Two isolated events took place in two different locations in Nigeria. Both speak to the distorted landscape that has turned Nigeria into a hellhole of sorts. First was the brutal murder of our Seminarian, Michael Nnadi in the inner recesses of the dark forests along the now infamous Abuja-Kaduna road on February 1st, 2020. Two days earlier in Abuja, a mild drama played out in the hallowed Chambers of the Federal House of Representatives. There, a Member, Mr. Ado Doguwa, a Federal Legislator turned the hallowed chambers of the House into a theatre of the absurd.
Upon being recognised to speak by the Speaker of the House, Honourable Doguwa, Majority Leader in the House, used the time allocated to him to introduce his four wives whom he said he had transported all the way from Maiduguri, the epicenter of Boko Haram attacks, to the Members of the House. He then went on to shock his fellow Members and the Nigerian public by saying: You call me a powerful man in this House, but I want to prove to you that I am also powerful at home. These my four wives have produced 27 children for me and I am still counting.
Nigeria’s protracted history of violence along the fault lines of religion can be understood against the backdrop of different trajectories. Although the popular media focus has often been on the sharp fault lines between Christians and Muslims, it is important to note that many of the issues are buried in the womb of the nation’s rather convoluted history, which a short essay of this nature cannot capture.
In a recent publication, the British scholar and former Senior Adviser at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Ian Linden, Emirs, Missionaries and Empire, built a most fascinating historical account of the conflict between the Missionaries who worked in Northern Nigeria and the British colonial officers. Dr. Linden masterfully laid out the nature of the intrigues, the power play and the diplomacy between primary project of empire building, the raison d’etre of the colonial state and the missionary activities in northern Nigeria. Although the story is woven around the work of Walter Miller, a remarkable Englishman, it opens a window through the foundation for understanding the culture of conflict that has been built into Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria.
When we speak about Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, we often do not pay attention to the variegated nature of the identities and the underlining issues of ethnicity, ideology and social class for example. Northern Islam presents a face of uniformity and the dominant Sunni and Hausa-Fulani identities hides the tensions that exist within the major Brotherhoods(Tijaniya and Kadiriya), the anti-Sufi and Shi’ites who constitute a significant minorities. These tensions exist and they are real, they influence political loyalties and economic cleavages. There is also the often ignored Yoruba Muslims of the South West whose moderation is informed by their high levels of education and exposure.
Although similar differences exist among Christians, however, unlike the Muslim community, the differences within Christianity never spill over to violence. Indeed, the so called Christian-Muslim tensions emerged in the late 80s and 90s in response to the pressures from military rule where religion became the most viable outlet for ventilating opposition against the military. The domination of power by the northern Muslim elite , its inability to turn politics into a force for modernity and development, the tendency towards privileging Islam and northerners have tended to trigger resentment among the Christians.
The story of the northern Muslim member of the House above is indicative of the popular perception about why the north and Islam have been seen as a source of crisis and conflict in Nigeria. For a region which contributes almost next to nothing in taxes or resources to the national coffers, other Nigerians, here, Christians, feel that the state’s resources are being wasted in servicing the appetite of an unproductive elite. The size of the family of Mr. Dorungwa is a metaphor for the crisis of huge population of illiterate youth in northern Nigeria where we have a staggering number of over 13 million street children!
It is therefore impossible to understand the complex situation that has turned Nigeria into a cauldron of pain and suffering without appreciating the implication of northern Muslim domination of power and its consequences for national cohesion in Nigeria. It is not surprising that things have come to a head in the Buhari Presidency.
Buhari, a retired General had always been seen as a religious bigot among non-Muslim Nigerians. Even within the north itself, his appeal was largely to the poor people on the margins of society whose illiteracy and poverty predisposes them to a layer of messianic expectation about the possibility of a return of the old caliphate which the British overthrew in 1903. It is easy to understand why the killing of Osama Bin Laden will elicit a response that would lead to the killing and destruction of the properties of Christians. It is easy to see why the killing of El-Baghdadi would lead to the recent brutal murder of 11 Christians and the prominent leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN in Adamawa State.
These sporadic outburst of violence against Christians hitherto, derived from the feeling that Christianity came with the colonial state and that the west is Christian, therefore Nigerian Christians share the same goal and ambitions as the West. Sadly, a secular west now poses even a bigger problem for Christianity in this age of global Islamic extremism. The circumstances that led to the gruesome murder of Seminarian Michael feed into this narrative of an anti-Christian culture that has become embedded in northern Islam.
Young Muslim children are daily under the tutelage of poor and unlettered Muslim clerics who see secular democracy as a threat to the supremacy of Islam. Years of anti-Christian prejudice have fed into the bureaucracy and permeated almost every stratum of civic life. Denial of places of worship for Christians, denial of scholarship to Christian children born in the northern states, outlawing of the teaching of Christian Religious Education have all accumulated in the psyche of Muslim children over the years. It is the children of yesterday brought up and indoctrinated against Christianity, modernity, and democracy that have become part of the army of Boko Haram other terrorist cells today. The reader can appreciate why the name Boko Haram—Western education is forbidden—itself has come to define this culture.
Nigerian Christians are facing grave persecution in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. Nigeria has become a land of terror with Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa (ISIS-WA) and other home grown and global terror cells spreading in the country. This lawlessness and bloodletting have continued unabated because Nigeria is presently plagued by a failed and complicit federal government with a clear supremacist Islamic agenda, the brand of which has never been seen in Nigeria before. While the complex religious divide in Nigeria cannot simply be reduced to persecution of Christians by Muslims, we think that this rising persecution is presently the most visible manifestation of the worst aspects of our religious divides.
Studies by such Charities like Open Doors, Oxfam, Aid to the Church in Need, Save the Children continue to provide grim statistics about the situations of poverty and illiteracy in Nigeria. In 2019, things have gotten worse for Christians in Nigeria, according to Open Door’s 2019 report reviewed in Christianity Today. Open Door tallied that 3,731 Nigerian Christians were killed because of their faith, almost double the 2,000 deaths the year before—and comprising 9 in 10 of all the World Watch List’s reported martyrdoms worldwide. Open Doors also cited 569 attacks on Nigerian churches and 29,444 attacks on homes and shops, compared to 22 and 5,120 the year before, respectively. The charity also noted that the reasons for the killings is because of ‘the religious cleansing to eradicate Christianity’, from Northern Nigeria.
Finally, we believe that we need to re-educate ourselves on the values of inclusion, cultural and religious pluralism in a multicultural Nigeria. Indeed, the key to the future for Nigeria is education especially of the teeming youth population in the North who are uneducated. However, since Boko Haram’s stated raison d’etre is opposition to education, how can education remedy this impending doom in our country? We must get our children in school. Here in the diocese of Sokoto, our resources are severely lean, but we are committed to dialogue and we consider education a major platform. For example, in Sokoto, we have a school in which the ratio of Muslim to Christian students is 80:20. Every day, I see in the innocence in the faces of our children in our schools, a flicker of hope for tomorrow.
Furthermore, we must admit that western nations have been complicit in our dilemma. The Americans crafted President Buhari’s victory. The British are not innocent either when he sold the idea that he was a man capable of routing Boko Haram, and ending the insurgency, fighting corruption fiercely and bringing back the Chibok girls. Sadly, violence in Nigeria has spawned new phases, farmer-herder violence, banditry and now a culture of kidnapping that threatens the social fabric of the country. It is hoped that the international community can go beyond grand standing and condemnation to do something more concrete to help Nigeria end this tragic phase of its history.
Finally, Nigerians are resilient. They will pull through this. Most of the crisis is the result of toxic politics but deep down, over 90% of innocent Nigerians have fallen victim to the insatiable greed of a corrupt political elite. It is important that the Church becomes more strategically involved by going beyond denunciations to building a wider coalition with Muslim, Christian and other leaders to bring the political elite to the path of integrity. The human person has an unrestricted desire to know and embrace the truth and a free will to live beyond the self and to love beyond measure. This can only be achieved in a society and through a religion, which respects the primacy of one’s conscience in choosing God and doing good. Christians and Muslims can do this together in Nigeria if we set our minds on fighting the many demons which hunt our troubled land. These demons have produced so much deaths in our land and led to the painful murder of our 18-year-old Seminarian, Michael Nnadi, who belongs to the long list of martyrs whose blood water the seed of the faith in our country.
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah is the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, a Consultant with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Founder of the Kukah Center, a Public Policy Think Tank devoted to promoting the Church’s role in public life in Nigeria and developing practices of inclusion in Christian-Muslim Relations; Stan Chu Ilo is professor of African Studies and World Christianity, at the Center for World Catholicism and Inter-Cultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago and Honorary Professor Religion and Theology, Durham University, Durham, UK.