [to celebrate with the Muslims] on salah and the Muslims came on Christmas," said Gumbo Adamu, a man from one of the "indigene" ethnic groups on the Plateau who is Muslim, making him a target for attacks from both communities.
Mr Adamu works on a farm outside of Jos that is next to a formerly mixed village that was attacked by armed Christians last year. The remaining residents say that all the Muslim houses were burnt and not a single Muslim person resides in the village.
"The pastors and the imams are causing this crisis," said Mr Adamu. "When this crisis is over we'll prosecute all of them."