Amid reports of deadly sectarian clashes in Nigeria’s volatile “Middle Belt” region, which roughly divides the mostly Christian south from the predominantly Muslim north, civil society groups are accusing religious leaders of perpetuating violence by putting politics before preaching.
While details about the recent bloodshed are still emerging dozens have been reported killed. Plateau State Police Commissioner Chris Olakpe says gunmen attacked four villages Thursday in a remote, “almost inaccessible" region where economic interests cleave along ethnic and religious lines. Competition for resources often culminates in clashes between Muslim and Christian communities, and Olakpe says that this week's violence was almost certainly sectarian in nature.
Sulaimen Shinkafi, who heads African Youth for Conflict Resolution and Prevention, says while economics may be at the root of the fighting, religious ideology is often exploited as a means to perpetuate it.
“[Religious leaders] are diverting the teachings, objectives of Islam, objectives of Christianity, into political objectives," he said, accusing religious leaders of accepting cash payments from politicians to admonish followers to vote along religious lines.
"Most of them are curious to get money. They are all for money," he said of both Christian and Muslim leaders, adding that galvanizing religious groups behind politicians also reinforces the idea that Christians and Muslims are by nature at odds with each other.
For Emmanuel Bonet of the Civil Society on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, which is based in Kaduna, a Middle Belt city where sectarian violence has killed nearly 1,000 people in the past two years, the country's leading religious umbrella groups are to blame. Jama'atu Nasril Islam and the Christian Association of Nigeria, both fail to regulate the clerics who routinely encourage vengeance.
Claims of unfairness
Some religious leaders, however, reject the criticism, saying it is unfair to suggest that a handful of rogue sheikhs and pastors are able to undo the considerable amount peace-building work carried out by their offices.
Michael Haruna, an elder in the Christian Association of Nigeria’s Kaduna branch, says churches and mosques alone cannot unravel decades of sectarian clashes, as government institutions are responsible for punishing those who commit the atrocities.
“We are talking about norms and values," he said. "If you deviate from the norms of our religion, it is God that will punish you. The religious leader has no right. They cannot punish you. If you commit a crime the only person that can punish you is the government."
Khalid Aliyu Abubakar, secretary general of Jama’atu Nasril Islam, says his organization is looking into the problem and will be meeting before Ramadan begins next month to seek solutions.
“There may be occasion where some people may be advancing one political philosophy or the other, or one tribal agenda or the other, or one interest or the other," he said. "These parochial interests should be set aside. The focal point should be to let people know the right thing to do."
A volatile region
Perhaps the country's most complex security challenge, sectarian violence in Nigeria's Middle Belt has claimed 14,000 victims since 1999, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. In recent years the problem has been aggravated by Boko Haram, a northeast-based group that preaches a harsh form of Islamic law and often targets churches.
Last year nearly 100 people were killed when young Christian men took to the streets in retaliation against the bombing of three churches in Kaduna.
Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report from Kaduna; Ardo Hazzad contributed from Bauchi.