Religion One of Many Factors in Nigeria's Recurring Conflict

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - The recurring conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria could worsen and threaten the stability of Africa's most populous nation, said one African who studies conflict and peace issues.

But many factors other than religion also are contributing to the tensions, said George Wachira, executive director of Nairobi Peace Initiative-Africa, a non-governmental organization.

Wachira likened the bloodshed in Nigeria to the long-running conflict in Sudan, which he said was prompted by "religious intrusion into state matters."

In Sudan, a 20-year-old civil war over the distribution of resources is being fought between the mostly Christian and animist black Africans in the south and northern Arab Muslims controlling the government.

Elsewhere across Africa, most wars and civil wars relate to natural resources or border disputes, Wachira said.

Since the latest flare-up in Nigeria began last month, hundreds of Muslims and Christians have been killed by members of the other community in Plateau and Kano states.

The Red Cross estimates that at least 600 people have died in the conflict, which has now subsided following the declaration of a state of emergency in Plateau state and the imposition of a curfew in Kano state.

Wachira said the case of Nigeria, a federal state, is made more delicate by the fact that a dozen states are now governed under Islamic (shari'a) law, despite the presence of Christians there.

Proscribed penalties under shari'a can include the amputation of limbs for stealing, stoning to death for adultery and public flogging for alcohol consumption.

According to successive studies on the Nigerian conflicts, fears by small tribes that they will be politically and economically dominated by bigger tribes fuels resentment, which eventually boils into all-out armed conflict. Nigeria has more than 230 tribes.

Also, the largely Christian south has resented the Muslim north's domination of political power, under both military and civilian rule, for most of the years since the country's independence from Britain in 1969.

Unfair distribution of oil wealth is another cause cited by scholars.

In addition, many farming and herding communities in the increasingly arid north have been pressing southwards to escape the steady encroachment of the Sahara Desert.

The resulting increased pressure on land in central Nigeria has provided yet another cause for conflict.

Wachira said an analysis of the root causes of the recurrent "tribal" and "religious" conflicts in Nigeria should form the basis of resolving them, rather than allowing religion to be used as a platform for settling scores.

But Nigerian civil society activists, led by the Nobel prize-winning author Wole Soyinka and human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi, are suggesting a different solution.

They told reporters in Abuja that President Olusegun Obasanjo should resign and a national conference be held to rewrite the national constitution and save the country from collapse. Obasanjo has rejected the idea.

Muslim leader Datti Ahmed has also called on the government to convene a national conference. Failing that, he said, "we go to war because the federal government has failed and the system has collapsed."

The government has faced a crisis of public confidence since last year's general elections, which were marred by widespread allegations of fraud and rigging.

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