The Magazine

Deadly Diversity

Nigeria’s Islamist war on Christianity.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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In Nigeria, thousands of people have been killed in recent months, and tens of thousands in the last decade. It is a fissiparous country whose conflicts have been exacerbated by the increased influence of radical Islam​—​beginning with attempts to apply Islamic law, then the growth of militias, and now the depredations of the vicious al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram movement.

Map of Nigeria

Nigeria has by far the largest population in Africa, some 150 million people, comprising hundreds of ethnic groups, which produces dangerous tensions even without the religious differences. The country is about equally divided between Muslims and Christians, with another 10 percent following indigenous practices. Christians are the majority throughout the South, and Muslims in the North, though with substantial Muslim and Christian minorities in each area, and the two are more mixed in the middle belt, the scene of frequent violence. These conflicts often involve disputes over resources and land use as well as ethnicity, but the religious dimension is increasing.

Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president in 1999, ending 16 years of military rule, but, as elsewhere, the transition to democracy has released animosities hitherto brutally repressed by dictators. 

Nigeria remains intensely corrupt​—​it ranked 143rd out of 183 countries in Transparency International’s 2011 corruption index​—​but federal politicians have usually tried to avoid exacerbating regional, ethnic, and religious tensions. Obasanjo was a Yoruba, but drew much support from non-Yorubas, and his bloated cabinet was carefully composed to include at least one minister from each of the country’s 36 states. The parties usually choose their presidential candidates alternately from North and South, Muslim and Christian, and pair them with vice presidential candidates of a different religion and region. 

Recently this system suffered a partial breakdown. In 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim, died in office and was succeeded by his Christian vice president, the charmingly named Goodluck Jonathan. In the 2011 presidential election, Jonathan, paired with Muslim vice-presidential candidate Namadi Sambo, beat his Muslim opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, whose running mate was a Christian.

Despite Jonathan’s convincing victory​—​and reports from international observers pronouncing the election the fairest in Nigeria for decades (admittedly not a high standard)​—​many Muslim northerners, especially the young, claimed they had been cheated. When the results were announced, there were riots throughout the North, with hundreds killed. Most victims were Christians, but Sambo’s house was burned, and traditional Muslim leaders, especially those who counseled restraint, were threatened. 

At the state level, politicians have been less careful. Zamfara State governor Ahmed Sani introduced a draconian version of sharia in 1999, and 11 of Nigeria’s 36 states followed suit. Muslims, especially women, suffered, but much of the brunt was borne by Christians. Their taxes pay for Islamic preachers, while state governments have closed hundreds of churches. Conflicts over sharia have produced the largest death toll since the Biafra civil war in the 1960s. 

The more inchoate mob violence has now been supplemented by Islamist militias. In 2004, a man calling himself Mullah Omar led an uprising in Yobe by a militia called al-Sunna Wal Jamma, nicknamed “the Taliban.” While their names had a comic-opera quality, their actions were brutal. Demanding an Islamic state governed by sharia law, they stormed police stations and other government buildings, pulled down the Nigerian flag, raised the old Afghan flag, stole large quantities of weapons, and vowed to kill all non-Muslims. Tens of thousands of people were displaced.

This Taliban has spawned even more vicious offspring. One group is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (Association Advancing the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), usually known as Boko Haram, which translates roughly as “Western civilization/education is forbidden.” The shorthand name is well chosen since it points to a source of Boko Haram’s strength and Nigeria’s weakness. Many Muslim children in the North receive no education that could give them work skills. If they go to school, they often attend Islamiyya schools, where they learn to recite the Koran, though in many instances without being able to read or understand it. No one should begrudge young Muslims the opportunity to learn their sacred texts, but many learn little else. Since they have few practical skills and live in an economically depressed area, millions end up unemployed and vagrant. In turn, these angry youths become the radicals’ recruits. They attack schools and government offices, and so the cycle repeats.

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