Contending With Religious Crises in the North

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Daily Independent (Lagos)

Sukuji Bakoji

7 April 2010


Kaduna — "I must confess that I share the fears of the possibilities of religious and sectarian strives in the country. I believe that tribalism as a fall-back position for political ends was destroyed by the Nigerian Civil War. But I regret to say that religious and sectarian chauvinism is fast replacing tribalism as a vehicle for political coercion. The use of ethnic and/or religious differences as a means of achieving political solidarity is fraudulent enough, but it becomes more disturbing when used to polarize the people and thereby disturb the peace and stability of the country. I am not aware of any country that has survived two civil wars. I am afraid that our country, Nigeria, may presently be living between wars. I hope I am wrong, but all the ingredients and the signs to the contrary are there for any perceptive analyst to see."

These were the words of the then Chief of Amy Staff (COAS), Lt. General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, fondly called TY, in his valedictory speech at the Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji, Kaduna in July 1979. The erstwhile Army Chief presently the Chairman of the 26-man Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) further regretted that the biggest threat posed to the corporate existence of the nation was not by any foreign powers, "but by us Nigerians."

Danjuma further opined, "Until and unless we have men of standing who can perceive the limits of the stresses that the country can accommodate at the time of strife, and take appropriate measures to arrest them, Nigeria shall continue to be a high-risk country of questionable standing, internationally. My greatest fears are that there may be no Nigeria after our next strife."

Indeed, Danjuma might have been proved right. The North in particular, and the nation generally is on the brink of religious war, unless the problem is nipped in the bud. For instance, the recent bloodbath in Plateau State as well as that of Bauchi, Kano, Borno and Yobe following the outbreak of the Boko Haram uprising have again brought to the fore the lingering religious crisis or religious intolerance in the entire North. After all, the northerners are no longer strangers to the bloodletting religious and sectarian crises. The persistent problem of religious fanaticism has become the region's festering sore thumb, and by implication, the greatest threat to the corporate existence of the country.

Beginning from the 1980s to date, religious fanatics have unleashed terror all over the North in most cases, leading to bloodbath and wanton destruction of lives and property.

It should be recalled that the notorious Maitatsine sect comprising a bunch of zealots and Islamic fundamentalists actually ignited the religious crisis in the North. The sect was named after its leader and founder, Sheikh Muhammadu Maitatsine. He was an itinerary Islamic scholar who migrated from Garua, Cameroun Republic, and settled in Kano for several years.

The fundamentalists preached and practiced an extreme form of Islam, based on bizarre interpretation of the Holy Qur'an. Though, like other Muslims worldwide they believed in the Shahadah, the confession of the Islamic creed of faith, "there is no god but Allah and Mohammed (S.A.W.) His prophet." Members of his left-wing Islamic movement and the armed insurgents held Maitatsine in high esteem.

Maitatsine and his band of fanatics carried out clandestine military training in the ancient Kano city. They fortified their bodies with antidotes to gunshots and drank human blood. They kidnapped numerous women and children, shaved their heads and slaughtered them on daily basis and drank their blood.

Consequently, before December 1980 when the Islamic militants first struck, their leader constituted himself into law and was eventually adored as a demigod. He even extended his tentacles by annexing the vicinity, like Yan Awaki quarters. He converted schools and market places into camps.

The then civilian governor of the Old Kano State, late Abubakar Rimi, could not curtail Maitatsine and his army of followers. Consequently they struck. Their victims had their throats slit and their bowels ripped open. They killed with daggers and poisoned arrows.

The total estimate of the people killed by the armed insurgents was put roughly at 4,770. It took a combined team of anti-riot Police and the soldiers several days before the insurgents were dislodged. Their leader was eventually captured alive. He was identified by one of his numerous wives before he was then killed.

Thereafter, the disciples scattered and later regrouped at Bulunkutu quarters, Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Before the state government could realise and checkmate them in 1982, they had struck again killing over 500 people. They also destroyed public and private property worth millions of naira.

Two years later, in 1984, the insurgents regrouped in Jimeta, Yola, in the defunct Gongola State. It was in February that they struck once more. The death toll was put at about 1,000 and over 6,000 people were displayed. The figures were grossly underestimated by the authorities, to say the least.

In fact, the armed insurgents even over-powered the Police before a battalion of soldiers was drafted into their quarters at Nasarawa, Jimeta. The fanatics were eventually routed by the soldiers.

However, their then leader, named Mallam Makaniki, escaped with several gunshot wounds, together with his lieutenants. It took sometime before relative peace was restored in the peaceful town. And nothing was heard about Makaniki and his followers in the area.

But in 1985, barely a year later, in what appeared to be the proverbial ill-wind that veered away, the insurgents struck again, this time in Gombe, the capital of the present Gombe State. There were conflicting reports on the exact number of people killed. But it could be in hundreds.

Against this backdrop, since then, there has been lingering or rather sporadic religious uprising or riots in different parts of the North. Kaduna and Kano, especially have remained the melting pots of the religious crisis.

For instance, in 1987, a religious riot erupted in Kafanchan, Kaduna State, which spilt over to other parts of the state and the North. It all started at the state's College of Education, Kafanchan. Members of the Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) of the college had organised a crusade dubbed, "Mission '87." They invited Evangelist Bello Abubakar, a Kano-born convert from Islam as a guest speaker.

Evangelist Abubakar held his audience spell-bound with the testimonies of his conversion and his experiences in the new found faith. He extolled the wondrous ways of Christianity to the detriment of his old faith. But hell was let loose. The Muslims Students Society (MSS), felt aggrieved and accused Abubakar of apostasy, blasphemy by denigrating Islam and the holy name of Prophet Mohammed, including the Holy Qur'an which usually attracts capital punishment (death) to the offender.

The Muslim students pounced on their Christian counterparts and there was stampede and exchange of blows. But soon after, the imbroglio escalated to Kafanchan town and Kaduna metropolis including some major towns such as Zaria and Birnin Gwari.

Thus, the melee alone ignited the keg of gunpowder whose explosion threw the entire Kaduna State and the North into turmoil and pool of blood. There were reprisal and counter-attacks by Muslims and Christians.

The then military governor of the Old Kaduna State, Col. Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, lamented, "If you win a religious war, you cannot win a religious peace. No Christian will take over this country today on the alliance of Christian reform or a Muslim and thinks he is going to mobilise the whole people. So, let us get out of the illusion." He then added, "Since the killing started how many Christians have been converted to Islam? How many Muslims have been converted to Christianity? It is an exercise in futility."

But the then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida had a different perception of the religious crisis. In his nationwide broadcast he opined, "What we are dealing with is not just a religious crisis but rather civilian equivalent of an attempted coup d'etat organized against the Federal Military Government and the Nigerian nation."

Therefore, religious riots have always snowballed into religious conflagration in the North. Ironically, the successive governments and the northerners have failed to learn from the antecedents of religious uprising. Hence, if drastic and decisive measures are not taken to curb the ugly menace, it will one day become a full-fledged religious war or national pogrom. If that should happen, military or security analysts opined, even the 1967-1970 Civil War would pale into insignificant or child's play when compared to the havoc the religious war will cause.

National Publicity Secretary of the northern umbrella organization, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Anthony Sani, lamented, "It is desecrating for ordinary mortals to think God or Allah is too weak to fight His cause, and as a result people must help Him. ACF thus calls on the feuding parties to calm down and return peace to the affected areas in the interest of peaceful co-existence that is sine qua non for any socio-economic development of any society. Allah wants persons He has created to love their differences and make the most of such differences."

But the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) of the 19 Northern States and the Federal Capital Terriroty (FCT), Abuja, has viewed it differently. According to the Christian umbrella organisation, the outbreak of the Boko Haram in August last year and the subsequent religious uprisings that have claimed hundreds of lives and wanton destruction of property was actually a prelude to jihad (holy war) to Islamise the country.

The Northern CAN made the assertions through its spokesman, Rev. Joseph Hayab in a chat with Daily Independent in Kaduna . It further argued that the members of Boko Haram sect are the militant Muslims in the North who do not recognize the supremacy of the Constitution and were hell bent on total implementation of the Islamic legal code, Sharia, in the country, adding that the media failed to understand the motive behind the formation of Boko Haram sect which had pathological hatred to Western education and Christianity.

"The issue is that Boko Haram members were out to Islamise this country, that is why they didn't go to burn schools, if their fight was against education they would have burnt schools, they didn't burn schools but they burnt churches," Hayab stressed, adding, "the lingering ethno-religious crisis in Plateau State is to annihilate Christians and destroy the capital of the Middle Belt."

By and large, a thought provoking question is, does any religion permit intolerance? Many agree that war on and persecution of enemies on religious grounds: whatever means, is a clear example of religious intolerance."

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