Reflections on Christians and Persecution in Northern Nigeria

In Nigeria, as well as many other parts of Africa with significant Muslim populations, the persecution of Christians has long been familiar, its successive waves characterized only by variations in themes, levels of violence, and scope—but not in essence.

May 05, 2016

By Matthew Hassan Kukah
In Nigeria, as well as many other parts of Africa with significant Muslim populations, the persecution of Christians has long been familiar, its successive waves characterized only by variations in themes, levels of violence, and scope—but not in essence.

In northern Nigeria, Islam as we know it today arrived with the sword and blood, then slavery, subjugation and oppression. The Fulani jihad, which overran existing Hausa city-states, established a caliphate (1804-1903), leaving in its wake a history largely characterized by domination and oppression.

Matters were made worse when the British colonial power sought to pacify and co-opt the northern Fulani ruling class into its loop of power, which led to further suffering of the non-Muslim populations. These communities were discriminated against in the areas of education, healthcare and with regard to development infrastructure.

The British protection of Islam in the north meant that the base of Christian missionaries and hence the building of Church structures were usually kept outside the cities—making Christians more vulnerable as they were relegated to second-class status. The presence of Christians would later be merely tolerated. Government’s reluctance to allocate land for the building of churches gradually became a serious problem and remains so to this day.

Denied outright building permits and certificates of occupancy, Christians have to purchase lands indirectly, forced to penetrate the state bureaucracy to obtain permissions, which often requires bribes and which are often denied.

Islam considered its culture and faith to be superior to what it pejoratively has labeled pagan peoples, who were made subject to Islamic rule and institutions. Significantly, the British decided to create new towns in urban areas as a strategy for avoiding direct contact between the non-Muslim population and the Muslim community. This severely restricted social relations and deepened mutual suspicion. Meanwhile, Islamic law was imposed throughout the north, further subjugating Christians and other non-Muslim minorities.

However, thanks to its provision of Western-style education—regarded with great suspicion by Muslims—Christianity spread very quickly among the non-Muslim population in the country’s so-called Middle Belt. Exposure the Judeo-Christian values of respect for human dignity and freedom of conscience rapidly built up the courage and confidence of the new Christians whose very identities became anchored in their Christian faith.

Another legacy in northern Nigeria of the caliphate and subsequent colonial rule is the difficulty Christians encounter in seeking to become civil servants or in joining the military, police or other security services. In many cases, appointments depend on the recommendation of state governments dominated by Muslims. Christian names like Philip or Agatha simply don’t make the grade for the most part.

Christians face such challenges even where they constitute a significant percentage of the population, in states like Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Kogi for example. The faithful also suffer discrimination when it comes to the federal government’s unwritten but firm policies of distributing universities, industries and hospitals mostly to Muslim-dominated regions of the country.

Yet, a new wind is blowing today. Empowered by Church-sponsored top-notch education, Christians have been gaining in confidence thanks to the great strides they are making in accessing economic and political power. Today, Christians are no longer afraid to stake their claims to have voice in the public square.

This burgeoning success story has run up against the sudden emergence of Boko Haram, whose atrocities, sad to say, are already too familiar and need no retelling her. What’s not in doubt is that Christian Churches and their institutions were the first targets of Boko Haram’s terror. In Nigeria’s northeast, Christians have suffered a disproportionate share of the violence compared to their Muslim counterparts, even though Boko Haram has also targeted mosques and the palaces of emirs.

Boko Haram, in some respect, is the tip of the iceberg, the extreme manifestation of years of indoctrination hinging on negative propaganda against Christians and Christianity, demonizing their relationship with the West. Young Muslims have been fed on a steady diet of exhortations that Islam is superior to any other religion.

Boko Haram’s linkages with terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaida, Ansaru, the Azawald National Liberation Movement, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, the Taliban, and, of course, ISIS, all suggest that we have a long way to go.

What’s more, long memories of the colonial policies of favoring Muslim elites and the negative attitudes towards missionaries and the country’s early Christians still persist, especially among Muslims. This is why Muslim youth often pick out Christian churches, homes, symbols and businesses as soft targets for attacks triggered by the slightest provocations or by remote events that have nothing to do with Christianity.

For example, the wars in Afghanistan, the killing of Kadhafi, the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, the hosting of a Miss World contest, debates over the status of Islamic law—all these events have elicited violent attacks on Christians by Muslim youth over the years.

Ultimately, the crisis in the name of religion in northern Nigeria is not a crisis over faith but a crisis over power. The challenge is how to create an egalitarian society in which the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and in which ordinary citizens can enjoy their rights without any discrimination.

Experts agree that the persecution of Christians is based on four key points:

• To intimidate and slow down the growth and spread of Christianity in the Nigeria’s northern states;

• The perception that Christians represent Western interests which are considered to be hostile to Islam

• The need to protect northern interests, perceived to be endangered by the burgeoning influence of southern Christians flexing their economic muscle.

• The need to protect the culture, identity and religion of the north—that is, Islam as a platform for power.

Actually, violence has been on the rise in Nigeria across the board, involving communal clashes, land disputes, the fight to control markets, grazing routes, natural resources, including farm lands, water, and, of course, oil.

Whereas our immediate concern is with the plight of the Christian minorities in the north, it is important to stress that, until recently, the bulk of those affected by violence have often been southern business men who have lived and worked in the north for years.

The situation is complex: whereas it is easy to speak of these violent incidents in religious terms, for the southern businessmen, especially the Igbo, there is an ethnic and an economic dimension that outweighs any religious factors.

What’s urgently needed is a more holistic view of violence in Nigeria, an analysis that can properly inform what the state must do; religious bodies can and should do; and what civil society groups, the media and other non-state actors can and must do to ensure peace and stability in our country.

The Catholic Church in Nigeria has crucial role to play in this process by providing a moral platform for shaping the future role of religion as well as government in Nigeria. In our history, the Catholic Church has always played a very commendable role in the areas of healthcare and education. Its relative distance from power has enabled it to rise above the fall-out of regime changes and shifting loyalties, earning it credibility and respect.

The Church, though, faces serious challenges in plotting a course to help Nigeria achieve peace and greater prosperity for all its citizens. Regional, ethnic, cultural identities continue to weaken the emergence of a unified, cohesive Christian identity. Politics have chewed badly into the fabric of both Muslim and Christian communities. The impact of Islamic ideology with its mesh of religion and power politics has distracted the Christian community from an understanding of the constructive role religion can and should play in politics and public life.

There is no doubt that all are all hurting in Nigeria. Years of bad governance have taken their toll. It will be wrong for Christians to treat themselves as if they were an isolated group targeted for persecution. We must go beyond condemning the excesses of the miscreants and the tragedy of Boko Haram and other violent groups and make a clear distinction between Islam and the horrible behavior of some members of the Muslim community.

Even Boko Haram must be considered in the context of our national politics and the failure of the political class to resolve the issues of poverty and corruption in Nigeria. These cross-cutting issues can provide a platform for greater dialogue among all faiths. Christians must not simply remain passive as if they are mere victims. We have our own fair share of miscreants and trouble-makers. The challenge is for both the Christian and Muslim leadership to explore the best way of keeping their people from breaking the law.

The Catholic Church must become more assertive in propagating such values and virtues as service to the common good, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights, indeed the entire bulk of the Catholic Church’s social teaching—and do so well beyond the confines of its own community. We must rally Christians around common projects that address our common humanity. The Church must become the focus and rallying point for civil society’s promotion of democracy and struggle for good governance.

Through interacting with young people, it is has become clear to me that that the Muslim youth of northern Nigeria need more help from the Church—we have not even begun to understand how much we can and should do on their behalf. Their elites have not done much to address their problems—child marriages, poverty, the utter lack of economic prospects and other issues—that can give extremism a particular allure. For the most part, politicians have simply continued to manipulate religious identities to suit their own interests.

No doubt, northern Islam has a coercive face and, in the context of a history of conquest, religious freedom is seriously hampered in an environment, where now, for better and for worse, social media are the preferred platforms for the young. It is clear to me that if we create more spaces for young people to interact—especially at the college level—mutual trust between Christians and Muslims can be built up.

For example, on Good Friday, the Catholic students staged a drama of the Passion right on our local college campus for the first time. Similarly, in the last three years, we have had held three processions in the Sokoto metropolis—two for Christ the King, one to pray for the release of kidnapped Chibok girls. In each case, Muslims have politely looked on in admiration and surprise.

For 20 years now I have run a scholarship fund for poor children irrespective of their backgrounds. The program has produced graduates who today are lawyers, engineers, architects and so on. There have been Muslim beneficiaries as well and a few of them attending university in Nigeria. It has been most inspiring to see the faces of their parents whenever they meet me. They cannot understand that, first, I have given their children an education without knowing either their parents or the children themselves; they also cannot understand that I have never persuaded any of their children to convert.

Only last month, I took children from one of our schools in Katsina State to meet with the State Governor, a Muslim of course. Two of the students had gotten the best results in the entire State in the National Examinations. Both of them, a boy and a girl, were Muslim! You should have seen the look on the children’s faces when they met the Governor and then the Governor’s pride in our school! I persuaded him to offer scholarships to both of top students. The girl wants to study medicine, while the young man wants to be an engineer! This is the future!

My biggest dream is to build a school in Sokoto that can accommodate at least 1000 students. My plan is to enroll children from all social and economic backgrounds, and from all religious and ethnic groups—to create a space for them to learn, play, and interact together.

This will be a platform for creating a new generation of Nigerians who can be weaned off from the hatred and prejudice that produce fear in our society today. I believe that when these children grow up together, they will learn to accommodate and accept one another; thus they will be able to make meaningful contributions to society—acting as citizens of Nigeria and not as religious bigots who have grown up up in isolated environments.

My hope is that this will be a boarding school; and that in living together these students will get to know one another better, and develop a spirit of accommodation and cooperation. In this way, the school will be a microcosm in which a truly Catholic—that is, universal—ethos will prevail, a template for overcoming conflict and division in society at large.

-- Bishop Kukah delivered this talk April 26, 2016 at a conference held at the Cardinal Egan Catholic Center of New York University. The event was sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA.


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