We owe ourselves a reckoning – Nigeria between freedom of religion and growing Islamic fundamentalism 


by Obiora Ike, March 2019


There is no shortage of pronouncements that the inalienable and fundamental rights to freedom of conscience and religion for persons as enshrined in international constitutions, covenants, statutes and the United Nations Charter of 1948 are seriously undermined and threatened in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria.


Cases of persecution of persons – particularly Christians – for religious reasons are on the increase. The statistics are shocking: over 200,000 people were victims of religiously motivated killings in the past 30 years – currently the highest level of any country in the world. Nigeria is not at war with another country and has never been, but religious fanatics – mainly Islamists – fuelled by bigotry, hatred, ignorance, ambitions to appropriate land, and politically teleguided acrimony instrumentalize religion for various ends. Thus the need to call urgent attention to the situation in Nigeria. 


 It is a call that is justified on humanitarian grounds – for the peace, stability and progress of Africa’s largest economy.  The international community cannot simply stand aloof and watch religion being used as a tool against innocent people. If the violence is left unchecked, cataclysmic consequences could follow. With a population of 200 million people, Nigeria has the largest number of Muslims living in any country of Africa and the largest number of Christians living in the same country. It has over 400 languages, showcasing diversity in a territory of contradictions and possibilities.  The country is inhabited by people of indigenous African Bantu origins, but migrations have happened over decades with Africans from other backgrounds, including Fulani nomads, immigrants from inter-African commercial dealings and persons of Arab and Caucasian background becoming inhabitants. 


The British colonial conquest of Nigeria merged this large diverse land of nearly one million square miles and its heterogeneous people into one state until independence in 1960.  Post-colonial Nigeria has suffered a void of good leadership and a civil war broke out in 1967 between the mainly Christian-populated southeastern parts then known as Biafra and the rest of the country: the largely Muslim parts of northern Nigeria. The war cost over one million lives, mainly women and children in Biafra.  Coups and the usurpation of power by various military dictators dominated Nigeria’s history for 30 years from 1966 until 1999. During this period, a military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, surreptitiously took Nigeria into the Organisation of Islamic countries (OIC) against the will of the majority of its citizens. His action increased the polarization and conflicts between religious affiliations, and heightened suspicions that the dominant political Muslim elite was attempting to impose Islamic legal, religious, cultural and social systems on national public life. 


In 1999, contrary to the letter and spirit of the Federal Constitution of the Republic, 12 out of the 36 states that make up the Federation of Nigeria simultaneously legislated to adopt Islamic Sharia. By thus proclaiming themselves “Sharia-governed states” and imposing Sharia Islamic jurisprudence in both personal and criminal law upon their citizenry, these states have heightened tensions and suspicions across the country, causing more deaths of innocent citizens, and wanton destruction of property and livelihoods, including places of divine cult and worship.  


There is disruption of the peace within the social space and many Christians have fled their places of abode as their churches and homes are destroyed. These acts of arson and rape of women are criminal, yet beyond public condemnations the law enforcement agencies have done nothing to assuage or bring the situation under control, thus giving rise to the suspicion that there is a conspiracy by government, largely controlled by the Muslim political elite, and the security forces to condone this illegality and effrontery.  


Cities in the once peaceful Middle Belt of the country with its large population of Christians and traditional non-Muslim populations are under tremendous pressure to vacate their homes.  The rampaging nomadic Fulani cattle herdsmen have invaded towns, villages and homes in places including Jos in Plateau State and Kogi, Benue, Nassarawa, Taraba and Adamawa states.  The entire northeastern part of Nigeria is at the mercy of a group of terrorists commonly known as Boko Haram.  The agenda of the Sunni Islamic group is to impose Islamic law as the only law in Nigeria. Boko Haram terrorism has increased the tension leading to an escalation in deaths of innocent citizens, destruction of property and general insecurity. The United States intelligence service (FBI) has added to its list of terror and dangerous organisations worldwide al Qaida, al Shabab, Boko Haram and a militant branch of the Fulani herdsmen.  What is most surprising in all this is that in no single case in the past 30 years has anybody been held accountable or responsible – a clear sign of the complicity of the government of Nigeria that is, as already mentioned, currently controlled by Muslim elites, military personnel and intelligence.   


While Christian church groups, moderate Muslims and civil society groups in Nigeria preach peace and coexistence, this appeal must be sustained.  As these groups are unable to control the tools of state coercion, concerned organizations and the international community, especially the USA, must make clear their abhorrence of Islamist terror groups being assisted by government officials to establish a firm foothold in Nigeria by ethnically cleansing Christians in the Middle Belt and across the south. 


 It is known that groups like Mission Africa International, a coalition of Christian church leaders, are determined to put an immediate stop to this ethnic cleansing. It is critical to pressure global leaders at the United Nations but also in Europe and the United States to appoint a Special Envoy for Nigeria to observe the situation and report objectively on it in order to prevent the mayhem and forestall future tragedy in this promising but fragile and diverse multi-cultural/religious space.


Violence linked to religion contradicts the tenets of most religions that teach peace, promote life, abhor killings of persons irrespective of their faith and promote harmony. Religious peace and coexistence is often the foundation for all other freedoms and liberties. When this foundation is shaken all other freedoms are put at risk.


Obiora Ike, Catholic priest, teacher, university professor at Godfrey Okoye university;  Chairman, Christian – Muslim Dialogue in Enugu State Nigeria and Chairman of the Economic Advisory council of the state. Currently Executive Director Globethics.net Geneva