Reconciliation Possible in Nigeria

by David L. Johnston

It’s not that Nigeria is at war. But it does feel like that for many Nigerians, and especially the Christians.

I begin to write this blog as my students take their final exam. I’m here in Lagos at the West Africa Theological Seminary to teach a two-week intensive course on Islam. From what I hear from my Nigerian colleagues and students, the recent campaign of church bombings by Boko Haram in the north is reopening old wounds and leading many to revive the old mantra of secession.

The Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden,” or “a sacrilege”) phenomenon is fairly recent. Around 2002 a Salafi preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, started a school in the northeast state of Borno, an impoverished area, even by Nigerian standards. The word spread and soon children from many others parts of the north enrolled in his school, known for “its strict adherence to Islamic law.”

The emerging group was also known for its violent attacks, which continued, virtually unhindered in the north until 2009. By then, the Nigerian government had begun to investigate their activities and soon mounted a raid on their compound. In the course of the attack 700 Boko Haram members were killed and their leader was taken prisoner. He died shortly thereafter – “mysteriously” – in police custody.

Revenge and retaliation were soon the order of the day. Besides a number of attacks on police barracks, many of them targeted civilians, Muslims and Christians. On August 26, 2011, a Boko Haram member blew up the SUV he was driving into the fortified headquarters of the United Nations in the capital city, Abuja. The whole first floor was gutted. Twenty-three people lost their lives and seventy-six were injured. Ominously, this was taking terrorism to a higher, more sophisticated level.

What is troubling is that Boko Haram’s apparent strategy of fanning the flames of sectarian strife is beginning to work. Hundreds have died in such attacks, including Muslims too, as Christians begin to retaliate. On June 17th three churches in Kaduna State alone were bombed: the ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) church of Wusasa, the Catholic cathedral of Christ the King in Zaria, and a third at Shalom Church in Trikania.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) issued a statement two days later, indicating that this violence meant that Boko Haram “had declared war on Christians and Christianity in Nigeria.” It then went on to state, “The pattern of bombings and gun attacks suggests to us a systematic religious cleansing which reminds Christians of the genesis of a Jihad.”

Yet for all its bravado – and real capacity to deliver terror – Boko Haram is just a recent thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian Federal Republic. Many other challenges stand in the way of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims here. And it’s mostly not about religion. But first, we have to take a step backwards to look at the bigger picture.

“Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World”

John N. Paden, Clarence Robinson Professor of International Studies at George Mason University, taught for many years in Nigeria, and in 2008 wrote a fascinating book, Faith and Politics in Nigeria: Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. There are three main powers in Africa, he wrote. South Africa is mostly Christian. Egypt to the north is mostly Muslim. And in the middle you have Nigeria, containing the largest population of Christians and the largest population of Muslims. For that reason, it is “pivotal,” not only in Africa, but also in the wider Islamic world. If Muslims and Christians can work out their differences there, this can have repercussions elsewhere.

Of course, Nigeria is pivotal for other reasons. Their soldiers provide most of the manpower for peacekeeping missions run by the UN and the African Union. These have served in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a regional power as well, as it dominates the other states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, Nigeria is the fourth largest member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with the largest Muslim population after Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Egypt. Finally, Nigeria is a member of OPEC and the 7th largest producer of oil.

In 2005 Nigeria was considered a candidate for permanent membership on the UN Security Council; that same year Cardinal Francis Arinze from southern Nigeria was a possible candidate as the next pope, mostly because of his experience with Muslims.

But what about Muslim-Christian tensions? Having now seen Nigeria’s global reach and the potentially “contagious” paradigm of Muslim-Christian harmony, we must look at its history to understand the longstanding wounds and tensions.

A very brief history of Nigeria’s north-south relations

The British brought together north and south Nigeria as one entity in 1914, though in practice they managed the territory as two separate colonies. Under the Sultan of Sokoto in the north they allowed the region to be ruled by the traditional mix of local customs and shari’a law, while grooming the military elite from their ranks. The south, on the other hand was favored in terms of education and industrialization. The north, as a result, remained relatively impoverished. After World War II, with the advent of decolonization, the British and the Nigerians moved in the direction of unified country (unlike Rhodesia, which split into Zimbabwe and Zambia, for instance). Patten calls this a “fateful decision.”

To be fair, the British had also made an effort to reconcile the two regions, mostly by using the qur’anic paradigm of “the people of the book.” With time, it seemed that the northern rulers had absorbed this paradigm, and Christians and Muslims came to feel that they had more in common as followers of an Abrahamic faith than they had with the devotees of traditional African religion.

Despite several military coups and a controversial move by General Ibrahim Bagangida in 1986 to bring Nigeria into the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Nigeria’s federal structure stood the test of time – mostly thanks to a series of political measures designed to give equal power to the north and the south.

In 2000, however, a movement that had been in the making for a while, suddenly blossomed. Twelve northern states in all (out of a total of 36), with great fanfare, declared shari’a the law of their state. In practice, it only meant the establishment of shari’a courts which were to adjudicate cases of crimes specified in the Qur’an and Sunna – the hudud laws, or simply penal law.

In a chapter entitled “Politics and Sharia in Northern Nigeria,” from a 2007 edited book (Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi wrote this in 2007 about the aftermath of the “the shari’a affair”:

“Over a period of four years, the euphoria seems to have fizzled out. After the initial sensational sentences of amputations and caning, and even stoning to death (which was not carried out) the people have come to realize that nothing in reality has changed and that the poor seem to be the only ones facing the wrath of the law. There is now a focus on the real problems facing the people, and questions are being asked about good governance, competence, and genuine commitment to the welfare of the people” (185).

Sanusi, himself a Muslim, now Director of Nigeria’s Central Bank (my students pointed this out to me), continues with this thought, “The dialogue between Muslims and other Nigerians, as well as among Muslims, is ongoing.” One of the key questions to be discussed is this, he adds: “The role and limits of religion and religious laws in a liberal sense must be defined.”

Sanusi then goes on to describe the spectrum of Muslim views in Nigeria, from very conservative and unbending, to very open and secular. He then concludes in these terms:

“The reality of the world in which we live, the demands of women for greater freedom, the requirements of good governance, and increased awareness of the capacity of religious demagogues for mischief will all push the debate toward more secular areas and reduce the religious tension. Ultimately, improvements in Muslims’ understanding not just of the law but also of the meaning of citizenship and the importance of personal liberty, are crucial to the future of this debate. Only then will it become difficult to use religion as a divisive tool for the attainment of political ends” (186).

Certainly, these are values crucial for nurturing the fabric of any democratic society – citizenship, civil and religious freedom, government accountable to the people, etc. But can both sides leave behind past grievances and prejudice to work together on building this kind of nation?

Where to from here?

Bill Hansen, Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), in Yola (Adamawa State in the northeast), has worked at AUN for over twenty years. In March 2012 in a Sociology of Islam listserv I follow, he reacted pointed to a wider culture of violence, fanned by a government often inept at delivering basic service, plagued by corruption, and a long history of ethnic tensions and strife:

“Nigerian society – all of it, Muslim as well as Christian – has been victimized by a half century of unremitting venality, brutality and predation by a predatory political class. Some (many) people, faced with what seems to be the absolute failure of the bourgeois, post-colonial state and its alleged democratic institutions (sufficient primarily for extracting oil for the benefit of foreigners and rich Nigerians), seek and think they’ll find solutions in religious mysticism and some imagined 7th century political utopia they think they can (re)create.”

I certainly am no expert on Nigeria. Three two-week visits and some reading don’t count for much. Yet I was so heartened by the reaction of my Christian students while discussing Sanusi’s article, that I come away with the hope that enough Muslims and Christians at the grassroots will not only be reconciled, but also roll up their sleeves, work together to improve their country’s functioning at every level, and initiate a movement that will spread.

Three elements in that discussion gave me that hope:

  1. My teaching about “religion” as a complex phenomenon shaped by and constantly remolded by a people’s history, politics, culture, economic realities, and sociology, was finally sinking in.

  2. As a result, they were beginning to understand that not all Muslims conformed to their stereotypes – that Sanusi was also speaking for many Nigerian Muslims as well.

  3. They were embracing Jesus’ message of transforming initiatives to build reconciliation and peace (on this see my blog, “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace”).

My Christian and Muslim readers, can I ask you to pray earnestly, with faith, that God will bless Nigeria with peace and prosperity for all? And, by all means, if you personally can do something about it, please do it!