Religious fissures in Nigeria’s politics were on display at a presentation on March 10, sponsored by the peace group Common Ground in Washington, DC.
The guest speaker, Dr. Samson Supe Ayokunle, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the largest umbrella body representing Christian organizations throughout Nigeria, blamed the country’s manifest problems on weak leadership and corruption. But he was also unsparing in his criticism of the Muslim minority in the country, who are a dominant force in the north. Ayokunle sees much of the violence in the country as Muslim on Christian, citing the depredations of the terrorist group Boko Haram and Fulani herders, who have been involved in bloody confrontations with farmers, most of whom are Christians. Even violence in the Niger Delta’s oil patch may be indirectly affected by religion.
He also blamed outside actors who stoked violence by supplying weapons and ammunition to extremist groups and participating in radicalizing some Muslim youth. He said that another problem was the practice of Muslim parents, many of whom in the north send their mostly male children off to religious schools where in his view they learn little or nothing, which makes them ripe for radicalization.
Several in the audience, some who identified themselves as Muslims, pushed back, suggesting Ayokunle’s critique was too extreme and that Christians were no angels when it comes to inciting and carrying out violent acts. Also, the religious lens can cause myopia if overused to explain cause and effect.
There was more support for his assertion that there was a lack of competent leadership in the country at all levels of government, which he said is the cause of most of Nigeria’s problems. When asked what to do about it, he said that the international community needs to harshly criticize specific acts of government officials, and the rule of law needs to be strengthened. But he brought that point back around to religion, citing all the country’s top officials who are Muslim, including the president who recently returned to Nigeria following medical treatment abroad.
More going on than meets the eye
Largely absent from the formal remarks and discussion was mention of the interfaith peace initiatives sponsored by organizations like Common Ground and the American University of Nigeria (AUN). AUN’s Peace Through Sports program, for example, brings young Muslims and Christians together to play sports on interfaith teams and learn conflict resolution principles. In other programs, village residents share personal stories with the aim of reconciliation, and Imams and Christian clergy take turns preaching in each other’s holy spaces. While not yet widespread, these programs show that old problems are not immune to new solutions.
Everyone at the event lamented the long and growing list of problems, even as Nigeria remains well endowed with abundant human and natural resources. Because of these resources, Nigeria is in a much better place than many countries to escape the burdens of its past and present. For that to happen what’s needed are more religious tolerance, mutual respect and understanding.