Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Resurgence of religious riots in Nigeria

There is a troubling dimension to the agonizing state of things in Nigeria today. Despite the magnitude of crippling problems such as poverty, ignorance, hunger, disease and inept leadership ravaging the country, religious fundamentalists and purveyors of violence are still on the prowl. In what has now come to be seen as a recurrent ritual, an Islamic sect, this time known as Kala-kato (meaning "he has said") and claiming to be an offshoot of the original Maitatsine sect of the 1980s, clashed recently with soldiers from the 33 Field Artillery Brigade, Bauchi leaving over 80 people dead, according to reports, and scores of houses and property razed. Innocent victims of the holocaust are still counting their losses.

Yet, as concerned Nigerians ponder over the crisis of internal security mechanism in the country, the pervasive culture of impunity and the government's seeming complacency and lethargic disposition to the menace, certain questions beg for answer: For how long shall we continue with this situation as a nation? What are our national values? Does the country have enough intelligence structures in place to checkmate the recurring religious mayhem? What are the security agents doing to put a stop to this ugly trend? Why do we lack the political will to treat issues that are criminal in nature as such?

Under successive administrations until, perhaps, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in the mid-1980s, religion in Nigeria was practised in the context of a secular state; it was institutionalized and rarely disruptive of the Nigerian public life. But unfortunately, the years since then have brought unanticipated developments in the relationship between religion and the polity.

First, contrary to the constitutional position, religion is very much in evidence in government, which means that the secular paradigm and freedom from religious bias that had dominated Nigeria's official life have come to be questioned. Second, rather than being contained within private endeavours, religion has increasingly been suffusing state institutions, establishing itself firmly in official matters. We strongly believe the country should be wary of this trend. Nigeria does not have an official state religion and no one individual or group should think of foisting it on the country.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 clearly states: "Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance." Regrettably, certain actions or inactions of the Nigerian authorities, concerning their official approach to religious matters in recent times, all point to the contrary.

Besides the official posturing by Nigerian leaders during the regime of General Babangida that Nigeria was a member of the controversial Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the official representation of Nigeria at a meeting of an organization known as the G8 (group of eight Islamic nations, namely: Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Egypt and Palestine) during the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, there is an embarrassing rumour that Nigeria is a leading member of yet another organization called "Islam for Africa". We are apprehensive that official meddlesomeness in religious matters is at the root of the incessant religious tensions and crises bedevilling the nation.

The 2004 ethno-religious turmoil in Plateau and Kano States exposed the Federal Government's lack of objectivity in handling such volatile matters. The then President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, chose to tongue lash Christian leaders at the slightest provocation, subsequently imposing emergency rule on Plateau, but leaving Kano, with a record of more violent riots, untouched. Ever since, the frequency with which Islamic extremists have unleashed terror on the nation leaves much to be desired. The danger inherent in such costly misadventure is that Nigeria is continuously on tenterhooks, but apparently unmindful that the thin thread of peace and tranquility might snap without notice.

That Bauchi alone witnessed three violent religious riots in 2009 is not a good omen for the peace of the nation. The deplorable trend persists because government appears helpless and lacks the courage to prosecute offenders and perpetrators of these evil acts. Besides, the government must take further responsibility for its failure to provide jobs for the growing population of idle youths. Until the underlying economic hardships are addressed, desperate youths will continue to be manipulated by selfish politicians and religious bigots to cause trouble. Islamic leaders themselves should not be exonerated from blame in the mass hysteria afflicting sections of the nation.

Community policing will go a long way in arresting this ugly development. Yet, we believe that Nigeria has a functioning intelligence network; the main challenge has always been acting on the available information. We must pull back from the brink. Nigeria cannot afford a religious war.

Daily Independent

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