Religious conflict between Nigerian Muslims and Christians is traditional, and the clashes between members of the two faiths which took place in late February are not a new phenomenon. What is new is that the clashes – which led to the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of thousands in one week alone – were set off by the cartoons recently published by Danish and other European newspapers that depicted the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in an extremely offensive manner. If those responsible for the publication of the cartoons planned to offend Muslims, they have succeeded, though they should be condemned, not congratulated, for this achievement. But if by publishing them they sought to inflict harm only on Muslims they have failed miserably, as the fierce clashes their action led to – not only in Nigeria but worldwide – have also caused harm to non-Muslims, especially Christians.
The violence in Nigeria erupted on February 18 in the northern city of Maiduguri, where Christian churches were razed and 18 people, mostly Christians, were killed. A day later violence broke out in the northern city of Bauchi, where, according to Red Cross officials, 25 people were killed when "Muslim mobs attacked Christians". As Nigeria is divided into largely Muslim north and Christian south, it surprised no one that the clashes occurred in the south-eastern city of Onitsha, where the Christian majority attacked the Muslim minority in retaliation. On February 21 alone (when the violence first erupted), two mosques were burned down and at least 30 people were killed. Moreover, thousands of Muslims with northern roots or connections fled to the military barracks.
The Christian retaliation followed a widely-publicised statement by Peter Akinyola, an influential Anglican primate, who issued an inflammatory statement warning Muslims that they have "no monopoly on violence", and that Christian community leaders have "no control" over "restive youth". But he went even further when he said that the Muslim riots, which broke out in the northern cities in response to the cartoons, were part of a plot to make Nigeria an Islamic country: "It is no longer a hidden fact that a longstanding agenda to make this Nigeria an Islamic nation is being surreptitiously pursued," he said.
Akinyola's remarks – which reached a large audience because they were broadcast in widely-received programmes, such as those of the BBC World Service – must have influenced the enraged Christian mobs in Notisha that were responsible for the violence, whose fall-out exceeded the damage caused in Muslim cities a little earlier. The Muslim anger in the northern towns and cities was not generated by a campaign for the introduction of an Islamic state in Nigeria, since most Muslim Nigerians are known to be secular in their inclinations. Akinyola was referring to the introduction of Shari'ah law in the Muslim regions in the north, but that can in no way be interpreted as being the basis for establishment of an Islamic state, as highly secular Muslim countries also have Shari'ah law for personal dealings between Muslims.
Clearly there is great need for restraint, by both Muslim and Christian religious leaders, in a country where there is strong distrust between members of the two faiths. Since 2000 thousands of people have died in "religious violence" in Nigeria. Cooperation between leaders of the two communities is also needed to prevent the equally strong political distrust between them from breaking into violence. Such distrust is currently being stoked by the political game president Olusegun Obasanjo is perceived to be playing. The current moves to amend the constitution to extend the period of presidential rule from two to three terms is believed to be intended to enable him to stand for elections again when his second term ends next year.
Many northerners are angry that Obasanjo is refusing to end the speculation that he intends to try to get a third term of office. The distrust does not derive only from religious factors. Obasanjo, a Christian southerner, was also a military ruler in the 1970s and was chosen by Nigeria's political elite as a "consensus candidate" to stand for elections after the end of 15 years of military rule in 1999. His appetite for power is, therefore, widely known; hence the distrust of his refusal to deny or confirm that the constitutional moves are designed to facilitate a third term. In fact, constitutional hearings began on February 22 and are likely to lead to the necessary amendment. His crackdown on various political organisations and figures, ostensibly to end corruption in a country widely known for both political and financial malpractice, has also conhim.
But there are also economic reasons for the violence in certain states, such as the Niger Delta, which produces most of Nigeria's oil but receives little of the proceeds from its sale. Nigeriais the eighth largest oil-exporter, but the people of this state have little to show for it. This explains the widespread attacks against oil-installations and foreign workers employed by the oil-companies. Not surprisingly, these companies are now also alarmed by the current religious clashes. They fear that they will deprive the military of the ability to control the attacks in the Niger Delta, as most of their resources will be transferred to the scenes of ethno-religious confrontation.
But it is not only the oil-companies that are concerned about the risk to oil-production posed by the violence. Interestingly, the US government is also concerned about the risk of violence because of Obasanjo's attempt to obtain a third term of office, though not for democratic reasons. John Negroponte, US intelligence chief, warned Obasanjo last month not to push for a third term, saying that doing so "could lead to disruption of oil supply" as well as to other serious problems, not only in Nigeria but also in the rest of West Africa. However, Obasanjo knows that since twelve Muslim states in Nigeria introduced Shari'ah law in 2000, president Bush and the religious right and neo-cons that back him are more concerned about the spread of Shari'ah than about setbacks to democratic rights. So he is unlikely to be dissuaded from standing for a third time by Negroponte's warning.