Religious tensions in Nigeria

Thomas Reese
Half-Christian, half-Muslim, Nigeria is a country where faiths must live together in peace or they will die in great numbers. Africa is often ignored in the America media, but Boko Haram has put it on the front page with its kidnapping of children and savage killings. But Nigeria is important for other reasons. With almost 180 million people, Nigeria is one of the most populous countries in the world. It has a larger population than Russia. It is also a major exporter of oil. A troubled Nigeria means trouble for all of Africa.

I will be traveling to Nigeria this week as part of a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Any views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the commission. Nigeria is considered a country of particular concern by USCIRF because of recurring sectarian violence and escalating interfaith tensions. "While the Nigerian federal government does not engage in religious persecution," the commission says, "it fails to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop terrorism or sectarian violence and does not bring to justice those responsible for such violence." Our mandate is to examine interfaith relations and the degree of religious freedom in the country, but problems for religious freedom do not occur in a vacuum. They always take place in a historical, political and economic context.

Commentators on Nigeria often speak of the Muslim north and the Christian south, but it is more complex than that. There are Christians and Muslims in all parts of Nigeria. Southeast Nigeria is overwhelmingly Igbo and Christian. But the southwest is mainly composed of the Yoruba ethnic group, which is made up of Christians and Muslims who have lived together for the most part peacefully. Some believe it is more peaceful because it is the most developed economically. Others note that faith and practices of both Christians and Muslims in the southwest retain aspects of their traditional religion. The north is Muslim and mostly from the Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups. As traders and herders, they have played a dominant role in Nigerian history and politics. They often preyed on other groups as part of the slave trade and would have conquered all of Nigeria if they and their horses and camels had not been struck down by disease as they moved south. Since the slave traders were Muslim, those who were preyed upon found Christianity an attractive alternative to their oppressor's religion. Thus from the very beginning, religious and political conflict were overlapping. And in the middle belt across the center of Nigeria, the Muslims were herders and the Christians were farmers, which led to the kind of conflicts that Americans saw between farmers and cattle ranchers in the Old West.

Climate change is adding to the conflict, pushing the herders father south each year as the desert gobbles up the rangelands. It is estimated that the Sahel expands southward 1,400 square miles a year. Overgrazing and poor farming techniques make matters worse. Onto all of this is poured oil. Nigeria is a petro state: Practically all of its foreign currency and most of its budget come from oil. On the positive side, this has provided money to divvy up among various ethnic groups. On the negative side, it has led to corruption and dependency. Everyone's talent is directed at getting more of the petro pie rather than into other forms of business and development. As a result, a drop in oil prices, as has occurred recently, can be catastrophic. But there is good news. Nigeria has just had an election that will result in its first democratic transfer of power.

All the experts were predicting major violence and riots no matter who won, but little actually occurred. Perhaps Nigeria was saved from violence by the fact that the results were overwhelming in favor of the Muslim candidate, Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who beat the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. If the results had been close, accusations of cheating by both sides could have resulted in violence. In addition, Jonathan had the grace to concede as soon as the results were clear and to congratulate the winner and acknowledge him as the new president. Buhari not only got Muslim votes, but also votes from Christians who were fed up with the incumbent's corruption and inability to stop Boko Haram. They found the idea of a president with military experience attractive, even though he had once led a coup. In addition, Buhari is acknowledged by everyone as an honest man, probably the only president without millions of dollars.

Nigerian politics have been tumultuous. For 20 years prior to 1999, it was run by military generals from the north. Five of the eight generals had been Muslim. With the return of democracy in 1999, Nigeria has had a complicated federal system of government with numerous rules and traditions aimed at tamping down religious and sectional conflict. For example, political parties nominate as president and vice president people from different religions and parts of the country. Thus, balancing Buhari from the north is a vice president who is from the south and not only a Christian, but also a minister. Nigeria is in the midst of a transition from one government to another. They are also attempting to stomp out Boko Haram, which appears to be on the run but will be difficult to destroy. While it may lose its control over territory, it can easily revert to being a secretive urban and rural terrorist organization. In the long run, Nigeria needs better education and more economic development outside the oil sector.

But the drop in oil prices means that government budgets will be slashed at a time when everyone is hoping for new actions from the new government. Whether Buhari will be able to bring peace, efficiency and less corruption to Nigeria remains to be seen. He will be up against elites who have done well under the old system. Upsetting the status quo could lead to more conflict in the short run, and in the middle section of the country, that can mean religious conflict as well.

13 maggio 2015
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