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Ethnic, Religious Divisions in Nigeria: A Challenge to Democracy

Late in the year, clashes between Muslims and Christians derailed Nigeria's plans to host this year's Miss World pageant. The clashes also highlighted the growing struggle by Africa's most populous nation to keep the peace between Muslim northerners and Christians from the south. This friction will continue to test Nigeria's fledgling democracy in 2003.

The city of Kaduna, a busy commercial center in the north of Nigeria, to many is a microcosm of the entire country. The city's population is split almost evenly between Muslims, who have been there for centuries, and Christians, who have migrated from the south in recent decades.

The city was the scene of some of the bloodiest clashes two years ago when several northern states reintroduced Islamic Sharia law. Thousands were killed in clashes between Muslims who wanted Sharia and non-Muslims who feared it would be imposed on them.

Clashes broke out again this past November - this time triggered by Nigeria's effort to host the Miss World beauty pageant. Muslims leaders opposed bringing the sometimes scantily-clad women to Nigeria, calling the competition an indecent display of nakedness. Anger boiled over after a fashion reporter wrote a newspaper article in which she said the Islamic prophet Mohammed would have approved of the pageant and would have probably taken one of the contestants for a wife.

In Kaduna, this unemployed 21-year-old Muslim man, who said his name is Abubakar, told VOA he could not contain his anger when he saw the article. He joined the rampaging mobs on the streets.

"I felt angry, because it was an insult to me, to my religion," he said. "There never are times when a Muslim provokes a Christian, because Muslims respect all the prophets and others."

He said the government should have imposed sanctions on the newspaper and the reporter. The newspaper, called This Day, retracted the article and the writer, Isioma Daniel, is said to have left the country after the state government placed an Islamic death decree on her.

Following the rioting in Kaduna that reportedly killed hundreds of people, Miss World pageant officials moved the event to London, and the contestants quickly left Nigeria. With some irony, pageant judges later gave the Miss World title to Miss Turkey, who is a Muslim.

For pageant supporters like Ben Murray-Bruce, the director of the Nigerian Television Authority, the loss of the pageant was a blow to the country's morale and image.

"We lost a great opportunity to showcase Nigeria to the world," he said. "And people will say, if you can't look after 18-year-old girls, who can you look after? It's dangerous. It's a dangerous trend. It's one that will hurt us for a long time to come. We've got to understand the consequences of what has happened. This will be with us for a long time."

But many Nigerians disagree. Among the most outspoken critics of the pageant was an influential Muslim leader in Kaduna, Sheikh Lawal Abubakar, Imam of the Central Mosque. He told VOA the recent clashes in Kaduna were a sign that if showcasing Nigeria as a modern country means allowing women to parade on a stage in bikinis, that is not compatible with the beliefs of half the country's people.

The sheikh said the basic issue is that Muslims are opposed to what their religion will not tolerate. He explained he has no hatred for the west or its civilization. Indeed, the Imam says Nigerian Muslims appreciate western advances in technology. But, he said, they can never embrace what their religion does not allow.

Ethnic and religious issues highlighted by the Miss World controversy were the main challenge of President Olusegun Obasanjo's third year in office.

Mr. Obasanjo was elected in 1999 with plans to battle corruption and improve the economy. Following years of harsh rule by military governments, including one led by Mr. Obasanjo himself in the 1970s, Nigeria appeared to be entering a new era.

In many respects, President Obasanjo has succeeded in bringing about improvements, with programs to fight corruption and privatize state-owned energy and telecommunications firms, and promote foreign investment. He has also implemented measures to bring the army under control, after decades of being known for its lack of discipline and corruption.

Still, many challenges remain including Nigeria's crushing poverty alongside its lucrative oil fields. And to many observers, President Obasanjo has fallen short in perhaps the largest task: maintaining national unity and managing Nigeria's rising ethnic and religious tensions.

In Kaduna's mixed Christian-Muslim Kabala neighborhood, burned churches and downed power lines are reminders of the growing divisions in Nigeria. Resident Hussein Salimon, a Christian, spoke to a reporter as he loaded his furniture on to a truck and prepared to move his family to a fully Christian neighborhood. He said he couldn't help but be bitter over what he says is Muslim intolerance, which he fears may tear Nigeria apart.

"We have diverse ethnic, religious groups in the country. So, for a particular religious group to hold the country for ransom is unfortunate. We are all Nigerians," he explained. "Whatever your background, whether Christian, or even if you worship idols, it is nobody's business. It is unfortunate. How can they use their own religion as a way of life to determine the future of other people, to determine what should be done?"

The main continuing challenge for Nigeria's elected leaders as they face elections in 2003, is to address that type of concern, and demonstrate that they can manage ethnic and religious differences in a democratic environment, without the heavy handed tactics of the former military regimes.