Fighting the Fires Menacing Nigerian Coexistence

Bishops and Muslim Leaders Try to Snuff Out Conflicts

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MARCH 5, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In the early hours of last Nov. 28, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, was awoken by an unexpected, yet dreaded, telephone call. “There seems to be a crisis,” came a voice at the other end of the line. “They appear to be burning churches.”

Recounting the story to me while visiting Rome on his bishops’ ad limina visit, Archbishop Kaigama, 50, says at first he was incredulous. Only six days before, he and his Muslim counterpart had signed a statement pledging greater cooperation and harmonious relations after years of positive developments in Catholic-Muslim dialogue. But after an hour, Archbishop Kaigama, came to the realization that what had started as a political dispute had turned into a full blown religious conflict.

Two days of bloodletting in the central Nigerian Plateau State followed the region’s first local election in over a decade. The local Muslim community had expected the results to be favorable. When it became clear that a Christian-backed governing party had won, the protests erupted. Churches were targeted and burned; Christians were attacked with machetes. Some Christian youths retaliated by attacking mosques.

Such Christian-Muslim conflicts are the “main problem” currently facing the Church in Nigeria, according to Bishop John ‘Oke Afareha, auxiliary bishop of Warri in southern Nigeria. Only last week, violence was reported in Bauchi, a town 80 miles from Jos, where at least 11 people were killed after an internal Muslim dispute spilled over into the wider community. And almost always, say the country’s bishops, Muslims initiate the violence. “Sometimes they will provoke [Christians] for no reason, setting fire to a church, even when two groups of Muslims are quarrelling between themselves,” says Bishop ‘Oke Afareha, 62, whose own diocese is in the peaceful south of the country.

Indeed, most of Nigeria’s 140 million people — who are evenly split into Muslims and Christians — live peacefully with one another. Moreover, when conflict does occur, the initial backdrop is political and tribal rather than religious. But what most concerns Archbishop Kaigama is that these rare conflicts are often misreported, leading to resentment and inflamed passions that threaten to disrupt peace in other areas.

“The international media amplified everything out of proportion, and they started reporting in a very partial and biased manner,” he says of last year’s violence in Jos. “When you hear the BBC saying 300 or 400 Muslims were massacred in a mosque, it’s very suggestive. Who could have massacred them? Certainly not Muslims.” Christians, he believes, were therefore unfairly perceived as the aggressors.

The death toll figures, he says, were unverified because many of those killed hadn’t been identified. Reporters “just assumed” all the dead bodies were Muslims. Yet Archbishop Kaigama says Christians, even today, are still searching for their loved ones who have perhaps been mistakenly buried as Muslims. He says part of the problem is that many Nigerian journalists in large Western media organizations belong to the Muslim Hausa tribe and, because of the size and influence of their media companies, their reports are instantly believed by the people.

The causes of these localized conflicts are varied, but some are more common and inflammatory than others. Elections are particularly sensitive because those politicians who win can often have access to the country’s large oil reserves. Nigeria’s bishops also say even the smallest episodes, such as the Danish cartoons affair, can provoke Muslims into fighting because of Shariah Law which was imposed across the country in the late 1990s. “Before then we didn’t have major problems of coexistence,” says Archbishop Kaigama, adding that Jos first suffered from violent attacks in 2001, and then again in 2004.

Since Shariah was introduced, religious police have clamped down on the smallest of misdemeanors, such as having a torn page of the Koran, selling alcohol or opening a cinema. Archbishop Kaigama says Shariah wasn’t imposed to make people holier, but for political reasons, and it creates “deep suspicion, fear and distrust which, for the slightest misunderstanding, people are ready to explode.” This is particularly true in the north, where the violence has taken place, because its religious police still wield some influence.

Still, many Church leaders have been working hard to better relations with Muslims despite the imposition of Shariah and these outbreaks of violence. Archbishop Kaigama is good friends with the local emir, and both kept in regular contact throughout the recent crisis. Prior to the fighting, their efforts at promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue had, in fact, become “a model” for others, and may well have mitigated more widespread violence.

And amid the clashes, there remains a glimmer of hope. As Shariah law weakens its hold over the people, so a vision of harmony and good relations between Catholics and Muslims has a better chance of permeating to the grassroots — something crucial to ensuring these sporadic yet deadly battles become a thing of the past.

A leader will come

Pope Benedict’s March 17-23 visit to Angola and Cameroon will “encourage, gladden and strengthen” the faithful in Africa, says Bishop ‘Oke Afareha. Many Africans are said to be excited about the visit, even if the Pope will not be setting foot in their countries.

One important issue he is likely to raise once he arrives is the problem of corruption on the continent — a subject also expected to be high on the agenda of the Church’s synod on Africa in October.

In Nigeria, as in many African states, the Church leads the way in fighting for more transparent government that serves the interests of the people. Nigeria is blessed with natural and human resources, but they are constantly misused by politicians and government officials. In manifestos year after year, expenditure is promised for education and other services, but the money never arrives.

Part of the problem is that civic leaders are out of touch. “We’re at the grassroots,” says Archbishop Kaigama, “so I challenge government officials, saying I am more in touch with the people than all of them. These people are hungry, lacking basic facilities and so there’s no reason why they should be suffering.”

Although he’s not optimistic of change anytime soon, Archbishop Kaigama and his brother bishops remain ever hopeful. What’s needed, he says, is a leader who’s willing to offer “tremendous sacrifice.” Being simply a good leader is not enough, he adds. “You need someone courageous, with faith and determination, who would be ready to give his life for Nigeria.”

In 1998, the country’s bishops composed a prayer against poverty and corruption, and are persistent critics of corrupt political leaders. “We bark and bark,” says the archbishop, “but even if we don’t bite, one day we believe that, from the prayers we are saying, a leader will emerge who has a mission to really put the interests of the country at heart.”

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org.

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