For the umpteenth time, on Christmas Eve last year, the city of Jos, Plateau State’s capital, made the headline for another wrong reason: a series of bomb explosions resulted in the death of thirty-two people (some insisted the figure was much higher) while over seventy others were badly injured. One of the bombs was thrown into a crowd of people drinking in an open pub and another went off moments later at Gada Biu, in front of a Catholic Church. Incensed at these explosions which, from the pattern and targets, appeared to single out Christians and because they happened on Christmas eve, a band of youths in Gada Biu took to the streets, killed over ten people who apparently had nothing to do with the explosions and set many vehicles ablaze. The following day, on Christmas day, the residents of Angwan Rukuba were set upon by another group of irate youths which sparked similar unrests in many parts of the city and clashes between Muslim and Christian youths. As at Monday, death toll from this tragic incident had risen to eighty with more than a hundred people still receiving treatment at various hospitals within the state.
In Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital, on Friday evening, the same day that the bombs in Jos went off, six people, including a pastor and a retired soldier, were killed and 25 others injured at two churches. One of the churches, the Victory Baptist Church, was set ablaze and two members of the church’s choir were shot to death. The assailants, numbering about thirty and armed with dangerous weapons and locally made bombs, were said to be members of the extremist Islamic Boko Haram sect.
Predictably, Plateau State Governor, Jonah Jang, in his broadcast to the people of the State, put the motivation for this latest attack down to politics and the failure of the state’s security system. Governor Ali Modu Sheriff and the police command in Borno also blamed the attacks and killings in Maiduguri on “security lapses”. Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar, who is also the spiritual head of Muslims in Nigeria, as well blamed politicians and bad leadership for the attacks, saying unequivocally that religion had nothing to do with it. Virtually everyone, including Christian clerics who have publicly commented on the issue, has deliberately refrained from attributing the attacks to religion or ethnicity. That was, however, until a certain, hitherto unknown, Islamic group—Jama’atul ahlus Sunnah Lidda’awati wal Jihad—on Monday, claimed responsibility for the Jos attacks. There are speculations that the group is affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
In this piece, I will not concern myself with whether or not the claim of the Islamic group is true or false—in any case, there is no way I can prove whatever position I may hold regarding the claim. My concern is with the deliberate denial, by Nigerian leaders and theocratic elite, that most, if not all the violence we have seen in, particularly, Northern Nigeria, are attributable to religion or ethnicity or both. For me, it is galling to deny what is quite obvious, simply because we do not want to rock the delicate boat of our polity. But this denial has led us nowhere, as I will show presently, but has only placed us between the rock and a hard place thereby making it impossible for us to engage, in a meaningful way, the facts of our differences as an heterogeneous socio-political entity.
Let me offer a personal anecdote, by way of charting an explicit course for my intention in this piece. I was born and brought up in Northern Nigeria, even though my parents are of Yoruba extraction. My father moved to the North from the south west when he was only thirteen and lived there for over fifty years until the 2000 sharia riots in Kaduna forced him to flee the place. I, like my other siblings, grew up among, mostly, Hausa children, and the first language I spoke was Hausa. In fact today, I speak Hausa and Yoruba with equal facility. In my formative years, I was made aware of how different I was from the rest of my Hausa friends both at school and in different social contexts. I realised that no matter how hard I tried, I was always treated as the ‘other’, especially when the matter had to do with religion. I was often the object of cruel jibes by my Muslim, Hausa mates who said my religion was from shaitan and that all Christians would be sent to wutan ja’arnama (hell fire). When I could not bear the cruelty anymore, one day, I told my parents that I was joining my Muslim friends in makarantan islamiyya (Koranic School) in order to gain acceptance among them. My parents had no objections. That was how I attended makarantan islamiyya, for nearly a year, when I was very young, in order to be more acceptable to my Muslim friends and to put an end to the mocking and taunting from them. It was around that time that the expression ‘boko haram’ (western education is forbidden) began to enter my consciousness. The makarantan islamiyya that I attended was run by people who, years later, I would come to discover were extremists. Meanwhile my parents, on their part, were always objects of ridicule and attack on Sundays when they went to church in their white garments as members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church. They were often pelted with stones by even those children who came to our house as my friends and whose parents were very close to us. Years later, when sporadic riots, motivated by religious and ethnic intolerance, became regular in the North, our house was always one of the first places often visited by rampaging youths and our church, the Cherubim and Seraphim Church along Sango/Ibrahim Taiwo Road in Tudun Wada, was burnt down more than twice and had to be rebuilt until it was later reduced, for good, to cinders in 2000. Even our neighbours—people who had been with us from the beginning—saw nothing wrong in persuading us to become Muslims when the murderers came in 2000 during the sharia riots. That was the only condition under which they were willing to give us refuge.
Now, this sketch about my background is intended as a social backdrop to the argument and rebuttal I wish to advance in this piece. It is necessary to state that my experience, while growing up, was not peculiar; there were quite a few of us who went through a similar experience in Tudun Wada, Kaduna, where I was born and brought up. I am sure that there are many people like me, brought up in some other parts of the North, who went through a similar experience. From my experience and those of others, I can state conclusively that there has always been in the North a certain measure of religious and ethnic intolerance. In a place like Kaduna for example, the tension between the Hausa and aboriginal groups like the Kataf and people from Southern Zaria in general is, in my opinion, often the result of intolerance and a desire to dominate. There is also fear, the fear of domination especially by a group of people that are viewed as settlers. It is this fear of domination, and the actual attempt at domination, that is responsible for that oft-repeated cliché indigene-settler feud, which, in fact, is the root cause of many of the conflicts in the North. Religion is, of course, an important factor in the whole conundrum. In many of the flashpoints in the North, the aboriginal (indigenous) groups are either predominantly Muslim (Kano, Bauchi, Borno, Kebbi, Yobe) or predominantly Christian (Plateau, Southern Kaduna), and the settlers are also either predominantly Muslim or predominantly Christian.
Now, when Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto, in his response to the question as to whether the Christmas Eve’s bombing in Jos was motivated by religion, said emphatically that it was not, I do not think that he was being honest. The Sultan had asked, while fielding questions from journalists: “why is it not happening (the bombing and related violence) in Sokoto, why is it not happening in other places…what happened in Port Harcourt, and among the Ogoni, if is (sic) not religious; whenever a Christian is involved in any fracas they will say it is religious. I think the earlier the journalists stop painting such issues as religious, I think the better for us” (see The Guardian, Monday 27, 2010). First, the Sultan knows too well—except he is trying to be too clever by half—that Sokoto, though predominantly Muslim, does not face the same indigene-settler problem as Jos or Kaduna. Sokoto is more homogeneous religiously—and culturally—than Jos. The people—the indigenes—are not afraid that the settlers in their midst—who are in negligible minority—will dominate them. Second, the bombings in Port Harcourt and Ogoni land, to which the Sultan tries to draw a parallel with the Jos incidence, couldn’t have been motivated by religion. They were bombs of protest—and maybe of criminality and political vendetta, as witnessed during a political rally in Bayelsa State on Tuesday.
I think that Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar, like many other clerics who are unwilling to accept that the crises on the Plateau and in some other parts of the North (where there is plenty of indigene-settler brouhaha) are ethno-religious, is not being honest, or his sense of judgement is beclouded by prejudice. The Sultan’s argument certainly flies in the face of common sense, particularly when he said that it was only when a Christian was involved in any fracas “that people say it is religious”. Since the Sultan made this statement in the context of what happened in Jos on Christmas Eve, we might just as well ask him: “sir, so who should we blame—Christians? Traditional religious worshippers? Which places did the bombers target—Mosques? Shrines? Which part of Jos—places predominantly populated by Muslims or known hangouts of Christians?” The fact that the attacks happened on Christmas Eve clearly suggests that it was a sally, a deliberate attempt to disrupt the festivities, and a cowardly act. And now that an Islamic group—although some people are already expressing doubts about its credibility—has claimed responsibility for the attack, I wonder what the Sultan will say next.
I find it utterly annoying when these crises are routinely blamed on politics and politicians. I do not wish to suggest, however, that politicians are not sometimes complicit in some of them; indeed, ‘political instrumentalization of disorder’ as Jean Chabal and Pascal Daloz have argued in their book Africa Work (1997), is the bane of development in Sub-Saharan Africa, and ahead of the 2011 general elections, it is difficult to deny that there are forces deliberately deploying terror and disorder to further their political ambitions. One cannot, to boot, rule out the complicity of even external forces—external, that is, of a continental or international dimension. There are speculations, in fact, that Al-Qaeda, Libya and Iran are probably behind these upheavals, as part of a grand design to Islamize Nigeria, if it is possible, or fracture the country along religious line as is being done in Sudan. Some purveyors of this theory have drown attention to the pattern of these attacks, arguing that the use of guns and explosives in crowded places, which is becoming frequent, is a recent phenomenon that appears to mirror several such attacks in the Middle East where activities of Al-Qaeda are holding sway. The recent shipment of arms from Iran and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s suggestion that Nigeria should be balkanized along religious line appear to lend credence to this theory.
The crises can also be understood in the context of Nigeria’s perverse inequality, high rate of unemployment, and worsening poverty rate, all of which are, of course, largely the upshot of institutional dysfunction, absence of socially answerable state structures, and the lack of legitimacy between the government and the governed. All these, I daresay, are material conditions that can be exploited for selfish purposes just as they can act as a catalyst—where there is widespread discontentment—for revolt or insurrection. But—and this is the point I wish to stress—religion and ethnicity are not coextensive with such material conditions as poverty, unemployment and social inequality. Religion, in particular, is conterminous with belief and opinion and is often underpinned by an emotional or spiritual sense of certainty which, in many cases, would not brook any criticism or opposition. It is a very dangerous terrain of sociality that, more than anything else, is preoccupied with our fears, our anxieties really. It is this fear, this anxiety, that, in my opinion, makes some people to be overly religious (or extremists) and therefore very dangerous to live with. Members of the Boko Haram sect, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist movements (including the group claiming responsibility for the Christmas Eve bombings) represent a most menacing face of religion. Now, to say that these extremists who are burning, maiming, killing and bombing are doing so because they are poor or because they are jobless is to miss the point. Abdul Muttallab, the young man who attempted to detonate a bomb mid-flight in Detroit on Christmas Eve in 2009, was not from a poor home.
In my opinion, a most credible explanation for the killings in Plateau, Borno, Bauchi and places of that ilk is to be found in the complex interplay of local and international complicities aimed at instituting a theocratic order in Nigeria. At the root of this programmatic aim is, of course, religious and ethnic intolerance. I align myself with the opinion that there is a grand plan to Islamize Nigeria through the instrumentalities of terror and coercion. This plan has been ongoing for many decades. The intention is not only to purify and reform Muslim societies; it is also to fight non-Muslims or infidels (arna). This was the aim of the Maitatsine during the 1983 uprising in some parts of the North. It is the aim of the Boko Haram sect. It was the aim of the clerics of hate that taught me the Koran in makarantan Islamiyya when I was a kid. These clerics, with their hold on the public imagination in the North, have been preaching hatred and using subterfuges to encourage their subjects to kill and maim in the name of Jihad. The writing has been on the wall for many decades now but we have turned a blind eye to it. Slowly but inexorably, the scheme is fanning out, threatening to consume us all as we look for culprits where non exists. Very soon it will be the turn of Kwara State, and then the South West as a whole. With the general elections around the corner, it may not be too far hence for another blast to rock our contrived peace.