The roots of religious violence in Nigeria

Elizabeth Dickinson of The Economist writing for Religion Dispatches:

Toward the end of my stay in Nigeria as a correspondent for The Economist in 2007 and 2008, I asked my driver, an older Muslim man named Bello who was perhaps my most trusted friend there, who he blamed for Nigeria’s corruption woes. “Our religious leaders,” he told me. “If they told our politicians to stop, they would.”

There are no two ways about it: religion and politics in Nigeria do mix. The country’s troubles are visible and pronounced—poverty lurks on every street corner; beggars crawl through the streets in Kano, where a lingering polio epidemic has left them crippled; natural resources line some people’s pockets and other people’s soil with the thick sheen of oil. So sometimes out of faith, sometimes out of desperation, and sometimes merely for survival, Nigerians have taken political problems to the mosques and churches. In the predominantly Muslim North, Shari’a law has been in place for a decade, implemented by a region so tired of lawlessness that Qur’anic law seemed an enlightened answer. In the poor slums of Lagos, churches provide the services that the state would not—could not—ever provide.

Politicians have been quick to follow their constituents’ retreat to religion. They are conspicuously present at churches and mosques, allied with specific pastors and imams. They raise constituencies among their religious peers, and pour patronage on their fellow faithful. Of course, some of this is quite typical—US presidents have always been candidly religious and often popular among those who share the same faith. But in Nigeria, it does go deeper, and this is what Bello had meant: Politicians support the religious institutions financially, rendering religious leaders incapable of criticizing them—especially when they have grown corrupt. (After all, who bites the hand that feeds them?) Political problems take on religious dimensions; manipulated by politics, poverty among the faithful of one religion can be blamed on the depravity and greed of another. The unwritten ruling-party agreement that promises a rotating presidency—eight years for the Muslim North, then eight years for the Christian South—only legitimizes the country’s religious schism.

The divide between faiths can absorb political tension for a while, but more and more often, it boils over, as it did with the massacres in Jos that began in January and continued in March of this year.

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