Monday, May 25, 2009

Why religious violence persists in Northern Nigeria

I AM writing in reaction to the Editorials of The Guardian (Monday March 2, 2009) on The Bauchi Religious Conflict and (Thursday April 23, 2009) on Religious Violence in Minna. The two editorials focused on religious bloodletting in two Northern states - Bauchi and Niger - and how this savage act could be eradicated. Personally I am alarmed by the recurrent cases of religious riots in this country.

I think it is a shame that almost 50 years after independence Nigerians are still attacking and killing themselves in the name of religion. That Nigerians of different faiths have not learnt to live, love and tolerate one another. And that the government has failed to tackle this social menace and national disgrace. There is no doubt that most cases of religious violence have taken place in Northern Nigeria. Hence it has become pertinent for us to begin to tackle this vexing question. Why does religious violence persist in Northern states? First of all I agree with The Guardian (April 23) that "this problem persists because culprits go unpunished". Yes they do.

Since independence, there has been a clear lack of political will to bring to justice those who mastermind religious uprising in the North. The editorial (March 2) says it is as a result of a failure of government and is indicative of bankrupt and inept leadership. I totally agree. Just take a look at all the cases of religious crisis in Northern Nigeria. None was thoroughly investigated or had their perpetrators adequately punished. In most cases commissions of inquiry are set up. And after that nothing is heard about the commission's reports and recommendations. Whenever religious riots occur, arrests are made but later most of those arrested are released. In a few cases some of those arrested were brought to count but were later acquitted for want of evidence. Punishment is a deterrent to crime. And as long as the states in the North refuse to prosecute and adequately punish these criminals who indulge in religious carnage, the problem will persist.

I am also in agreement with The Guardian that religious mayhem in Northern Nigeria is caused by poverty and unemployment. And that the government should do more to provide jobs to the youths. An idle mind, they say, is a devil's workshop. In the North the idle minds are the workshop of fanaticism and bigotry. But we must not forget that it is not only in the Northern states that we have unemployed restless youths. Other states in Southern Nigeria, other nations in the developing world, have armies of unemployed youths. So why is it that it is only in the North that jobless youths take up the work of religious terrorism and bloodshed, and nothing else.

It is also true that the recurrent religious uprising in the North is as a result of a failure of security intelligence and law enforcement. Beyond that, I suspect some foul play on the part of our security agents - I think they collude and conspire with those who mastermind religious conflicts. That is why most religious clashes have caught our police and intelligence outfits napping.

But I disagree with The Guardian that religious violence occurs because many religious believers do not read their holy books well enough. I think they do. The holy books form the basis of religious indoctrination which all religious believers receive from cradle to the grave. We just need to acknowledge the fact that while the holy books contain teachings of love, tolerance and respect for human lives, they also contain passages that sanction and sanctify hatred, tolerance and bloodshed. The sacred texts have injunctions that promise eternal life and paradise to those who die fighting the cause of God or Allah or those who die battling infidels and other enemies of God or Allah.

As long as religious leaders continue to preach such hateful messages and believers continue to blindly accept them, religious violence will not stop. More importantly, religious uprising occurs because Northern Nigeria has a tradition of jihadist Islam - that is a kind of Islam that is practised or promoted through fighting and violence. Islam came to Northern Nigeria around the 11th century but the 1804 Jihad of Sheikh Uthman dan Fodio radicalised Islam. It foisted on Northern Nigeria a militant form of Islamic faith. It enthroned a kind of Islam that is promoted and defended with bows and arrows, swords and cudgels. Jihadist Islam sanctifies violence as an act of faith, as a demonstration of piety and as a virtuous way of living and of relating with infidels and non Islamic faiths or institutions. Jihadist Islam regards non-believers as 'enemies' who should be conquered, converted or subdued by force. As long as the jihadist Islamic mentality persists in Northern Nigeria, religious conflict will not cease.

Related to the above point is the imposition of Sharia law. Sharia is the weapon of political and radical Islam. The imposition of Sharia on most states in Northern Nigeria was marked by widespread violence, riots and clashes. It has created a situation of suspicion, hatred, division and antagonism between Muslims and non-Muslims. The imposition of Sharia emboldened fanatics and gave legitimacy to Islamic fundamentalism. Ideally, governments should be neutral in religious matters. They should be impartial arbiters and guarantors of the rights of all individuals no matter the religion or belief. But in most states in Northern Nigeria it is not the case.

And as long as states in the North remain biased for Islam, and continue to promote Islam and implement Sharia; as long as the states continue to mix religion and politics and refuse to separate mosque and state, as long as states in Northern Nigeria refuse to recognise, respect and defend individuals of different faiths, religious hatred and uprising will not go away.

Religious violence is bad. It is not good for any nation. It is not good for Nigeria. It is not good for the North. It is not good for the South. It is not good for Muslims. It is not good for Christians. It is not good for believers and non-believers. Religious violence is a barbaric practice that should not be identified with modern Nigeria. Hence I'm calling on states in Northern Nigeria and the Federal Government to join hands in rooting out the scourge of religious conflict and bloodshed. For the sake of national peace, unity, development and progress.