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Christians in the Muslim World

Travelling in today's Nigeria

2015 could be the year of the disintegration of Nigeria if the corruption of the country’s leading forces is not thwarted. This thesis, put forward in 2005 by the US National Intelligence Council Report on Sub-Saharan Africa, seems to be of interest also for the analysis that can be outlined of the present situation of the Christians in Nigeria, the most populous country of Africa (160 million inhabitants, equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with 10% Animists) that today attracts the attention of the Western media owing to the violence of the attacks against innocent civilians carried out by the Boko Haram sect.

 

 

The country is clearly divided between north and south. The southern states are made up of the areas situated to the south of the capital Abuja: here there is an atmosphere of relative tranquillity, but the economic crisis has hit the area devastatingly. Instead, in the northern states the population lives in the daily fear of attacks on their villages and quarters. In this part of the country the list of the victims of attacks by the Boko Haram sect gets longer every week which, for some months now, has chosen to hit the Sunday masses or the Muslim Friday prayers.

 

Considerable indifference exists between the two parts of the country: ‘The south will take notice of the drama of the religious persecution taking place in the north when millions of refugees start arriving in their part of the country’, confides an Anglican priest of Enugu, who fled from Funtua in the state of Kaduna. According to him, the action against the Christian community composed of 500 persons was carried out for rewards: 20,000 naira for a pastor’s life, 5,000 for a simple Christian’s and 1,000 naira, equal to about 5 euros (the daily wage of a civil servant) to take part in the attack against the Anglican community.

 

 

Today the commerce and exchanges between north and south no longer prosper as in the past because of the repeated attacks in the north and the controls enforced by the army in the many check-points which act as a deterrent. Curfews have had to be imposed in many towns: in Madalla, in the state of Niger, Jos in the state of the Plateau, and in Kano. Recently these areas have become places of Christian persecution. Northern and central Nigeria together have as many Christians and Animists as there are Muslims. But some Muslim leaders do their utmost for the north to be solely dar al-Islam, and they would like to see states like that of Plateau, still with a Christian majority, become Muslim. Thanks to its commercial activity, Jos, the capital of Plateau, and which has always been governed by a Christian, has attracted Nigerians from all ethnic groups. It is the historical centre of important Christian centres like the Northern Theological College, the Evangelical Western African College or the Saint Augustin Major Seminar. For this reason Jos is proud of its motto Maison de Paix et du Tourisme written on the car number plates.

 

 

The refusal of the legacy and influence of what is labelled as Western, which first of all concerns education in particular, has been present since the first years of independence, when the hospitals and schools founded by Christians were nationalised. The Boko Haram sect, whose meaning is ‘Western education is sacrilege’, is taking up once again and reviving this anti-Occidentalism. In the northern states it is difficult for a Christian to have access to education, which is controlled by Muslim officials, to the extent that often it is necessary to Islamize one’s name to be able to enrol at university.

 

 

In the state of Niger one of the last European missionary nuns arriving in Nigeria over 44 years ago tells of the decline of a country which, despite having all the necessary economic factors and human resources, has not managed to prosper and has instead dissipated everything that the missionaries had built courageously and generously over the years. During the years of military dictatorship the Church had to keep quiet so as to avoid the martyrdom of those who had dared to rebel against a policy of Islamization worsening the persecution of Christians. The Church saw its property being confiscated and had to accept the departure of its missionaries. It was only in the 90s that the Church, taking advantage of a climate of openness and democratisation, claimed the restitution of its property. According to the nun however, the harm done is irreversible since the skill of the missionaries was not handed down and the investment needed today is too onerous. The schools, libraries and hospitals that do manage to pick up their activity find it difficult to compete with the competition from the Muslim institutions backed by the Saudi Arabian petrodollars. The Islamization of the country is increasingly perceived by the Christians: the adhesion of the country to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the establishment of sharî‘a, the opening of new Islamic banks, the texts in Arabic letters on the local banknotes are tangible signs of this.

 

 

Nonetheless the Muslims do not admit that there is a plan for the Islamization of the country: the injured and dead caused by the attacks are attributed to Boko Haram. But the Protestant Christians of the north seem less and less willing to share this interpretation of the events: for their leaders, Boko Haram is part of an occupation programme organised by some Muslim chiefs and politicians, a strategy aimed at strongly diminishing the number of Christians in the north and to speeding up the division process between Christian and Muslim communities.

 

On 11 March we witnessed another suicide attack at Jos killing 10 people, in the Catholic church of Saint Finnbarr. The communiqué by the Boko Haram spokesman said: ‘We attacked simply because it was a church’, says a lot about the objectives of this terrorist organisation.

 

 

The standpoint of the Catholic bishops is more toned down: they refuse the logic of armed and religious struggle and for them the crucial point is not to lay claim to positions of one religion over another, but to guarantee the state of law and the constitutional legitimacy of the country. That is, to strengthen national unity starting from the suffering affecting the whole population, terrorised by the violence that is taking over the country.

 

The terrorist attack against the Catholic church of St. Teresa in Madalla, for example, destroyed by a car bomb last Christmas, immediately rallied the Muslim federal and religious authorities who brought comfort to the Christians and condemned the attack. In Madalla many Muslims were also killed and injured and today many young Muslims gather together to ensure safety during the Sunday Mass. Here two young priests have started a project aimed at encouraging those who have fled the hell of the attack to return to the country to demonstrate that the desire to live together can get the better of violence.

 

 

For the bishop of the diocese of Mina, the present conflict cannot be explained as being caused by religious motives, but finds its origin in the everlasting attempt of evil to prevail over good.

 

A great amount of tension is linked to the ownership of land: one case, for example, is that of the appropriation of the land of Ibdu, with a Christian majority, by the Hausa-fulani, an ethnic group of Muslim majority. It must in fact be considered that in this country land has an almost religious value, besides the fact that it guarantees the citizen the right to vote, which is connected to the place of birth. Even if a Nigerian moves to another state and purchases a piece of land there, he can exercise his right to vote only where he was born. At present the Muslims who have moved towards the centre of the country contest this tradition: paradoxically they keep their right to vote in the northern state from which they come and nevertheless oppose the Christians’ right to vote who have settled there.

 

 

The sight of the abandoned villages following the attack by the terrorist groups is desolating. It must be pointed out however that their attachment to the land in the end encourages the Christian peasants to retrace their steps. But the attacks against the Christians and the reprisals carried out towards the Muslims have fragmented the towns: while beforehand the market of the quarter was used by the whole population, today each religious community has its own market. The hatred and anger are constantly present and risk degenerating into clashes at any moment whatsoever.

 

The visit to Asaba, in southern Nigeria, and the cemeteries where a number of missionaries are buried forces us to reflect on the meaning of their mission in Nigeria. Most of them did not live to be twenty-five because of malaria. Their motto was ‘embrace the cross and move on’. A motto that is still so relevant in a context in which malaria is no longer the killer.

 

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