Case Study: Nigeria: An Opportunity for Faith-Based Conflict Resolution

Foundation Update

Case Study: Nigeria: An Opportunity for Faith-Based Conflict Resolution

06 May 2015

Religious conflict in Nigeria is only one challenge facing a polity that is divided into approximately 250 ethnic groups, a political order characterised by weak government and in which there is little regard for the rule of law. Under both military and civilian governments, fierce and bloody competitions between elites, often appealing to ethnic and religious identities, have resulted in a country run for their own benefit with little reference to the needs of the Nigerian people. There is a wide remit for faith groups to be involved in reconciliation and conflict resolution, however such initiatives need to carefully negotiate around local circumstances, writes John Campbell for our Global Perspectives Series.

Case Study: Nigeria: An Opportunity for Faith-Based Conflict Resolution

By John Campbell

In Nigeria, faith matters profoundly. Nigerians like to say that they live in the 'world's most religious country'. Christianity and Islam are in the midst of revivals. Among Christians this often takes 'Pentecostal' forms, while among Muslims it is often 'Salafi'. These and other technical religious terms have even more specific meanings within the Nigerian context that are related to, but differ in nuance, from standard uses elsewhere. Both forms are literalist with regard to sacred texts; both tend to set fixed boundaries between 'believers' and 'non-believers'; and the clergy of both are often authoritarian and judgemental, placing greater emphasis on Divine judgement than Divine love.

These revivals represent a dramatic change in Nigeria's religious landscape. In 1900, estimates suggest that Nigeria's population was 26 percent Muslim and one percent Christian; the remainder adhered to traditional religions. P. Jenkins, The Next Christendom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 195. During the 20th century, especially after independence, Christianity grew explosively in the south and the Middle Belt and there are now Christian minorities even in the predominantly Muslim north. As a result of these changes over the past century, in some areas faith relations have all but broken down, notably so in the Middle Belt and in the north. Some Christian leaders have resorted to triumphalist rhetoric, while Islamist radicals call for the implementation of a rigid form of sharia throughout the country. Nevertheless, in some parts of the country inter-faith relations are excellent. In the southwest around the megacity Lagos, for example, Muslims and Christians regularly intermarry and keep each other's holidays.

To ease the political impact of religious divisiveness, at the end of military rule in 1998, the ruling People's Democratic Party established a pattern of presidential power alternation between the predominantly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. That system was dismantled in 2011 when the southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan successfully won the presidential campaign for re-election, despite many considering it to be a northern Muslim's turn in the Presidential Villa. Jonathan's failure to replace the presidential alternation system with a new political form of Muslim-Christian balancing has been an important catalyst for the current wave of ostensibly 'religious' conflicts.

This is particularly overt in the Middle Belt, where religious and ethnic boundaries coincide with disputes over land and water use. A result has been 'ethnic cleansing', reminiscent of the Balkans, in the area around Plateau State's capital Jos, where Christian and Muslim populations are now segregated. The government in Abuja, the media, and outside observers often label this conflict as 'religious' when in fact it is rooted in rivalries over land and water use.

In the north, the dismantling of the power alternation system has seen Nigeria's government and traditional Islamic establishments directly targeted by the radical Islamist revolt, commonly called Boko Haram. In the context of political marginalisation and economic impoverishment, Boko Haram and similar movements such as Ansaru seek to overthrow the Nigerian state and establish a pure Islamic state organised according to their interpretation of sharia. A salient theme within this interpretation is justice for the poor. This has potent appeal during a period of increasing personal and communal poverty at the grassroots level, while traditional elites prosper from connections with the federal government and its oil revenue.

Radical reformers have long claimed that Muslim leaders are 'non-Muslim' if they promote or legitimate social injustice. Hence, 'Salafi' reformers, such as Boko Haram, pit themselves against 'Sufi' elites, led by the Sultan of Sokoto and the Shehu of Borno, who dominate the traditional Islamic establishment. Despite being avowedly anti-democratic, BBC, 'Shekau Appears in a Video, Says He's Alive', September 26, 2013, [ Boko Haram has called for the Sultan to be replaced by a council that would be dominated by its own members and, in their view, more responsive to the needs of Muslims. It has tried to murder the Sultan and the Shehu and has also claimed responsibility for killing the Shehu's brother and bodyguards of the Sultan. Boko Haram also seeks the expulsion of Christians from the north. While Boko Haram has killed a significant number of Christians, most of its several thousand victims have been Muslim.

Ansaru, its full name meaning 'Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa', is a smaller radical group with a base in Kano State and Kaduna State. Its spokesmen claim the group split from Boko Haram because of the latter's frequent killing of Muslims. Ansaru actively attacks Christian churches. It appears to be trying to provoke a Christian backlash against Muslim minorities in the south, presumably to promote the breakup of the Nigerian state. Thus far, that effort has been unsuccessful.

Ansaru has introduced tactics more commonly associated with Islamist organisations in the Sahel, especially kidnapping for ransom and, possibly, the use of suicide bombers, which were previously unknown in West Africa. These tactics have most likely been derived from links the group has with radical Islamist groups in Algeria and Mali, but it is unlikely that it takes direction from them. Neither Ansaru nor Boko Haram appears to receive significant funding from foreign sources. Furthermore, it is possible that Ansaru and Boko Haram have merged. There have been no Ansaru statements for several months and while the kidnapping of some 300 school girls from Chibok in Borno state has the marks of an Ansaru operation, it was a well-known Boko Haram warlord, Aubakar Shekau, who claimed responsibility. In May 2014, Boko Haram began using female suicide bombers. Some operatives have been criminals hired by Boko Haram to participate in specific operations, especially kidnapping for ransom.

Before August 2014, Boko Haram had not moved to set up an alternative state structure or levy taxes on the local people. Its funds came from criminal activities. But this is changing. Shekau had expressed admiration for the establishment of a caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and in August established one centred on Gwoza in the block of territory that it controls in north Nigeria. There do not appear to be links between the ISIS caliphate and that of Boko Haram, though their rhetoric is similar. In the territory it controls, Boko Haram is now levying tolls and fees and perhaps other taxes. It is unclear whether Boko Haram is providing residents with any government services. However, there is anecdotal evidence that it is enforcing a strict form of Islamic law. The Economist, 'Nigeria: A Nation Divided', October 25th 2014, [

The Nigerian government's response to Boko Haram, Ansaru and other radical Islamists F.C. Onuoha, 'Why Do Youth Join Boko Haram?', in United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 348, Washington, D.C., June 2014. is to see them as an integrated global terrorist movement without popular domestic roots or context. It has reacted with severe repression, to the extent that, during some periods of particularly brutal security force repression, Council on Foreign Relations, , Accessed August 11, 2014, []. government forces may be responsible for as many Nigerian deaths as Boko Haram. The government's seemingly indiscriminate killing of Boko Haram members, as well as many others who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, appears to be a driver of popular support for, or acquiescence to, Boko Haram.

A credible hypothesis is that Boko Haram recruits from the ranks of former students of the al-majirai schools that are decentralised institutions usually without government support, where malams instruct their students to memorise the Quran, but teach nothing else. A report based on surveys and interviews in Nigeria since 2013, concludes that poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and weak family structures make young men vulnerable to recruitment by radical Islamists.

Religion, then, has much to answer for the current situation. Yet there are a number of avenues by which faith groups and organisations can make significant contributions to reconciliation work. In April 2014, National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki presented a long-term strategy to address issues that feed Boko Haram. While it was accepted by the Jonathan administration, little has been heard of it since. Nevertheless, its specific proposals could provide a useful entry point for faith-based organisations, especially with respect to education and partnerships to counter radicalisation at local levels. Faith-based organisations have considerable on-the-ground experience with community-based conflict mitigation and resolution, both in Nigeria and also around the world. With respect to education, Dasuki envisions an approach where students learn how to communicate with different faiths and ethnicities based on mutual respect. Faith-based organisations with their characteristic sympathy for and sensitivity to religious considerations could play a positive role in helping to integrate al-majirai schools into a broader curriculum while respecting and enhancing their specifically Muslim religious character.

In addition, the struggle between the security services and Boko Haram has already generated significant refugee flows into Niger and Cameroon. Internally displaced persons in north Nigeria number at least 1.5 million. They are consuming the seed corn set aside for future harvests, raising the prospect of famine in the coming year. Faith-based organisations, particularly those with close grassroots connections, are well placed to act as intermediaries between the official National Emergency Management Agency, Nigerian non-governmental organisations, such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society, international food relief agencies and potential donor governments. The magnitude of the looming humanitarian crisis should not be underestimated.

Elite inter-faith initiatives, such as those involving the Sultan of Sokoto, the Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja and the Anglican Bishop of Kaduna, have certainly had some impact on the traditional northern leadership. To them should go at least some of the credit for a perceptible shift among northern elites away from their characteristic indifference to the plight of the poor. However, there is little sign that these efforts have much influence at the 'street' level, which is increasingly under the sway of radical Islamist preachers. Conversely, in the Middle Belt, grassroots work by 'the pastor and the imam' that paired Christian and Muslim clergy has been successful in diffusing tensions. However, it has not had sufficient support and capacity to succeed in reversing the ethnic cleansing that resulted in horrific loss of life around Jos.

Efforts by outsiders to support faith-based reconciliation should reflect local circumstances. Capacity-building to connect high-level elite initiatives with grassroots level work is needed. While external actors can keep the spotlight on human rights violations in Nigeria, faith organisations and leaders are well-placed internal actors with significant capacity to pressure the government about ongoing human rights abuses by the security forces. However, the watchword for outsiders must be 'first, do no harm'. An increasingly brutal civil war between Islamist radicals and government security forces, both capable of the most outrageous human rights abuses, poses potential landmines for any initiative. There are opportunities for faith-based reconciliation projects to help make meaningful progress towards conflict resolution in Nigeria, but such initiatives require careful navigation through the specific challenges of local contexts.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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