ABUJA, (CAJ News) – THE alleged murder of Muslims by the Army, killings by the Fulani herdsmen in mostly Christian areas and the Boko Haram insurgency have brought to the fore the long running inter-religious tensions in Nigeria.
The West African country, the largest in terms of population with more than 180 million people, is beset by a number of social issues, Christian-Muslim strife, which can be traced back to 1953.
Nigeria’s is split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims. Christians dominate the south while the Muslims the north.
The country was amalgamated in 1914, only about a decade after the defeat of the Sokoto Caliphate, an independent Islamic caliphate, and other Islamic states by the British which were to constitute much of Northern Nigeria.
Following the return of democratic government in 1999, the Muslim-dominated northern Nigerian states have introduced Sharia law, including punishments against blasphemy and apostasy. Several incidents have occurred whereby people have been killed for or in response to perceived insults to Islam.
Decades earlier, there were already deadly differences.
In the 1970s, after attainment of independence from Britain in 1960, there was a major Islamic uprising led by controversial preacher, Mohammed Marwa, popularly known as Maitatsine and his followers, Yan Tatsine that led to several thousand deaths.
The tensions were pronounced in the 1980s following serious outbreaks between Christians and Muslims occurred in Kafanchan in southern Kaduna State in a border area between the two religions, blamed on extreme leaders who were able to rally young group of individuals who feared that the nation would not be able to protect their religious group.
The leaders were able to polarize their followers through speeches and public demonstrations.
In 1991, the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke attempted a crusade in Kano, causing a religious riot leading to the deaths of about a dozen people.
Inter-religious violence has continued after the restoration of democracy in 1999.
In Abuja, the capital, and Jos (Plateau State) in 2000 and 2001 respectively, more than 100 people were killed during riots between Christians and Muslims following the appointment of a Muslim politician, Alhaji Muktar Mohammed, as local coordinator of the federal programme to fight poverty.
The 2002 Miss World Contest that was scheduled for Abuja also sparked mayhem.
Fashion journalist, Isioma Daniel, criticising Nigerian Muslims’ opposition to the pageant, wrote an article that led to the demonstrations and violence that left 200 dead, 1 000 injured with more than 11,000 others displaced.
The event was eventually moved to London in the United Kingdom (UK) as a result.
The rest of the 2000s decade would see inter-religious violence continue in Jos and Kaduna.
Religious conflict between Muslims and Christians has erupted several times since 2000 for various reasons, often causing riots with several thousands of victims on both sides.
There are intermittent clashes that have claimed hundreds of lives over cartoons on Prophet Mohammed.
Since 2009, the Islamist movement, Boko Haram, has fought an armed rebellion against the Nigerian military, killing more than 20 000 civilians and displacing an estimated 3 million in battles and massacres against Christians, students and others deemed enemies of Islam.
Among two such incidents by the sect, whose name translates to “Western” or “non-Islamic” education is a sin, including the torching of the Federal Government College of Buni Yadi in Yobe State, where 59 boys were killed.
Sect members kidnapped over 200 school girls at the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok, Borno State, some 219 remain missing amid fears they have been converted to Islam.
Boko Haram’s mission is to create an Islamic state ruled by Shari’ah law.
Meanwhile, since the restoration of democracy in 1999, Christian governments have dominated the country at the federal level, while the Muslim-dominated Northern Nigerian states have implemented strict Sharia law.
Timothy Shah, analyst from the Georgetown University’s Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, pointed out the Nigeria’s Christian-Muslim divide and the role it will play in election of national leaders.
“While the country’s oil wealth and extreme poverty will also play a role in national politics, religious faith will exert a powerful influence on elections and on Nigeria’s public life,” Shah said.
Then-Acting President, Goodluck Jonathan, received criticism for running for the presidency suggesting he had violated an informal agreement to rotate between Muslim and Christian leaders.
Jonathan, a Christian had assumed the presidency in 2010 after his Muslim predecessor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died in office.
In the last presidential election characterised by such tensions, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, defeated Jonathan.
Some Christian leaders backed Buhari arguing he stood a better chance of dealing with the Boko Haram than Jonathan.
Buhari’s deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, former attorney general-turned church pastor from the southern, which brought hope of ending religious violence in Nigeria.
While the government has made major strides in the war against the Boko Haram, religious tensions have raged.
Both religions argue they are under siege from the rival creed.
Among the upheavals is the crisis sparked by the Islamic Fulani herdsman which has in recent months wrecked havoc in largely Christian areas. Hundreds have been killed in the violent clashes over land but Christians have seen it as a ploy to decimate followers.
International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, said sometimes security forces openly aid and abet the well coordinated massacre of unarmed and innocent Christian dwellers by the Muslim Fulani herdsmen.
“The motive behind this well coordinated and carefully orchestrated violence is agro-ethnic and politico-religious,” said Emeka Umeagbalasi, Intersociety Board Chairman.
Ironically, the Army has been accused for carrying out a deadly campaign against Shiite Muslims.
During a tumultuous few days last December in Kaduna, the Nigerian Army allegedly killed an estimated 1 000 members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria following clashes emanating from accusations members planned to assassinate Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai.
Leader of the movement, Ibrahim Zakzaky, alongside his wife and scores of supporters remains behind bars without trial.
This has sparked intense protests.
Ibrahim Musa alleges its members are being arrested because of their faith – Shi’a Islam.
“But when has being a Shi’a become a crime in Nigeria, where freedom of religion and assembly is guaranteed by the constitution?”
Outgoing police inspector geneal, Solomon Arase, warned against culprits.
“The Nigerian State cannot be overrun by hoodlums, I can assure that,” said Arase.
– CAJ News