While Boko Haram monopolises the attention of politicians and specialists in northern Nigeria, in the south, Christian insurgents are becoming increasingly inspired by the terrorist group’s methods.
Nigeria is often portrayed as a country on the “frontline” between a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. From this perspective, observers concerned about religiously motivated violence are mostly preoccupied with Boko Haram’s bloody episodes in the Lake Chad region.
They are so preoccupied with the issue of terrorism in Africa that they pay little attention to the insurgents in southern Nigeria who also claim to be God’s followers when they take up arms.
Like the Jews led by Moses
Those nostalgic for the Republic of Biafra often use religious arguments to justify their rebellion. They have taken up the legacy of the secessionists who, between 1967 and 1970, posed as victims (essentially Catholics) of a genocide committed by Muslims, even though the head of the Nigerian state at the time was Christian.
Surrounded by an enemy with a much larger and superior army, who was also being supplied with arms by Arab countries, the Ibo of the Biafra region had set their sights not only on Rome, but also on the Holy Land. Since then, some of them have presented themselves as belonging to one of the lost tribes of Israel.
For example, Nnamdi Kanu – one of the leaders of the Biafran protest who was detained by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government in 2015 – says he converted to Judaism while in prison. Others have founded a Biafran Zionist Movement.
Generally speaking, protestors of all stripes denouncing the misdeeds of the ruling Muslims in northern Nigeria have found some resonance within the Ibo diaspora overseas. In fact, they have a global audience on social media and on ‘Voice of Biafra’, Kanu’s pirate radio station, which broadcasts from the UK.
Further south, along Nigeria’s Atlantic coast, the insurgents fighting the government in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta were not left out either. Like the Ibo, some Ijaw in the region have, for example, compared themselves to the Jews who, by following Moses, freed themselves from the chains of “slavery” – from the yoke of the Muslims in the north, in their case.
The Niger Delta Avengers – which emerged in 2016 – has, among other things, denounced the “tyranny” of Abuja and called President Buhari an “Egyptian pharaoh”, rhetoric not unlike that of jihadist Salafists, who have criticised ruling dictators in the Arab world.
On a more peaceful note, the Ogoni of the Delta have also anchored their struggle around religious rhetoric. Before being hanged in 1995 by a junta then led by a Muslim from the north, writer Ken Saro-Wiwa led the first protest marches of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (Mosop), organising masses, prayer vigils and nightly Bible readings.
In direct reference to Judaism, he evoked the prophet Jeremiah’s ‘Book of Lamentations’ to equate the repression of the military regime, as well as the pollution caused by the oil companies, to the destruction of Jerusalem and the persecution of the Jews.
Caliphate and greed
The difference, one might say, is that the protesters in southern Nigeria are not seeking to impose a Christian state, unlike the Boko Haram jihadists who dream of establishing a caliphate.
However, there are several indications that the political is strongly influenced by the religious. The celestial cities that developed in enclaves on the edge of the large cities of the south ended up having the characteristics of proto-states within a state. In 1990, mutineers financed by evangelical churches in the Delta attempted a putsch to “cleanse” Nigeria by expelling the predominantly Muslim northern states from the federation.
Today, even drug traffickers and gangster syndicates called ‘cultists’ imitate jihadist practices. In Ibo country, for example, rival groups lay the severed heads of their enemies in front of churches to send a message to the population.
Their criminal motives certainly distance them from any religious agenda. This is not very surprising as many Boko Haram fighters are also driven by greed, much more than by Islamic ideals.
The rebels and mafiosi in the south use religion to disguise petty materialistic concerns. But it is very easy to lose oneself in it. Asari Dokubo, founder of one of the main armed groups in the delta in the early 2000s, has just proclaimed himself head of a virtual Biafra government, even though he converted to Islam in the 1990s.
By Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos