Guestview: Terrorism and Religion in Nigeria

By Guest Contributor
June 18, 2013

(Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria walks through Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Cardinal John Onaiyekan is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja. Following is a short presentation on current religious tensions in Nigeria that he made on Tuesday to the annual scientific meeting in Milan of the Venice-based Oasis International Foundation, which studies Christian-Muslim relations. 

By Cardinal John Onaiyekan

Let us begin with the general observation that there is violence in the Nigerian culture and I imagine like in every culture. Apart from the history of the inter-tribal wars in the past and of the colonial conquest of our land as well as the resistance to that conquest, our independent Nigeria has also seen the experience of the Nigerian Civil War in which there was a lot of violence and killing. Following this experience, the country has had to deal very much with criminals, armed robbers, militants and kidnappers, most of which are a carry-over from the situation of violence in the last decades. There is also the communal violence that has been in the country every now and then between different ethnic groups, between social groups, even between political groups. Our elections have often been marred by serious violence. In this context therefore, the religious dimension simply falls into a relatively “normal” pattern. People quarrel and fight over many things, including over their religion.

Terrorism is something new in our country. By terrorism, we mean violent actions that entail indiscriminate killing of innocent people, with no clear logical reasons. The terrorism that we see presently in Northern Nigeria, especially the Boko Haram in North East Nigeria, is therefore an anomaly in our nation. The members are mainly local elements. But they have definitely foreign links and backing. It is suggested that the leaders themselves have been part of terrorist cells and movements outside Nigeria, in the hot spots of world Islamic terrorism like Iraq, Pakistan, Afganistan, Somalia, and more recently, Mali. Sometimes the terrorists target specific people, for example, government institutions and sad to say, churches and Christians. Whether the attack against churches and Christians is specifically religious and if so for what purpose, it is still very difficult to understand. We note however that they sometimes speak of their desire to impose by force on the whole of Nigeria an Islamic state governed by a strict form of the Sharia. At other times, they have ordered all non-Muslims to vacate their section of the country, a futile call that fails to recognize the complexity of the Muslim-Christian presence on the Nigerian territory. In all this, the terrorism we are noticing has brought in a new level of virulence in the damage they cause to human lives and properties.

To talk of religious terrorism in Nigeria, we must say a little bit of religion in Nigeria. It is often said that Nigeria has three religions – African Traditional Religion, Islam and Christianity. But most Nigerians, we will say more than 90%, claim to be either Christians or Muslims. But at the same time, most of them retain their firm root in the African Traditional Religion. The distribution of the different faith is anything but even. Although the North is largely Muslim, the South East is largely Christian and the South West and Middle Belt are very mixed. That is about all one can say. To speak of a Muslim North and a Christian South is to say the least very inaccurate. The fact is that every part of Nigeria has some elements of both Islam and Christianity.

Having said all the above, we must stress that the Boko Haram is a complex phenomenon. There are social, political and ethnic dimensions. All these factors must be addressed along with the religious dimension. Religion therefore becomes one among the many approaches to its solution. This religious approach should start with “the house of Islam”, doing all it can to put its own house in order. We Christians, on our part, need to have positive attitude to Islam in general, so that along with our brother Muslims, we can jointly face the challenge of Islamic Terrorism. It means seeking common grounds, stressing the things that bind us together, and emphasizing what we hold as shared religious values. Furthermore, we can jointly work to address the challenges that face us all, in terms of poverty, bad governance, sickness, etc. When we look at all these and we act together, we shall be able to build a community that can work and walk together as one body, one community, one nation, despite our different religions.

In all this, there is need for coordination of all our efforts. I believe this is where the responsibility of government largely lies, a responsibility which unfortunately we have so far not been seeing much evidence of.

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