Nigeria’s Anti-Cartoon Riots: Matters Arising
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama
As I write this I recollect an interfaith seminar organized by Muslim youth corp members in Awka, Anambra State, in which I participated as a representative of the association of Catholic Corps members some five years ago. It was a frank exchange of ideas. Although there was no consensus on some fundamental points there was no doubt that no one who participated in that session went home without some understanding of the ‘other people’s’ faith.
So what went wrong in February in Maiduguri, Bauchi, Katsina and Onitsha? Why did the global grievance of Muslims against the unsavoury depiction of Prophet Mohammed by European press become a bloodbath in Nigeria?
Many reasons have been cited for the mayhem. No one doubts that extremists took things out of hand. From every indication there was a lousy reaction by the security agencies in the affected states, especially Borno and other first flashpoints. We may wonder why the state governments involved did not take a proactive stance, given that the entire Muslim world was boiling over the cartoons and it was only a matter of time before the wave engulfed Northern Nigeria. Hopefully, the Federal Government will unearth the causes of the crisis and the roles of both state and non-state actors.
But my concern is much more fundamental: is Nigeria too small for Christians and Muslims to co-exist peacefully? Are the practitioners of these alien religions incapable of living together without affixing an arrow to a bow or pulling a machete at the slightest provocation? Does the fault lie in the religions or Nigerians’ interpretation of their tenets? In answering these posers let us not unduly emphasize the so-called clash of civilizations, which has dominated global consciousness since 9/11 and U.S.A.’s war on terrorism (which some interpret as a war on Islam). Blaming Nigeria’s religious woes on the crises in the Middle East is only partially correct. The demons that occupy the seats of our souls gained their entrance well before 9/11. Let the records speak: 1987 (Kaduna), 1991 (Bauchi), 1992 (Zangon-Kataf), 2000 Sharia Riots, etc. Underlying causes transcend religion in all these mayhem. But religion has become the shield for mischief, giving credence to Blaise Pascal’s observation that: ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as they do it from religious conviction.’
Both religions are exclusivist by nature, and this makes them susceptible to extremism. For all the historical connections, there are dissimilarities, which every adherent imbibes by virtue of identification with the faith.
But does this mean there isn’t enough space for both faiths, indeed all faiths (including atheism) in Nigeria? I doubt it. Maybe the problem is the deep-seated prejudice and lack of understanding of each other’s point of view. Perhaps it suits the political and ethnic champions to continue keeping the masses under their thumb in the name of a God who is clearly unhappy on the slur we are casting on His name. Maybe it is because most Nigerians, having lost hope of a better life on earth, are so heaven-bound that they snap at efforts to denigrate or deny them heaven. Perhaps it is a lack of education - which is different from literacy (after all Osama bin Laden is a qualified engineer and Pat Robertson who called for the death of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is no illiterate American bum) – which will temper the excesses of an uncritical interpretation of religious tenets so common among Nigerians. Above all, political forces are at play.
A scary element, which has entered the religious conflicts gradually engulfing Nigeria, is what I describe as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The Nigerian version of MAD looks like the real thing back in the Cold War days, when both U.S.A. and former Soviet Union targeted nuclear warheads at each other, thus deterring ‘total’ war. But in our case, we strike, and my fear is that these limited engagements may someday spiral out of control. So when Igbo Christians in Bauchi are slaughtered Hausa-Fulani Muslims in Onitsha are butchered in retaliation. This trend began with the 2000 Sharia riots in Kaduna. But then, matters are not so clear-cut. To the uninformed Hausa-Fulani everyone South of the River Niger is a Christian. But there are pockets of Islam, even among the overwhelmingly Christian Igbo and Niger Delta. Uninformed Igbo conclude that everywhere up north is Hausaland. A report in one of the newspapers told of how an Edo man came close to being killed in Onitsha because his features looked like those of a Hausa. Imagine a situation where Nigerians cook a pot of religious intolerance spiced by xenophobia. While nobody has a monopoly of violence, no one can really say how far it will take us.
While external developments should not be overstressed, we only ignore them at our own peril. Since 2001 intolerance has bestridden the world like a colossus. President George W. Bush wasted the global goodwill for the U.S.A., and by extension, the West, after 9/11 by invading Iraq. The antics of his Christian-dominated government in the Middle East fuelled the fire of those who want to establish an Islamic hegemony. This does not mean that people like Hamas leaders are saints fighting a just cause. The atrocities of the Taliban are condemnable by all standards. The strains of the post 9/11 world have activated monsters in Europe, compelling Muslims to rise up against anti-Muslim sentiments and practices. But Europe belongs to all its inhabitants, both Muslim and non-Muslim. At least in theory. The spillover, combined with her problems of poverty, ethnicity and misrule is what Africa (including Nigeria) is suffering.
I plead with Nigerian leaders to realize that this situation does not allow for power juggling exercises. If President Obasanjo and his team do not get to the heart of the violence threatening Nigeria 2007 may be a mirage. Finally, where is the meeting-point between press freedom and religious sensibilities?
*Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama is a teacher and writer based in Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria.