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Nigeria as a Global Trouble Spot

Why should the world closely watch unfolding interfaith issues in Nigeria?

December 6, 2002

Why should the world closely watch unfolding interfaith issues in Nigeria?

By 2050, Nigeria might have a population of 300 million people. And it may have as much as half-a-billion by the end of the century. Plus, it is a huge oil producer.

Provided the state holds together — and that is an open question — a country of this size and wealth will assuredly be a major regional state, and possibly global power.

Much will depend on the way religious conflicts marring the country today — and in the future — will turn out.

Nigeria could become a Muslim super-state. Alternatively, it could fragment into two or three smaller entities, neatly defined by both religious and tribal identity.

Today, Nigeria is about equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Estimates of the exact balance vary. Some give Islam a 50-40 predominance.

Others suggest that each faith claims about 45% of Nigerians, with the remaining 10% following traditional religions. Complicating this picture is that the religious groups are not equally distributed.

The North of the country is chiefly Muslim. The East is largely Christian.

Thus, each group can aspire to impose its standards in the areas it controls. This distribution also means that — as in Sudan — religious allegiances coincide with ethnic, tribal and geographical loyalties.

Of the three major ethnic groupings, the Northern Hausa are solidly Muslim. Meanwhile, the Eastern Igbo are Christian, and the Yoruha are equally divided between the two faiths.

Muslim-Christian rivalries have often led to violence. In 1966, tens of thousands of Christian Igbos were massacred in the North, forcing survivors to flee to safe areas.

These events strengthened Muslim hegemony in the North — and reduced remaining Christians to clear minority status. Between 1967 and 1970, the Christian East tried unsuccessfully to secede from Nigeria, leading to a bloody civil war that claimed perhaps a million lives.

Although religion played an important part in the war’s detonation, the conflict was not a pure Muslim-Christian affair.

Christians made up perhaps half of the federal Nigerian army — and the federal leader was a distinguished lay Christian. But the destruction visited upon the secessionist East, in so-called Biafra, was a catastrophe for the country's Christian population.

The plight of Nigeria's Christian minorities under Muslim rule has always been difficult — and is deteriorating.

Local authorities in Muslim-dominated areas hinder the building or repair of churches, while actively sponsoring Islamic causes, like paying for pilgrimages and mosque-building.

In the 1990s, Muslims began imposing Sharia religious law over entire states. By 2001, nine of Nigeria's 36 states had imposed Sharia in whole or in part — and others were discussing the idea. Sharia prevailed in all the states along the nation's Northern border.

The spread of Sharia was owed to growing religious zeal. But it can also be seen as a symbolic statement of Muslim identity and tribal pride in a nation then governed by a Yoruba Christian president.

Nigerian Christians understandably fear the prospect of living under Sharia. This reform has many practical consequences for minorities, from the irritating — such as the elimination of alcohol — to the severely oppressive.

In extreme cases, non-Muslims might be subjected to the whole battery of Islamic civil, criminal and family law. Christians could suffer any of the physical punishments, floggings, and mutilations ordained by that tradition.

Under Sharia law, the religious activities of non-Muslims are severely constrained. Any kind of Christian evangelism is strictly prohibited, while apostasy from Islam leads to the death penalty.

The effects on gender relations are far-reaching, since women can face restrictions on their ability to move and work freely.

In the Muslim stronghold of Kano, a police purge in 2000 resulted in the arrest of several hundred people who had been seen talking to members of the opposite sex in public, leading to investigations for adultery or prostitution.

In one international cause célèbre in the northern state of Zamfara, a 17-year-old girl became pregnant before marriage. She was sentenced to 180 strokes of the cane, although the courts conceded that half that number would probably kill her.

In 2001, an interfaith crisis developed when a man in the Muslim-ruled province of Kano converted to Islam. He insisted that his daughters accept arranged marriages with Muslim husbands.

The daughters, who were both Christians, sought refuge with local Anglican clergy and lay families. The police then intervened, arresting the Christian helpers for kidnapping the girls — and further provoking a worsening political crisis.

In the words of the local Anglican bishop, "Life here is increasingly like living under a jihad." In the late 1990s, Nigeria experienced a new wave of communal riots and massacres that recalled the bloodbath of the 1960s. Tensions further escalated when Sharia was imposed.

In a few weeks in early 2000, some 2,000 people were killed in inter-communal rioting in the Muslim-dominated state of Kaduna.

In retaliation, several hundred Muslims were killed in eastern Christian towns. In a sequence of events reminiscent of the horrible 1960s, the remaining Muslims began an exodus from Christian states to their home regions, while Christians fled the North.

Equally troubling, Nigeria's religious conflicts are now spreading into neighboring countries like Niger. Over the past few years, they have experienced religious-based rioting for the first time ever.

In view of the post-September 11 global tensions between Muslims and Christians — not to mention between Muslims and Jews — the world should watch the developments in Nigeria closely.

One way or another, they might provide important lessons for how to resolve such tensions. Hopefully, the example will be a positive one.

Adapted from “The Next Christendom” by Philip Jenkins. Copyright 2002 by Philip Jenkins. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.