The times call for much introspection and soul-searching among people of faith. We live in times of holy warlords, false prophets and sundry oracles spewing all kinds of hate-filled theologies. These warped theologies represent a potent existential threat to Nigeria. Recently, the central Nigerian city of Jos was enveloped in sectarian violence that claimed the lives of several hundred people and displaced up to forty thousand more by one estimate. Similar bouts of violence have torn the city apart four times over the past twenty years. At those times, we have witnessed the familiar rituals of politicians calling for peace, the deployment of the military; the establishment of probe panels of inquiry to examine “the immediate and remote causes” of the conflicts and then the burial of those reports until the inevitable next round of violence.
Jos is by no means the most violent place in Nigeria nor is the sectarian hate that has poisoned its otherwise serene climate unique in the Nigerian experience. Sadly, the tin city is only the latest theatre of a pattern of conflict that is increasingly prevalent across the federation. Nigeria has never been an oasis of peace. Military dictatorships were in power for more than three decades during which time, the civic aspirations of the Nigerian people were viciously repressed. It endured a terrible fratricidal civil war in which over a million people were killed. It has remained united but suffers from fairly frequent eruptions of ethno-religious conflict. This isn’t novel. In a multicultural society, ethnic and religious tensions and conflicts are to be expected. Intelligent governance can manage, defuse and in time, neuter these tensions and their latent potential for flaring into wars. But Nigeria has notably not been blessed with intelligent governance.
What is troubling about the current spate of conflicts is how thoroughly infused with hate they are; the murderous ardour with which mobs are encouraged to demonize and exterminate their enemies including women and children; there is a sense, not yet full-blown but increasingly evident, that particular people are “evil” because of their ethnicity or their religion and that they ought to be stamped out or exorcised from a defined space. These views are promoted subtly and unsubtly by some politicians, elements of the media and most disturbingly by clerics. We should fear that the seeds of generational hatred and conflict and cycles of violence are being sown. We should be alarmed that we are setting the stage for a legacy of discord and inherited strife to haunt the next generation and their children’s children. We should worry when children aged ten years and even less are being raised to hate Christians or Muslims and to see people of differing creeds and ethnicities as enemies by default. And religious clerics who are the most powerful non-state actors in the public square are complicit in this crime against the posterity of Nigerian humanity.
Even as the immediate and remote causes of the Jos crisis are investigated, we as a society must question what kind of moral climate permits our cities and towns to collapse into orgies of wanton genocidal butchery. What explains the speedy transformation of these locales into sectarian slaughterhouses in which even places of worship are attacked? What spiritual and theological influences are at work when religious leaders subtly and overtly justify religious violence? For the avoidance of doubt, theology matters. It is theology that generates the values that define the ethical climate of the society. The prevailing ethical climate in turn generates particular patterns of moral choice, public conduct and social example and these further reinforce the moral climate. All our problems as a society can be attributed to the framework of anomic values that now undergirds our public life. This essay addresses the largely unremarked theological and socio-psychological dimensions of sectarian conflict in Nigeria.
Religion in our society mostly fulfils the human need for what psychologists call ‘other-blame’. When things go wrong for communities, the instinctive response is to look for scapegoats upon which to heap the blame for our misfortunes. For the ancient Hebrews, the scapegoat was the vessel symbolically imbued with the sins of the society and then released into the wilderness to be consumed by the demons of the desert thus achieving the ritual cleansing of the community. According to some theological perspectives, the use of the scapegoat was simply a placebo – a superficial therapy of the conscience that did not address moral responsibility and therefore offered no actual cleansing. Nevertheless, the logic of scape-goating is the dominant element of theology and popular spirituality on these shores.
Significantly, scape-goating tends to occur within the context of economic realities. As recession reduces the financial inflows, economic and cultural paranoia set in. We begin to look for those who we suspect are reducing or shortening our rations. When we find them, we dub them aliens, strangers, unbelievers, settlers or non-indigenes and heap upon them the blame for our collective misfortunes. Such psychopathologies emanate from a national soul besieged by both material and spiritual poverty. For instance, Adolf Hitler cast the Jews as scapegoats for Germany’s economic woes during a time of depression and hyperinflation. And most Germans reeling from their country’s defeat and humiliation in the First World War and its subsequent economic decline agreed with him and became complicit in the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
It was during the 1980s, when Nigerians suffered the flagellation of structural adjustment programmes and inflation that a new neo-Pentecostal theology emerged. It attributed the economic decline at personal and social levels to the activities of witches, wizards, demons and other malign spiritual forces. According to its exponents, epileptic seizures, plane crashes, hit and run accidents, cerebral malaria, fire outbreaks or collapsed buildings could just as well be demonic afflictions or witchcraft attacks. Trace elements of this immensely popular brand of faith are evident in the crisis of social aggression that has beset our communities. For years these preachers have excoriated the devil without precisely identifying his earthly agents. Rather than confronting the machines of social injustice grinding life out of the people, the preachers blamed a host of metaphysical entities. It is these “demons” that are now being given human form and flesh as “strangers”, “non-indigenes” and “infidels” to satisfy the need for other-blame. Theology informs how we perceive and approach reality. If are directed by our imams and pastors to look for enemies – scapegoats responsible for our failings – we will find them eventually in the shape of members of other sects, denominations, faiths or ethnicities.
As poverty becomes more endemic, more people become susceptible to the belief that they stand a better chance as a group in staking a claim to a bigger share of the national cake. There is a belief that others ought to be elsewhere – they should not share our space, or the land that belongs to our people and the civic arena in which we determine our destiny, especially in times of material scarcity and political uncertainty. And if we allow them to share of our physical space, it is under our terms or those prescribed by tradition. A demarcation emerges between self-proclaimed sons of the soil, the community landlords and the so-called strangers and aliens, the presumptive tenants in the emergent social equation. New ideas of religious, ethnic and socio-cultural supremacy emerge. Communities are polarized between master races and serfs.
Sectarian animus can also be attributed to psychological factors. Having enemies fulfills an important human need whether it is children on the playground forming rival packs or university students forming rival fraternities. Psychologists say that nothing promotes social, ethnic and national harmony as surely as a common object of loathing. As all students of power know, fostering an “us against them” dynamic is a central element of demagoguery. There can be no “us” without there being a corresponding “them” to oppose. In group psychology, the alien other embodies the worst aspects of the group itself. We simply project our greed, avarice, paranoia and cowardice on to the other group. Such stereotyping frequently becomes the wholesale demonization of entire peoples and generates the sort of rhetoric that inspires hate crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This is the substance of what I refer to as genocide theology.
The need for enemy formation is so potent that sustaining it is emotionally gratifying. It is easier for the Berom in Jos to think of the Hausa and the Fulani as their arch-foes or for the Hausa and the Fulani denizens of the far north, in turn, to think of the Igbo as an invasive presence. The same sentiments denominate relations between the Tiv and the Jukun or the Urhobo and Itsekiri and many other ethnic groups in the federation. Genocide theology is a vehicle for an even deeper psychological malaise. It may well be that to compensate for their inability to rise up against a bankrupt ruling class, Nigerians are directing their rage at each other. Our chances of mitigating these aggressions depend on how mature we become spiritually and politically. The more mature we become, the less need we will have to externalize our failures upon an enemy, and the more discerning we shall be of who the real enemies are. This calls for a new kind of civil theology that empowers us to take responsibility for our collective destiny rather than search for metaphysical or physical enemies to blame.
Conflicts of the sort that periodically wrack Jos and other communities are difficult to pigeonhole and do not submit to easy categorization. They are not simply religious conflicts; they are sired by a complex intercourse of factors – ethnic, social, cultural, political and religious. We can argue with supporting evidence that the Jos crisis is only superficially religious. In a society characterized by dysfunctional governance, elite delinquency, a demographic boom and infrastructural collapse, millions of young people without education, employment or prospects for the future are susceptible to genocide theology. Under such circumstances, the baser impulses that drive mobs to loot, maim and kill are draped in the sacred garments of religion. Genocide theologians summon scriptural justification for the demonic lusts lurking in the society’s subconscious.
We have not heard the sort of theologizing and rhetoric that emphasizes concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation and inclusion. The notion Of Al Kitab – that we are people of the book, heirs of a common body of revelation despite our differing interpretations thereof – contrasts sharply with the flagrant ease with which the labels, “infidel” and “unbeliever” and their implicit subhuman classifications are generously plastered on perceived enemies. Very little is heard of the imperatives of constructing bridges of empathy, forbearance and compassion across ethnic and religious divides. The tragedy is that voices of moderation and reason that ought to shape a necessary interfaith conversation have largely fallen silent. In their absence, the interfaith conversation, if it can be so-called, has degenerated into demagoguery and occasionally careens into the realm of guns, swords, machetes and assorted weapons. Even within the different religions, it is reactionaries and zealots that are in the ascendancy. Millions of Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim believers are illiterate and ignorant even about their own faiths. Zeal has not been tempered with knowledge and is now running riot in a climate of unreason and superstition. So far, the extremists are winning and it is not a good sign.
The need to resolve the role of religion in our public life continues to loom large. Secularism remains the best option for a society that hosts a diversity of faiths but it does not mean as some religionists charge that the public arena will become a values-neutral wasteland. A secular social order means that the public square cannot be monopolized by any one faith; public life can be enriched by our moral values but cannot be colonized as the domain of any particular religion. Today, the public square is a theatre of conflict where various faith groups contend for domination. The political elite have long been adept at manipulating religious sentiments to build bases of political support. And too many politicians and clerics have been willing to consecrate political chicanery, electoral heists and allied injustices as “God’s will” blurring the boundaries between the religious and political dimensions in the process.
To save the state itself from complete devastation by sectarian warfare, we must redefine those boundaries. Some actions readily commend themselves: Government sponsorship of pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem should be terminated. The use of public funds for affairs that fall under the province of personal devotion is wrong. The patronage and courtship of religious clerics by public servants should be discontinued. Such measures will help to renew the Nigerian state. The paradox is that our grotesque brand of civil religion has turned the public square into precisely the sort of values-neutral wasteland feared by religionists.
There is also the matter of the gaping vacuum in the public square that ought to be occupied by clerics that can speak truth to power and repudiate the spirit of sectarian strife that threatens all of us. We have not heard the ringing condemnations of violence perpetrated by Christians and Muslims from the pulpits and mosques. Some religious leaders, imams and pastors have denounced the violence but these are relatively few voices. All too often, clerics who should be standing on the non-partisan moral high ground advocating truth and justice are themselves sectional champions of the worst kind conflating their inherent bigotries and prejudices with “the will of God.” We are called to occupy this moral high ground where the loss of a life, any life whether Muslim or Christian or of any persuasion at all, can be interpreted rightly as a human tragedy instead of as a victory for a particular religion. It is upon this holy ground that the authenticity of our faith and humanity will become manifest.
The rising incidence of sectarian violence is best understood in the context of a failed or a failing state. Extremism, sectarianism, bigotry and genocide theology generally prevail in failed states. Think of Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen among other countries that have become outposts of international terrorism. While Nigeria is not in the league of failed states, we can surmise that she is steadily heading in their direction. The healthy balance and creative tension that should exist between politics and religion has been disrupted. Ideally, religion enables us to pursue the “treasures of heaven” – a metaphor for the use of transcendental moral values to guide our personal and social conduct. The state exists to enable us access earthly treasures by providing the public goods that make for citizens’ welfare. Where the state fails to provide public goods and underwrite the welfare of the society, non-state actors like religious movements will step into the void often with disastrous consequences.
In a multi-religious society, people will tend to see themselves first and foremost as adherents of particular faiths and only secondarily as citizens or not at all. Religious movements will invade the state’s domain and purport to have the keys of access to earthly treasures. Inevitably, there will arise messengers intent on creating a paradise on earth whether an Islamic theocracy or a New Jerusalem. In such a realm, people are persuaded that by converting to a particular faith they are guaranteed social mobility and economic advancement. Consequently, terms like “Muslim” and “Christian” increasingly refer not to adherence to particular moral codes but to competing political categories with a predictable set of partisan beliefs and allegiances. In most parts of Northern Nigeria, this is already the case. This is the context that permits the growth of extremist movements like Boko Haram and Maitatsine – religious movements with avowedly political objectives – and sustains the spread of genocide theology. The civic domain ends up disfigured. This is what has befallen religion and politics in Nigeria.
The chief task for politicians of this generation is to rebuild the Nigerian state so that it can spread a broad umbrella of inclusive welfare that covers all her citizens and provides them with civic meaning, purpose and hope. Only a state guided by nationalistic welfarist principles and operating as an impartial arbiter in the public realm can neuter the centrifugal forces at work in the polity. A state that is hostage to sectarian zealots and partisan agendas will simply self-destruct.
Without a federal administration committed to promoting social and economic rights – access to education, health care, shelter, food and employment – the nightmare scenario long envisioned by observers of Nigeria will come to pass. It is the spectacle of more holy warlords and false prophets enthralling millions of dispossessed Nigerians who have nothing to lose. Pocket theocracies, genocidal turf wars and ethno-religious insurgencies will scarify a landscape patrolled by vigilantes and militias as the state recedes from the public consciousness. International terrorists will find a haven in yet another failed state. It is upon this road that genocide theology has set Nigeria – not to a paradise on earth but to a hell that will consume everyone regardless of what God they purport to believe in.