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Winter 1996
Nigeria: Clash of Religions
by Elise Aymer

Nigeria must become "wholly Islamic" and "Allah proclaimed Lord of the entire nation," said Shiekh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a prominent Nigerian Shia Muslim leader. Zakzaky’s group, the Muslim Brothers, have made militant agitation its hallmark. The Brothers support international Muslim causes, advocate a more concealing dress code for Nigerian women, encourage all believers to familiarize themselves with the Quran an work to transform Nigeria into an Islamic state. This year, Zakzaky’s followers seized and decapitated a Christian whose wife allegedly used pages torn from the Quran to clean their infant.

Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria has had a troubled political history since gaining independence from Britain in 1960. The Nigerian military has constantly intervened in politics and orchestrated numerous coups and counter-coups. As a result, Nigeria has suffered through nondemocratic military rule for most of its 36 independent years. The Nigerian economy, too, is in shambles in spite of the $20 million oil revenue that flows into the country each day. The economic situation is particularly abysmal in the country’s arid north where 50 million Muslims live. Unemployment and poverty are commonplace in the region, which lacks petroleum or lucrative agricultural resources. Education has not been a portal to prosperity in the north, where traditional religious education has failed to prepare northerners for sough-after technical and commercial jobs.

Under military rule, corruption, economic stagnation, and repression of opposition forces have encouraged increased Shia Muslim activism in northern Nigeria. In turn, Shi’ite militancy has sparked reaction from the North’s Sunni Muslims and Christians.

Zakzaky and the Muslim Brothers are not alone in their desire to replicate the Iranian Revolution in Nigeria. A growing number of Shia groups in Nigeria are challenging traditional religious and political orders. In 1995, Jamaatu Tadjdid Islamiya, a Shia activist group, littered the streets of Kano with leaflets demanding the departure of all non-Muslims from the North and declaring the city an Islamic state into which the group would soon incorporate all Nigeria. Other groups have fought battles with machetes, bows, arrows and fists for their brand of Islam and an Islamic state. Since 1991, at least 3,000 people have been killed in clashed between Shia groups and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Nigerian government forces.

Shi’ite-Sunni Tensions

The Shia are a minority sect among Nigeria’s approximately 50 million Muslims. Shi’ism gained sway in Nigeria during the 1970s in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Nigerian Sunni institutional roots, on the other hand, date back to the 19th century when the jihad of Usman Dan Fodio swept across northern and central Nigeria. Dan Fodio’s legacy, the politico-religious hierarchy headed by the Sultan of Sokoto, ruled northwestern Nigeria until the region fell into European hands in 1903. The Sultan of Sokoto remains the spiritual head of Nigeria’s Sunni Muslims. Both Nigerian Sunni and Shia Muslims increasingly view the traditional Muslim power structure as a corrupt pawn of the military government.

Shiism, with its history of activism and martyrdom, has provided an attractive alternative to the stagnant, corruption-tainted traditional religion. The Shia, however, have met with opposition from Sunnis who feel threatened by the Shia fervor. On August 5, 1996, verbal opposition turned into violence in Katsina when Shia groups clashed with other Muslims, leaving one person dead and several others wounded. A week later, on the day of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, arguments between Shia and Sunni Muslims erupted in rioting in which several people were injured and many houses razed to the ground. Some northerners say the Shia activist groups’ confrontational methods provoke violence. The groups broadcast their interpretation of Islam in Sunni neighborhoods, organize city-wide processions, distribute pamphlets on city streets, and engage in argument with Sunnis in mosques and religious centers. Confrontational as their methods may be, Shiite religious zeal is mirrored all over northern Nigeria. Quran readings and Sufi brotherhoods attract more and more participants as corruption and the northern economy worsen. Not to be outdone by Muslim radicals, Christian religious activities in the north are also proliferating - encouraged by an increasing flux of foreign missionaries and faith healers.

The Christian Response

The new emphasis on religion has heightened tensions between Christians and Muslims and highlighted fears on both sides of being crowded out. "Here in the night of Nigeria there has been a simmering feeling that Muslims are being relegated to the background and that Islam is being stamped out of existence," said Suleiman Kumo, a northern attorney. Muslims like Kumo a=cite Christian missionary incursions into Muslim neighborhoods to preach the Gospel and seek converts as triggers for skirmishes between Christians and Muslims.

Christians represent only about ten percent of the population in northern Nigerian cities, yet Christian missionary organizations like the Christian Association of Nigeria have intensified their campaigns in the north. Evangelical churches with names like "Deeper Life Church" and "Holy Church of Cherubim and Seraphim" have cropped up all over the north. In Kano, just days after some of the worst rioting in Nigerian history, the Vatican announced the establishment of a mission to "intensify the evangelical work of the church" in the city. Some Muslims threatened by the intensified Christian zeal in the north have turned to torching churches. Christians, in turn, feel squeezed out by Muslims, who they say not only physically threaten them but also bar them from the best educational institutions and oppose Christian ministries. "Muslims can find land easily to build mosques, even against town planning rules, yet we can’t get permission to build new churches," said the Anglican Bishop of Kano. Both Muslims and Christians acknowledge a deterioration in relations between the two communities. "Ten years ago these things [religious violence] were not so common. Now any little disagreement results in looting, destruction and the burning of churches," the Bishop said.

The situation in the north is further complicated by the tendency for warring groups to cloak their ethnic disputes in religious rhetoric. In 1995, Hausa Muslims and Christian Katafs in Zangon Kataf town in Kaduna state used their religious difference as justification for killing one another. When the new Kataf chief decided to move the town marketplace out of the Hausa area into the Kataf center, Zangon Kataf exploded in rioting. Muslims and Christians now turned on one another without regard to tribe. Ethnically motivated violence is not limited to northern Nigeria’s small towns. In cities like Kano and Kaduna, ethnic tensions simmer between Haus Muslims and Ibo Christians, who have prospered as small traders and technicians. In 1967, ethnic animosities between Hausa and Ibo boiled over, triggering the disastrous thee-year Baifran War which killed millions of Nigerians. "We have had enough of religious trouble in the north, unless stern measures are taken from the outset ... it could spread like wildfire," said Tanko Yakasa, a northern politician, echoing the feelings of many northerners frustrated by the increasing religious violence.

Cracking Down

This time, the military regime is talking tough. "If they [the Shia groups] are prepared to break our laws, we are prepared to break their legs," said Kaduna state police commissioner Yakuba Shaibu earlier this fall, in the wake of riots in Kaduna by the Muslim Brothers to demand the release of imprisoned Sheikh Zakzaky. The government has called numerous security conferences on the Shia problem, banning open-air preaching and processions, arresting and killing Shia group members, outlawing outspoken religious groups prohibiting the sale of "provocative and defamatory" religious cassettes and has most recently demolished Sheikh Zakzaky’s house. But despite the government’s efforts to curb religious activism, Shia groups are attracting more members, many of them from the north’s universities, and are continuing their attacks against the regime. "We are trying to continue with our program as usual, teaching Islamic philosophy and working to deliver Nigeria from this corrupt system of government," said Mohammed Cironma, spokesman for the government-banned Muslim Brothers, which, through clandestine radio broadcasts, has continued to preach the downfall of the Abacha regime. In September, boldly defying government bans on processions, young Shia protestors marched through the streets of Kaduna chanting "Down with Abacha!" Such open defiance of the regime is rare in a country in which the government’s fiercest opponents quickly find themselves in prison. But with the economy and corruption worsening in the north, many of the young men who protested may have felt that they had nothing to lose.

Nigeria’s military rulers, however, have a great deal to lose if religious violence creates a civil war or if the Shia are successful in their bid for an Islamic state. Nigerians do not have to look far for an African example of conflict between Christians and Muslims, which has escalated into civil war. Sudan, which has a similar Muslim-Christian divide, has been embroiled in a fierce religiously-based civil war for years. An ameliorated economy, curtailment of corruption, and increased democracy may provide breakwaters for the perilous tide of northern religious unrest. Last fall, Nigerian strongman President Sani Abacha announced a three-year transition to democracy and efforts to curb corruption and improve the economy. But corruption, political repression, and abject poverty continue to escalate in Nigeria and with them, the growth of militant religious groups. "People will protest about anything right now; they don’t have enough to eat," said Sheikh Gumbi, a prominent Kaduna Islamic scholar.


Ms. Aymer, ES'96, lives in Boston.

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