Conflict in Nigeria Is More Complicated Than “Christians vs. Muslims”
Jack McCaslin is a research associate for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.
An article from Fox News recently called attention to the killing of Christians in Nigeria by comparing it to the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. According to the article, the attacks “highlight the dangers that remain from asymmetric terrorism and violence against Christians in ethnically and religiously divided societies.” However, linking these tragedies to each other and to a perceived global trend of violence against Christians mischaracterizes the nature of the conflicts in Nigeria.
The appropriateness of a comparison between Sri Lanka and Nigeria is not clear. Their ethnic make-up, social statistics, and post-colonial experiences are vastly different. Not least, Christians and Muslims are a tiny minority in Sri Lanka, a predominately Buddhist country, while in Nigeria, Christians and Muslims each constitute about half of the population. Identifying the perpetrators of atrocities in both countries is difficult. Although the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, it is not clear what its role was in the Sri Lanka bombings or, for that matter, what its role is in northern Nigeria.
With respect to Nigeria, Fox cites the recent killing of eleven and the wounding of thirty in Gombe. A police officer got into an argument with a procession of children during Easter activities, which reportedly led him to drive into it. It is not clear what the police officer’s motives were; Boko Haram is active in Gombe but it seems that they were not involved.
Boko Haram appears to be largely an indigenous movement, and there is little evidence of strategic or tactical cooperation between the Islamic State or al-Qaeda affiliates and Boko Haram, though they share a common belief system, are murderously hostile to Christians, and have exchanged various forms of communication, the significance of which remains unclear.
The article also notes the killing of seventeen Christians and the wounding of eight in Nassarawa state early in April. No link is provided, but the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) documented an attack in Numa Kochu, resulting in the death of a pregnant woman and several children. This seems to fit the description in the article. According to reports, Numa Kochu is a predominantly Christian community comprised of those of the Mada ethnic group. The victims’ funeral services were led by local leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria, a prominent religious organization. As is often the case, the affiliation and motive of the perpetrators are not clear. They have been described as “gunmen” and “herdsmen” by various Nigerian media outlets, and reference is made to the farmer-herder conflict in Nassarawa, which has been intense and deadly. It is worth noting that in some statements made by community leaders and the security services, no reference is made to religion.
Christians are certainly murdered in Nigeria, and in some cases, they are murdered because they are Christian. But, despite Boko Haram’s murderous hostility to Christians, most of its victims have always been Muslim, not least because the insurgency takes place in a predominantly Muslim part of the country. (Boko Haram’s killing of such great numbers of Muslims, based on a wide definition of apostasy, is understood to be one of the reasons that the group split in 2016.) For what it is worth, data from the NST shows a decline in Boko Haram attacks on churches and an increase in attacks on mosques over time. Indeed, the smaller number of Christian deaths at the hands of Boko Haram likely reflects the fact that most of them have fled.
Today, most Christian deaths are occurring in the Middle Belt, where there are overlapping quarrels over land and water use, ethnicity, and religion—and where Christians are numerous. But when Christians or Muslims are killed in the Middle Belt, it is not clear exactly why. Is it because they are a farmer or a herder? Or because they are ethnically Fulani, many of whom are herders, or of a small ethnic group, who are often farmers? Or is it because they are Muslim, which most Fulani are, or Christian, which those of many small ethnic groups are? These questions are not easily answered. Ethnicity can often correspond to a particular religion, both of which can sometimes correspond to a distinct way of life. Or not. In Zamfara, where the violence is particularly bad, both herders and farmers are mostly Muslim and mostly Fulani. There is also an important criminal element involving bandits and cattle rustlers. Another way to think about it: violence may fall along ethnic and religious lines, but it is not necessarily driven by those distinctions.
Religious polarization is a real challenge in Nigeria, and it has likely increased. The government has been unable to destroy Boko Haram or end the local conflicts in the Middle Belt. Further, the economy remains in the doldrums, and the country now has the most people living in extreme poverty in the world. But linking Nigerian tragedies to the tragedy that occurred in Sri Lanka and a global trend of violence against Christians overlooks important nuances in Nigeria’s multiple ongoing conflicts.