We are undeniably a profoundly religious country. The 2021 World Population Review data on religion shows that 99.6% of Nigerians profess a minimum of one religious faith. The statistics show that Christians and Muslims dominate the religious landscape with 49.3% and 48.8%, respectively. Adherents of the traditional African religion make up approximately 1.4%. The CIA’s 2018 report in The World Factbook also showed that 53.5% of Nigerians were Muslims and 45.9% were Christians. Fortunately, too, both dominant religions lay claim to common ancestry in Abraham and profess undiluted commitments to peace as part of divine obedience.
On the contrary, much of Nigeria’s developmental challenges, including its inability to achieve desired peace and security, are traceable to its obsession with religion. The vibrant religious culture and the destabilizing conflicts that flow out of it have a long history. Nigeria had already recorded pre-independence religious disputes as early as 1953, which probably set the tone for the disagreements, perceptions and misconceptions that eventually crystallized in the 1966 coup d’état and the Nigerian Civil War.
The psychosocial approach to conflict analysis provides a robust explanation of the general nature of disputes among religions. At the individual psychological level, adherents adopt personalized strategies to access the divine. Teachers, religious leaders and denominational or sect belief constitutions always influence these approaches. However, many such teachings and appropriated personal beliefs poorly align with those with deep but different divine access routes. The more entrenched or fanatical each group is in their belief system without aligning with the views of others or the larger society, the stronger the walls of discord that eventually appear. Situating the famous statement attributed to Karl Max that religion is the opium of the poor in this model further explains how conflicts emerge. Like the nerve-calming effect of opiates, the poor masses believe that their religious observances resolve their economic and social challenges. At the same time, they think that deviations or nonobservance of the demands of their faith aggravate societal inadequacies and difficulties. Neither the religious-opium-drenched Muslim nor Christian would want to coexist with those whose practices create and worsen socio-economic challenges. Or worse still, deprive them of the so-called paradise of the hereafter. Yet, the Constitution compels both bigoted parties to live together despite their disdain for each other. But the restraining force of the Constitution does not always succeed. Consequently, Islamic Boko Haram emerged to beat everybody into its religious line in open defiance. But before its emergence, similar disagreements resulted in the enormous loss of lives and properties.
The seeds of religious hate sown several years earlier proved to have eventually matured with the 1980 Maitatsine riot in Kano metropolis, resulting in over four thousand lives lost. In October 1982, in Kano, Muslim fanatics stopped the Anglican Church from expanding the size of its building because of a perceived threat to a nearby mosque, not minding that the church had been there forty years before the erection of the mosque. In the same month in Borno State, another version of the same Maitatsine uprising led to the loss of more than four hundred lives, in addition to millions of naira worth of property destroyed. Two years later, in 1984, the same Maitatsine religious crisis resulted in the death of more than one thousand people, with over five thousand persons displaced. Not done yet, a year later, in 1985, more than one hundred people died in the same crisis at Gombe. The conflict-dimension shifted two years later in 1987 to Kaduna State, where a crisis erupted between Christians and Muslims over a crusade organised by Christian students. The riot resulted in the death of more than twenty-five persons, with over forty-seven churches and three mosques destroyed.
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Again, the 1990 opposition to the invitation of Reinhard Bonke, a German Christian preacher to Kano by Muslims, left more than five hundred lives dead, alongside the destruction of hundreds of millions of naira worth of property. In 1991, arguments over suya meat between a Christian and a Muslim resulted in a religious disturbance that claimed several lives and destroyed several assets. In 1994, following the beheading of an Igbo Christian in Kano for allegedly desecrating the Koran, clashes erupted between the two religious groups. This religious fundamentalism underscored the introduction of sharia law at the twilight of the 1990s and the dawn of 2000. The attendant religious conflicts and first in a decade started with the Kaduna State riot of February 28, 2000, which led to the death of over three hundred people within its first two days over the establishment of the sharia law. Fast forward to 2002, an article by Isioma Daniel sparked violent demonstrations and the deaths of over two hundred persons in Kaduna State and set a stage for more violence regardless of how distantly the source of the religious challenge might be. For instance, the cartooning of Prophet Mohammed in faraway Italy in 2006 led to violent reactions, demonstrations and about eighty deaths. The relative interregnum hit the rocks with the epiphany of the Boko Haram Islamic sect seeding attacks in Bauchi, Borno, Kano and Yobe states, which left over seven hundred people dead. The religious terrorist group is responsible for approximately fifty thousand deaths and lots of property which have run into billions of naira since 2009 being destroyed.
Whether these conflicts occurred within a particular religion or between faithfuls of different religious groups, the causative determinants appear to cut across. The first factor is the poor understanding of the central messages of peace and tolerance that virtually all religions preach. The flip side of this is that within the scriptures of almost all religions in Nigeria are invokable verses and lines to justify wrongdoing. Similarly, none of the sacred books is free from verses for spite and provocatively labelling non-members. However, while the scriptures would have prescribed conditions for such labelling of non-members that would not create chaos, bigots always prefer to be holier than the divine, choosing to manipulate the scripture to suit their purposes. Much of these manipulations are usually from misleading and mendacious interpretations of the pulpit. Virtually all religious crises are traceable to the deceptive education and incitements of the religious preachers. While they may not directly perpetrate the crime, they adequately sow the seeds of bitterness, unjustifiable anger, and intolerance against other groups in the hearts of their adherents.
Politicians consequently leverage the near bursting momentum of negative excitement of the religious mass of people to their advantage. They fortify the mass sentiments not necessarily because of the underlying correctness but to identify with them and gain political loyalty. The adoption and implementation of sharia law is a good example. It is not clear whether that action that enabled political victories is still delivering the expected good governance on the ground in those states. In general, politicians toeing this line of predation deploy the negative opinion leadership strategy and tactfully misinform unsuspecting young people into what selfishly benefits them politically and can create or worsen the religious conflicts on the ground. The unguided proliferation of religious organisations without any form of self-regulation gives unwarranted license for extremities. One of the easiest things to do in Nigeria is to set up a church or mosque regardless of whether the leader of the religious organisation has the requisite training and experience to pastor their flocks free of self-destructive and dispute-creating indoctrination. We receive regular viral video entertainment on the unbelievably abominable fetishes of many of our religious organisations. In more recent times, the fear of religious domination is beyond reasonable proportions between Christians and Muslims. It receives additional inflammation from politicians who take advantage of it to pursue their greedy interests. Concerns have shifted from who can deliver on the task to the proportion of Christians and Muslims in strategic positions. Everybody loses in the process as meritocracy is rarely in the picture.
The immediate consequences of religious violence are usually the destruction of lives and property. Boko Haram alone has been responsible for the deaths of approximately 50,000 people in the past decade. They are also responsible for several other catastrophes on private and public assets. But in addition to that is the worsening of the poverty conditions in the substantially affected areas. Such catastrophic conflicts always make it difficult for sustainable economic enterprise. Farming and other subsistence activities, engaging up to 70% of the population in those areas, suffer massive destabilization, worsening unemployment and poverty conditions and throwing active workforces into the internally displaced persons camps. As a result of the instability, there is an enormous brain drain from the country. Talented people, artisans and professionals who can no longer practice their trade look for those opportunities elsewhere. Only recently, there was well-publicized poaching of Nigerian medical practitioners by Saudi Arabia. Of course, several other countries have been in the queue for a while. Our professionals have been onboarding the employment train of different countries and contributing to our human capacity shortfall thanks to the devastating effects of various conflicts of which religion is a significant contributor.
Religious disturbances’ frustration of domestic economic enterprise also puts a wedge on the inflow of foreign investments. In general, long-term investment prospects suffer, consequently worsening the unemployment and poverty conditions in the country. Tourism opportunities die as people refrain from visiting the areas in crisis. At present, it is as if different shades of such a situation engulf the entire country. Consistent with the frustration-aggression theory, unemployed and severely deprived persons become increasingly aggressive. A good example is the massive intensification of banditry in the Northeast and Northwest parts of the country following the frustrating activities of the Boko Haram insurgency. Aside from that, and most notably, religious conflicts make it more challenging to achieve the much-needed trust and cohesion needed for genuine nation-building.
Finally, we have eaten and are still forcibly swallowing the sour and bitter morsels of religious disputes. The emergence of Boko Haram and its kindred religious terrorist organisations in our landscape seems to have drowned the bass and drums of other low-intensity interreligious crises. We now wish that it never started. Apart from their promises of the absence of peace is the understandable diversion of public resources that would have served better alternative purposes such as in employment generation, into controlling and managing the crises. But as a typical stubborn bunch of people that we are, we still tolerate many Nigerians, albeit close to the government, continuously fanning the embers of religious war. Worse still, even the body language of our president and his appointments seem to support such discriminations that point to religious marginalization capable of aggravating the existing disaster. It is never too late for us to have a rethink.