Monday, August 12, 2002

Nigeria: Reconciliation or Polarisation

Date: Monday 12 August 2002
Subj: Nigeria: Reconciliation or Polarisation
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

On 8 August I spoke with the Anglican Bishop of Kaduna, central Nigeria, Bishop Josiah Fearon, to gather his impressions regarding reports of escalating religious violence and persecution of Christians in the central regions of Nigeria.

The situation in Nigeria is worthy of considerable apprehension and close attention. Religion became a hot and divisive issue after the February 1999 Presidential elections resulted in a Southern Christian being democratically elected as president after decades of military rule, predominantly by Northern Muslims.

Presidential elections are due again in early 2003. These may be Nigeria's first elections where religion is a major election issue. In a nation split almost 50 / 50 between Muslims and Christians, one wonders if anyone could be a winner if religion is touted as a major and divisive election issue, anyone except the military that is.

- EK


Nigeria: Reconciliation or Polarisation.


Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) recently released a report that chronicled escalating violence in the central regions of Nigeria. Bishop Ben Kwashi of Jos wrote to CSW stating, "We are facing a new Muslim onslaught. Terror has been released on the majority Christian population of the Plateau." (Full report - see link 1)

The General Secretary of the Nigerian Evangelical Missions Association, Timothy Olonade, confirms that the Church in Jos (capital city of Plateau) is suffering increased persecution. "Yes, the story reported is true and it is the reality of a daily apprehension here. We share this story and its pain. When Jos appeared to be recovering (from the September 2001 violence), Muslim hoodlums went into cleansing mode, going from village to village to attack people and destroy properties. This now affects our everyday life, as Islamic aggression becomes our lot in this part of Nigeria."

Josiah Fearon is the Bishop of Kaduna in central Nigeria. Kaduna State, which was the scene of horrendous Sharia riots in February 2000, borders Plateau State. Bishop Fearon sees the tension and hostility through central Nigeria as predominately an ethnic conflict being played out in a religious dimension primarily because the opposing ethic groups are of different religions and because those desiring power are willing to manipulate the conflict and capitalize on it for their own purposes.

"In Jos you have people from Bauchi and other northern states, Hausa and Fulani people, who came to Jos years ago for business, and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have grown up there," says Bishop Fearon. "But now they are being told by the indigenes, 'You don't belong here.' But they have no other place to go! They are predominantly Muslims while the indigenes are predominantly Christian.

"However, I also want to identify with the people of Jos. They have said, 'If you live here, you have to abide by the rules and adjust to the culture, but unfortunately the Hausa have often tried to lord it over the people and it has been very difficult." (The indigenous population of Jos are mainly Christian or Animist of minority tribes. Many have resented the powerful influence of the wealthier 'immigrant' Hausa-Fulani Muslims).

"The solutions lie predominantly in governance," says Bishop Fearon. "The government needs to make sure the development is evenly distributed. Nigerians, in the central parts in particular, need to learn to accept one another again. Central Nigeria has always had a culture of accommodating people from other parts of the country, but suddenly that has all changed, and it is frightening. The whole climate has changed, and all in the name of religion. But it is not really religion - it is power. Power is the real issue here.

"It is naive to say the problems are purely religious. The problems are very complex. But having said that, we do know that there are Muslims who have plans to divide the nation - there's no doubt about it."


Q - EK. Do you anticipate the 2003 Presidential elections bringing these issues to a head?

A - Bishop Josiah Fearon. "Unfortunately one of the presidential candidates, a former military ruler who is seeking now to be president, General Buhari, has said that Muslims should vote for whoever will promote Sharia. That is not going down well with those of us who are working for reconciliation and integration. For that to come from someone who has been Head of State shows what 2003 is likely to become. He is calling for polarisation."
In early May the Lagos paper, Daily Champion, printed an article entitled, "Between Obasanjo and Buhari, the Religion Question" by Joy Onyekwere. Her analysis begins, "Next year's elections may be like no other before it. And between Obasanjo and Buhari, two likely presidential intenders, the looming issue that might define the voting pattern could be religion."

Joy Onyekwere goes on to say, that while religion was not an issue in the 1999 election it appears that religion may stand at the centre of the forthcoming 2003 election between "Gen. Buhari, who of late has been whipping up Sharia sentiment," and "President Obasanjo, who has at a number of occasions trumpeted his 'born again' Christian life." (Full article - see link 2)

Obasanjo set up Nigeria's Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC) soon after being elected president. The HRVIC is investigating the killings, torture and other human rights violations committed during the years of military dictatorships. Both General Buhari (who has publicly proclaimed that Muslims should vote for Muslims), and another presidential candidate, General Babangida (another former military dictator and one of Nigeria's richest men), are presently facing charges of human rights abuses. (See links 3 & 4).

Analysts have long suspected that while a quest for power is the primary issue behind the push for Sharia, it is also being used by some to destabilize the government and divert attention away from the corruption probes and the HRVIC. There appear to be many reasons why former military dictators would seek to reinvent themselves as Islamic religious reformers.


Twelve northern states have now adopted Sharia in defiance of the Constitution. As such, Nigeria is already a nation divided. With presidential candidates like General Buhari encouraging the polarization of Nigeria along religious lines, Nigeria will need all the help it can get, to get to and through the next presidential elections without serious religious division and bloodshed.

Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim has identified the 2003 transitional elections as "the greatest challenge" facing Nigeria as a nation. (See link 5) "The greatest challenge facing this nation today is the transition from civilians to civilians. The next ten months will be critical. We have tried before and failed, but if we allow it to fail this time around it will be a disaster. It is clear," he said. "It is our hope and prayer that all lovers of democracy, all lovers of the continent of Africa should come to the aid of Nigeria to help Nigeria succeed."

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) Christian Solidarity Worldwide
"Christians attacked and killed by Islamic fanatics in Nigeria" 18
July 2002

2) "Between Obasanjo And Buhari, the Religion Question" Daily
Champion (Lagos) Analysis 4 May 2002 by Joy Onyekwere

3) "3 New Parties Registered; IBB For President?" by Associated
Press Writer Haruna Barhago, 22 June 2002.

4) "Buhari dismisses insinuations of seeking office to settle
scores" by Taye Obateru and Godwin Akor, Vangard. 28 June 2002

5) "2003 Elections Must Succeed, Says Anyim" by Bature Umar in Abuja
and Abel Orih in Yola, ThisDay News, 9 August 2002


"Nigeria's turbulent prospects" 11 January 2002
By the BBC's Dan Isaacs in Lagos

"Analysis: Nigeria's Sharia split" 15 October 2001

WEA RLP 133 Nigeria: Bloodbath in Jos 12 Sept 2001 and
WEA RLP 136 September Update 27 Sept 2001