Religion fires more passion than politics in Nigeria

Mark Huband in Kaduna on the riots between Muslims and Christians that have killed 200

The Guardian, 6 May 1991

SEVEN churches burned in Bauchi. The town was in flames. More than 200 died. The security forces searched out the culprits. A curfew emptied the streets.

Now, two weeks later, the town is calm. Townsfolk sift through the wreckage. Religious leaders await an explanation.

Nigeria’s leading churchmen visited the northern town of Bauchi last week to see the result of the country’s most recent outbreak of religious violence. Muslims say that Christians caused it to flare when they rejected Muslim demands that an abattoir in the nearby town of Tefawa Belawa should not be used by Christians to slaughter pigs and dogs.

The ensuing knife fight between Christian and Muslim butchers at the abattoir left many dead. The bodies of the dead, most of them Muslim, were carried into Bauchi in an open truck, say Muslims. The sight enraged Bauchi’s Muslims, who went on the rampage on April 22.

Christians claim the Muslims were encouraged to riot by the leader of the Islamic Movement, Mallam Ibraheem El Zakzaky. Mallam Zakzaky, aged 38, the spiritual leader of pro-Iranian Muslims, denies this.

Christians have now been called to arms to defend themselves. The vice-president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Jolly Tanko Yusuf, told Christians: “Since the law recognises in us the right to self-defence, we shall now not only respond in self-defence but organise and execute pre-emptive attacks in defence of our lives and properties which the government is incapable of protecting.”

The religious conflict has become more explosive than the debate between the two political parties created by the military government as part of its programme of return to civilian rule.

The conflict has both secular and religious causes. Land rights, leadership in the provinces and ethnic backgrounds run in tandem with a constant battle between religious leaders.

In his small mosque in the northern town of Kaduna, one wall bearing a map dominated by a green swathe showing the advance of the faith, Nigeria’s ageing Shi’ite father figure, Sheik Aboubacar Gumi, expresses calm determination.

“Before now, the Muslims were sleeping. They were not educated. Now the Christians feel threatened and feel that we are challenging them. We are not challenging them. We are just getting our rights. Muslims have their own rules and regulations which are there to be followed. The pagans and Christians have no rules and regulations.”

Other Muslim leaders claim that Christians themselves believe, though they are reluctant to admit it, that their religion is weaker than Islam in the guidance it gives for all aspects of life .. Open expression of such feelings has inflamed relations.

Mr Tanko Yusuf, a former Nigerian ambassador in the Far East imprisoned for several months last year for his religious pronouncements, confronts the Muslim claims directly: “The British and their Christian religion were the people who brought civilisation to this place. There’s no Islamic school that can produce people with a good certificate.”

Sheik Gumi holds Muslims responsible for their lack of education. The issue now, as he sees it, is how to go on the offensive and reverse the trend. It is this and the influence of strict Islamic law in the teaching of some Nigerian Muslim leaders, which Christians see as a threat.

“In a country where you have 30 tribes and different cultures, where people still worship their idols, and where intellectuals worship their fetishes, how do you introduce Sharia law?” asks Mr Tanko Yusuf.

He believes the government is unable to heal the religious divide and unwilling to act because the Armed Forces Ruling Council is dominated by Muslims.

Next: Interview with Islamic Movement leader Mallam Ibraheem El Zakzaky.



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