Violence begets Violence: Nigeria’s deathly religious history
Written by Angela Kariuki (1)

Once begun, religious dissension has a tendency to go on and on, resulting in permanent feuds. Throughout most of documented history, religious conflict has frequently been associated with violent wars. Today, Muslims and Hindus confront one another in South Asia between India and Pakistan, especially over Kashmir, and even within each country, with a continuous threat of violence that occasionally boils over and produces bloodshed. In the Middle East, Muslim Arabs and Israeli Jews have engaged in frequently violent conflicts since 1947 over the territory of Palestine.

Other conflicts around the globe have also increasingly taken violent forms within states, where religious differences play a role. The civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina generally reflected a three-way division among Christian Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. Within the Russian Federation, conflicts have often pitted Muslim-dominated regions against an increasingly religious and Orthodox Christian Russia, with the war in Chechnya being the most violent example.

The Cyprus issue contains a strong element of conflict between the Greek Orthodox Government of the Republic of Cyprus, and the predominantly secular but culturally Muslim Turks in the northern part of the island. The long-enduring conflicts between the Irish Catholics and the Ulster Protestants in Northern Ireland represented yet another religious war.

The prevalence of a religious dimension in numerous conflicts around the world is clear. Many observers have argued that the frequency with which religious differences appear to be associated with violent conflict serves as evidence that religion is a major cause of war. However, most contemporary interpretations view these conflicts more in terms of identity - a broader concept in which religion serves as one element but does not tell the whole story.

In Africa we have seen such intractable inter-religious wars. The civil war in Sudan has a significant religious component among Muslims, Christians and Animists. But inter-tribal warfare, racial and language conflicts are also involved. The Second Congo War (the so-called ‘Great War of Africa’) started in 1998 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By 2008, 5.4 million people had been killed, largely from disease and starvation. Hostilities continue to this day. In Côte d'Ivoire, following the elections in late-2000, the Government security forces began targeting civilians solely and explicitly on the basis of their religion, ethnic group, or national origin. The overwhelming majority of victims come from the largely Muslim north of the country, or were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. A military uprising continued the slaughter in 2002. In Nigeria, Yoruba’s and Christians in the south of the country are battling Muslims in the north. The country continues struggling towards democracy after decades of Muslim military dictatorships.

The situation in Nigeria – a bloody religious history

Nigeria’s two major religions, Islam and Christianity, are sometimes depicted as monolithic entities that confront each other in pitched battles, with formal implementation of the criminal aspects of the Muslim Shari’a legal code (or the likelihood of implementation) providing the spark that touches off violence. Nigeria is approximately 50% Muslim and 40% Christian. The remaining 10% follow indigenous customs and other faiths. Muslims are concentrated in the northern part of the country; Christians and indigenous religions form the majority in the south. Many different traditions of Islam coexist in Nigeria. These include the Qadriyya, Tijaniyya, Tariqa, Malikiya, Ahmadiya, Islamiya and Ixala. There are also many Christian denominations present: the Anglican Communion, Roman Catholicism, many Pentecostal and other Protestant denominations. There are over 250 ethnic groups in the country.

The country was ruled by a military dictatorship until 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo became the country's first democratically elected leader in two decades. Certain military leaders and their supporters have become disgruntled. These elements may be at least partly responsible for ethnic and religious violence which has plagued the country since democracy was established.

The newer and more fundamentalist Muslim sects include the Izala and the Shiites. The Izala in particular tend to attract educated young people, both men and women. The Shiites and sometimes the Izala are said to oppose applying Shari’a in Nigeria until such time as religious leaders have taken over political leadership of the country. Whereas the hisba includes representatives of all sects, in Kano it tends to be dominated by Izalas and Da’awa. Just as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sprung up to take advantage of opportunities created by Western donors’ calls for civil society partners, so Muslim sects have arisen in response to the calls for faith-based partners issued by Islamic Governments and religious groups from Libya, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries.

Religious tension can cut both ways – both Nigerian Christians and Nigerian Muslims have the same line of thought: that they are under attack and need to preserve their autonomy. Both Christians and Muslims feel that they represent the one true God and are obligated to convert others. Sometimes, people do not want to be converted. And at a time when many young Nigerians are unemployed and looking for scapegoats, violence can easily follow.

Incidences of religious violence

Some northern states, beginning with Zamfara on 27 October 1999, and including Sokoto, Kano, and Niger, have passed into law the criminal law sections of the Islamic Shari’a code of conduct. The states concerned have advanced with varying speed toward application. Zamfara and Katsina, for example, are now applying the code, while other states have not. Included as part of the Shari’a criminal code are the penalties for specific violations—for example, flogging for imbibing alcohol, removal of hands and then feet for recidivist thieves, and stoning in cases of proven adultery (the standard of proof for the last type of behaviour is very high). This poses a Constitutional problem because section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees a secular state, guarantees freedom of religion, and vests in states concurrent power to establish their own court systems. At both Constitutional and practical levels, these guarantees are incompatible in light of the fact that Islam rejects separation of political from religious authority and proposes a unified theocratic system of governance.

In 2000, riots broke out in the state of Kaduna. The conflict appeared to be motivated by three factors: Christians and Muslims are almost equal in number in the state; there are tribal divisions which mirror the religious differences; and some groups fear and oppose the democratically elected Government.

Muslims had completed several days of joyous demonstrations in favour of Shari'a. Later, Christian demonstrators had completed a peaceful demonstration at the Kaduna government house, in which they protested the imposition of Shari’a. But when the Christians were returning home, they were stopped at a barricade installed by some Muslim youths. A fight broke out which expanded to a full scale riot. Churches, Mosques and commercial establishments were incinerated. The army and police were able to restore order. But killings continued at a slower pace. By 2000, over 1,000 deaths had been reported; the estimate appears to have been low.

In September 2001, over 2,000 were people were killed in inter-religious rioting in Jos. In October 2001, hundreds were killed and thousands displaced in communal violence that spread across the Middle-Belt states of Benue, Taraba, and Nasarawa.

As the saying goes, violence begets more violence – when they kill Christians in the north, Christians in the south then retaliate against Muslims. Other Muslims say the religious violence is a symptom of a deeper problem in Nigeria: widespread poverty and corruption.

Plateau State has the highest number of displaced people as a result of clashes between Christians and Muslim communities there. The predominantly Christian Tarok farmers consider the mostly Muslim Hausa cattle herders as outsiders, and accuse them of stealing land and trying to usurp political power. These had led to the burning down of 72 villages between 2002 and the end of 2003. Most of the clashes in Plateau have been portrayed as being between Christian and Muslim communities, but have often assumed an ethnic dimension.

More recently, a renewed spate of Christian-Muslim violence in central Nigeria has claimed the lives of hundreds of people, many of them women and children, just months after religious violence left hundreds dead in Jos. The violence began in the mostly Christian village, Dogo Nahawa, early on 7 March 2010, at an hour when the area should have been under curfew and guarded by the military. Jos has remained under a curfew since violence in January 2010 left more than 500 people dead. In nearby Bauchi state, more than 600 people fled to a makeshift camp still holding victims of January's violence. The tension is rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or Animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands with migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north. At least 10,000 Nigerians have died during Christian-Muslim riots and ethnic violence during the past decade.

Understanding the religious conflict in Nigeria

Religion, despite its concern with the spiritual, affects the populace socially, and religious rights thus remain an important topic in contemporary society. Some commentators assert that manipulation of religion and the existence of multiple, doctrinally diverse religions within a single society can negatively affect social stability. Prior to the introduction of Christianity by the European missionaries, most communities in southern Nigeria maintained social stability through their indigenous religion.

It appears that many Nigerians turn to religion because they do not think they can rely on the state. Though the country is rich with oil wealth, the cities are full of beggars and prostitutes - it is common to see police officers demanding money at checkpoints. The corruption and poverty are so embedded that it even disturbs those few Nigerians who can avoid the problems. Faith thus becomes the fix for many Nigerians. When people do not have much, religion becomes more important.

The emergence of multiple denominations weakens the influence of religion so that a single 'universe of meaning' shared by all members of the society no longer exists. Conflicting religious beliefs can add a transcendent and absolute element to these conflicts that make them resistant to peaceful resolution, even when they are not the basic “cause” of the conflict in the first place.


(1) Angela Kariuki is an Analyst in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )