Religious conflict in Nigeria

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Comment by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama

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Less than two months after the 17 January 2010 Jos ethno-religious crisis in which hundreds of people lost their lives, we once again face the same horror of mindless violence.

Early in the morning on 7 March in the villages of Dogon Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot Foron, some 15 kilometres South of the city of Jos, the villagers of the Berom ethnic group (mainly Christians) alleged that their attackers were Fulani Muslim herdsmen who swooped on them while they slept. The attack which lasted more than two hours began at about 2:30 am and the victims were completely unprepared for the fury of the marauders. The free use of guns, cutlasses and other lethal weapons left little chance for the victims, mainly children and women who were hacked down and burnt as they attempted to escape the massacre.

Such crises are not new to Jos. Conflict has sporadically erupted over the last twenty years; in 1994, 1998, 2001. In November 2008 violence broke out in the wake of a local government election in Jos North – leaving hundreds of people dead in just two days of fighting. I say hundreds, because we have no accurate figures but estimates range from 300 – 1,000.

After each flare up, communities argue over who suffered the most. But the fact is that the victims are men and women, young and old, Christian and Muslim. Each death is a tragedy for the family concerned. All of the casualties are a tragedy for Jos, for Nigeria and for both Christianity and Islam.

After the violence of 1994 and 2001 State Commissions of enquiry were set up. Neither report has been published. No-one was held to account for the appalling atrocities committed and to this day there have been no prosecutions following the violence of 2008. Whilst State and Federal Government argued over who has the right or responsibility to conduct an official enquiry into the violence of November 2008 the public lost any confident in a fair or just process. This is still not resolved and now we see more crises.

I attended a Peace Conference in Jos hosted by the Institute of Governance and Social Research, in collaboration with the British Department for International Development (DFID) and the Plateau State Government on 8 March with the theme, “Peace in Jos: Arresting the Cycle of Violence”. The conference still went on despite the early morning unfortunate incident.

Women and youth groups were represented and spoke passionately against the acts of barbarism being witnessed, often mistaken to be inspired by religious zeal. Everyone at this forum condemned the attacks as heartless while advising that the root causes of the recurring crises must be looked into, examined and solutions proffered for permanent peace.

My intervention at this forum in my capacity as the co-chairman for the Inter religious Council for Peace and Harmony dwelt on the need to transcend the religious motives usually associated with the crises and to look for the social, ethnic, economic and political causes. There must be concerted efforts by the state governors to address the problems permanently as most of the issues that lead to these crises are not about religion. Religion is a convenient tool used to press for demands.

 

Political leaders must work for the common good. Where they use religion to score political points or to divide communities more bloodshed will follow.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama

The distinction between ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler’ communities in Nigeria assists in preserving the particular cultural identities and traditions of the many ethnic groups. But it also leads to an ethnocentric two-tier system of rights where non indigenes are denied access to opportunities and suffer various forms of discrimination. This issue exists throughout Nigeria. But Jos is a particular kind of melting pot, where Christianity and Islam and many ethnic groups meet. For this reason it has assumed significance and taken on the characteristics of religious rivalry.

There must be a shift from competitiveness to genuine encounter. Meaningful dialogue between communities is needed. During my first year as Archbishop of Jos violent conflict broke out. This was on 7 September, 2001. Since then, I have been living with an ever simmering mixture of ethnic and political conflict often masked as religious. I have also learnt to face its destruction and human tragedy each time it boils over.

Some people still view inter-religious dialogue as a watering down of the Christian belief or compromise on the mandate of Christ to evangelize the world. But for me dialogue is a Christian obligation. Either we learn to accept and appreciate our differences or we destroy one another. The important dialogue is about the every day – “the dialogue of life”. But each time the city is torn apart this becomes more difficult as communities are more polarised and fearful.

 

The truth is neither Christianity nor Islam tells its followers to kill or maim each other. Religion has been hijacked and so as religious leaders we need to reclaim its integrity and promote peace and reconciliation.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama

Our political leaders must address the real issues underlying the conflict. There is no denying the reality of poverty in Nigeria. Health, education and water supply services are inadequate for the needs of the poorest. Much of the time even the urban centres are without electricity and social safety nets are non-existent. This makes it difficult to avoid corruption and in a city as socially segregated as Jos, this exacerbates the potential for violence. Political leaders must work for the common good. Where they use religion to score political points or to divide communities more bloodshed will follow.

Our religious leaders must also work together to undermine bigotry and extremism and to encourage communities to work together.

The truth is neither Christianity nor Islam tells its followers to kill or maim each other. Religion has been hijacked and so as religious leaders we need to reclaim its integrity and promote peace and reconciliation. It’s not easy and sometimes we are criticised but that is what I am trying to do together with the Emir of Wase Alhaji Dr. Haruna Abdullahi. We will continue to call for political solutions to the real problems and for our people to have access to the necessities of life. We will pray for peace and hope that one day Christians and Muslims in Jos and Nigeria can live together side by side conscious of our common humanity.

By Most Rev Dr Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos

 
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