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Nigeria Christian / Muslim Conflict

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. Riots based (at least ostensibly) on religious affiliation and religious policies have indeed occurred, some of the worst such being the two confrontations that took place in Kaduna between February and May 2000.

Such descriptions, however, can be misleading. Within the Christian community one finds a broad range of churches spanning the gamut from the mainstream Roman Catholic and Anglican to many smaller Protestant organizations. These latter include many Pentecostal denominations that tend to be quite aggressive in their proselytizing.

Usman Dan Fodio's jihad, or religious war, 1804-1810, ended with the establishment of the Sokoto sultanate. This Islamic theocratic empire extended from what is now extreme northwest Nigeria in a broad swath southeast into contemporary northwest Cameroon. Armed forces of the emirate of Zazzau, based in present-day Zaria in north-central Kaduna State, continued intermittent warfare and slave raiding in the southern half of contemporary Kaduna State, an area populated by some 15 Middle Belt minority ethnic groups. The emir claimed suzerainty over this area.

After colonization, a number of the minorities, including the Gbagyi, who are the indigenes (first occupants) of the area where Kaduna city developed, converted to Catholicism and various Protestant sects. The emir of Zazzau, however, continued to assert his jurisdiction over Middle Belt minorities.

In the Northwest, core of the old North, some emirates-for example, Sokoto, Katsina, and Kano-retain much of their old authority. Others, such as Zazzau, had lost control over areas they formerly claimed, and their authority may be waning. By contrast, minority groups in southern Kaduna State such as the Byagyi, have, as part of the same recent events, gained recognition as new "indigenous" governments. Still others-for example, the newly minted Emirate of Dutse (1990)-may lack, at least at the emirate level, the authority associated with governance structures in the original seven Hausa states (Daura, Kano, Rano, Gobir, Biram [Sokoto], Zamfara, and Zazzau [Zaria]).

The newer and more fundamentalist 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 had 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 NGOs had sprung up to take advantage of opportunities created by Western donors' calls for civil society partners, so Muslim sects had 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.

Some liberal Muslims are generally opposed to a nonsecular form of government and the implementation of shari'a. The parallel governance structures-traditional and elected-are less cohesive than they appear initially.

Some 11 northern states, beginning with Zamfara on October 27, 1999, and including Sokoto, Kano, and Niger, had passed into law the criminal law sections of the Islamic shari'a code of conduct. The states concerned had advanced with varying speed toward application. Zamfara and Katsina, for example, are now applying the code, while other states had 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 behavior is very high). Many northern politicians had supported the so-called shari'a movement through personal conviction, political opportunism, political realism, or a sense that they should represent the wishes of those who elected them.

This poses a constitutional problem because 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.

Underlying these different public political agendas are significant variations in the character of local Muslim populations. Although most Muslims in Nigeria's North follow orthodox Sunni Islam and the Maliki school of shari'a jurisprudence, Shiite Islam, in its Iranian variant, has attracted some adepts. These include the Shiite leader, Sheikh El Zakzaky, who initially opposed applying shari'a in Kano because he argued that the underlying socioeconomic conditions necessary for its proper application were not present. Both Zakzaky and another Shiite leader, Abubakar Mujahid, promote a thorough Islamic revolution to reclaim society for the Muslim faithful.

The Sunni group comprises several sects. In Katsina city, for instance, five are represented: Qadriyya, Tijani, Tarika, Shia, and Izala. Some of these had political programs that focus heavily on shari'a at the moment. The Izala attract bright, young, educated individuals who are strongly committed to Islam and to the application of the shari'a criminal code. As Shia sect members follow Shiite teachings, local indigenous political leaders view them as radical and believe they are committed to the overthrow of existing government. Other sects-the Qadriyya, Tijani, and Ahamadiyya, for instance-seem less committed on the political front and more centered on the practice of Islam as a nonmilitant doctrine.

Despite these differences, Muslims in Nigeria's North can act together in a disciplined manner when they consider it politically necessary. But groups and leaders in each state also pursue their own agendas, including relationships with Christians. In some traditional chieftaincies (e.g., Katsina and Gumel), relationships between Muslim political and religious leaders and Christians appear better than in others. Some Muslim and Christian leaders had sought to engage in peaceful dialogue, and there would appear to be real opportunities in this area that should be exploited.

Christian farmers of various ethnic groups share the fertile land with nomadic cattle herders who belong to the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group. As climate change pushes dry land south, conflict is increasing to unprecedented levels here as more cattle herders move south, oftentimes entering farming land. Farmers accuse the Fulani herdsmen of allowing their cattle to trample and eat their crops. Fulani cattle herders accuse the farmers of killing their cattle. There are deep-rooted suspicions between Christian farmers and the Fulani Muslim herdsmen.

Zamfara State

Governor Ahmed Sani of Zamfara State, which first introduced and applied the criminal provisions of the shari'a code, has realized considerable political advantage from his support for shari'a. The local population strongly supports application of shari'a and the governor who made it possible. By contrast, Kaduna State Governor E.H. Ahmed Mohammed Makarfi has deliberately and successfully sought to restrict application of shari'a civil and criminal provisions to Muslim populations of the state. In Kano, the elected state leadership appears split over the advisability of applying shari'a provisions.

Following the adoption of the shari'a criminal code by Zamfara State in October 1999, northern Muslim political and religious leaders established the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN), an organization designed to promote adoption of shari'a in other Nigerian states. Christian groups in the southern half of the country and in the Middle Belt reacted sharply to what they perceived as a Muslim, northern effort to lay the foundations for an Islamic, theocratic state.

Plateau State

Plateau State had 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 over between 2002 and the end of 2003. More than 1,000 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims in Jos, the Plateau State capital, in September 2001. Subsequently a low intensity conflict spread to the surrounding countryside, where the mainly Christian farmers clashed repeatedly with the predominantly Muslim livestock herders. Several hundred more people died in these skirmishes, which forced several thousand people to abandon their homes. Most of the clashes in Plateau had been portrayed as being between Christian and Muslim communities, but had often assumed an ethnic dimension.

By 27 April 2004 at least 20 people had died in three days of clashes between rival ethnic militias in central Plateau State. The clashes were between ethnic Tarok fighters and their Fulani rivals at Bakin Chiyawa in the Shendam district of the state. The fighting was intense, with both sides using guns, bows And arrows and machetes. The fighting was caused by a dispute over use of an area of land designated for cultivation by the agrarian Tarok and for grazing by the nomadic Fulani. Hausa fighters burned churches and killed nearly 100 people in a Tarok village. Extra armed policemen were deployed to the affected area to restore order.

In early May 2004 Nigerian security forces restored order in remote areas of central Plateau State, where sectarian violence had left scores of people dead. Calm returned to the highlands town of Telwa, as hundreds of police reinforcements arrived to quash revenge attacks by Christian ethnic-Tarok fighters against the mainly Muslim-ethnic Hausa community. Local authorities also announced drastic measures to put a stop to the recurring violence.

The deputy governor of Plateau state imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Yelwa town, and the government has, in addition, ordered the security personnel to shoot on sight anybody or group found fomenting trouble, as well as the immediate dismantling of all illegal roadblocks mounted by the militia. Police said the death toll of 80 announced on 04 May 2004 underestimated the number of casualties. Muslim Nigerian leaders said they believe more than 200 people were killed in the violence on 01-02 May 2004, and more than 100 others were missing. They called it mass murder, and accused local authorities of organizing militia fighters, while withdrawing police from the area before they stormed the town. The Red Cross estimated as many as 600 people may had been killed in attacks on the town of Yelwa by Christian tribe militias in the first week of May 2004.


In Kano new ethnic categories ("southerner," "northerner") arose when southerners, particularly Igbo, began to threaten economic interests of the far-flung Hausa commercial empire based in Kano. The policy of northernization, adopted by northern elites during the late 1950s, sought to open jobs for Hausa in commercial firms in Kano; gain greater access to government contracts, civil service posts, and financial services; and reassert control over produce export. The fear of losing out economically heightened the sense among northern indigenes of marginalization. Northernization established the predominance of politics over economics, which made political competition at the national level a matter of primary concern. Nothing in the four decades since independence has lessened these concerns.

The situation in Kano is both simpler and more complex than that in other locations in northern Nigeria. Although the vast majority of the population is Muslim (perhaps as much as 90-95 %), many different Islamic sects coexist in the city. The traditional sects, all of which are followers of Sunni Islam, include the Qadriyya, the Tijaniyya, the Tariqa, the Malikiya, the Ahmadiya, and the Islamiya. Another group is the Da'awa (some use the term to designate a separate sect, some use it as a synonym for hisba-the group that enforces shari'a provisions-while still others use it to denote the preaching arm of the hisba).

Part of the resentment felt for "settlers" (members of southern tribes, as opposed to "indigenes") residing (and often born in) Kano stems from indigenes' feeling that settlers are simply in Kano to make money. Settlers are perceived to be unwilling to adapt to the culture of Kano and to reject the values of Kano's indigenous population. Indigenes see settlers as failing to commit or contribute to the community in either material or nonmaterial senses. On top of this, indigenes believe settlers look down on the indigenous Kano population. To some extent, Muslims feel marginalized on their own turf, which fuels their sense of grievance against the southern Christian settlers in their midst.

Kano counts a large number of Christian denominations. Christians span the full spectrum, from militant born-again proselytizers to merely born-into-Christianity liquor sellers. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) members whom team members interviewed may not had represented either extreme, but they expressed clear determination to continue their religious missions, even if martyrdom might be the price of doing so.

About 30 people were killed in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria with a population of eight million people. Religious violence erupted with Muslim protest demonstration on 10 May 2004 against the killing of several hundred Muslims in the small town of Yelwa in Plateau State in central Nigeria on 02 May 2004. A further 45 had been arrested and 40 had been injured after mobs of youths armed with clubs, machetes and jerry cans of petrol roamed the streets on predominantly Muslim Kano, attacking suspected Christians. An estimated 10,000 Kano residents, mostly Christians fleeing from their homes in troubled parts of the city, took refuge at the main military and police barracks on 11 May 2004.

At least 57,000 people fled their homes following sectarian violence involving Christians and Muslims in northern and central Nigeria. More than 30,000 Christians had been displaced from their homes in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria, which was racked by religious violence. A further 27,000 displaced people had sought refuge in Bauchi state in east central Nigeria following a massacre of Muslims by Christian gangs in neighboring Plateau state earlier in May 2004.

President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Plateau State in central Nigeria on 18 May 2004, following the Christian massacre of Muslims that in turn led to reprisal killings of Christians in the northern city of Kano. The bloodletting had claimed more than 2,000 lives since September 2001. Obasanjo sacked governor Joshua Dariye, accusing him of failing to act to end a cycle of violence between the Plateau State's Muslim and Christian communities. The president also disolved the Plateau State legislature and appointed a retired army general, Chris Ali, as interim administrator for the next six months. Ali is a native of Plateau State.


In May 1999 violence erupted in Kaduna State over the succession of an Emir resulting in more than 100 deaths. In Kaduna in February-May 2000 over 1,000 people died in rioting over the introduction of criminal Shar'ia in the State. Hundreds of ethnic Hausa were killed in reprisal attacks in southeastern Nigeria. In September 2001, over 2,000 were people were killed in inter-religious rioting in Jos. In October 2001, hundred were killed and thousands displaced in communal violence that spread across the Middle-Belt states of Benue, Taraba, and Nasarawa.

In the wake of these riots, President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the state and urged Governor Makarfi to establish a peace and reconciliation committee. On October 1, 2001, President Obasanjo announced the formation of a National Security Commission to address the issue of communal violence. But Christian fears remained. To address them, the Executive Governor of the State, El Haji Ahmed Makarfi, followed a strategy of according a number of ethnic groups in the heavily Christian southern half of the state recognition as chieftaincies independent of the Muslim Emirate of Zazzau. He reinforced this political innovation-for which Middle Belt groups had long lobbied-by in effect recognizing the "customary" laws of each one of these groups and empowering the new chieftaincies to organize their own "customary" judicial systems in addition to the Islamic shari'a and state magistrate court systems.

This system may lead to a certain confusion and conflict of laws cases among the three systems, but it offers the great advantage of providing Christians and animists in the new chieftaincies with an effective shield against the application of the shari'a legal code, much less its criminal elements, within their jurisdictions.

Southern Kaduna is a hotbed of sporadic sectarian strife. Politics, land rights and other disputes had fueled the violence since the 1980s. Thats when residents say Christians and Muslims started using violence to advocate for their communities. By Februry 2017 hundreds of people had been killed in the latest bout of unrest that began in December 2016. The state government management agency says 204 people had been killed since December 2016, but numbers were still being compiled. About 800 Christians had been killed in southern Kaduna in the two years 2015-2016.

Conflict is increasing to unprecedented levels here as more cattle herders move south, oftentimes entering farming land. Farmers accuse the Fulani herdsmen of allowing their cattle to trample and eat their crops. Fulani cattle herders accuse the farmers of killing their cattle. There are deep-rooted suspicions between Christian farmers and the Fulani Muslim herdsmen. Muslims clerics demanded the arrest of Christian leaders who they say were spreading incendiary messages to their followers.

By April 2017 the killings have stopped in the past few weeks as police, soldiers and personnel from the nearby Nigerian Air Force base monitored the area. But no one had been prosecuted in connection with the recent violence.

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Page last modified: 17-04-2017 12:21:11 ZULU