When thousands of Muslims fled the town of Yelwa in early May, after an attack by Christian tribesmen that killed more than 800, left many more injured and destroyed hundreds of homes and farms, there was hardly any reaction in Europe and America. Apart from the odd Reuters report, there was no comment or condemnation...
When thousands of Muslims fled the town of Yelwa in early May, after an attack by Christian tribesmen that killed more than 800, left many more injured and destroyed hundreds of homes and farms, there was hardly any reaction in Europe and America. Apart from the odd Reuters report, there was no comment or condemnation. The conflict got more attention when Muslims in Kano attacked Christians in retaliation. The Kano Muslims were particularly angered by the failure of president Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian and a former military chief, to take prompt action to protect the Muslims in Yelwa. Their anger was probably also increased by the international community's tendency to ignore their fate while vociferously and unnecessarily engaging with the conflict in Darfur (western Sudan), and accusing Khartoum of supporting ‘Arab militias' to persecute Sudanese Africans who happen to be Muslims, like the Nigerian victims of Christians' violence.
Obasanjo, under no pressure from the UN, the US or the EU, felt no need to act before May 18, when he declared a state of emergency to control the violence threatening the stability of Africa's most populous country. The state of emergency, declared in the central state of Plateau, where the attacks on Muslims in Yelwa had begun, is the first to be declared since supposedly civilian rule was re-established in 1999. "The situation in Plateau state... constitutes a challenge to our democracy," he said in a national address on state radio. "We need to take very serious action... In my personal and official capacity, I am doing everything to bring lasting peace to Plateau state."
Obasanjo continued to explain how serious the situation is, but not why he waited so long to react. "Violence in Plateau has reached unprecedented levels and hundreds have been killed with many more wounded or displaced from their homes on account of their ethnic or religious identification," he said. "Christian and Muslims who used to live together have become arch-enemies." All this sounds similar to the reports and comments on the unrest in Darfur. Obasanjo does not particularly feel it right to emphasise the plight of Nigerian Muslims in Plateau. He is certainly conscious that states of emergency can induce Nigerians to recall the military rule they so hated in the past.
The Nigerian constitution allows military rule to be introduced when a state of emergency is declared. But the constitution also provides that any declaration of a state of emergency and introduction of military rule is subject to approval by the federal parliament. The conflict the current state of emergency is supposed to end is between the Christian Tarok and the Muslim Fulani, and is "rooted in rival claims over the fertile farmlands" of Plateau state, although "stoked by religious hatred and the sense among Christians that Muslims are outsiders", as one of Reuters' reports pointed out. But religious strife among Nigeria's 130 million population, divided roughly equally into Muslims mainly in the north and Christians largely in the south, is traditional and flares up periodically. Since 2000–when twelve northern states introduced shari'ah law–what is usually called "religious violence" has cost at least 5,000 human lives.
But this flare-up is not confined to Plateau state, and Muslims are generally distrustful of Obasanjo, a "born-again" Christian and former military ruler; the mere declaration of a state of emergency will not reassure them or convince the Christian Tarok that they can no longer murder their neighbours with impunity, and burn their homes and farms, as they have been doing. The government will have to do much more to compensate the victims, bring to justice those responsible for the violence, and put in place measures capable of preventing future attacks.
Obasanjo, however, is not likely to take convincing action against Christian terrorists, not only because he himself is a Christian, but because he will also be subjected to strong pressure from fundamentalist Christian extremists in the US, particularly in Texas, Bush's home state. These extremists not only support Bush, but also make a fuss if they disapprove of any of his policies relating to Muslim countries or issues. For example, they acted immediately in 2002, when Bush asked Ariel Sharon to pull his tanks out of Jenin, Palestine. He received 100,000 furious emails and dropped the matter immediately. And one reason why Obasanjo is more likely to take note of the Christians' concerns is that many of the US governments' top officials are Christian fundamentalists. Bush himself, like Tony Blair, the British prime minister, is a self-declared "devout Christian".
Obasanjo, who is more likely to seek their intervention than resist it, must already be in touch with them. If they are in constant touch with the ‘Muslim fundamentalist' president of Sudan, they are certain to have close relations with the ‘born-again’ Christian ruler of a country in the grip of religious strife. But while they are in constant touch with president Omar Hassan al-Bashir to force him to concede the demands of Sudanese Christians, their contacts with the Nigerian ruler are friendlier, being designed to prevent him from making any concessions to Nigerian Muslims. Obasanjo is not likely to introduce the measures necessary to reassure distrustful Muslims and end the current violence in his country. And it is not only Muslims that distrust him.
When his election as president on May 29, 1999, brought to an end a 16-year period of military rule, Nigerians celebrated the event. And when he vowed to wipe out the corrupt practices and culture that had made Nigeria notorious, they became over-optimistic. By 2002 their optimism had turned into pessimism, as official corruption was undiminished and their country continued to be nominated in yearly surveys as the most corrupt state in the world. The general loss of confidence in Obasanjo's rule is shown by the people's lack of enthusiasm for the annual celebrations held to commemorate his election as president and the end of military rule.
Nigeria is a rich country, but despite its oil-wealth many Nigerians remain poor because of continued corruption by officials and foreign oil-companies, which play a leading role in stealing the country's oil-wealth and in corrupting its politicians and civil servants. The scale of the corruption is likely to go on contributing to the distrust and competition among Nigerian Muslims and Christians. A country faced with such destructive threats cannot afford to have a born-again Christian and former military dictator at the helm. So the sooner Obasanjo goes the better; that is merely the first of many steps that are necessary for Nigeria's people to clean up their country's act.