In July, 2009, when the security forces in northern Nigerian battled the remnants of an Islamic sect loosely modelled on Afghanistan's Taliban movement, the world did not pay attention. In that particular incident, more than 180 people died. It was a local Nigerian news. Now that a Nigerian likely afilliated with Al Queda attacked an American airline, the world's attention will be fixed on Nigeria. To a majority of Nigerians, religious terrorism has a long history.
To Christians, particularly those living in the northern part of Nigeria, terrrorism began long before Al Queda and 911. Northern Nigeria has always provided the breeding ground for intolerant Islamic fanaticism, the kind that gave life to Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab's ill-fated attack on the American soil. Nigerians have for years been killed in large numbers by Islamic fanatics with quiet but active support of the northern elite that have ruled Nigerians for most of her life.
If the world had been paying attention to religious problems in Nigeria and read the report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) , Adbulmutallab's attack would not even have occured. Six months ago, when the "Nigerian Taliban", whose members are followers of a self-proclaimed Islamic scholar, Mohammed Yusuf - a man radically opposed to Western education - ravaged Nigeria with a generally known brand of Islamism, Nigerian government officials from northern Nigerian were implicated. Norther Nigeria leaders have always used religion to foster political interests. It is in this part of Nigeria that new democracy was almost stillborn, when the state governors clamored that the sharia (Islamic law) be adopted across Nigeria almost a decade ago. It was successfully resisted in the south, thanks to the fact that the nation was then administered by Olusegun Obasanjo, a war hero from the south.
Based in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern state of Borno, Boko Haram followers included at least a state commissioner, former university lecturers and students in other northern states, including Kano, Yobe, Sokoto and Bauchi, as well as illiterate, jobless youths. Boko Haram means "Western education is sinful" in the Hausa language spoken across northern Nigeria and sums up the main pillar of the group's ideology. Some of its members resigned their jobs as lecturers when they joined the sect.
Yusuf himself had considerable private wealth, had a Western-style education, but his followers -who came from diverse ethnic backgrounds in the predominantly Muslim north - said he was also educated in Iran. Boko Haram followers prayed in separate mosques in cities Maiduguri, Kano and Sokoto, and wore long beards and red or black headscarves. They believe their wives should not be seen by any men other than themselves and are not supposed to use Western-made goods. Anybody who did not follow their strict ideology - whether Christian or Muslim - was considered an infidel.
President Umaru Yar'Adua, a northern muslim, said the security agencies had been tracking the sect for several years, describing them as a "potentially dangerous group" who had been gathering weapons and intelligence to try to force their views on Nigerians.
Yar'Adua ordered the security forces to use all necessary means to control the situation after sect members armed with machetes, knives, home-made hunting rifles and petrol bombs went on the rampage attacking churches and government buildings. The Boko Haram leader was murdered after he had surrendered by the Nigerian security forces, allegedly to stop him from spilling the facts of conspiracy by top government officials. At that time, the Citizens for Nigeria, provided an insightful report, amply supported by intelligence findings.
The CFN had warned that if care was not taken, the northern religious problem could give Nigeria a bad name. Now, that the inevitable has happened, many Nigerians in Western countries are afraid of the implications of the arrest of their countryman for what had largely been a local problem. Some Nigerians living in the United States, holding sensitive positions in the American society, are wondering how their careers might be affected by the development. Nigerian muslims from the south, who have always lived peacefully with Christian friends and family, fear the negative impact of the attack in America might not be far-fetched.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims and more than 200 ethnic groups generally live peacefully side by side, although civil war left one million dead between 1967 and 1970. In spite of this fairly well distributed religious affiliation, the British colonial government preferred power to remain in the hands of the northern muslims. Reasearch findings in the colonial library revealed a carefully designed plan by the British government to restrict power among the northern muslims, who have continued to dominate Nigeria's politics and used religious prowess to maintain it's hold on power.
The stricter enforcement of sharia in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states in 2000 alienated sizeable Christian minorities in the north and sparked clashes which killed thousands. In 2002, at least 215 people died in rioting in the northern city of Kaduna, following a newspaper article suggesting the Prophet Mohammad would probably have married one of the beauty queens at a Miss World contest being held in Abuja.
A Muslim protest against Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in the northern city of Maiduguri ran out of control in 2006, sparking a week of rioting which killed at least 157. There have also been clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in central Nigeria, a region known as the Middle Belt, most recently last November in the wake of a disputed local government chairmanship election, although the hostilities were more about politics than religion (Reuters).
West Africa has a strong tradition of moderate Sufi Islam whose brotherhoods are renowned for their tolerance, particularly in the Sahel -- the southern fringe of the Sahara desert stretching across the northern edge of Nigeria.
Salafist insurgents from Algeria, Tablighi clerics from Pakistan and Wahabist missionaries from Saudi Arabia -- all seen as potential threats by Western intelligence services -- have tried to gain a foothold in the region in recent years. By and large they have failed.
Islamic jurisprudence in Nigeria is based on the moderate Maliki school of Sunni Islam, and Boko Haram's ideology is widely dismissed by the country's Muslim leaders and believers.
The main militant threat in the Sahara is seen as al Qaeda's North African wing, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which grew out of Algeria's civil war in the 1990s and was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Nigeria arrested a group of Islamists with suspected links to al Qaeda in 2007 and some Western diplomats have expressed concerns that - with its huge population, widespread poverty and strategic importance as an oil supplier to the West and to China - it could become a target for radical Islamic groups.
From the early 1980s, Islamic fanatics in the north have ravaged Nigeria and killed southern Christians in their thousands. In the 1980 Maitatsine riots in Kano, which later spread to Yola, Maiduguri, Bauchi and Gombe, no fewer than six thousand lives were lost (Newswatch).
The very first violence in Kano shocked many Nigerians to their marrow. In that crisis alone, 4,177 lives were lost. The Kano incident stands out for being the first religious crisis that took a huge toll on human lives and property. Although there had been series of religious tensions and skirmishes across the country, one of which was the crises witnessed in May 1980 in Zaria during which property belonging to mainly christians were destroyed by some muslims, few people could have imagined that differences in religion could lead to such wanton destruction of lives and property as witnessed in December 1980.
That was not the last religious crisis to be linked to the Maitatsine sect. Between April 26 to 28, 1985, in the Pantami area of Gombe State in the then Bauchi State, 105 Nigerians reportedly lost their lives while many others lost valuables in another religious conflagration traced to the group. In all the crises involving the Maitatsine, the sight of cudgel weilding fanatics, mutilated bodies and burnt houses, were common scenes.
While Nigeria was dealing with this humongous religious problem, the military administration of Ibrahim Babangida was adding fuel to the fire by courting the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in an attempt to add Nigeria to the list of Islamic nations. That episode alone cause such a large outcry, that the former dictator decided to complete the deal quietly.
In March 1986, while Babangida was still trying to fool Nigeria about his commitment to the Islamic groups, christians and moslems engaged each other in a superiority fight, in what was said to have been sparked by a mere Easter procession in Ilorin. Subsequent religious squabbles were recorded in the late and early 1990s, beginning with the March 1987 confrontation in Kafanchan between moslems and christians, leading to loss of lives and destruction of property.
In April 1991, a man called Yahaya Yakubu masterminded a bloody protest. The Bauchi riot cuased about 764 loss of lives. Six months later, a peaceful demonstration in Kano, by the Izela sect to stop Reinhard Bonnke’s evangelical crusade in the city soon turned violent, resulting in a clash between christians and muslims. Many people lost their lives while others were wounded.
In 1994, when an Igbo trader, Gideon Akaluka, was beheaded by Muslim fundamentalists and had his head paraded on a spike on the streets of Kano after he was accused of desecrating the Koran by inscribing some blasphemous words against Mohammed in his shop at the Sabon Gari area of the town. More religious riots followed in May 1995, July 1999, October 2001 and May 2004 respectively, leading to one concerned Nigerian describing the town as “the hotbed of religious crises in Nigeria.”
Jos, a secular and peaceful northern Nigerian city, loved by the British colonanists, was in 2001 shattered by religious rioting. The Yelwa-Shendam -Wase killings in 2002, followed in 2004 and 2008 by the imposition of state of emergency has transformed Plateau State into one of the most politically unstable states in Nigeria.
In the paper: "The Relationship Between Religion and Politics in Nigeria," Danoye Oguntola-Laguda wrote: "In Nigeria the relationship between religion and politics has been given various interpretations. In fact, D.F Asaju suggests a politicization of religion in the body polity of the state. He relied heavily on the opinion of Theophilus Danjuma, which suggests that religious fanaticism and favouritism have also been politically employed to polarize the people and sustain unhealthy tension of Nigeria (Asaju 1990:172). This situation points directly to the fact that religion has negatively affected politics."
The point was noted by the CFN in July when Boko Haram struck. In our article, Yar'Adua Plans to Exploit Boko Haram Crisis, we warned that the Yar'Adua administration, like those before it, was using religion to foster political advantages. It is in such environment that the likes of Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab are bred.
The current administration has been hobnobing largely with Islamic governments in the Middle East, the bedrock of fundamentalism. The Nigerian president feels too comfortable in Saudi Arabia. He has never ceased to travel to Saudi, even paying homage at a Saudi university while public universities in Nigeria were closed as a result of his administration's failure to honor contractual agreements with teachers at home. Yar'Adua has been receiving treatment for medical problems in Saudi Arabia, the magnitude of which he has refused to disclose. Nigeria today has no president in power. The president could have been dead without Nigerians being able to verify from any Saudi source.
The US State Department report, International Religious Freedom Report 2008, states: "Christians in the predominantly Muslim northern states continued to allege that local government officials used zoning regulations to stop or slow the establishment of new churches. Muslims in the predominantly Christian southern part of Kaduna State alleged that local government officials prevented the construction of mosques and Islamic schools. Officials responded that many of the proposed new churches and mosques would be in residential neighborhoods not zoned for religious purposes, and that the certification boards dealt with a large backlog of cases for all applicants regardless of religious belief. Although there is no law requiring Muslims and Christians to live separately, in states such as Kano, Kaduna, Plateau, and Bauchi, cities are largely segregated on religious lines."
In May, 2009, The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) named six new countries to its list of nations responsible for committing egregious violations of religious freedom. Listed with Nigeria are Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, China, Iran and Iraq.
"The Commission concluded that the government of Nigeria has done little to prevent sectarian violence and that there have been no serious efforts to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of the numerous sectarian killings and crimes that have occurred over the past ten years. On May 1, under the auspices of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF recommended that Nigeria be named as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), a category designated for egregious abusers of religious freedom, which includes the concept of gross failure to act to prevent severe violations."
It is these conditions that gave birth to the first attack by a northern Nigerian in a foreign soil. It has been long in coming, and the Nigerian government and the northern political elites are culpable.