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Norbert Kößmeier {*}

Life on the Powder Keg

What are the Real Reasons for the Violent Conflicts in Nigeria?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2009, P. 583-588
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The recent outbreak of violence in the summer was the highpoint of a series of violent conflicts that have been shaking Nigeria for many years; conflicts that allegedly are religiously motivated, and yet are caused by the social, political and economic situation in the country. The Catholic Church enjoys great reputation in large portions of the population and tries to use this for dialogue and reconciliation among the religious communities.


When on 27 July several hundred armed members of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram attacked a police station and occupied a mosque in the four-million-capital Bauchi of the federal state of the same name in northern Nigeria, it looked initially as if it was a locally limited conflict. This group had repeatedly attempted to be allowed to spread its radical Islamic teachings in public demonstrations. However, the Government enacted each time a ban on demonstrations. When individual members were eventually arrested, the group took up arms.

Within a short time the conflict, which had begun in the Bauchi state, spread through the states Yobe, Kano and Borno. In various places Boko Haram attacked police stations and public institutions. In the capital of Borno State Maiduguri, where also the headquarters of this group was located, the violence was directed against the headquarters of the Police - simultaneously with the attack on the police station in Potiskum in Yobe State. Police units and elite troops finally stormed the headquarters of Boko Haram in Maiduguri. The leader Ustaz Mohammad Yusuf was arrested and, according to the version of the police, was shot when trying to escape from police custody. The official record of the wave of violence: more than 700 deaths, several thousand refugees, many destroyed houses, mosques, Christian churches and public institutions.



Nigeria's Taliban

This latest outbreak of violence in the name of religion in Africa's most populous country is the culmination of a series of violent conflicts shaking the country for years. It was only in November last year that, due to the local elections in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, 700 people were killed and scores of churches, houses and shops were destroyed in the course of violent clashes between Christians and Muslims. Triggered by the so-called Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper, in February 2006 in Maiduguri violent attacks on Christians took place, in the course of which more than a hundred people were killed and many churches destroyed.

Then, too, Boko Haram was already involved and inter alia set fire to the house of the Catholic Bishop Matthew Man-oso Ndagoso. Just a few days later armed Christians attacked Muslims in the south and east of the country in revenge for this violence. Owing to demonstrations against the planned "Miss World Contest", which was to take place in Nigeria, there was in 2002 an indescribable wave of violence in Kaduna in the course of which hundreds of people lost their lives. The year before there were in Jos violent clashes between Christians and Muslims that claimed over 1000 lives. In Nigeria there is a long list of violent conflicts, which are often committed in the name of religion. It is estimated that since the end of military dictatorship in 1999 in northern Nigeria more than 12,000 people have been killed in conflicts between religious communities.

And yet, the recent conflict in the north of the country has not only alarmed many observers but also religious leaders and state authorities, because it differs from others. Not members of other religions or ethnic minorities were the target of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. Initially it was a controversy within the Muslim community, which eventually led to attacks on the state.

Boko Haram (the name, which comes from the language of the Hausa and from the Arabic language, is translated "Western education is prohibited"), a grouping known also under the name "Al Sunna Wal Jamma" ("followers of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed"), sees itself as a champion of true Islam. Although in 1999 the twelve northern states of Nigeria introduced the Sharia law, according to Boko Haram's view the Islamization of the country does not go far enough. They want an Islamic theocracy. Boko Haram first complains that criminal law is not applied to all residents of the federal states but only to Muslims, and secondly, that the state system is so corrupted that politicians and the wealthy escape prosecution by the Sharia courts and even Sharia law cannot stop the widespread corruption.

This group, also known as the Nigerian Taliban, because several years ago it hoisted for a short time the banner of the Afghan Taliban when attacking a public building, at the same time demands the extension of Sharia criminal law to entire Nigeria. Koran schools are to be the only legitimate place for school education, and a westernized lifestyle is to be boycotted. One wants to banish the English language from school education; Arabic should be compulsory. Islam in Nigeria should also be cleansed of indigenous practices and ideas, so that the true Islam could flourish. The movement was founded in 2002 in the village Kanamma in Yobe State.


Alledged Struggle Against Atheism and Satanism

This violent riots of a group that sees itself as a champion of true Islam and does not shrink from fighting the State awakens terrible memories of a similar incident in northern Nigeria almost 30 years ago, which claimed the lives of several thousand people in Kano, Maiduguri and Kaduna: the so-called Maitatsine uprising. The Maitatsine movement saw itself as a Muslim renewal movement and was founded by Muhammadu Marwa, a preacher coming from Cameroon. Already during the British colonial rule he was conspicuous by his inflammatory sermons and was eventually deported back to his homeland.

Around 1970 he returned to Kano and gathered a large group of militant followers. Attacks on Muslim religious leaders were justified by the members of the movement by pointing out that those religious leaders would betray Islam. When finally in 1980 militant followers of the movement took violent action against Muslim leaders in Kano and also attacked a police station, the military intervened. Around 5000 people lost then their lives. The founder of the movement also died. But this did not mean the end of the riots. Followers of the movement who were able to flee began in the following years new riots in Kaduna and Maiduguri. Another 3,000 people were killed. In 1984 it came to new clashes in Yola with more than 1000 deaths, and 60,000 people were left homeless. Finally, the last uprisings of the Maitatsine movement were quelled in 1985 in Gombe.



Other Islamist movements with partially very militant supporters are widespread in northern Nigeria. In this context, e.g. the Darul Islam movement may be mentioned, but also the Muslim Brotherhood (called by the population "the Shiites"), which is led by Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky (trained in Iran) and in the past repeatedly made itself conspicuous by cruel violence, e.g. by beheading the Christian Gideon Akaluka in 1994 in Kano, who was accused of blasphemy.

This Muslim Brotherhood rejects democratic elections as demonic and opts for an Islamic revolution in order to overcome in this way "godlessness" and "Satanism" in Nigeria. Traditional institutions of Islam in Nigeria, as the Emirates, are rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood as corrupt. They are simply labeled as collaborators of the government. Police forces are also despised; because on the one hand they are corrupt, and on the other hand interspersed with infidels.

Currently, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky is on the defensive. Other fundamentalist movements that regard themselves also as Muslim revival movements but, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, have different ideas of an Islamic state and are in opposition to the movement of the Zakzaky Sunnis accuse him of his involvement in the founding of Boko Haram. In particular, the Izala movement ("Jama'at Izalatil Bidiawa Iqamatus Sunnah") - a Sunni movement against "negative innovations and for orthodoxy" - holds also "the Shiites" accountable for the violence in Maiduguri.


The Old Dispute on Sharia in Northern Nigeria

The rejection of other forms of government, even up to the use of force in order to overcome them, has historical examples in the Muslim community in Nigeria. The most significant example is the jihad of Usman dan Fodio, an Islamic scholar who lived from 1754 to 1817. He wanted to purify Islam, which came already in the 11th century to northern Nigeria, from popular beliefs and regarded jihad as necessary means in order to overcome the ruling dynasties of the Hausa people, since they did not follow the principles of Islam. Gradually, he conquered the kingdoms ruled by the Hausa people in the north of the country and established the Caliphate of Sokoto, which reached into the present-day Cameroon. Emirates were established within the caliphate. The emirs were the representatives of the Caliph in the various provinces. The Sultan was regarded as a political and religious ruler.

The British colonial rule bestowed relative autonomy upon this political system found in the north. It introduced the so-called "indirect rule": the protectorate was ruled with the help of the defeated rulers, the emirs of the Sokoto Caliphate. The traditional rulers were allowed to remain in office if they acknowledged the British authority. This in turn had consequences for the work of Christian missionaries, which at first began in the south and east of the country. Among other things, schools, hospitals and other institutions were established, and with it the foundations were laid for the development of the east and south.


Hopelessness and Lack of Prospects for the Youth

In the north missionary work was prohibited by the emirs. With it the different development in the country was programmed, and the North was pushed out into the cold. For the Muslim elite, Lord Frederick Lugard was the personification of Satan. As the representative of a Christian colonial power, he conquered the Muslim kingdom of Sokoto. This was an intolerable idea and simultaneously a humiliation for many Muslims in the north. Against this background, the British colonial power tried to intervene as little as possible in the power structures of the North, as long as its own objectives could be achieved. Despite all, however, a dual legal system was introduced. In civil matters the Sharia law continued to be valid, whereas the criminal law only allowed the fustigation. Till the present day, the dispute over Sharia law should continue to be a contentious issue in Nigeria that is independent since 1960.

The Islamist groups in the north of the country agree that an Islamic theocracy has to be established. However, they are at loggerheads about the concrete form of theocracy and also about the way there. For the "Shiites" it can only be reached by an Islamic revolution after the Iranian model.

About 50 per cent of Nigerians are Muslims, 40 per cent are Christians who belong to many denominations and sects. About 14 per cent of the population are Catholics. At the same time Nigeria is characterized by a variety of ethnic groups, which entails additional cause for conflicts. Conflicts always flare up, because larger ethnic groups want to dominate but also to discriminate smaller tribes, and often issues of land distribution, too, are cause of conflicts between different ethnic groups.

In particular in the north of the country religious borders run often along ethnic ones. In an interview with the magazine "Forum Weltkirche" Archbishop Man-oso Ndagoso from Kaduna emphasizes that the separation of religion and ethnicity is practically impossible in the northern part of the country. Hausa and Fulani, the dominant ethnic groups in the north, are tantamount to Islam. If someone converts to Islam from a different ethnic group, it is assumed that he does no longer belong to his own people and has therefore changed the ethnic identity.



Many Christians in the north of the country belong to ethnic minorities or came as traders or business people from the south or east to the north. The growing gap between the North (predominantly Muslim) and the better-off south or east of the country (mostly Christian) always causes new tensions. While in the southern parts of the country a fairly well developed infrastructure makes good education possible, approximately up to a million "Almajirai", i.e. students of the Koran are living on the streets of northern cities.

Under British colonial rule, the system of Koran schools was maintained in order not to destroy the social fabric of the Islamic North. While the children of the aristocracy were educated in elite schools, the majority of the rural population were only able to send their children to Qur'anic schools. These madrassas guaranteed the maintenance of the social structure in the Islamic society. The upper class regarded this system as guarantee of its power.

At the latest with the country's independence a secular education system has also been introduced in the north of. However, the state school system in the North has a bad reputation. As a result of oppressive poverty, above all the rural population cannot finance their children's education at private schools. In this context, the system of madrassas has once again gained importance. These schools are not subjected to state supervision. The religious students come often from distant areas to the cities and are taught by a teacher who has to be paid by them, whereas they have neither accommodation nor food. As a result, they live as beggar-children on the street. And these are the children and young people who are time and again instrumentalized by radical Islamists for their own purposes and who often play a crucial role in outbreaks of violence, such as in Maiduguri in 2006.

The inequality between the north and south of the country entails tremendous dynamite. Often only a minor trigger is needed in order to escalate the situation. The hopelessness and the lack of prospects for the youth in the north - especially the graduates have little chance to get an appropriate job in the north -, exacerbate the situation. Against this background, it is not surprising that - as an expression of their rejection of the prevailing system -, members of Boko Haram burned their higher-education diplomas in public.


The Ruling Elite has Brought the Country to the Brink of the Abyss

Although Nigeria obtains huge revenues by oil production - about 80 per cent of total government revenue -, it is the ruling elites alone who get the money.



Above all in the north, but also in the Niger Delta an improvement in the situation of the population cannot be noted. On the contrary. Poverty has worsened.

When in 1999 Olesegun Obasanjo was appointed as the first democratically elected president of the country after decades of military dictatorship, the hopes were initially high. However, the presidency began with massive political disputes between the northern states and the central government. The Sharia criminal law was soon introduced by twelve northern states. This was, inter alia, a demonstration of power against the new government. Under the new President, who is a "born-again Christian", the governors saw their influence wane, which they had exerted under the Muslim military dictators coming from the north. At the same time the corruption continued oppressing the country. And the ruling elite continued collecting the huge revenues from the oil business. And finally, Obasanjo did the country and democracy a disservice when he was crucially involved in massive ballot rigging of the election of his successor.

According to George Ehusani, the Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops' Conference until 2007, the ruling elite has thus brought the country to the brink of the abyss. In the civil society the credibility and acceptance of democracy dwindled. The political elite play through their reckless behaviour into the hands of the Islamists. In addition, the rejection of the state is to a large extent fostered by the system of impunity.

The Catholic Church, although a minority in Nigeria, is considered as an important voice of civil society and enjoys high esteem by large portions of the population, because during the military dictatorship she has, inter alia, boldly denounced human rights violations, injustice and violence. Regarding issues of democratization of the country, the bishops' conference has repeatedly criticized undesirable developments and stood up for the promotion of democracy. In a recent statement, she condemns the brutal violence of the Boko-Haram movement, but she holds the government because of its failure partly responsible for the conflict.

At the same time, the Catholic Church is trying on different levels to make an important contribution to peace and reconciliation through dialogue and by establishing friendly relations with Muslim religious leaders. When in 1999 Obasanjo took over the government, at the national level the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) was established with the support of the government. Members of this body are twenty five high-ranking religious leaders, each of the Muslims and Christians. This body is led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Mohammed Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslims (Sunnis) and the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan, who is also president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).

The Inter-religious Council meets four times a year in order jointly to promote the understanding between the major religious communities in the country, jointly to contribute to the de-escalation of conflicts between religious communities, ultimately to prevent conflicts, and to make thus an important contribution to building a more just and peaceful society. In a joint statement by the Sultan of Sokoto and the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, the brutal violence of the members of Boko Haram is condemned in the strongest terms. At the same time, both religious leaders emphasize that any attempt to divide the country along religious boundaries had to be condemned, and was in no way compatible with Islam and Christianity. All the religious leaders of the country are called upon to oppose any groups that preach violence and division in the name of religion.


The Inter-religious Council Meets Four times a Year

The influence of this body should not be underestimated, despite the violence repeatedly flaring up in the name of religion. The members jointly devote themselves to improving the situation of the population, whether in the field of health care, education or the fight against poverty. As a recognized body at national level, NIREC is conducting talks with government officials, both at federal and at the national level, in order to promote strategies for solving conflict issues.

In this context, the joint peace initiative by the Emir of Wase, Alhaji Haruna Abdullahi and the Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama is seen as a model. According to Archbishop Kaigama economic and social factors are responsible for crises and conflicts: "Religion is misused to enforce political or personal interests. Those who want to enforce selfish interests sow hatred between Christians and Muslims. That's why there are repeatedly riots." Together with the Emir of Wase he stands up against violence. According to the emir it is necessary to detect crises early. "It will calm the situation when the Catholic and Islamic leaders jointly appear in public."

Today in many regions committees existed in which representatives of the religions, the ethnic groups and politicians locally solved the conflicts. It was his shared vision with Archbishop Kaigama that people, inspired by their faith, devoted themselves to the societal progress.

missio - Internationales katholisches Missionswerk e.V. - referred to as "missio" for short, has in its this year's campaign for the month of World Mission under the title "Blessed are the peacemakers" focused on the exemplary commitment of the Church of Nigeria for peace and reconciliation.



It is necessary to support these exemplary initiatives in order to withdraw the dynamite from the powder keg Nigeria.

In recent weeks, security forces in Nigeria have begun to take a closer look at the activities of Islamic groups. Alarmed by the violence of the Boko Haram movement, security forces raided the headquarters of Darul Islam; they arrested 300 members who had come from the Niger and brought them out of the country. However, there is more needed than just an increased activity of the security forces in order to take the ground from under those movements. As long as there is grinding poverty in the country, massive corruption, and a system of impunity for the elites, Islamist movements will find a fertile ground for their agitation.


    {*} Norbert Kößmeier (born in 1962), studies in theology (principal focus on missiology) in St. Augustine and Sao Paulo, Brazil, since 1993 Speaker of Missio Aachen in the Archdiocese of Freiburg. Since 1999 he is also chief editor of the journal "Forum Weltkirche".


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