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Issues around alleged Christianophobia in Nigeria

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PHOTO: GOSPEL HERALD

A more-than-facile understanding of Nigeria’s geo-social paradigm will be helpful in the unravelling of this touchy subject matter. In many ways, Nigeria resembles an assemblage of limbs rather than a coherent body-politic. Her over 200 million-strong human population is a mish-mash of almost 500 ethnic groups with Christians and Muslims in roughly equal numbers. For reasons that are not difficult to surmise, the British administration by agreement with the age-long local emirates confined or restricted the operations of Christian missions in northern Nigeria during the colonial period. Non-native migrant workers had the benefit only of a small church presence in nominated locations even as evangelism among Muslims was, in the main, prohibited. Given these factors, it is easy to discern or understand the volatile nature of the inter-relationship of Islam and Christianity in northern Nigeria. In contra-distinction to this situation, the south-west and the south with their relative calmness regarding the ethic of the imperativeness of religious pluralism, bear out contrastingly the Siamese-twins panoply of politics and religion in northern Nigeria. The major division between the mainly Hausa-Fulani in the north and the predominantly Christian south-east zone, for instance, dwarfs or disguises many other conflicts including the one between the Hausa and the substantially Christian Berom in Plateau State. The Yoruba of the south-west are a fairly mixed society with a probable Christian majority and a virtual absence of religious dis-agreement.

During the Abacha dictatorship years of 1993–1998, tension rose as formal Muslim influence was markedly visible. A major conflict of interests conduced by this situation was however relieved or averted when the north nominated Olusegun Obasanjo – a Christian – to run as president. However, as a concession or trade-off, the northern states extracted from government the concurrence for an extra-statutory practice of sharia law in smug or arrogant defiance of Nigeria’s secular constitution and status. Sharia which had long been in practice for settling or resolving personal disputes involving Muslims – marriage, divorce, up-keep or custody of the children of marriage, intestacy, devolution of property, etc – was threatened to be extended to non-Muslims as in when Christian girls were obliged to wear the hijab in some northern states. Put correctly, antagonism over sharia contributed in no small measure to inter-faith violence in Kaduna in 2000 and elsewhere at various times. Hostilities against clerics or Christian priests involving their brutal murder intensified and was wide-spread. It is roughly estimated that about 60,000 people most of them Christians or adherents of traditional religions may have been killed following agitation for or against the expansion of the sharia jurisdiction. There are many documented cases in which child abduction has been combined with forced marriage and conversion to Islam in the sharia states. More generally, Christians have complained that only Islam is taught in state schools in “sharia states”. It is also alleged that many pretexts for violence have been used by Islamists. For instance, in the aftermath of international protests against the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2005, about 50 Christians were killed in Borno State, 57 churches were reportedly razed and over 200 Christian-owned businesses were attacked. The cycle of violence has proved particularly difficult to restrain even as Christians of the Igbo stock in south-east Nigeria have, in retaliation for the killing of their kith and kin in the north, attacked their Muslim neighbours. The following year, a group calling itself the “Taliban” attacked the police in Kano, killing many people especially persons feared to be Christians.

It is observable that a reason for poor inter-faith relations in Nigeria and particularly so in Northern Nigeria, is that Islam and Christianity confront each other fiercely in the Middle Belt – arguably Nigeria’s food basket some 250 miles in width of rolling hills, a cascading terrain and lush open field. Thousands of people have died in this region as a result of fighting that may be observed as faith-based. They spring from conflicts over employment, resources, grazing land, election results and rising tempers among Muslims in respect of alleged treatment of fellow adherents. Human Rights Watch has chronicled that local political elites “have long battled for power and control of limited resources and have stoked religious tensions to those ends.” Government policies have also exacerbated the situation by their nuanced discrimination against members of ethnicities known derisively as “non-indigene”. They are generally not allowed to apply for state and local government positions.

In the Jos area, the largest ethnic groups are the Berom and the Hausa-Fulani. Even though the Hausa-Fulani have been in the Middle Belt area for several generations, they are classed as non-indigenes. This is one bane of Nigeria’s indigeneship matrix. However as the Fulani, on their own, hold some mystical allegiance to a mythic ancestral homeland far away from Nigeria, they are generally deemed not to be indigenous to Nigeria. Generally in the north where Muslims are in the majority, they have done more to shape the dynamics of inter-faith conflicts. They dictate the pace. Islamists’ self-assertiveness is especially evident in this part of the country. The attack by Islamists in Damaturu which began on November 4, 2011 in which the attackers in about 4 hours of rampage left about 150 people dead, many of them Christians, is a case in point. At least 10 churches were destroyed. The militants, about 200 of them, belonged to Boko Haram. As in many Muslim societies, hardliners are opposed to conversion to Christianity even when it is done freely. In 2009, a pastor in Kebbi state was sentenced to twelve strokes of the cane and obliged to choose between either a jail sentence or a fine of N10,000 to the court and N30,000 in compensation to a family for not encouraging a young female member thereof to accept her parents’ choice of husband for her. He was accused of allowing her to flee the community so she could do her will at her new station. He was ultimately charged with abduction in an Upper Sharia Court.

The general elections of April 2011 were a further opportunity for violence as the victory of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was disputed by supporters of the opposition candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari of the CPC. Violence in the northern states left more than 800 people dead. More than 65,000 were reported by relief agencies to have been displaced while about 350 churches were razed in an orgy of untold brutalities. In mainly Christian areas of Kaduna state, Christian mobs retaliated murdering Muslims and destroying many mosques.

Even though a number of inter-faith bridges are being built by some eminent persons, it will appear that their efforts are not achieving any enduring significance. At Christmas 2019, 11 Christians were brutally murdered in Borno State for their faith. The poor security architecture of the Nigerian government which is more reactive than pro-active has been largely blamed for the general poor security situation in the country which has allowed perpetrators of violence to go without come-uppance. The recent profiling of Nigeria by the US government citing her for religious intolerance is symptomatic of a world-wide apprehension of the combustible nature of the religious situation in Nigeria.

Even as faith has been put to corrupt use in Nigeria, the red-herring that every religion should combatively compete to save its ideology is a further instance of how a serious discussion may be atomised, derailed or terminated. Anti-Christian feeling has been identified to be premised more on envy than on fear. For their enormously successful work in health care, education and evangelism, for instance, Christians are admired as well as disliked.

For some reasons, Christians are feared because they are undeniable heralds or harbinger of a more open or liberal society. That the Church has endured ordinarily-unbearable persecution is evidence both of her remarkable strength and of her stoic resignation in the face of difficult circumstances. The Church is probably in-destructible, after all.


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