Understanding Nigeria’s endemic sectarian crisis


by Hassan John, March 2019


Nigeria, the largest black nation in the world with a population of nearly 200 million, and ranking third on the Global Terrorism Index after Iraq and Afghanistan, is suffering a devastating sectarian crisis perpetrated by radical Islamic jihadi sects and Fulani cattle herdsmen militia, both of whom threaten the country’s corporate existence.


Various experts have given different and sometimes conflicting reasons for the 10-year-old insurgency by the radical Islamic jihadi group, Islamic State West Africa Province, (ISWAP) formerly known as Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād (Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad) and popularly referred to as Boko Haram (western education is prohibited) and the rampaging Islamic Fulani herdsmen militia. These reasons range from corruption to failed government, desertification due to global warming, poverty and tribal feuds. What, however, has been underplayed, is the powerful radical religious ideology driving the conflicts.


Because, predominantly, the major actors in this theatre of blood and death are Islamic radical jihadi sects and militias. Many politicians and Muslims, struggling to navigate the fragile sensibilities and possible of backlash from Muslims and agencies, have adopted a politically correct narrative to try and distance Islam from the systematic massacre in the country by declaring that the killings have "nothing to do with religion" or merely stating that the killings are "done in the name of religion” to avoid the ‘Islamophobic’, ‘intolerant’ or ‘hate speech’ tags, notwithstanding the testimonies of victims, eyewitnesses or even the claim by the radical Boko Haram sect itself that it is waging a war against Christians, the western lifestyle and secular governments.


A brief background to the Nigerian crisis might help give some perspective.


The British colonial administration, in 1914, amalgamated more than three major distinct nations in a political arrangement with little regard for their strong regional and cultural loyalties: the Yoruba Odudua kingdom in the south west with a growing Christian influence, the equally growing Christian Igbo nation in the south east, the Kanuri Empire in the north east with an established Islamic religion and the Sokoto Caliphate spreading Islam through jihad from the north west down south westwards towards the Atlantic ocean. In the Middle Belt region of the country are more than 100 distinct tribes that resisted the spread of Islam, defeated the invading jihad of Usman Dan Fodio and eventually embraced Christianity.


The British administration of Lord Lugard failed to acknowledge the imminent danger posed by the 1953 Kano riots, which were sparked by the perception that the southern region, seeking independence from the British, was plotting a takeover of the country. The British left a political quagmire at independence in 1960. Three years later, in 1963, the political arrangement collapsed and by 1966, the Nzoegwu Kaduna military coup jolted the country into a civil war that killed almost a million, mostly Christians of the Igbo tribe who tried to secede and carve out a Biafran nation.


Not much has changed in the struggle for religious and political dominance since 1966. The religious tensions are more palpable in the northern regions of the country. Many Christians have been killed on the basis of allegations they have insulted the Quran or the Prophet Mohammed , as  with the Danish cartoon in 2006, and no one has been held accountable. Because of that lack of justice in several incidences, reprisal killings of Muslims living in the southern and more recently the Middle Belt regions, are now common.


Boko Haram is not the first radical Islamic sect. In the 1980s there were the Maitatsine and Kala Kato sects, crushed by the then military government, and even today there are still other radical, though less violent sects who attack Christianity using derogatory languages blared out on horn speakers in market places and mosques in northern Nigeria.


The Boko Haram and Fulani cattle herdsmen forms of terrorism have persisted because they have sympathizers and possible supporters and financiers within the state and federal governments as well as within security agencies in the country. They have funding and expertise within and outside the country. The endemic corruption in government has turned the tragedy into a money-making enterprise. In addition, some Muslim parents 'donate' their daughters for use as suicide bombers in the greater cause of Islam. There would have been a global outcry if the victims of the killings in Nigeria were predominantly Muslims.


It would be delusional to think that curbing corruption, assuming that is possible in Nigeria, or reducing poverty, would stop a radical Islamic sect from attacking and killing non-Muslims under any pretext. Desertification is not unique to Nigeria and cannot be the reason for the massacre of hundreds of women and children overnight in their beds in Dogon na Hauwa in Jos, Plateau State, central Nigeria, nor can we single out poverty as the major reason for strapping suicide vests onto dozens of young girls in Maiduguri. The religious ideology behind this cannot be dismissed.


Nigeria is desperate for ways out of its predicament. To begin curbing the insurgency, the  radical ideology fueling the killings needs to be addressed, in addition to the political and economic derivatives. Religious leaders, especially moderate Muslims, need to understand how much terrorism is harming Islam. Muslim clerics need to rise against radical Islamic ideologies. While it is understood that those who tried have been targeted by radical Islamic sects,  to leave the fight to government or non-Muslims will equally exacerbate the crisis to the further detriment of Islam.


Christians and Muslims will continue to attack one another within the current anarchical situation unless the Nigerian government proves its political will to hold perpetrators accountable and proves its dispassionate prosecution of perpetrators.  Nigeria is a secular state and must remain so.


Fighting corruption has become a cliché; foreign donors must demand accountability for the funds they send to the Nigerian government for fighting terrorism. They must demand results.


Public debates in the last few years indicate the need for urgent political reform and restructuring to acknowledge marginalized regions, if Nigeria is to remain united and flourish. Otherwise, as Nigerians are fond of saying, "only God can help us".


Hassan John is Canon of the Anglican Diocese of Jos and its Media Director. He is a trained journalist and writes for international media organisations including CNN.