Muslim christian relations in nigeria


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Three dominant religions exist in Nigeria: Islam, Christianity and African Traditional Religion. Nigeria, with a population of 140 million1, Muslims are estimated to be 50%, Christians 40% and Traditional Religionists 10%.2 While the traditional religion is non-evangelical and welcoming to other religions, it is not the case with Islam and Christianity. Both religions have a history of radical evangelism in the country. The two religions do not consider each other as friends but rivals. Although the Muslims acknowledge Christ as a prophet, they hold strongly to the teachings of the Quoran which they believe comes directly from God. They live strictly according to the Quoran and they find it necessary to conquer and bring all the infidels into the true faith, which is Islam. Christians on the other hand feel offended by the teachings of Islam and hold strongly to the position that, outside Christ, there is no salvation; all Muslims and traditional religionists will go to hell unless they receive Christ as their personal Lord and savior. Related to this is a battle of supremacy between the Muslims and Christians in the political and economical sphere. Due to these and other related factors the relationship of both religions in Nigeria has been tense, often giving rise to religious riots.

Given these circumstances, it is important to look at the factors behind these riots historically and see what we can learn from the history towards the mutual co-existence of the two religions in Nigeria. We shall do this by first looking at the history of Nigeria, as well as the history of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria. When that is done, we shall historically look at some of the problems that plague the relations of the two religions in Nigeria. Some of the problems discussed would be Sharia law, poverty and illiteracy, religious riots, and the politicization of religion. In the last section of the work, we shall look at some of the challenges they will face as they engage in dialogue. We shall conclude with four forms of dialogue that can take place between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.

A Brief History of Nigeria:

Understanding a bit of the history of Nigeria will help in dealing with the complexity of these two religions. The geographical region today called “Nigeria” which lies in the West of Africa existed for many years as separate autonomous ethnic groups identified by a common language and heritage. It was the British who over time brought the different groups together. British administration in Nigeria started formally in 1861when Lagos was ceded to the crown.3 After this period, the British Governors in Africa worked hard to consolidate the different ethnic groups as much as possible, as this made control of the region easier for them. While they were successful in the Northern part of Nigeria because of the already centralized system of government which was closely tied to Islam, they met a lot of difficulty in the South because they were no formal structures in the South. In the North, they had the Emirs who were very powerful religious and civil rulers, leading different tribes, and united by Islam. In the South, with the exception of the Benin Kingdom and the Oyo Kingdom, majority of the ethnic groups did not have kingdoms. They had tribes that were governed by chiefs.

A significant point in the history was in 1914 when Sir Lord Frederick Lugard, the British Governor to the Northern Protectorate of Nigeria amalgamated the Northern Protectorate and the South Protectorate and called it Nigeria, a name suggested by his mistress. Ebong writes that,

Betwteen 1922 and 1945, the direction of affairs above the local government level was fully in the hands of British Colonial authorities. The Governor’s executive Council was largely an official body. But from 1939, and increasingly so after the war, opposition to this rule by officials began to gather great force.4
Following an agitation led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his NCNC party, the British decided to grant Nigeria an internal self rule in 1951. The struggle for independence culminated in October 1, 1960 when Dr. Azikiwe became Nigeria’s first Governor General.

Nigeria was only six years old as a nation when it experienced the first military coup which would eventually lead to a civil war. A group of young military officers, mostly from the South of Nigeria accused the civilian government of corruption and took over power. They assassinated the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa who was from the North, Chief Ladoke Akintola who was from the West and Ahmadu Bello who was the Premier of Northern Nigeria. Due to these massacres, there was confusion everywhere in the country, and this gave rise to riots. In a bid to bring peace, General Johnson T. Aguiyi Ironsi who was the highest ranked military officer in the country took over government and became the President. He could not control the situation as massive riots continued everywhere in the country. Easterners of Igbo extraction were massacred in the North. Four months later, a group of young Northern military officers assassinated General Ironsi. Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a young army officer from the North took over the government. When this incident happened, Lt. Col. Ojukwu, the governor of Eastern Nigeria, declared independence for his region and called it “The Republic of Biafra.” In the next three years, Nigeria would fight a war with this region leading to destruction of lives and property. The civil war ended in 1970 and reconstruction of the country started. Nigeria would go through a series of coups and counter coups until 1979 when General Olusegun Obasanjo handed power to a civilian elected President. This government was in power till 1985 when they were overthrown again by another military coup. They were two more successful military coups before power was finally handed over to a civilian President in 1999.

It is interesting to note from the history that, in the 46 years of existence of the country, only 19 years did the country have a civilian government, and Christians have only ruled for 16 years. This is important because behind most of the tensions, especially those that are eminent as the country begins a new transitional process, the Christians clamor to have another 13 years of leadership to balance with the number of years they have been ruled by Muslims. Most issues in Nigeria border on religion and ethnicity as people do not separate their religious life from the civic life. While there are still some Christians of Northern Origin and some Muslims of Southern Origin, in the most part, the religions are divided across ethnic and geographical lines. It would be as difficult as finding a Kanuri Christian as it would be in finding an Igbo Muslim.

Political Map of Nigeria.5

The Origin of Islam in Nigeria:

The origin of Islam in Nigeria is divided primarily into two phases. The first phase spans between the eleventh and seventeenth century and the second phase began around the 19th century. In the first phase, Islam was spread by traders and clerics. The 11th century was a time of Trans-Saharan trade and many African communities were engaged in this trade across the desert. This brought about contact between the sub-Saharan African communities and the communities in North Africa were Islam was already thriving. While these African traders were influenced by Islam in North Africa, they were looked upon as being inferior by many Arab Muslims. Some of the Arab Sunni Muslims were against trading with these Sub-Saharan Africans. Initially, the Muslim traders lived in separate quarters, keeping themselves away from the West Africans but this later gave way to a freer mixing with West Africans. According to Joseph Kenny, the reason is because the Muslim traders needed the African trading agents. This gave rise to a community of African Muslims.6

Around this time, Ibn Yasin, a Sufi Sheikh had established a hostel, a school and a mosque in an Island close to the coast of Senegal. His followers vigorously spread Islam around the West of Africa. Kenneth Morgan writes that it was around this century that Islam reached Timbuktu.7 By the 1400, Islam had already taken root in some parts of West Africa and they were Islamic empires side by side with the traditional African kingdoms in Ghana, Mali and Songhai. According to Ann Reid, These kingdoms constituted a secondary cultural center from which Islamic doctrines, taking the specific and highly characteristic Maghrebine forms received from Morocco, were carried eastward to Kano and the other Hausa centers.8 The Mali and Songhay empires contributed considerably for the spread of Islam in Nigeria. Kenny argues that although Islamic missionaries from Mali had come to Kano, Nigeria in the 14th century, only in the 16th Century did these states come into prominence with their King’s acceptance of Islam.9 Around 1513, the King of Songhai, Askia the Great, conquered Katsina, Zaria and Kano. During this period of Songhai ascendancy in the 16th century, there was expansive contact between the Hausa states and the regions of the West. Ann Reid writes that many of the Songhai notables settled in Kano and Katsina to teach after returning from the pilgrimage in Mecca.10

Towards the end of the 16th century, Songhay was conquered by the army of the Sultan of Morocco. Moroccans ruled Timbuktu for some time, however, no empire came to replace Songhay as Songhay had replaced Mali and Mali replaced Ghana. Kenny says the main reason is because,

The northern coast, from Egypt to Algiers, became part of the Ottoman empire, which extended around the whole eastern and northeastern Mediterranean to the borders of Austria. … The Turks in North Africa, who controlled only the towns and land along the coast, were interested only in the Mediterranean world and Istanbul, leaving the Sahara to the Bedouins and their Shaykhs.”11

With the end of Trans-Saharan trade, those sub-saharan empires that depended on this trade died until the Atlantic trade provided a substitute necessary for revival.12

The 19th century marks the second phase of the spread of Islam in Nigeria. In this phase, it is no longer the trans-Saharan trade that becomes the primary means of the spread of Islam but we see a new form of trade, the Atlantic trade. The most significant event in this second phase is the Jihad of Usman dan Fodio. In 1802, Shehu Usman dan Fodio who was the head of the local Fulani clan and a learned Muslim scholar declared a Jihad. Yeld says, Shehu did this with the support of the nomadic Fulani and some of the Muslim Hausa. What he did was to overthrow one after another the Hausa Chiefs, and Fulani leaders were installed as local Emirs.13 The fourteen chiefs of Usman who received flags from him and were authorized to wage war in the name of Allah and his prophet conquered the following emirates: Katsina, Kano, Zaria, Adamawa, Gombe, Bauchi, Nupe, Ilorin, Kazaure, Daura, Hadejia, Misau, Bornu (only a temporary conquest), and Katagum.14 The consequence of this is that a new ruling class superimposed on the people a particularly strict and puritanical form of Islam on the less uncompromising standards of an easy-going and not yet completely Islamicized population, not to mention straightforward pagans.15 As mentioned above, Bornu was only conquered temporarily. The Fulanis did not succeed in permanently conquering Bornu. The rulers of Bornu who are the descendants of Muhammad al-Amin al-kanemi have always considered themselves the equals of the Fulani sultans ...16

Before we bring this section of the paper to a close, it is important to look at how Islam spread from the North to the West of Nigeria which is principally the Oyo kingdom. According to Ann Reid in her detailed history, this conquest began in 1810 when the governor of Illorin, Afonja wanted to become independent of the Alaafin17 of Oyo. Afonja overthrew the Alaafin and established himself as the ruler in Illorin. He invited a Fulani teacher, Alimi to join him as one of his priest as a way of strengthening his position. Alfonja used slaves owned by Alimi together with those Hausa slaves that have runaway from the neighboring Yoruba towns to form an army that defeated the Yoruba force sent against him. The excesses of these Hausa mercenaries provoked resentments among the Yoruba and when Afonja tried to disband them, they rose against him and killed him. With Afonja killed, Alimi became the ruler of Illorin. He then established an independent Fulani kingdom in Illorin. Alimi and his followers from Ilorin captured and sacked Oyo. The emir of Illorin compelled the Alaafin of Oyo to accept Islam and when the Alaafin refused, he had him killed. The Fulani overran the West as far as Abeokuta instituting Islam as the religion.18

The Islam in the West of Nigeria has a different attitude from the Islam in the North. Joseph Kenny beautifully puts it,

While northern Islam has been firmly reformist and separatist with regard to anything non-Islamic, Yoruba Muslims have been more accommodating. The Yoruba people are first of all Yoruba, secondly Muslim or Christian and lastly Nigerian, so that in one family you can find both Muslims and Christians and some involvement in the traditional religion.19
The next significant moment in the spread of Islam in Nigeria is the colonial period. The policies of the British favored the spread of Islam. With the pax Brittanica, Muslims and everyone were permitted to travel and move freely across the country. As a result of this, many Muslims moved to several towns across Nigeria where they set up their businesses. It created the Islamic awareness across the country but did not boast of great numbers of converts because they set up a system whereby they lived in the same neighborhood together and conducted their business within that environment. They did not really mix with the general population. Also, the British introduced a system of indirect rule in the North in which they made use of the already existing emirs and Islamic governments to govern the people. The north at this point was too weak to resist the British occupation because the Atlantic slave trade had ended and this was the major source of money in the north. The north cooperated with the British. During the independence of the country,

To reward the north for their cooperation and compliance, as opposed to the agitation for independence in the south, the British made sure that the heirs of the Sokoto caliphate controlled the Northern Region. And the Northern Region was considered to have the majority of the population, so that it could rule the Federation alone.20

The Origin of Christianity in Nigeria:

There are two phases in the history of Christianity in Nigeria. The first phase was in the sixteenth century when Portugal was the trading partner with the Kingdoms of Benin and Warri in the South of Nigeria. Priests who were their chaplains started carrying out evangelization work among their trading partners and later on, Spanish Capuchin missionaries started doing evangelization with the king and members of the king’s palace. Their assumption was that, if they could convert the king and his court to Christianity, the entire kingdom would become Christian as was the case in most of Europe. This evangelization approach did not work and by the late 19th century, only a few artifacts of Christianity remained.21

In the history of Christianity in Nigeria, it is the second phase which began in the early 19th century that receives much more attention. The evangelization during this period was more systematic with missionaries being sponsored from Europe and North America. In this phase, the Methodist missionaries were the earliest to make an effective missionary contact with Nigeria. Its greatest apostle was Thomas Birch Freeman who arrived Badagry Creek in September, 1842. A few weeks after his arrival, a lay missionary of the Church Missionary Society, Henry Towsend also arrived. Together they both entered into a mission partnership, a partnership still shared by the Methodists and Anglicans. Four years later, Presbyterian and Baptist missionaries also joined in evangelization work in Nigeria.22 These initial missionaries to Nigeria were interested in developing the people and helping them to recover from the evil of slavery.

Like the history of Islam in Nigeria where we have Usman Dan Fodio as a major figure, in Christianity, we have two persons: Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Bishop Shanahan. Bishop Ajayi Crowther was the first African Anglican Bishop. He was born in Osogun, Oyo State, Nigeria in 1891. He was captured in 1821 and sold to Portuguese slave traders. Before they left the Port, his ship was boarded by the British Navy and Crowther was taken to Freetown in Sierra Leone. He was released in Freetown. In Freetown, the Church Missionary Society cared for him and taught him English. He later converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1827. He was appointed an interpreter for an expedition into Niger. One of the goals of the expedition was to spread Christianity and help end the slave trade. Following the expedition, he was recalled to England and trained as a minister. He was ordained by the bishop of London. He returned to Nigeria and opened a mission in Abeokuta, which is in Ogun State. He was ordained the first African bishop of the Anglican Church. 23

One of the most successful Christian evangelization in Nigeria is the work of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Southern Nigeria. Through the instrumentality of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the Obi of Onitsha in 1885 donated a site to the Holy Ghost Fathers to begin their Christian mission. They opened the Holy Trinity Mission in January 1886. In a letter written in March 1887 by Rev. Lutz, the Superior of the mission to the Generalate of the Society in Paris, Lutz says there were fifty people at the mission, twenty of whom had been bought out of slavery.24 The first approach of the Holy Ghost missionaries was to establish a Christian village with bought slaves. By 1900, the Holy Ghost Fathers had established 3 Christian villages.

Rev. Lutz was succeeded by Rev. Lejeune in 1900. According to Magnus O. Bassey, Lejeune was one of the greatest advocates of the policy of evangelization through the schools. Under him, this policy became the Catholic missionaries’ tactical approach to evangelization.25 Father Shanahan (later Bishop Shanahan) succeeded Rev. Lejeune. Shanahan was the third of ten children from a poor family in Ireland. He was ordained a Holy Ghost priest and came to Nigeria as a missionary in 1902. Under him, the Roman Catholic Mission was able to evangelize and educate people in Igbo, Ibibio, and Ogoja provinces, East of the Niger. He wrote in a letter in 1905 that, … it is through the schools that we will win over the whole country.26 Education was an important tool of evangelization for him. He drew up two phases of evangelization: the first phase which is the Christian village phase intended to create entirely villages made up of converts to Christianity and the second phase which is the village school phase. Recognizing education as the best instrument for evangelization, Shanahan ordered schools built in every village under his jurisdiction. While the Christian village phase was not very successful, the village school policy was highly successful. The outcome was an upsurge of Catholic schools throughout South-Eastern Nigeria.27 It was Shanahan that would later invite priests from Maynooth College to help him carry out evangelization in the South-South part of Nigeria. This group of newly ordained diocesan priests who would arrive from Ireland around 1922 would later found the St. Patrick Missionaries in 1932 to evangelize that region.

The most successful means of Christian evangelization in Nigeria was not through jihads or intimidation but through education. This was the case of both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. As Magnus Bassey beautifully puts it,

For the Roman Catholic Missionaries, education was the best means by which Catholic influence and prestige could be firmly established in Nigeria. Indeed, for some extremists, the schools were the only hope for the realization of their missionary aspirations and objectives.”28
For Muslims and Christians to engage in any meaningful relations, it is important to look at those underlining things both covert and overt that create suspicion between the two religious groups, usually leading to violence. The issues we will discuss here are not exhaustive but represent most of the major issues. These issues are also inter-related.
Colonization and the Creation of Geo-Religious Identities:

After the slave trade ended, a group of Western nations gathered in a conference in Berlin in 1885 where they divided Africa among themselves as a mother sharing a loaf of bread among her children. This is what came to be known as colonization. Gloria Emeagwali simply defines colonialism as

a system of administration; a process of exploitation, and a production system often geared towards the creation of capitalist relations and the economic and socio-cultural aggrandizement of the colonizer. This may be done by covert or overt, psychological, legal and military mechanisms.29

Nigeria like other African countries was subjected to this system of domination and a corporate existence was forged between different ethnic groups that had no common relationship. The colonial masters created these corporate countries without recourse to the history of these geographical areas, how the cultures differ, the relationship of the tribes and the political systems governing the groups. Tunde Obadina writes that by redrawing the map of Africa, throwing diverse people together without consideration for established borders, ethnic conflicts were created that are now destabilizing the continent.30

As the history of Nigeria as well as that of Islam and Christianity above shows, Nigeria existed as separate kingdoms, tribes and ethnic groups until the British forged the groups together creating a country called Nigeria. The amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria in 1914 by Sir Lord Lugard, the British Governor to Nigeria is a significant moment in the history of Nigeria, not only because it created a corporate region called Nigeria, a name suggested by his mistress, but it is also the genesis of the geo-religious problems Nigeria will later face. As I have argued earlier in this book, it is a glaring fact the people of Northern Nigeria, who are chiefly Muslims, had no cultural, geographical, or religious relationship with the people of Southern Nigeria, mainly Christian.

The colonial masters created an identity that was geographical and at the same time religious. What became common place is that once you are from the North, there was an assumption that you are a Muslim and once you are from the South, there is the general assumption that you must be Christian. This assumption is fallacious and has led to a lot of problems in recent times. Our history shows, there are both Christian missionaries that evangelized the North leading to a significant number of Christians in Southern Kaduna and in Plateau State. At the same time, there is a significant number of Muslims in the South-West of the country and in the middle belt. The problem with this assumption is that some Northern states such as Zamfara concluded that their state is a Muslim state and passed the Sharia law as the law governing everyone in the State and some of the Christian states in the South like Cross River State threatened to declare the state a Christian state and subject everyone in the State including the Muslims to the Canon Law.

Sharia Law:

Shariah law has been a contentious issue in Nigeria in recent years and has led to some religious strive and violence between Christians and Muslims. At the beginning of the new democratic dispensation in 1999 in Nigeria, many of the Muslims started clamoring for Sharia law. Ahmed Sani Yerima, the governor of Zamfara state surprised the nation when he introduced the Sharia law. He introduced the full provisions of Islamic law in the penal code of the State. According to Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, his decision had a bandwagon effect on other predominantly Muslim states in the North with other governors taking Yerima’s footsteps with varying degrees of enthusiasm.31

The problem of Shariacracy32 in Nigeria has been summarily stated by Van Doorn-Harder thus,

Nigeria’s Muslims insist that because Shari’a is the pure law revealed by God, humans cannot tamper with it. They are frustrated because the Nigerian government allows only partial implementation of this law, which the northern Hausa and Fulani tribes have followed on and off since the 11th century. Christians fear that if the Muslims gain political power throughout Nigeria, Christians will be reduced to second-class citizens. They point to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where freedom of religion is severely restricted.33

There are two issues involved here, the Muslim belief that Sharia law should govern their everyday life and the Christians are afraid that their rights would be restricted if the Sharia law is introduced. It is this lack of agreement that has led to most of the tensions resulting from Sharia law. Although Muslims have continued to argue that the Sharia law does not affect the Christians, but most Christians do not believe them. They see the Sharia law as a systematic plan to make Nigeria an Islamic state, with Christians in a second-class position.34

The current practice of the Sharia law in states were it is implemented is very restrictive of the Christian’s rights. The Christians cannot reconcile the Muslim’s insistence that the Sharia law is for Muslims only when it affects the day to day lives of Christians. Some of the social provisions associated with the Sharia law that affects Christians is the separation of the sexes in public schools, in health and transportation services and the criminalization of alcohol consumption. In Kano state for instance, non-Muslims are fined approximately $380 or up to a year in prison for drinking or selling alcohol in certain public places. The only place alcohol can be sold or drank is in federal government installations.35

Many persons including Muslims are very uncomfortable with the Sharia law most especially as it relates to some high profile cases in the last few years. Many Nigerian feminists are uncomfortable with stoning women to death for adultery while letting the men that committed the act go away free for lack of evidence. Many are uncomfortable with chopping off people’s hands for minor crimes such as stealing a goat or a bag of rice when most of the rich Muslims in the country are living comfortable on ill-gotten wealth. In the final analysis, the introduction of Sharia law as well as other forms of religious laws in Nigeria as the civil penal code is trying to politicize religion.
The Politicization of Religion:

Both the Muslims and the Christians have used religion as a tool to serve their political interests. Kenny puts it thus, Religion in the politics of 1970 onwards was basically a tool which the politicians used for secular interests.36 What is common between the two religious groups is that their insistence on the religious way of life is not necessarily because they are convinced that is the right thing for the country but they do it in order to satisfy their overzealous constituencies.

The North share one thing in common, Islam. According to Kenny, Islam has long been a social definition in Nigeria. They bound together to advance one common political value which is not that of their religious rights and privileges but to get their own share of the national cake. On the other hand, Christian never had this common political value, it however became a rallying point in reaction to Islamic politics.37 The result of this is that the fight between the two religious groups is primarily political. It matters to each of the religious groups who is the president of the country, or the governor of a State. In a South-Eastern state for instance, Christians would not live to see a Muslim become a governor even if they are absolutely sure their Christian rights would be protected, in like manner, the North would not want to have a Christian as the governor even if they were guaranteed of their religious freedom as Muslims. As the country begins a new transitional program, the question again is who becomes the next president? Would it be a Northerner or a Southerner? While it seems that the question is whether it is a Northerner or a Southerner, the real question is whether it is a Christian or a Muslim?

One other issue that comes out more glaringly concerning the politicization of religion is the struggle in the North between the elected politicians and the religious establishments. According to Sanusi,

The latter tends to be the force behind demands for implementation of shariah and claims that certain governors are not good Muslims and are adopting what is called ‘political’ shariah. The governors make compromises to save their political careers and spare no effort to moderate the opposition of the ulama by discrediting them, blackmailing them or compromising them where possible.”38

There is political Islam and political Christianity. It is not uncommon to see a person who was never religious begin to identify himself or herself with a religious group during politics and when the person eventually wins, depending on his or her religious platform begin to use government money to pay for pilgrimages either to Mecca or to Israel/Rome. What is usually the case is that these pilgrimages are not sponsored holistically. A Muslim governor is likely to pay for only Muslim pilgrims to go on pilgrimage and the Christian governor is likely to pay for only Christian pilgrims. If a governor is interested in the religious welfare of all the citizens of his state, it would be more appropriate that this is done uniformly across the two religions. What we see here is, playing politics with religion.

Poverty and Illiteracy:

Nigeria is afflicted by wide spread poverty. Two reasons for the poverty of the country are unemployment and corruption. Between 1987 and 2006, the population of the unemployed has tripled. In 1987, there was 7.0% of national unemployment.39 Today it is almost 21%. The increase is due to the three fold growth in the population, the rising enrollments in higher institutions of learning without corresponding growth in the economy. Data shows that while only 125,000 students were enrolled in higher institutions of learning in 1985, by 1990, there was an estimated enrollment of about 125,000 to 200,000 students, representing an increase of 75,000 students within five years.40 The second reason for poverty in Nigeria is corruption. The Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria summarily captures it thus,

Corruption is responsible in large measure for the broken promises, the dashed hopes and the shallow dreams that have characterized the existence of the multitude of Nigerians in the last few decades. The choice before us is clear: We either go to war against corruption in all its ramifications or we shall soon be totally consumed by this hydra-headed dragon.41

The report from the World Bank on poverty in Nigeria says betweens 1985 and 1986, 34.1% of Nigerians lived below the poverty line and by 1996, those living below the poverty line increased to 56%. This report also shows that 60% of rural dwellers and almost 48% of urban dwellers live in poverty. In general, the country was ranked the 12th poorest in the world.42

In the area of illiteracy, the story is as bleak as that of poverty. In some Southern parts of the country, the children drop out of school to hawk goods in major streets. In the North, most of the children grow up as farmers or street beggars. The government implementation of nomadic education has not helped to bring about literacy in the North. The percentage of the uneducated is still significantly high. An estimated 32% of Nigerians age 15 and above cannot read and write.43

These two problems have contributed to most of the riots in Northern Nigeria. The poor are usually the ones been used to cause trouble. Many Muslim children are brainwashed to believe that if they kill in the name of Allah, they will get 72 virgins in heaven. On the part of the Christian, most believe that all Muslims will go to hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Those who are usually used as tools on both sides to cause trouble are the illiterate and jobless young men and women in the streets.

Islam and Christian Militancy – Religious Riots:

In recent years, there has been a rise in Islam and Christian militancy. Islamic militancy in Nigeria is always linked to radical Islam. The history is traced to Usman Dan Fodio. His militant attack was directed at purifying and reforming Muslim society.44 This conservative version of Islam promoted by Usman Dan Fodio later encountered a split between the traditional conservative establishment, as represented by most of the emirs and their councils, and the newer and more fanatical groups who do not eschew violence as a means of achieving the desired Islamic State.45 This later group constituted itself into an organization known as the Maitatsine.46 The Maitatsine movement represents the uneducated casual laborers during the oil boom of the 1970s. Despite the prosperity in the country, they were poor and marginalized. According to them, both the traditional authorities and the new politicians had betrayed Islam and deserve death. This movement carried out violent actions in Kano in 1980, Bauchi in 1982 and Yola in 1984. It took the Nigerian military to crush them and send them underground.47

Since after these uprisings, they have been many riots between the Christians and Muslims. While there is no Christian group that constituted itself in a military faction as the Maitatsine movement, Christians have always come out in mass to defend their faith whenever these uprisings occur. According to Doorn-Harder, In reaction to increased Muslim activism, Christian militancy has also grown.48 Many Nigerian Christians have forgotten the biblical principle of turning the right cheek when slapped on the left. They have rediscovered the Old Testament code, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This Islamic and Christian militancy is becoming more and more popular leading to more religious riots in recent times. Global Security, a watchdog organization has recently chronicled all these riots beginning from 1999. According to their report, in May 1999, more than 100 people died in Kaduna State over the succession of an Emir. As the State was recovering from this religious riot, between February and May 2000, about 1000 people died as a result of a riot in Kaduna over the introduction of the Sharia law in the State. There were reprisal attacks in the South of Nigeria, killing many Hausa Muslims. In September of 2001, over 2000 people were killed in inter-religious rioting in Jos, Nigeria. Between 2002 and the end of 2003, more than 72 villages were burnt due to religious violence in Plateau State. Religious violence erupted in Kano in May 2004 because of the several Muslims that were killed in Plateau state in the beginning of May 2004. An estimated 10000 Christians abandoned their homes and sought refuge in military installations for fear of the Muslims killing them.49

One of the Characteristics between these violent acts is that no matter whatever the root cause of it, they end up becoming religious. For example, in 2002, a reporter for a popular Nigerian newspaper, This Day wrote an article suggesting that the Muslims should stop protesting against Nigeria hosting Miss World contest in Kaduna because if the Prophet Mohammed was still alive he would probably have chosen a wife from among the contestants. This statement which was a comment from a reporter not representing the Christian faith and from a newspaper that is neither Christian nor represents Christian theology, ignited a wave of violence between Christians and Muslims, leading to a loss of over 200 lives.50

We have recounted some of the problems that plague the relations of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Is there anything done to curb violence between the two groups?

Progress in Dialogue:

There has been some interest in promoting Muslim – Christian relations in the country. We shall identify three of the many steps taken by both religious groups and individuals to bring about better relations between the two religious groups. With many African countries gaining their independence from their colonizers, it became necessary for the Christians to understand Islam. In 1959, this necessity manifested itself in the establishment of the Islam in Africa Project.51 This project later came to be known in 1987 as the Project for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA.) According to Akintunde Akinade,

The project started with the bold determination to understand Islam and utilize the resources within the African traditional worldview to create a better understanding between Christians and Muslims in Africa. … The primary purpose of the project was, to keep before the churches in Africa their responsibility for understanding Islam and the Muslims of their region in view of the church’s task of interpreting faithfully in the Muslim world the Gospel of Jesus Christ.52

This project has been very helpful in the education of the Christian populace about the Islamic faith. While this program has not eliminated the mutual suspicion that exists between these religions, it has insisted that the way forward for African Christians and Muslims is to radically change their orientation from that of rivalry and discord to an emphasis on community.53

Given the volatile nature of Muslim – Christian relations in Plateau State, in 1990, some people started looking at ways in which to curb religious violence in the state. One visionary leader was Archbishop David Windibiziri who leads the 2.5million member Lutheran Church of Christ. He called leaders from both religions to come together and discuss on how they can respond to the growing tensions. Initially, many people were not interested in these meetings but after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, interest in these meetings grew significantly and by September 2002, over 150 leaders from both religious divides gathered to consider what could be done to avert a religious civil war.54

In her effort to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, the government also formed the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC.) This group comprises of 25 persons from each religious divide. They have the responsibility of promoting mutual understanding between the two religious groups. According to the President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, this Council is charged with the responsibility of promoting the ideals of peaceful coexistence, especially among the various religions in the Council.55 While the various groups have continued to meet to discuss issues relating to both religions, our research does not reveal any published materials from the groups. The groups must however be commended for their quick response to bring about peace whenever there is a religious riot. It is hoped that in the future, their dialogues would become life in the hearts of many Muslim and Christian Nigerians.

Challenges of Dialogue:

For the dialogue of life proposed above to be successful, it is important to look at certain things that will hinder authentic dialogue. Without giving due consideration to these factors that affect both the Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, this dialogue would be superficial and meaningless. The two religious groups are coming to the table of dialogue with issues that affect their religions and which their partner in dialogue may or may not accept. It is important that a common ground is reached regarding these issues.

Muhammad Talbi has identified two factors that challenge meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Christians. These are Disparity between those taking part in the dialogue and unequal theological development. While these two factors are more of problems for the Muslims than Christians, I want to add one which is shared by both religions - salvific pluralism. Talbi argues that,

most of modern Islam belongs to the disinherited zone of under-development, an under-development which is not only material but perhaps above all intellectual. The fact that one can call to mind the names of one or two eminent thinkers does not affect the whole: the exception only goes to prove the rule.”56

Though this observation is dated, it still holds partially true today. There is still a great disparity in Nigeria between the Muslim Scholars and the Christian scholars. In fact, the leading Scholar in Islam in Nigeria, Joseph Kenny, is a Christian and a Dominican priest. Given a situation like this, dialogue is difficult, most especially when it comes to exegeting the Quoranic verses and doctrines.

There is also an unequal theological development between the two religions. Talbi argues that Christian theology has benefited immensely from its contact with other intellectual systems. It has been challenged and criticized and has been enriched by elements from other traditions that are compatible with its own internal dynamism. He says Christianity has trained experts in other religions, including Islam. However, the contribution of Islam is very minute. According to him,

It offers us a theology whose evolution practically came to an end in the 12th century. Muslim theology thus progressively lost contact with the world. For centuries no new problems arose to challenge it and force it to investigate more closely the mystery of the world and of God. It is thus seen as congealed, something often merely of historical interest.”57

This problem which is a universal problem Islam faces affects Nigerian Islam even the more because of its puritanical and conservative nature.

The last factor we shall consider is that of salvific plurality. Both Islam and Christianity look at their faiths as the way to salvation. Christianity’s insistence on Jesus Christ as the universal mediator of salvation is offensive to Muslims who have high regard for Jesus Christ as a prophet but not as a savior. Christians come to dialogue with this conviction, a conviction not accepted by Muslims who believe that Jesus Christ like one of the prophets has a mission of proclaiming a righteous way God intends his people to live. Muslims on the other hand see the Islamic way and its law as the way to salvation. It is very aggressive in converting everyone to the Islamic faith because it is a way of offering them salvation. How does dialogue move forward from here? Jaques Dupuis responds beautifully when he writes,

it is self-evident that in the practice of the interreligious dialogue, Christians may not dissimulate their own faith in Jesus Christ. In turn, they acknowledge in their partners who do not share their faith the inalienable right and duty to engage in dialogue while maintaining their own personal convictions – even claims to universality that may be part of their faith. It is in this fidelity to personal, non-negotiable convictions, honesty accepted on both sides, that the interreligious dialogue takes place ‘between equals’ – in their difference.58
Beginning Dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria:

Having looked at the causes and challenges of Muslim – Christian Relations in Nigeria, it is important at this point to propose steps in which dialogue between Muslims and Christians can take place. The Roman Catholic document, Dialogue and Proclamation, presents four forms of dialogue: a) The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an openly and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and occupations. b) The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people. c) The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values. d) The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the absolute.59

The dialogue of life is an important tool in addressing the Nigerian situation. This form of dialogue is about relationships. Muslims and Christians engaging freely in social interactions is an important form of dialogue. This form of dialogue has been very successful in the South-West of Nigeria where some households are comprised of Muslims and Christians. When I lived in Ibadan, which is in the South-West of Nigeria, I was always invited by Muslim neighbors to join them at the end of their celebration of Ramada. In return, I invited them for Christmas. We learned to like each other and over time, we never looked upon each other with suspicion. We saw in ourselves not people with religious differences but people who share a common identity as Nigerians and a common belief in a Supreme Being, Allah or God. This form of dialogue between the Muslims and the Christians is fundamental to the peaceful coexistence of both religions in the country. This is because this dialogue takes place in the grassroots’ level. Our proposal is that the government of Nigeria as well as religious organizations and non-profit organizations interested in Muslim – Christian relations should establish or sponsor social programs that will bring Muslims and Christians together. For example, establishing a community gym or amusement park would draw both Muslims and Christians together as they come to share the facilities.

Given the deplorable state of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians have opportunities to engage in programs that will alleviate poverty, advance the freedom of the citizens of the country. The dialogue of action is an important means of curbing religious violence in Nigeria. Both Islam and Christianity preach peace, social justice, and charity. These are areas where both groups can join forces to fight a common force. By doing this, the people are informally in dialogue. This is because the workers have informal conversations with each other on the job and during breaks. Our proposal is that Nigerian Muslim and Christian groups should organize mission trips in which young people from both faiths can work in a specific place for at least one week helping the poor. Also, both religious groups can establish social institutions that cater for the needs of both Muslims and Christians.

The theological exchange form of dialogue is necessary in Nigeria. In this form of dialogue, scholars and thinkers gather to compare and discuss the finer points of their intellectual traditions, and the conversation generally proceeds in fairly abstract theoretical terms.60 It is not apparent that any of such dialogues is already going on in Nigeria. It is not obvious from our research that the three Nigerian groups involved in Muslim – Christian relations, earlier mentioned in this essay, are engaging in theological discussions. Engaging in theological discussions is important because it is only then we begin to chisel and present our doctrinal teachings in ways that would not be offensive to the dialogue partner. Our proposal here is that the Islamic Council of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria should appoint eminent scholars from both traditions and form a group, Nigerian Muslim – Christian Dialogue Commission (NMCDD).

In both the Muslim and Christian tradition, there exist a deep spiritual heritage. Dialogue can exist at this level. Muslims and Christians can share their religious and mystical experiences with each other. Muslims can learn from Christians as well as Christians learning from Muslims. This will help to clarify the false positions held by both Nigerian Muslims and Christians: the Muslims in Nigeria would say Christians bow and worship images; and Christians accuse the Muslims of bowing and worshipping a stone. Our proposal is that, both Muslims and Christians should be open to receive each other in their places of worship.

Muslim – Christian relations in Nigeria is a very complex set of relations given the many Islamic and Christian sects in Nigeria. The history of the country as well as the history of the religious groups is complicated. This work is in no way exhaustive but a reflection on some of the major events in the history as well as the major issues involved in a discussion of Muslim – Christian relations in Nigeria. As Muslims and Christians continue dialogue towards peaceful coexistence in Nigeria, these words from my former professor of Islam and a worldwide Islamic scholar, Joseph Kenny are very important to keep in mind: In interreligious relations we need two eyes: one with the wisdom of the serpent to know that there are enemies of peace, tolerance and religious freedom, the other with the simplicity of the dove, recognizing the good will and commitment to peace and progress within both the Muslim and the Christian folds.61

1 2005/2006 Census.

2 CIA World Fact Book. ( It is important to note that Christians in Nigeria dispute these statistics because they believe these were influenced by Muslim military dictators that ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1999. The 2005 census is purported to have more accurate figures but the results are said to be held back for the moment by the government to prevent any uprising in the country due to the revelations.

3 I. J. Ebong. “The Birth of the Federation of Nigeria,” African Affairs, Vol. 60:238 (1961), 52.

4 Ibid., 54

5 This Map shows the 36 states of Nigeria. In the middle of the map is Abuja which is the capital of Nigeria. The capital was moved from Lagos, which is the biggest commercial city to Abuja because Abuja is more centrally located. Two rivers flow through the middle of the country and meet together in Lokoja. These are River Niger and River Benue. The places above the rivers are called “North” and those below the rivers are considered to be the “South.” There are also certain regions which are neither in the North nor South and these are called, the Middle Belt.

6 Joseph Kenny. The Spread of Islam in Nigeria: A Historical Survey. Paper given at Conference on Shariah in Nigeria. Spiritan Institute of Theology, Enugu. 22-24 March, 2001, 1.

7 Kenneth W. Morgan (ed.), Islam, the Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims. (New York: Ronald Press, 1958), 247.

8 Ann Madison Reid, Islam in Nigeria: Its History, Character, and Present Progress (M.A. Thesis, Georgetown University,1960), 18.

9 Joseph Kenny, The Spread of Islam in Nigeria: A Historical Survey, 3.

10 Ann Reid, 22.

11 Kenny, The Spread of Islam in Nigeria: A Historical Survey, 4.

12 Ibid., 4.

13 E. R. Yeld, “Islam and Social Stratification in Northern Nigeria” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11:2. (1960), 113.

14 Ann Reid., 28

15 Joseph Schacht. “Islam in Northern Nigeria,” Studia Islamica, No. 8. (1957), 124.

16 Ibid., 125

It is important to note here that the Sultan is sometime being referred to as the spiritual head of all Muslims in Northern Nigeria and sometimes even as the spiritual head of all Muslims in Nigeria. Some Muslims such as those under the Bornu Caliphate would find this offensive.

17 The Alaafin was the head of the Oyo Kingdom, a big kingdom that comprised of most parts of Western Nigeria usually identified by the tribe, Yoruba.

18 Ann Reid, Ibid., 29-30

19 Joseph Kenny, The Spread of Islam in Nigeria: A Historical Survey, 9.

20 Ibid., 9

21 Aniedi Okure, (

22 Frederick Pilkington, African Affairs, Vol. 56:223 (1957), 158-159


24 P. B. Clarke, “The Methods and Ideology of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Eastern Nigeria 1885-1905”, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 6: 2. (1974), 83.

25 Magnus O. Bassey “Missionary Rivalry and Educational Expansion in Southern Nigeria, 1885-1932”, Journal of Negro education, Vol. 60:1, 40.

26 P. B. Clarke, 51.

27 Magnus O. Bassey, 40.

28 Ibid., 41

29 Gloria Emeagwali (


31 Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, “Shariacracy in Nigeria: The Intellectual Roots of Islamist Discourses”, (

32 This term is coined by Ali Mazrui to describe the phenomenon of implementing sharia in a presidential democracy.

33 Nelly Van Doorn-Harde, “On not Throwing Stones – Christian and Muslim Conflict in Nigeria”, (

34 Joseph Kenny, “The Challenge of Islam in Nigeria”, (

35 U.S. Department of State, Nigeria: International Religious Freedom Report, 2005, 3.

36 Joseph Kenny, The Challenge of Islam in Nigeria.

37 Ibid.

38 Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, 4.






44 Raymond Hickey, “The 1982 Maitatsine Uprisings in Nigeria: A Note”, African Affairs, 252.

45 Ibid.

46 Maitatsine is an Hausa word which means “he who curses others.”

47 Joseph Kenny, The Challenge of Islam in Nigeria.

48 Nelly Van Doorn-Harder.


50 Irit Back, “Muslims and Christians in Nigeria: Attitudes Towards the United States from a Post-September 11th Perspective”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Vol.24.1 (2004), 214.

51 See J. Crossley, “The Islam in Africa Project,” International Review of Mission, 61, 150-160.

52 Akintunde E. Akinade, “The Precarious Agenda; Christian-Muslim Relations in Contemporary Nigeria”, Public Lecture, 2002.

53 Ibid.

54 Nelly van Doorn-Harder.

55 Olusegun Obasanjo, Address to the Nation on the Sharia Crisis, Wednesday March 1, 2000.

56 Muhammad Talbi, “Islam and Dialogue: Some Reflections on a Current Topic”, Lecture given at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies, Rome on 25th November, 1971.

57 Ibid.

58 Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 378-379.

59 Dialogue and Proclamation (, 1991), 42.

60 Charles B. Jones, The View from Mars Hill: Christianity in the Landscape of World Religions (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2005), 168.

61 Joseph Kenny. “Interreligious Dialogue in Nigeria: Personal Reminiscences of 40 Years”, in, Anthony A. Akinwale (ed.), All that they had to live on. Essays in honor of Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Msgr. John Aniagwu, (Ibadan: The Michael J. Dempsey Center for Religious and Social Research, 2004), 191.

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