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Klaus Vellguth

Nigeria - Poverty and Religious Conflict


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 10/2009, P. 698-704
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The multi-ethnic state Nigeria is the focus of the campaign on the occasion of the World Mission Sunday, and on 24 October 2009 will end the Second African Synod in Rome started at the beginning of the month. KLAUS Vellguth, Professor of Mission Studies at the Philosophical-Theological College Vallendar outlines the situation in the West African country, which is characterized by extreme poverty, ethnic and religious conflicts.


In the Lineamenta for the Synod of African bishops held in Rome from 4th to 24th October 2009 Benedict XVI writes, "While it is true that Africa has lived a long and sad history of exploitation at the hands of others, it must also be stated that this situation did not end with decolonization. It still endures today." {1} Nigeria is a country suffering under the burden that was imposed on it by the border lines fixed by the colonial powers. The West African country is the focus of the German campaigns of World Mission Sunday, which the Catholic Church around the world celebrates this year on 25 October 2009.


A State of Many Nations

Nigeria is a multi-national state, which is composed of more than 400 people and is with 144 million inhabitants the most populous country in Africa. It borders in the west to Benin, in the north to Niger and Chad, and in the east to Cameroon. The social situation of the country is characterized by extreme poverty. The average life expectancy is 45 years. Within the boundaries drawn by the British, there is a surprising variety of ethnic groups speaking 248 different languages {2}. The majority of Nigerians belongs to one of the three major ethnic groups: the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Due to the ethnic heterogeneity of the country Nigeria is often referred to as a country composed of many nations, which has still its path to unity. The Anglican Bishop of Akure Emmanuel Gbonigi writes therefore in view of his homeland:

"We are not a nation. Nigeria is not a nation. It is a country, made up of many nations. The Yoruba is a nation. The Hausa is a nation. The Fulani is a nation. The Gwari is a nation. The Edo is a nation. The Igbo is a nation - so many nations! But when they put all of us together; we become a country, made up of many nations." {3}

In addition to the ethnic heterogeneity Nigeria is also moulded by divergent religious beliefs of the population. However, it is difficult to establish valid figures on the religious composition of the Nigerian society, because it is forbidden already since decades to collect data on the religious and ethnic affiliation of the population in the context of official censuses.



The last census that still included such information was conducted in 1963. At that time, the proportion of the Muslim population was 47 and that of the Christian population 35 per cent, whereas 18 per cent were attributed to other religions. In current estimates one assumes that the population distribution has shifted in favour of Islam: The share of Muslims is estimated at 50 per cent, the percentage of Christians at 40 per cent and that of the followers of other religions indicated at ten per cent. The majority of Nigeria's Muslims are Sunnis (70 per cent). The Shiites are mainly living in the Sokoto region.

Islam was introduced already in the 11th century in the kingdom of Bornu, which lay in the southwest of Lake Chad, and spread from the 12 century onwards to the west, where some smaller Hausa city-states accepted the Islamic religion. In the early 14th century, during the time of Mansa Musa, the leader of the Mali Empire, Islam eventually reached the Yoruba tribe in Southwest Nigeria. In the context of the so-called Fulani Jihad at the beginning of the 19th century the scholar Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) conquered further Hausa states and advanced far into the north of Cameroon. Parts of the north and the "middle belt" of Nigeria, too, came under the influence of Islam.

The southern part of Nigeria looks back on a separate history of religion that was not affected by Islamization. The proclamation of the Christian faith by European missionaries had first only a moderate effect there, but later Christianity was spread by freed Christianized slaves with much greater success. These "emancipated slaves" returned from America via Freetown (Sierra Leone) to Africa and spread their new faith in the old home country. The Christian mission therefore took place along the returnee routes of the freedmen.


Unity in Religious Heterogeneity

Right up to the present day Nigeria is characterized by its ethnic and religious heterogeneity. But even if the confrontation of Christianity and Islam at first glance provokes irreconcilable contradictions, there appear, notwithstanding all the differences, amazing parallels in the religiosity of Muslims and Christians of the country. This is impressively proved by the Religion Monitor 2008, which has also compiled the data for Nigeria {4}.

At the time of its investigation 52 per cent of the respondents expressed their commitment to Christianity and 48 per cent to Islam. Although these results slightly differ from the current estimates of the denominational structure in the country, they reflect the almost equal presence of the two majority religions in the country.



The data show that Nigeria, in comparison with the other 20 countries where the survey was conducted in parallel, can be regarded as the country with the most distinctive religiosity. "The country seems thoroughly saturated with religion, and these figures confirm the widely held dictum that Africans are 'by nature' religious." {5}


Abused Religion

Although with regard to its strength (e.g. the belief in life after death) the religion of Nigeria's Muslims and Christians has on the one hand surprisingly strong parallels, the country is on the other hand time and again shaken by conflicts that seem to be religiously motivated. In his analysis of the results of the Religion Monitor 2008 on the situation in Nigeria Klaus Hock therefore notes, "If religion gets into the tug-of-war between different political interests it is an excellent means ... to mobilize and agitate the members of the other faith community." {6} The Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, too, emphasizes:

"Politicians and others know, if you want to reach the soul of a Nigerian then use religion. If people want to capture attention, then religion is the simplest means to do so." {7}

This view is shared by Archbishop Kaigama's friend, the Emir of Wase, Alhaji Abdullahi Maikano Charudes, who adds in unison, "They give the whole a religious note, in order to hide their political agenda behind it." {8}

In fact, the fierce conflicts of the 80's, especially when there were numerous riots in northern Nigeria had initially no specific religious background. It was an "explosive mixture of economic, political, social, ethnic and religious factors that in certain situations escalated the internal social conflicts and led to an explosion of violence." {9} When in 1999 in twelve of 19 states of Northern Nigeria the Islamic law, Sharia law was introduced, a religious dress was slipped on the various social conflicts of the country.


Protests against Sharia

The Christians from the North and the other non-Muslims who live in these states feel intimidated by the introduction of Sharia law and deprived of their rights. The discrimination often begins at the public provision of water, electricity and roads, with which the Christians are disadvantaged.



The access to the media is also made difficult for the Christians. For example, Radio and television companies e.g. cut down the Christians' broadcasting time. Christian advertising is totally rejected. Furthermore, under the pretext that the land was needed for road construction or other public interests Christian churches are confiscated and demolished. In such cases neither resettlement nor compensation for the destroyed churches is offered. Moreover, in many regions landed property is denied the Christians. In response to the introduction of Sharia and the violence associated with it, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria raises its voice and denounces the injustice:

"Many Nigerians feel that their rights are being infringed upon where the Sharia law has been imposed as state law. Because of Sharia law, thousands have been forced to relocate from their places of abode and work at great cost and loss to themselves. Many others, indigenes of these states, have nowhere to relocate to. Others suffer in silence because they are too poor to relocate or powerless to seek legal redress. We regard this imposition of Sharia law as state law grossly irresponsible and unacceptable." {10}

In addition, the bishops regard the Sharia law as a threat to Nigeria's national unity. They consider it necessary to convene a National Conference, which is based on a true federalism, in order to begin a joint dialogue that can contribute to the unity of the nation. In clear terms the bishops demand:

"In the effort to bring about a more democratic climate and build national unity on the basis of a true federalism, a national conference may prove helpful. Such a conference will succeed only if it is representative of all the people, from all parts of Nigeria, men and women, rich and poor, and not another assembly of leaders who have already tried and failed to rebuild the nation. We are convinced that true federalism would recognize diversity in unity, the right of every Nigerian to reside and work in any and every part of Nigeria." {11}

But not only the Catholics oppose the Islamization of the Nigerian law {12}. In response to the introduction of Sharia in the northern states in July 2000 in Lagos a summit meeting of the Pan-Igbo Association (Ohaneze Ndigbo), the Pan-Yoruba Association (Afanifere) and the Association of the Niger Delta took place. In its press statement it says, "As long as the Sharia issue is not resolved, this country will not live in peace. Under such circumstances neither a development nor a lasting democracy is possible in this country." {13}



Societal Challenges

Though today the conflicts in Nigeria are often disguised as religious ones, they have quite different causes. These are to be looked for at the latest in the 19 century, when the European powers 125 years ago at the Berlin Congo Conference (which began on 15 November 1884) fixed the frontiers of Africa with a ruler. The agreement was not oriented towards ethnic conditions but solely to Europe's determination to achieve hegemony. The then established ethnic heterogeneity becomes time and again virulent when the social differences lead to social tensions.

That's why between the members of the different ethnic groups in Nigeria prejudices emerged which have grown yet in the course of Nigeria's common history, especially in times of social crisis. For example, the Igbo-speaking Nigerians are today suspicious of the rest of the country; this is due to the Biafra war that has shaken the country between 1967 and 1970. The people of the Yoruba is up to this day partly filled with bitterness about the events at the 1993 elections, which were subsequently canceled and, from the point of view of the Yoruba, followed by persecution and marginalization of the Yoruba people. And the people in the so-called "Middle Belt" feel marginalized and at best as a disregarded appendage of the country. The people of the Niger Delta, which has vast oil resources, complain that they were robbed of their land and the rich mineral resources, which are often exploited by foreign companies. The Muslim Hausa and Fulani in northern Nigeria in turn protest against the spread of Christianity in their region, which they wish to maintain as a traditional Muslim territory.

This multi-faceted, immense potential for conflict is even increased by the fact that poverty is growing in the country. In 1990 already 33 per cent of Nigerians lived below the poverty line, whereas until now the proportion of the impoverished population has more than doubled, and so in 2008 70 per cent live in poverty. At the same time in the country a minority arose, which attained extreme wealth - mainly because of state revenue in the oil business. The younger generation is above all affected by the social tensions: About 60 percent of young people are unemployed. Due to their precarious life situation many people show a high propensity to violence, many turn to crime. Moreover, the living together of Nigeria's different ethnic groups is poisoned by bribery and corruption. In 2005 the bishops have therefore called for prayer against bribery and corruption in Nigeria and are going straight to the heart of the social problem when they this year openly take a stand on it:



"Corruption and theft of public funds, which have largely remained unabated despite our call for prayers, have brought our country to its knees. This is noticeable, for example, in the collapse of infrastructure in the land, in the lack of basic amenities, and in the increasing number of unemployed, in the ever-rising crime wave." {14}


The Church as Leaven of Peace

The clashes threatening to split Nigeria are less religious differences than conflicts over access to economic resources, social participation and political power. A look at the religious and social situation in the country shows that religion can be abused in a multi-ethnic state like Nigeria to cover up social conflict and to radicalize the population {15}. But the religiosity of the population is also an opportunity to bring peace to this heterogeneous country. This conclusion is also shared by Klaus Hock in his analysis of the results of the Religion Monitor 2008:

"Generally speaking, it depends on the socio-economic and political context into which forms of social practice apocalyptic ideas are transformed. Their dynamic mobilization potential can lead to political radicalization - but also to spiritualization and internalization, which may even give decisive impulses to overcome intractable conflicts within society." {16}

George Ehusani, long-standing head of the secretariat of the Nigerian bishops' conference, sees a peace-building potential in the interreligious dialogue in Nigeria. He then primarily addresses the leaders of the Catholic Church and emphasizes:

"Looking at the Second Synod for Africa the Nigerian church should address all Nigerians with its proposal to practise forgiveness. The church must be a pioneer in the peace process and in rebuilding our nation. Every Christian in Nigeria should be supported in taking his/her share of responsibility, in this way we will overcome the burden of old antipathies, divisions and violence. Church leaders could create mechanisms for this purpose and set landmarks; then all the different nations in Nigeria will recognize that our history has brought us together as a family with a common destiny: We are to create the structural conditions for a common life and for working in peace. As a necessary good example we must also within the church succeed in administering justice. The church leaders are responsibly to fulfil their leadership function; they are to refrain from any form of nepotism and ethnic bigotry. The values and ideals preached by them must be visible in their deeds. They become thus the midwives for a fairer and more peaceful Nigeria." {17}



With a view to the Second African Synod held in this month the Archbishop of Kaduna, Matthew Manoso Ndagosohas made similar comments:

"The topic of the Synod for Africa ... reminds us that God has established us as a church, so that we may be the visible sacrament of redeeming unity for all people. In addition, as the sacrament of unity the topic challenges us to bear witness in our life to the Gospel by revealing to the world God's power in Christ to tear down all barriers, whether of ethnic, religious or political nature ... And that we in a country like ours, which is plagued by conflict and divisions, are called and challenged jointly to bear witness to reconciliation, justice and peace." {18}

The challenge to the Church in Nigeria can be formulated in simple words, which can be implemented, however, usually only in very small steps, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Mt 5, 9).



{1} Synod of Bishops, II Special Assembly for Africa, The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace: "You are the salt of the earth You are the light of the world" (Mt 5, 13-14). Lineamenta (Vatican City 2006) 14.

{2} See M. Chukwama, Nigerian Politics and the Role of Religion (Bonn 1985) 39.

{3} E. Gbonigi, The Interview with the Anglican Bishop of Akure Diocese in Nigeria, in: Daily Sun, 31.12.2008.

{4} Religionsmonitor 2008, edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung (Gütersloh 2008).

{5} K. Hock, Die Allgegenwart des Religiösen: Religiosität in Nigeria, in: Woran glaubt die Welt? Analysen u. Kommentare zum Religionsmonitor 2008, edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung (Gütersloh 2009) 279311, 282.

{6} In the same place 304.

{7} Quoted from B. Tibutzy, Selig, die Frieden stiften, edited by missio (Aachen 2009) 9.

{8} Quoted from the dame place.

{9} Hock (note 5) 281.

{10} Communique issued at the end of the first plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in 2001, held at Pope John Paul Catholic Centre in Abudja from 5th to 19th March, edited by CBCN Publications (Abudja 2001).

{11} See in the same place.

{12} Publications of the Hudson-Institute assume that Sharia crisis cost more than 60000 lives, the majority of them Christians.

{13} See Tell Newspaper (Lagos), 24.7.2000, 26.

{14} Communique issued at the end of the first plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in Abudja, 9.-14. March 2009, edited by CBCN Publications (Abudja 2009).

{15} See B. J. Soares, Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa (Leiden 2006).

{16} Hock (note 5) 303.

{17} G. Ehusani, Frieden u. Versöhnung in Nigeria, in: Selig, die Frieden stiften (note 7) 6.

{18} M. Man-oso Ndagoso "Uns ist das Wort der Versöhnung anvertraut", in: Forum Weltkirche 128 (2009) issue 4, 23-27, 27.


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