When President Barack Hussein Obama tries to charm the Muslim world later this week in Cairo, I’ll be listening attentively. With a Muslim father and years spent in Indonesia as a boy, he has closer links to the Muslim world than any other American president. He will try to answer a question which weighs on many American minds: "is it possible for Muslims and Christians to live side by side in peace?"
If he were to ask me, a Nigerian living on the fault line between Islam and Christendom, my short answer would be "Yes". But the long answer is: "it’s not easy".
When the British amalgamated Southern and Northern Nigeria in 1914 they joined two different cultures. The result is a loose confederation of three large ethnic and religious groups. In the north there are the Muslim Hausa-Fulani; in the east the Catholic Igbo; and in the west the mixed Protestant and Muslim Yoruba. Muslim traders from North Africa brought Islam to Northern Nigeria a thousand years ago, while European missionaries brought Christianity to the Southerners a mere 150 years ago. Muslims, with their deeper historical roots, feel superior to their Christian neighbours, considering them "newcomers" and infidels. In addition, after the amalgamation, Northern Nigeria remained an Islamic protectorate which observed sharia law.
Fearful of domination
The northern Hausa-Fulani rejected European education because they feared it as an evangelising tool of Christianity. As a result, the Christian South became educationally more advanced than the North. When Britain was considering Nigeria for independence, the Muslim leader, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, conscious that the North’s relative backwardness would hamper its ability to compete with the South, asked for a delay of independence. He thus bought time to corner political power for the North. Perhaps the 1952 military coup by Gamal Abdel Nasser in far-away Egypt provided him with the answer. He began mobilising Muslim Hausa-Fulanis into the Nigerian army.
Because of his deft political manoeuvring and the inexplicable ineptitude of the British, the post of prime minister of newly independent Nigeria went to a Muslim Hausa-Fulani, Tafawa Balewa, instead of a better-educated Christian Igbo, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe. He became ceremonial president instead.
The Biafran War
Most Europeans and Americans consider the Biafran War, or the Nigerian Civil War, as just another tribal war. On the contrary, it was a war for the Christian soul of Nigeria, a war to determine whether Nigeria would become an Islamic state or not. On January 15, 1966, army officers led by a Christian Igbo — reacting against the favouritism given to Muslim Hausa-Fulani officers, as well as to rising corruption among politicians — attempted a coup. They killed the Prime Minister and the Sardauna, Ahmadu Bello, as well as a prominent southwestern Muslim leader, Ladoke Akintola. (This explains why the Yoruba and minorities fought on the side of the Muslim Hausa-Fulani).
The Hausa-Fulani officers interpreted the predominance of Muslim politicians killed by Christian Igbo officers as a crusade against Islam. Consequently, they refused to recognise Nigeria’s most senior officer, General Aguiyi Ironsi, a Christian Igbo who foiled the coup and became the head of the emergency government.
Huntington’s prediction that "fault line wars that are biggest, bloodiest and longest lasting… rarely are settled except through genocide" seems accurate in Nigeria’s drama. In a counter-coup, the Muslim Hausa-Fulani assassinated Ironsi and massacred some 30,000 Christian Igbos who were living in the North. This led the eastern region to secede from Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra. The resulting war lasted 2½ years and ended in 1970 with the surrender of the Christian Igbos. A million people died of starvation because of a food blockade on Biafra.
After the war
The victorious government declared a no-victor-no-vanquished policy to reassure the Christian Igbos. However, within weeks after the war ended, it jailed 35 Catholic priests and deported 64 missionaries. Today life for many Christian Igbos, especially in government matters, is still difficult. No Christian Igbo has become president since the war.
On the other hand, victory gave the Islamic North great political powers and the right to the presidency. The Muslim Hausa-Fulani army officers have effectively ruled Nigeria for more than 30 years. But the north still remains the poorest region with a high number of unemployed youth, or almajiris, who are easily manipulated into violence. This makes the north unstable and prone to sectarian pogroms.
An outstanding example of this took place in Kano City in 1991. It was sparked by the visit of a German evangelist, Reinhard Bonnke, who reputedly had powers to convert Muslims to Christianity. His posters used the provocative word "crusade". Interpreting this as a call to war on Islam, Muslims mobs responded with riots in which more than 2,000 people were killed. I was there and saw large numbers of almajiri with machetes chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and "death to the Christian infidels" a few hours before the commencement of the carnage.
Winning a civil war against a Christian people made the Muslim Hausa-Fulani more arrogant and intolerant of Christianity — or any other religion that is not Islam, for that matter.
For instance, Arabic is compulsory in most government schools in the North. I remember– as a primary school boy in the Kano City — the struggle to write Arabic, scribbling curly letter from right to left. As the bells rang for break time, I looked with envy at Muslim lads who were already fluent in Arabic rushing off for their break, leaving me and the other Christian boys behind. It was a kind of a punishment prescribed for not keeping up with our class work.
The Muslim Hausa-Fulani politicians have also secretly enrolled Nigeria as a member of the Organization of The Islamic Conference (OIC), an organisation whose members, though not purely Muslim countries, must pledge to be guided by Islamic values. In addition, in 1999, 12 northern states revived sharia law during the tenure of the first Christian president since independence. Experts claim that the timing was a ploy to ferment trouble and make Nigeria ungovernable and then justify an intervention by the Muslim-dominated army so that power could once again return to the North.
The political manipulations of religious tensions came to a head in November 2008, in Jos, a city that lies along the fault line, with almost equal population of Christians and Muslims. An electoral fraud during a local government election turned into a religious blood bath. According to the Catholic Archbishop, Ignatius Agama:
"We were surprised at the way some of our churches and properties were attacked and some of our faithful and clergy killed. They planned and executed it well. The questions that boggle our minds are; why were churches and clergy attacked and killed? Why were politicians and political party offices not attacked, if it was a political conflict?"
In spite of this, the Muslim North wants to remain with the Christian South since the North lacks natural resources and Nigeria’s oil is located in the South. In addition, the traditional groundnut crop for which the North was celebrated have disappeared because young Muslims have abandoned their farms for political office. The Hausa-Fulani thirst for political power is crippling their initiative and drive. A friend told me that a Western journalist visiting a dilapidated primary school in the North asked one of the pupils: "what do you want to be when you grow up?" The pupil replied, without batting an eye: "I wan rule!"
Hopes for the future
Nevertheless, the presence of Hausa-Fulani cattle-raising nomad in the wild lands in Eastern Nigeria as well as the presence of thousands of Christian Igbo traders in the North is a sign that co-existence is possible. Besides, Islam and Christianity have coexisted peacefully in southwestern Nigeria for many years. If you visit the university campus in the ancient city of Ibadan, a city with roughly equal numbers of Christian and Muslims, you can witness the harmony. Giant loudspeakers belonging to gospel churches blast out hip-hop songs in praise to the Lord next to mosques summoning Muslims to prayer. This is not a scene which is conceivable in the Muslim North.
Yoruba Muslims are respectful of Christians and none of the Muslim Yoruba state governors has introduced the sharia law. Unlike the Muslim Hausa-Fulani, the Muslim Yorubas do not feel threatened by Christian proselytism –they are highly proselytistic themselves.
I remember how I became friends with a Yoruba Muslim fellow, who, desirous of converting me, encouraged me to read copious amounts of Muslim pamphlets. Though he did not succeed, I appreciated his efforts. He was good-natured and understanding. But it would never have happened in the North, where I lived for 11 years.
So my advice to Mr Obama is not to generalise. There are many noble things in Islam. When Muslims feel self-confident and at ease with Western culture, it is not difficult to live in harmony. But when Muslims are poor and illiterate and feel threatened, all hell can break loose. I know. I’ve seen it happen.
Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria