Blair urges Nigerians to ‘push back’ against extremism

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ABUJA (AFP) – British ex-prime minister Tony Blair said Thursday Nigerians should push back against extremists carrying out a deadly Islamist insurgency as he launched an initiative on Muslim-Christian relations.

Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds in Nigeria since 2009, including in a series of attacks on Christians, in an insurgency the group says is partly aimed at creating an Islamic state in the country’s north.

“These groups can only operate if the environment in which they operate is not pushing them back all the time,” Blair told journalists when asked about Boko Haram.

A population that is hostile to extremism can serve as a “counterweight” to violent radicals, he added.

Blair travelled here with the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to launch an initiative aimed at easing religious rivalries in Africa’s most populous country.

Nigeria’s 160 million people are roughly split between the mainly Christian south and mostly Muslim north but many areas are religiously divided, with most people co-existing peacefully.

Violence linked to ethnic and religious tensions not connected to Boko Haram has however killed thousands in recent years.

The latest unrest came Thursday in a town near the north’s largest city, Kano, where four people were killed and a church burnt after rumours spread that a Christian trader had blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed.

“Understanding and respecting different faiths is central to securing sustainable peace,” Blair said in launching the initiative organised by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

The incoming archbishop said he first visited Nigeria 34 years ago and has made 70 visits since, adding he was “both challenged and profoundly excited” by the opportunity to help foster peace in Nigeria.

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