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Religious Conflict in Nigeria

January 26, 2009


Nigeria is a country blessed (or as many believe cursed) with oil. It is a major supplier to the United States and over the years it should have banked a bunch of money and established itself as the economic king of the African continent. For a number of reasons that has not happened. Foremost among those reasons is corruption. Close behind is religious tension that threatens to divide Africa’s most populous nation [“The Muslims and Christians of Jos,” The Economist, 6 December 2008 print edition]. As the sub-heading of that article states, “The government of Africa’s most populous country is slow to stem violence,” and that’s a problem. The article concentrates on recent events in the town of Jos, the Capital of Plateau State and a city surrounded by beautiful hills. The ironic thing is that Plateau State calls itself “The Home of Peace and Tourism” in Nigeria.” Recent violence (last November) may have changed all that.

“The Katako market was still smouldering five days after it was razed to the ground by a mob of Christian youths. The bodies of ten people trapped in the fires that destroyed it had already been taken away and buried. Muslim men kicked up plumes of dust as they shuffled through the ashes of their stalls, which a week earlier had numbered more than 5,000. A dirty young man searched through a pile of blackened onions, picking out those that were not inedibly charred. A few hundred yards away, students and teachers at an Augustinian monastery were also sorting through wreckage. Their monastery had been attacked on the same day, just 30 minutes later, by a group of Muslim youths. The monk in charge narrowly escaped death when a Molotov cocktail thrown into his tiny room happened to land in the toilet. The central Nigerian city of Jos is still assessing how much damage was done in the course of three days of destruction that began on November 28th, when what began as protests over local-government elections quickly took on a lethal sectarian character. At least 300 people died, 7,000 were displaced and many businesses, churches and mosques destroyed. A curfew remains in place, with dozens of army and police checkpoints.”

Unfortunately, this is not a new storyline in Africa or in Nigeria. Poverty and lack of employment give young people (mostly young men) plenty of time to consider their plight and look for someone against whom they can strike out. Those of a different faith have historically been good targets.

“Exactly who started the violence is unclear. On the other hand, everyone in Nigeria is familiar with the fierce animosities that exist between the various religious groups in Jos. The town is situated in the so-called ‘middle belt’, between Nigeria’s largely Muslim northern half and its predominantly Christian south—and thus has a pretty mixed population. And like other such cities, Jos has a history of ethnic and religious tension that has often boiled over. Similar incidents in 2001 and 2004 left thousands dead.”

Before dismissing the troubles in Jos as an “African” problem, I must remind you that the mixed religious population in the former Yugoslavia experienced similar tension that led to a civil war. The tensions there have not disappeared and may again lead to conflict (for more on that subject read my post Bosnia and the Challenge of Fake States). Had oil brought prosperity to Nigeria, religious differences (especially in mixed communities) might have been overlooked as people spent more time improving their lives than wondering why they were mired in poverty. Oil revenues, however, have not trickled very far down the economic ladder as a result of corruption and incompetence.

“Many say the federal and state governments could have done more to prevent the killings. Local polls were a probable flashpoint. Elections in Nigeria are often violent and crooked affairs and in Jos there had been no local elections since the country’s military rulers gave way to democracy in 1999. Local officials wield enormous power all over Nigeria, often determining who can get college graduation diplomas, business forms and, most contentiously, papers indicating who is an ‘indigenous citizen’ in a particular area. So the stakes are high. It was the declaration of victory in Jos for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, widely perceived as a mainly Christian party, that set off the chain of events that led to the violence. Backers of the defeated All Nigeria People’s Party, a mainly Muslim Hausa outfit, protested that the vote had been rigged. Even after the mayhem began, the authorities’ response was slow. In most of the areas with widespread violence, the police did not show up for several hours and in some places did not arrive until the next day. Many residents say that when police and soldiers did eventually arrive, they used excessive force, sometimes shooting indiscriminately into crowds. Army officials have blamed such incidents on impostors dressed in makeshift fatigues.”

In countries with underdeveloped infrastructures, the adage “out of sight, out of mind” is often the guiding political principle. Nestled among the hills and far from the sea where most of Nigeria’s oil and money are located, Jos doesn’t capture many headlines. The Nigerian president didn’t even bother to make a trip there following the violence.

“The president, Umaru Yar’Adua, added to his reputation for underreacting to events by not even going to Jos after the violence, though it is only a three-hour drive from the federal capital, Abuja. Instead, as his envoy, he sent the minister of labour, who arrived after dark and left long before the sun rose the next day.”

The tragedy of Jos, which by all accounts could be a lovely tourist destination, is that it now has much in common with Sarajevo.

“Forgiveness and reconciliation in Jos will be hard. The balkanisation of this city of 500,000-plus people that began in 2001 with a first round of religious violence will become starker after this latest bloodshed. Muslim businessmen will find it harder to rebuild shops in mainly Christian districts and Christian home owners will struggle to persuade their families to resettle in mainly Muslim areas. Since democracy was restored in 1999, most of northern Nigeria’s Muslim states have introduced sharia law. That prompted many thousands of Christians to migrate to other states. Increasingly, it seems, Christians and Muslims find it difficult to live alongside each other in a country of 140m-odd people.”

The introduction of sharia law is not a good sign that reconciliation is just around the corner. A stable country requires the rule of law (not the rule of different laws). In one form or another, ethnic and/or religious cleansing is taking place in many places around the globe. In the United States there are areas where certain religions dominate. The difference in America, however, is that even in areas where a particular religion is dominant other religions are tolerated or even embraced. In areas poisoned by ethnic or religious cleansing, tolerance is replaced by hatred and violence. That is what is now occurring in Nigeria. The Economist‘s article concludes with a tragic example of what is going on.

“At an internet café in one of the few shops still open in Jos, a businessman sitting at a computer doing research had an idea for how to avoid future outbreaks of violence. Every man, woman and child in Nigeria, he said, should own and know how to use a gun. Then events like the recent fighting wouldn’t happen, he said. And what was he researching? How to purchase, operate and dismantle an AK-47. He said he already had seven guns at home, including five pump-action shotguns. An AK was next on his wish list.”

The age of oil won’t last forever. That means that Nigeria has a limited amount of time to salvage its future by wisely investing its oil revenue. As I continually preach, economic development goes hand-in-hand with security and stability and Nigeria’s bright future lies beyond a horizon now filled with violence, hatred, mistrust, and corruption. It’s not too late to make a difference, but the sun is beginning to go down in Nigeria.

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