Specter of war shadows Nigeria as well as Africa

February 29, 2000|By Gwynne Dyer

WHAT IS the worst thing that could happen in Africa? Africa has so many disasters already, from the AIDS plague to the debt trap to the wars in both Congos, Sudan, Angola, Burundi, and the Horn of Africa, that it's hard to imagine how matters could get worse. But they could. There could be a civil war in Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest country, with well over 100 million people, and a war there would be Africa's worst war by far. (Nigeria's previous civil war, the Biafran conflict in the 1960s, probably killed as many people as the Vietnam War.) But there are forces in Nigeria that are trying to trigger such a calamity.

In the past week, more than 300 people have been killed in Muslim-Christian clashes in the great northern city of Kaduna, and both the Catholic cathedral and the central mosque have been burned.

Martial law has stopped the killing in Kaduna, at least temporarily, but tensions remain at fever pitch through the whole of the north.


The conflict is ostensibly over the demand by some Muslims for the imposition of Islamic law -- complete with amputations, floggings, the banning of alcohol, the compulsory segregation of the sexes in public places, and the shrouding of women -- in the 19 northern states where Muslims form a majority of the population.

No doubt many devout people really believe that's what it's about, but it is actually part of a concerted attempt by Nigeria's former ruling elite to destabilize the democratic government that was elected last year.

Nigeria has spent most of its independent history, including all of the 15 years before last May, under the heel of military regimes that became ever more brutal, incompetent and corrupt. As it happened, a large majority of the officers in these regimes were Muslims, though Nigerians as a whole are split equally between Muslims and Christians.

So both these officers and their civilian allies (who were also mostly from the predominantly Muslim north of the country) feel they have lost out in the return to democracy.

Changing times

Their resentment and anxiety are compounded by the fact that the country's new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a Christian from the south. Worse yet, the former general has ruthlessly purged corrupt senior officers from the army and is legally pursuing even those who retired long ago for their past crimes. (For a long time in Nigeria, a general's stars were a license to steal.)

Now the old northern-based alliance has lost power to an elected government, and some of those who prospered under the old system will do just about anything to bring it back.

Their obvious strategy, alas, is to claim that Muslims as a whole, rather than just some very rich Muslim individuals and groups, are the losers in this shift to democracy -- and then to mobilize Muslim resentment by stirring up religious clashes with the Christian minority in the north.

That is why the small, almost entirely rural northern state of Zamfara last October became the first Nigerian state to impose Islamic law on its population: not just sharia law for family and civil cases, which has long been an option for Muslims throughout the north, but the full rigor of Islamic law imposed on everyone without distinction.

Extend the rules

Now Muslim radical are demanding the same in states with a large Christian minority, like Kaduna. But this is not really about religion, and the timing is no accident.

President Obasanjo, wisely, is refusing to intervene directly in states' rights issues, insisting that ethnic and religious conflicts will die down once the government turns the economy around (a task in which it has made significant progress in the past eight months).

Nigeria's senior Islamic leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, has warned that the religious clashes pose "a very serious threat to the peace and unity of this great nation."

But others are pushing the clashes along in the hope of destroying democracy and regaining power. If the killing starts up again, what they may get instead is a massive civil war, millions of dead, and the disintegration of Africa's largest country.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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