After the Lekki massacre, a dangerous anti-Christian propaganda is spreading in Nigeria
By Mitterand Okorie, PhD candidate
On the evening of 20 October, 2020, the world was stunned by gory pictures of peaceful protesters being mowed down by the Nigerian military in Lekki, an affluent neighbourhood in Lagos, southwestern Nigeria. Young Nigerians had gathered to protest against police brutality and human rights abuses by a rogue police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). However, after nearly two weeks of peaceful marches, their demands were met with state-sanctioned massacre. According to Amnesty International, at least 12 people were killed and hundreds injured. The Nigerian military initially denied involvement in the massacre, but Fanny Fascar, a correspondent for Deutsche Welle who was at the scene, confirmed that the Nigerian military had shot at protesters. Other eyewitnesses and international media organisations backed up her account.
Unexpected civil unrest erupted in the immediate aftermath of the massacre in several cities across Nigeria, including Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt, Aba, and Onitsha. State governments have imposed curfews in a bid to contain the crisis, but this has looked counterproductive, as hoodlums took over the streets, burning state infrastructure, looting market stalls and in some cases engaged in clashes with the police.
Framing of the Igbo
The situation now seems to have taken on a more sinister dimension with certain political elements determined to frame the Igbo ethnic group as being responsible for the destruction of properties in Lagos. Prominent among these elements is Adamu Garba, a politician from Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria and former presidential aspirant. Garba uploaded a broadcast of himself speaking in Hausa, in which he mentions that Christians and Igbo people were behind the protest and carnage in Lagos aimed at removing President Muhammadu Buhari from office. The video has been taken down following a social media outcry but the damage has been done. With Nigerians profoundly divided along ethnic and religious lines, the accusation that a predominantly Christian ethnic community is attempting to overthrow the government headed by a northern Muslim could cause deep sectarian fissures.
Garba further called on the Muslim population of the north to wake up to the machinations of the “Biafrans”. He warned that if Buhari is removed from office, the destruction which the Igbo have visited on Lagos will be replicated in Kaduna, Kano, and other parts of northern Nigeria.
These pronouncements are outright lies but intentionally made to mobilise ethnoreligious sentiments against Igbo or Christians with the ultimate goal of directing violence towards them. The choice of words appears to be deliberate and intended to achieve a sensationalist outcome. Secondly, warning Muslims against a possible invasion of the north by the Igbo is likely to instigate a pre-emptive strike against members of the ethnic group, which threatens their lives and businesses in the north. Already, attacks on businesses suspected to be owned by Christians are happening. In Abuja: irate Muslim youth razed shopping stalls at Apo Games Village with goods worth billions of Naira. An eye witness, Ikenga Ugochinyere, whose car stand was petrol-bombed, said the religious mob attacked the area out of sectarian anger.
Rallying call for Muslims
Worthy of interest also is a press release issued by the Supreme Council for Sharia’ah in Nigeria (SCSN) on 23 October, 2020. The organisation accused the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada of bias against Nigerian Muslims. The group said Muslims and their properties came under attack by violent mobs in Lagos, even though they provided no concrete evidence to support their claim. In reality, rioting mobs targeted any business that appeared vulnerable and looted it.
It does seem that SCSN is displeased by the international condemnation that trailed President Buhari’s draconian response to the protest, declaring the position of the aforementioned countries to be “one sided” and “without recourse to verifiable facts”. Implicit in this narrative is a rallying call for Muslims to realise how Euro-American countries support Nigeria’s Christians over Muslims—in effect, turning a genuine protest over police brutality into a religious talking point. The reference to the condemnation of Buhari by Euro-American nations could easily spark sectional hatred, given its obvious politicization. Besides, Christians in northern Nigeria have historically been at the receiving end of the region’s hostility towards western values.
Setting the tone for attacks
In the past, such press releases often set the tone for violent attacks on Christians. For instance, in 2002, Islamic organizations in the north warned the federal government against hosting the Miss World pageant in Nigeria, noting that it was offensive to Islamic morals. When the federal government adamantly went ahead with the show, violence broke out across several northern states including Abuja, with religious mobs killing 100 persons and injuring 400 others, most of them Christians. Similarly, in 2006, the controversial Danish Cartoons led to the burning of churches and the homes and businesses of Christians in Borno, Bauchi, Kaduna and other northern states.
While it is not particularly clear if purveyors of anti-Christian/Igbo propaganda are acting alone or as part of a broader government conspiracy, their ethnoreligious baiting poses a danger. Ethnic and religious divisions in Nigeria are deeply entrenched, easily inflamed and often lead to sectarian violence. The present hate propaganda is indicative of an established pattern of sectarian disharmony, but is particularly dangerous in the context of the recent security crisis. There is a real possibility that Christians living in northern Nigeria may be caught in the crossfire if the hate messages are left unchecked.
Mitterand Okorie is a PhD Candidate in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa