Nigeria's Next Chance

By Reckhow, Sarah | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Nigeria's Next Chance


Reckhow, Sarah, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is at a crossroads in its long history of religious and tribal warfare. The May 1999 inauguration of Olesegun Obasabjo, Nigeria's first civilian president in several decades, along with the consideration of Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze as the successor to Pope John Paul II, position this nation with roughly equal proportions of Christians and Muslims for a new future of political and religious peace through democracy and reconciliation.

Text:

Optimism for Peace

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is at a crossroads in its long history of religious and tribal warfare.

The May 1999 inauguration of Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's first civilian president in several decades, along with the consideration of Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze as the successor to Pope John Paul II, position this nation with roughly equal proportions of Christians and Muslims for a new future of political and religious peace through democracy and reconciliation.

Since the state attained independence in 1960, Nigeria has been struggling with a destabilizing history of religious conflict and colonial rule. Northern Nigeria, where the Hausa people established an Islamic emirate 200 years ago, is populated primarily by Muslims. In 1886, Irish missionaries brought Christianity to Nigeria, and their influence converted much of the eastern half of Nigeria to Catholicism.

British colonizers drew the territorial lines that would become the modern state of Nigeria in 1914, disregarding the country's religious and tribal divisions. In fact, the colonizers often inflamed preexisting rivalries to help maintain British control. Independence did little to alleviate religious tensions; at the end of the 1960s the country endured a brutal 30--month civil war that claimed one million lives. The war began after an attempt by the predominantly Christian region of Biafra to secede from the Muslim government and ended with the Biafrans' surrender in 1970. Afterward, Nigeria fell under the control of a series of military rulers who have done little to prevent religious conflicts. Like the British colonizers, Nigeria's military leaders often manipulated and incited underlying religious and tribal tensions to maintain power.

Religious conflicts within Nigeria pose a potential threat to African regional peace as well: an internal religious conflict could involve Christians and Muslims in neighboring African nations. "The Balkanization of Nigeria would be disastrous for the world," says El-Haji Maitama Sule, a former presidential candidate. "If you wind up with a Muslim north that is landlocked, without oil, we will be forced to look to our brothers to the west and the north."

Two pivotal figures have recently entered this environment of religious tension and tribal warfare: the political leader Obasanjo, who is focused on democratically rebuilding Nigeria, and the religious leader Arinze, who has the potential to reconcile Nigeria's religious differences. Obasanjo, unlike most of the leaders in Nigeria's troubled past, calls democracy a "fundamental imperative." In an October 1999 speech he remarked, "Today we affirm democracy and its values because it is good for us, not because the world demands it ... [it is the] one form of government that guarantees the unity of our country in a sustainable way." Obasanjo has stated his commitment to "recognize the relevance of cultural units to which every citizen has a profound sense of belonging." Putting action behind his words, Obasanjo, a Christian, took an important step toward unity and peace by naming a Muslim as his vice president. Obasanjo's actions have earned him praise from unconventional quarters. …

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