What looked like a national pastime has been elevated by bigots, of all hues, into a growth industry. I’m referring of course to religious conflict in the country.
In the North, especially in the North, Muslim extremists and their Christian counterparts had spared no efforts in the 70s, 80s and early 90s in sparking off a religious conflagration that threated to spread from Kano to Yola, Maiduguri to Kafanchan to Kastina, going all the way to Bauchi, consuming the lives of innocent people and pulling down, in its wake, churches and mosques. The ebb and flow of religious intolerance was uncontrollable.
The crises didn’t happen once or twice. They became an all-time affair. The frequency became too uncomfortable that the late Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki, lacking words to adequately define these episodic occurrences, referred to the North as the “bedrock of disturbances.” I was moved to call it the wild, wild North, convinced beyond any reasonable doubt, that the region had upstaged the west which once enjoyed the distinction of being the wild, wild west. From the days of the Maitasine and the Kafanchan riots, the North, with its unique semblance of a monolithic bloc, had acquired the dubious distinction of a volatile and highly temperamental region where lives of people did not count for anything.
At the drop of a pin in the market, jobless jehus and other pitiable scoundrels who had become victims of remorseless poverty occasioned by the insatiable greed of the rich, were ready to take their lot out of the innocent people in the market. In the twinkle of an eye, their stalls would be set on fire and those of them who did not run fast enough for dear life, would become an unwilling sacrificial lamb.
All these were the forerunners to the Boko Haram insurgency which metamorphosed into a full blown war in which thousands of people have lost their lives. Efforts by various political and religious leaders to stem the tide of these disturbances have yielded very poor results. If the efforts had paid off, the results, in my view, would have been an uninterrupted reign of peace in the North. But after the Kafanchan riots in 1987 and the judicial commission of inquiry that was set up to probe the incident, similar riots erupted in Katsina and Bauchi three years later. The Jos madness which turned the tin city, once a veritable haven of peace and a tourist destination, into a plateau of ethnic chauvinism happened in 2001 during this current democratic dispensation under the careful watch of militarised politicians who were bent on winning elections by all means , fair or foul.
The draconian sentences that followed the Kanfanchan riots, with the Zango Katafs bearing the major brunt, did not serve as deterrents. An so history repeated itself in Katsina, in Bauchi and in Jos. If it served as deterrent, Boko Haram would not have happened. So what is the issue?
Those who put these riots at the doorstep of religion miss the point. And so long as they continue to hold religion, Islam and Christianity, as the culprit, so long will peace continue to elude the North, and by extension, the whole country.
The fault is not with religion but the manipulation of religion. The north still lacks education, and it lags dangerously behind other regions of the country both in the quality and the quantity of education. Arising from inadequate education are the problems of poverty and underdevelopment. It is very easy to persuade the uneducated youths to take up arms against an imaginary enemy and fight, believing that by doing so, they are guaranteed a life of perpetual bliss, in the hereafter, the life that has been denied them here on earthy by bad governments run by corrupt and irresponsible leaders. Adequate education is a potent antidote to the manipulation of religion by the political elite.
It takes education and exposure to know that the issues at stake in today corruption, insecurity, maladministration – have nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with poor leadership, a completely irresponsible leadership determined to hold society to ransom, claiming to be God-sent.
There is an example in The Gambia of a so-called God-sent leader, Sheikh Yahya Jammeh, the man who proclaimed his country, the Islamic Republic of Gambia, with the Holy Quran in one and the tesbi, the rosary, in the other. For the 22 years that he held his country to ransom, he advertised his holiness in the day time but in the night, he faithfully and dutifully turned to his other gods decked with beads and padlocks and carved objects and goat head with blood draining to the floor of his private shrine.
For the sake of power, he chose to worship God and the mammon in equal measure. Because of his professed religiosity and the contrived hollowness around him, he could have triggered, if he so wished, a religious upheaval if he had told his followers that some Christian opponents were after his life.
Our problem in Nigeria has nothing to do with Islam and Christianity. It has to do with bad adherents who, in God’s name, manipulate their faith for earthly reasons, money, power and politics. The Northern governors have taken the right step forward by meeting to compare notes on the various problems confronting that region. They must worry seriously about the state of insecurity that gives the impression that law and order has irretrievably broken down. And they must also worry about the soulless manipulation of religion to further political interests.
I find it interesting that President Goodluck Jonathan, out of office but not quite in political wilderness, now has the right frame of mind to caution the political leadership of the danger of religious war in Nigeria. Nigerians must listen to him.