Assistant Professor of Teaching, Africa Studies Program, Georgetown University
Alfred Sargent Lee and Mary Ames Lee Professor of Black Studies, Amherst College
Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Alexander J. Thurston, assistant professor of teaching in the Africa studies program at Georgetown University, and Olufemi O. Vaughan, the Alfred Sargent Lee and Mary Ames Lee professor of black studies at Amherst College, discuss how Christianity and Islam coexist in Nigeria, with John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at CFR, moderating.
CAMPBELL: Let’s get started. There is a phrase that you hear all the time in Nigeria: Nigerians are the world’s happiest people and the most religious. Gentlemen, how would you assess the role of religion in Nigeria and particularly in comparison with the role of religion in the U.S. or in West Africa? Olufemi, you want to start us off?
VAUGHAN: Yes. First, I should say thank you very much, Ambassador Campbell, for inviting me. And, Jack, thanks for coordinating the program. It’s an honor to share the discussion here with Alex, who’s been really doing some amazing work on Islam and Boko Haram in Nigeria and West Africa more broadly.
One of the central questions that I explored in my book is really to suggest that it’s virtually impossible to have a proper understanding of Nigerian history and Nigerian society and Nigerian politics without taking very seriously those central structures and ideologies of Islam, Christianity, and traditional African religions in the making of Nigeria.
So the central argument here is that we cannot understand Nigeria without understanding the role of West Africa’s two world religions and how they intersect with indigenous religions.
To the degree that that question is fundamental, then the issue of how Nigerians define happiness or reflect on the meaning of the aspiration is also very much an aspect of the role of these two world religions that are just so fundamental and foundational.
We need to remember that the making of Nigeria is, in my view, is not just simply the imposition, the formal imposition of colonialism, colonial rule by the British at the time of the twentieth century. The making of Nigeria is very much the ways in which these two world religions intersect largely all through the nineteenth century. So in terms of thinking of the social fabric of Nigeria, Christianity and Islam now become very important. So that’s one important aspect.
But then also, in order to understand the various regional formulations that are central to politics in Nigeria, the relatively—the range in which people tend to think of Nigeria as geopolitical regions—the core Hausa-Fulani, Kanuri north, the Middle Belt part of the country, the so-called south-south, southeast, southwest—all those questions are also implicated in the ways in which the structures of the two—of Nigeria’s two world religions shape the configuration of power. So whether for good or bad, whether in terms of people’s aspirations or trying to define the meaning of community, those two world religions are central.
Then there’s also a flipside, and it’s not just simply a matter of what is good, but it’s also very much what can be extremely damaging and difficult and sometimes even catastrophic. And this is really what I think is different in the case of Nigeria and much of West Africa, indeed much of Africa south of the Sahara.
The fault lines of Nigeria’s—Africa’s two world religions speak so deeply to political and social identity like no other part of West Africa. And I think that is singular and unique in the case of Nigeria, that major fault line. And in understanding that fault line, we need to be aware of the role of the jihad of Usman dan Fodio, the so-called jihadists, in my mind, arguably, the most important development in what we call Nigeria today. And, of course, that Islamic reformist movement that started at the turn of the nineteenth century and its consequences also intersect with the arrival of Christian evangelical movement, the first being the Church Missionary Society.
I was just having a conversation earlier before we started talking with Ambassador Campbell that we both share four generations of Anglicanism. But in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria where I was born and raised, we don’t really talk about Anglicanism, we talk about CMS.
CAMPBELL: About CMS.
VAUGHAN: About CMS, the Church Missionary Society. I mean, it’s really about the Church Missionary Society. Everything else followed the Church Missionary Society pretty much, whether it’s the Methodists or, in terms of mainline Protestant churches, then, of course, the Baptists. And in the case of the Baptists, this is really a very critical connection with southern U.S. missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century. And then, of course, I mean, the Catholic missionaries.
CAMPBELL: So Islam and Christianity are so basic to Nigerians that even how they define what happiness is reflects the religious tradition that they—that they come out of.
VAUGHAN: Absolutely. Absolutely, or isn’t or the opposite.
CAMPBELL: Or isn’t, or isn’t, yeah.
Alex, do you have something to add?
THURSTON: Yeah. I mean, just, you know, in terms of how religion is woven into the fabric of people’s lives, I mean, you can see all kinds of markers of that. I mean, people’s names, for example. You know, sometimes it’s not immediately obvious, but a lot of times it is.
So not to, like, put him on the spot or something, but to take my dissertation adviser. So his name is Muhammad Sani Umar, right? So you have somebody named obviously for Muhammad, even the name Sani is from the Arabic alththani which just means the second, so he’s the second Muhammad in his family. He has an older brother named Muhammad Awwal, meaning the first Muhammad among the sons. And then Umar, you know, his last name being also his father’s name, you know, named for the second caliph of Islam. So you have, you know, all kinds of ways that just through people’s names, they bear some religious identities a lot of the time, then also in the way that people, you know, present themselves, sometimes in ways that, you know, to me as an American can be surprising.
So, for example, you take Oby Ezekwesili who’s, you know, now best known as one of the cofounders of Bring Back Our Girls, but before that was a cabinet minister, a senior World Bank executive for Africa, and so forth. If you look at her Twitter profile, in Twitter you can put a link, you know. Usually people do it to their personal website. She puts the link to the RCCG, you know, the largest, basically, Pentecostal, you know—
CAMPBELL: The Redeemed Church of Christ?
THURSTON: Yeah, yeah.
CAMPBELL: Redeemed Christian Church.
THURSTON: Christian Church, yeah. You know, so, again, somebody who puts their religious identity kind of front and center.
CAMPBELL: And her husband was the pastor of the largest Pentecostal church in Abuja when I was ambassador there.
THURSTON: You could take the vice president, too, of the country. You know, there was—obviously, he’s, you know, a former attorney general of Lagos, a lawyer, you know, an ally of key politicians in the southwest. But also, when the current administration came into place, people noted that he was a Pentecostal pastor, again, with the RCCG. And he even said something—I forget the exact phrasing—but said I’m on loan from my church to the, you know, to the government. So again, kind of an assertion that—
CAMPBELL: He meant it.
THURSTON: From what I can tell. I mean, there’s always, especially with elites and politicians, there’s a question of kind of whether there’s cynicism or whether there’s conviction. But to me, I think a lot of times it seems a lot like conviction.
Maybe one other comment would be that, in terms of parallels with the United States, I mean, to me, they’re pretty loose, but I do see some similarities. I mean, for one thing, you know, as, Olufemi, you point out, fairly recently, you know, the Nigerian constitution and political system in a lot of ways is explicitly modeled on that of the United States. And I think some of that structure maybe lets religion work in politics in a very, very loosely similar way in the two places in that people are not running to be or people are not—you know, it’s not a theocratic state, but it is a state or a political system where religious identity matters a lot and can be really worn on the sleeve come election time. The permutations of that in Nigeria are different from the United States, but I think it’s maybe the broad similarity is, you know, an ostensibly secular system, oftentimes populated by politicians who are very explicit about their commitments.
CAMPBELL: Let’s try to unpack a bit of what Christianity and what Islam are in Nigeria, because I’m getting the impression that they are not exactly the same thing as they are in other parts of the world.
Femi, maybe you could start us off by unpacking Christianity.
VAUGHAN: So as I mentioned earlier, the first thing to do if one is thinking about the role of Christianity is just to take into account the history of Christianity in Nigeria itself. And, of course, you have to start with our Protestant Evangelical movement going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Church Missionary Society is particularly important in this regard.
CAMPBELL: It’s an anti-slave trade.
VAUGHAN: As an anti-slave—as an anti-slavery movement.
CAMPBELL: Slavery, yeah.
VAUGHAN: Slavery movement. So the arrival of Christianity is very much connected to the major social upheavals in Atlantic West Africa and central—in Atlantic West Africa in the nineteenth century. The Yoruba wars, for instance, is also very much connected to this idea.
We never really think about the notion of the last wave of the slave trade, the Atlantic slave trade, as very much connected to the role of English anti-abolitionists. I mean, we know key names such as Wilberforce and Clarkson and all those great English anti-slavery leaders of the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. So that history is extremely important in the founding of Nigeria and, by extension, in other parts of Atlantic West Africa.
And a second point I want to make is that there’s a transnational diaspora component to this, that we hardly ever think about Atlantic Nigeria without—we never really think about its connection to Sierra Leone. And I think we need to really take those kinds of issues very seriously. Freetown is central in the making of Nigeria. Most of the first wave of returnees, repatriates, were people who had been liberated as a result of the work of British anti-slavery squadrons off the coast of West Africa. So that element is extremely important.
Thinking about the history of Christianity and its role is very much connected, my point is very much connected to the abolition of slavery.
CAMPBELL: And Fourah Bay College, of course.
VAUGHAN: Fourah Bay College. And by extension, a second point really is, when we think about Christianity, we also have to think about the so-called nonreligious aspect of Christianity, and that is the extent to which Christianity became a fundamental variable of social transformation and social change in coastal Nigeria in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. So that’s very, I think, very important.
Can you imagine the secondary and elementary schools that were established in Lagos, Abeokuta, Ibadan, and all through much of the Delta and the southeast were really mission schools. And the reverberations of those schools as we—as you push inland, move into central Nigeria and even to the non-emirate communities, the non-Muslim communities in northern Nigeria, those issues are extreme.
The third point I want to make is to really reflect on how this history itself is essential in the structural division between the core Hausa-Fulani, Kanuri north on the one hand and the rest of the country in terms of social orientation. And then, of course, that question ought to be thought about in the context of the role of colonial rule.
So colonial rule as a final element, the intersection between colonial rule and Christian missions are also very important.
CAMPBELL: So you’ve mentioned Yoruba internecine warfare, the role of the diaspora focused on Sierra Leone, introduction of education—
VAUGHAN: Western education.
CAMPBELL: —Western education as all elements which are shaping a Nigerian approach to Christianity and which are, in a sense, unique to Nigeria because we don’t have those same set of factors here.
VAUGHAN: Right, which is also—which we need to—we ought to juxtapose. And that’s the final point is—
VAUGHAN: —the juxtaposition is really the ways in which colonial policy now will provide a major divide between core Muslim north in terms of the consequences, the social consequences of Western education in the core Muslim north. Western education obviously came very late, as we all very well know. And the reason why Western education came very late—and we all know the consequences of not having Western education is precisely because colonial policy prohibited indirect rule, it prohibited Western institutions—Christian proselytization—
CAMPBELL: Which takes us—
VAUGHAN: —in emirate northern Nigeria.
CAMPBELL: Which takes us directly to Alex.
If you would unpack Islam for us.
THURSTON: I mean, I think on a deep, historical level, Islam in northern Nigeria is part of a broader, you know, region of Islam in northwest Africa as a whole. And there’s more and more kind of talk among historians about the Sahara not necessarily being a barrier, but being a connective space.
And so within, you know, northwest Africa over a millennium, you know, there were a couple of kind of pillars for Islam, two of which are worth mentioning here, one of which is Sufism, so organizing Muslims, you know, sometimes on a mass basis around mystical teachings. And the other pillar worth mentioning would be the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic law.
So in a way for, you know, centuries, the kind of archetype of an intellectual or religious authority in the whole region has been somebody who’s really well-versed in law, but somebody who’s also on some level a mystic, who has personal followers who are attached to them on a spiritual basis.
Then we can add to that—I mean, Professor Vaughan mentioned the importance of the jihad of Usman dan Fodio, you know, at the beginning of the nineteenth century and their continuing impact. And there, we get much more into kind of specificities of Nigeria and northern Nigeria and southern Niger and surrounding regions. That put in a place a system of hereditary rulers who, you know, continue to wield significant influence and authority up to the present. So we could add maybe the authority within Islam in the region is partly based on one’s learning, partly based on one’s spiritual, you know, presence that’s partly charisma and is partly based on heredity.
In recent decades, of course, there have been a bunch of challenges to this model. There’s been various iterations of the Salafi movement, which have theological challenges to that model, which oppose Sufism, which have different perspectives on law and so forth. There’s been the rise of the Shia, which I imagine we may talk about later.
So Nigeria, particularly since the 1970s, has had a much more kind of fragmented Islamic landscape and a much more kind of crowded marketplace of ideas that Muslims can choose between or compete over.
CAMPBELL: Murtala Mohammed said—and ever since then, we all repeat it to each other—that the country is 50 percent Christian, 50 percent Muslim, that neither religion is a minority, and that Nigeria is by far the largest country in the world in which neither Christianity nor Islam is a minority religion.
If we simply accept that without digging very deeply as to its accuracy, does the fact that the estimate is, in about 1900, the area that is now Nigeria was almost 30 percent Muslim in population and 2 percent Christian, does the fact that while the Muslim population may have doubled, the Christian population has increased exponentially, is this destabilizing, particularly in the Muslim north?
VAUGHAN: Yes. (Laughter.) Yes. So a very short answer, yes, but even in that yes, there’s very, I think, very much the original question that I mentioned earlier of—it’s very difficult to agree with Murtala Mohammed when he expressed this idea in, I believe, 1975.
CAMPBELL: 1975, I think, is date, yeah.
VAUGHAN: Yeah, 1975. If one is to go back in 1975, there is no way, I think, that you can have 50/50 Christians and Muslims, I would argue, at that—at that particular time. There would be at least a marginal—a larger population of Muslims in comparison to Christians.
CAMPBELL: Just look at the birth rates.
VAUGHAN: So that aside, in northern Nigeria, in the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, that is really the key area where this fault line between Christianity and Islam is particularly serious. And it’s serious precisely because of the nature of Christian proselytization.
As I mentioned earlier, the indirect rule policy of the British—and I think it’s really very important to keep going back to that question—essentially prohibited Christian missions to proselytize in Muslim land in northern Nigeria, but allowed Christian proselytization, Evangelical proselytization in what is oftentimes referred to as the land of, quote, “tribal pagans.”
CAMPBELL: Of what?
VAUGHAN: “Tribal pagans.” Right. Northern Nigeria—
CAMPBELL: So that would be the Plateau area?
VAUGHAN: Well, it’s not just simply central Nigeria. In Nigeria, it’s oftentimes referred to as the Middle Belt where you have states such as Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba, and so on. It feels as though we need to have a map of Nigeria here.
So when you look at that major central part of Nigeria, that part was an essential part of the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. But even in the core Muslim regions, core Muslim regions also have large non-Muslim population. So it’s not as though you have a Muslim area and a non-Muslim area in what—in the emirates, you have minority non-Muslims. The people who became Christians, who were converted to Christianity, are essentially the so-called pagans, adherence to indigenous African religions.
But it’s also very important for us to go back, that these were the communities that were exposed to the predatory activities of the Jihad of Usman dan Fodio, in other words, the successors of the jihad of Usman dan Fodio.
CAMPBELL: Including slavery.
VAUGHAN: Absolutely. Including, to be very precise, including slavery, right, as a way and a strategy of what? Of expansion and appropriation, as a constant process.
So I think it’s really very important to think about those kinds of questions with so-called tribal people as pagan people, the notion of the pagan other. The people that you’re likely to brutalize the most are the people who are non-Muslim in what is now defined as the land of Muslim, even when they’re traditionally not Muslim. Christianity to that population inevitably will provide a universal ideology, not just simply an ideology of expression of religious faith, but rather, but very much an expression of collective social, political action.
VAUGHAN: So it becomes very difficult in central Nigeria, in the Middle Belt, and among today’s Christian minorities in northern Nigeria to just think about their religion as a matter of their faith. They also have to think about it even more so as a—as a political question.
So if you think about the political parties that came out of northern Nigeria and central Nigeria, going back to NEPU—NEPU being—the acronym for the Northern Elements Progressive Union—the Northern Elements Progressive Union, this is—
THURSTON: Aminu Kano.
VAUGHAN: —Aminu Kano’s political party, Issac Keita. Those were parties that formed alliances with non-Muslims. But then there are also political parties in central Nigeria that were decidedly Christian in orientation, at least political orientation. Joseph Tarka’s party, for example, would be a case in point, the party of the Middle Belt. These kinds of questions are constant and, of course, later on the Second Republic, the PRP, the People’s Redemption Party. So you see this constant intersection of religious structures, religious ideology, and religious doctrines, and collective political action—
CAMPBELL: And politics.
VAUGHAN: —and politics on a—on a—on a constant basis.
CAMPBELL: Now, I promised you all that you would have, you know, at least a half-an-hour to have at our visitors. I want, however, to mention three words that perhaps will help stimulate the conversation. The three words are Boko Haram, the farmer-herder conflicts in the Middle Belt, and then the role of Sharia or Islamic law in framing the contemporary events.
So, ladies and gentlemen, over to you. Let’s see. David?
SMOCK: I’m not going to pick one of those three to start off with. (Laughter.) But I want to ask about why Muslim-Christian relationships in southwestern Nigeria are relatively amicable.
CAMPBELL: Why are Muslim-Christian relations in Yorubaland, in southwestern Nigeria relatively amicable?
VAUGHAN: And actually—and that is really the point I’m sort of trying to make by default. That the question is not so much as this irreconcilable conflict between Nigeria’s two world religions, but rather the ways in which social structures over time shape the role of religion in contemporary politics. You’re absolutely correct.
Southwestern Nigeria is very different from northern Nigeria. Southwestern Nigeria, the region of the Yoruba people, is what I refer to as a Christian-Muslim crossroad going back to the nineteenth century. The relationship between Christians and Muslims are not just simply relatively peaceful, but very peaceful with minor tensions from time to time.
And the reason why that is the case is, is Islam arrived and Christianity arrived in southwestern Nigeria quite late. They arrived at a time of British-European imperialism in the nineteenth century. And as Alex rightly mentioned, in the case of northern Nigeria, Islam is very much a central part of Sahelian culture identity and so on.
Many Yorubas have Christians and Muslims who are first cousins and second cousins. And it’s very much a part of the extended family. I myself am—obviously with a name like Olufemi, I am Yoruba, but I have many, many Muslim relatives who are particularly close to me. And these are people who are particularly passionate about their beliefs.
But religion doesn’t play a role in politics in how—in how the state and how politics is shaped and defined and how power is configured.
CAMPBELL: So the fact that Christians and Muslims get on well in southwestern Nigeria is the result of a whole host of factors which are not necessarily related to the two religions.
COHEN: Thank you. A quick question. Did the Biafra war have a religious component?
CAMPBELL: Alex, you want to start with that?
THURSTON: I mean, I think some of the events leading up to it in particular, I mean, had a strong religious valence. I mean, you know, the north’s—and here, this touches on the last question, too. I mean, in the north, the dominant party, the MPC, was organized in part along, you know, preexisting Islamic infrastructures. I mean, a lot of the emirs and the hereditary rulers, you know, were part of the ruling party, which also became the national ruling party as well.
The premier of the north and arguably the dominant politician in the country as a whole was Ahmadu Bello who was a descendant, you know, of—you know, the near descendant of Usman dan Fodio and who was not—for whom invoking that was a key part of his identity, his political identity I mean.
I was down the other day at the collection of John Paden, you know, distinguished professor down at George Mason, and looking at—he has all these materials from the ’60s. He has one, a newspaper where, you know, actually leaders from the Middle Belt were writing in to tell Bello that they had converted to Islam, you know, and to kind of show that they were hopping onboard with the party. So when the coup of, you know, 1966 came along and Ahmadu Bello was killed, you know, this was assassinating not just a major politician, but also, you know, somebody who was trying to be a unifying Muslim leader for the entire north.
Then, of course, you have reprisals against, you know, Igbo in the north and the whole kind of, you know, chain of events going toward the civil war.
I don’t understand the civil war itself as a contest of a religion. I mean, I understand not as a secessionist, you know, struggle. So I guess I see the role for religion maybe more in the lead-up.
CAMPBELL: But when you’re in the Igbo parts of the country, it is regularly represented as having been a religious struggle. I mean, so whether it was or not, that is certainly the—that is certainly the image that it has now.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah.
VAUGHAN: And it’s really that sort of question how ethnoreligious identity and ethno-regional identity intersect. I mean, it’s, as Alex rightly mentioned, it’s virtually impossible to articulate the meaning of Hausa culture and Hausa language without a religious meaning. I mean, it—it’s not—Hausa is not—is not an ethnic group in the classical sense as Igbo is an ethnic group or Yoruba is an ethnic group or Ijaw is an ethnic—Hausa is a lingua franca first and foremost, but it does have ethnic manifestations.
So if you—if you topple the MPC and you’re in Zagu, born and raised in Kaduna, you’ve essentially committed a religious sacrilege. I mean, the assassination of a direct descendant of Usman dan Fodio, of the—
CAMPBELL: And that’s sacrilege.
VAUGHAN: It is sacrilege.
CAMPBELL: It’s sacrilege.
VAUGHAN: You can’t explain it. I mean, to the masses of ordinary people in Hausa Muslims, so that really must have a very direct religious meaning. Although in southern Nigeria, people may very well explain it in ethnic terms.
So when you have a mob of Muslim youths attacking vulnerable Christian minorities, much of what they were yelling in the streets was really what played out in terms of religious symbols, protecting the boundaries of—protecting essentially Muslim land.
So it’s difficult to part, to sort of separate ethnic and regional questions from religious questions. I mean, much of the people who were assassinated, the prime minister, you know, Tafawa Balewa, you know, he is Muslim. The MPC, the ruling party, is, yes, very much a northern party, but it’s very much a Muslim party. I mean, that’s really—it doesn’t really define itself that way, but that’s—
CAMPBELL: But that’s what—
VAUGHAN: —but that role is extremely important. So the coup itself is not a religious coup, but the meaning of the coup in northern Nigeria takes on a very religious dimension. It’s just very difficult to move away from that.
VAUGHAN: One more thing to point out would be, I mean, the cast of characters within the civil war is really religiously diverse, right, including on the federalist side or whatever one wants to call them. I mean, Christian—
THURSTON: —Obasanjo, you know, Christian, I mean, so, yeah, so not kind of the Muslim north versus the Christian Biafra, but also a lot of southwest actors as well on the federalist side.
LAPIN: Well, I just wanted to pursue this. I have another question. But the current neo-Biafran movement, how much does religion play in that, or does it? What’s your sense of that?
CAMPBELL: The neo-Biafran movement.
LAPIN: Yeah, the new one. Yeah.
VAUGHAN: Well, my sense is that religion will—religion will not play a key role. That’s my own reading, that it’s very much a matter of equal identity. But then—again, but questions of religion.
CAMPBELL: Well, and Igbo identity is all mixed up with Christianity, too.
VAUGHAN: Christianity, particularly Catholicism and so on. So it’s always very difficult really to ignore religious questions.
But I suppose one way to look at this issue is, at one basic level, what has evoked ideologically is an ethnic identity, Igbo identity, but then in the ways in which these things play out in Nigeria, it takes on a variety of other identities of which religious identity is inevitable.
LAPIN: So that strong Catholic focus and, to some extent, Apostolic. Yeah.
THURSTON: I also think that actors within Nigeria are aware of the global environment. And particularly, they’re aware of the, you know, the war on terror and so forth. And so invoking the idea of being a persecuted Christian minority facing off against, you know, a whole society that they’ll sometimes portray as kind of crypto-jihadists.
LAPIN: As kind of a strategy, yeah.
THURSTON: Yeah. They’re speaking not just to a Nigerian audience, but to an American audience.
LAPIN: Well, the Biafra always did speak to the external world. I mean, they were very good at it, yeah.
VAUGHAN: And, of course, that question is also very much connected. I mean, when people talk about the rise of Christianity, it’s very much really the rise and the expansion of what I’ll just simply refer to as a Pentecostal revolution, right? So now that’s another layer particularly, not just simply in the context of post-colonial Nigeria, but more specifically in the—in the global age in the context of geopolitics. So in the context of the significance of neoliberal economic transformations in Nigeria since the 1980s.
IFEDIORA: OK. Because I’m going—I ask because you raised it, it’s your famer-pastoralist question I’d like to pursue. How much religion is bound up in that? I mean, if you go to the Middle Belt, if you know and you talk to Anaangs, the Berom, the Tiv, and so on, I mean, their oral histories talk about the oppression that they’ve felt from the Hausa-Fulani, et cetera. And this is one reason they were receptive to Christianity.
OK. How much is that playing out not in the famer-pastoralist conflict?
CAMPBELL: Alex, want to take the lead?
THURSTON: Before I forget, I guess two reading recommendations connected to some of the issues that we’ve talked about. One going back to the Middle Belt and going off of some of what you were saying earlier, Moses Ochonu’s book, Colonialism by Proxy, really interesting for getting at some of these issues about how people in the Middle Belt think about kind of the last two centuries of history and particularly the colonial period where Ochonu talks about sub-colonialism where the British would put Muslim emirs in charge of non-Muslim populations and how this has, you know, continuing effects to the present.
Another recommendation on Biafra would be Judd Devermont’s article in African Affairs about the U.S. intelligence community’s biases. It’s really interesting.
CAMPBELL: By the way, the latter is online.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah.
CAMPBELL: It’s immediately accessible.
IFEDIORA: What’s the name of it again?
THURSTON: Judd Devermont, who is the national intelligence officer for Africa, wrote an article for African Affairs. I think it’s just called the U.S. intelligence community’s biases during the Biafran war.
On the farmer-herder conflict, I mean, as a lot of people have pointed out, you know, all the conflicts in Plateau in particular and in the Middle Belt as a whole, I mean, you can trace a lot of the current rounds of conflict back to the 1990s and to specific political decisions that were made. You know, some people 1991 and the creation of new local government areas as a—as a key kind of turning point, you know, and a piece of evidence that these are not necessarily primordial religious conflicts, right, they’re conflicts that have to do with, you know, specific constellations of political and economic power.
I guess I see the farmer-herder conflicts as, you know, touching on or resulting from a matrix of factors. I mean, you know, land, resources, desertification, climate change, political power, and religion. This is not to say that religion is just some kind of epiphenomenon and that the conflict is completely economic or something like that. But I do think religion is just one of kind of a multitude of elements.
CAMPBELL: Well, an editorial comment. The conversation about the farmer-herder conflicts in the Middle Belt in this city—
CAMPBELL: —largely ignore the complexities that you’re raising.
CAMPBELL: It’s good versus bad, essentially.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah. And the demonization of the Fulani that I’ve seen from some circles, you know, and people connecting things going on in Nigeria with things going on in Mali, which, in my view, are basically completely unrelated, except maybe through climate change, that’s a kind of a racism, I think, against the Fulanis.
IFEDIORA: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, John.
Well, I have spent quite a lot of time in Nigeria of late. An economist, I’ve always come to the conclusion that what is going on in that country right now and the prominence of religion and the cleavages you have in the north and the south, they all boil down to one simple factor, that is the absence of adequate education, the absence of employment, lack of development. Because people don’t have adequate means of sustaining themselves, their religion becomes the pillar by which to sustain themselves. They look to life after.
I mean, you look at other developed countries in the West, how religion played a crucial role in the early stages of their development. And now it has really gone down. You ask a Nigerian right now, first, they would tell you they are from the southern part or they’re Igbos or they’re Hausas, then next they’re Muslims or Christians, before they say we are Nigerians.
So it continues to be true that when you deprive people of a means of sustenance, you deprive them of adequate education to enlighten them, then they have nothing left but to believe that this current existence is worthless, let’s think about the life after. And so you have the issues like bombers. You have these people going on religious crusades to kill and maim because they don’t care whether they live or die, there’s life after death, we have twelve virgins waiting for us when we get there. But that is because of lack of adequate education.
CAMPBELL: Gentlemen, do you have any comment?
VAUGHAN: Well, I don’t quite know where to start except just simply to say that I respectfully have another perspective here. I think the point you’re making is well-taken. And I think it’s important to see that your perspective in the context of flashpoints—that’s the way I would think about it.
And I also would like to encourage us to think about the ways in which the Nigerian nation state is made and configured, and the premise of the argument is one in which you’re arguing that essential goods and services are fundamental to collective political and social action. I completely agree.
But then I think it’s also very important to take into account the ways in which state society is structured in different parts of the country.
The religious dimensions of the Nigerian civil war is another very important point. At the point of British colonial occupation, British colonial rule at the time of the twentieth century, there’s something called a—(inaudible). So in a way, we do have this constant role of religious manifestations in Nigerian politics that can be extremely volatile.
But I do agree with you that this problem is particularly severe in the last twenty, perhaps last thirty years. But even—and that is really, I think, the key to your point, I hope. So we need to really understand what’s going on in this particular moment.
And so I just want to—I don’t want to take liberty with your interpretation, but rather to frame it that way, you know. To say, OK, what’s going on now? Why is it now that we have this major explosion, which is not very much central to the Nigerian state?
But I also feel that your reference—and I certainly don’t want to suggest here there’s a particular kind of southern Nigerian intervention in the point you’re making. Oftentimes, there’s the feeling that—I mean, we—Boko Haram is a very important case in point. Much of what’s going on with Boko Haram is very much in the southeast—sorry, the northeast, and it’s got dimensions in—but it doesn’t really affect the south. And there’s a particular kind of southern interpretation, translation of why these things are happening.
CAMPBELL: So there are differences both in terms of time, but also in terms of venue and location.
VAUGHAN: Right. And also in terms of—and also in terms of—in terms of interpretation.
CAMPBELL: And in terms of interpretation.
VAUGHAN: And those interpretations vary. In other words, the discourse of religion is every bit as important as what is in fact—
CAMPBELL: Yeah, because they shape the reality.
THURSTON: Or could I add one thing?
CAMPBELL: Yes, please.
THURSTON: I would—I would just go back maybe to one of the things we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation, though, and say that there’s a lot of religiosity obviously among poor people, among people without education, but there’s a lot of religiosity among the elite, too, I mean, including people who don’t—you know, and you could—we can always debate whether they’re cynical or whether they have conviction. But to me, it seems a lot of times people who wouldn’t have to invest in that do make the decision.
VAUGHAN: Can I add to that?
THURSTON: So, I mean, you know, people have credentials in one sphere, you know, Obasanjo obviously has tremendous credentials as a politician, but invests in being a—
VAUGHAN: Well, it takes you back to—
CAMPBELL: No, I’ve got to—I’ve got to cut you off, otherwise we’ll never—(laughter)—yeah, Frances, please.
COOK: So I have a— I have a comment and I would like you to comment, and I have a question for Alex, both about Islam.
I’ve been in and out of northern Nigeria a lot, but I’ve never lived there. But I have spent most of my diplomatic career in Muslim countries, so my Islam is largely by osmosis, not by study.
I was always struck, particularly in northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon, it seems to me it has much more—it’s much more embedded with Sahel and the Hausa-Fulani rule, et cetera. It’s much more embedded with local culture, Islam is, in the north than it is say—I mean, it touches Islam everywhere, than it is in the Arab Gulf, than it is in Egypt, than it is in Senegal. I’ve lived in all those places. And there’s a lot of traditional culture in Islam, even in the Gulf where they like to pretend that Islam is the purist.
But can you comment on that? First of all, is it—is it as much a Hausa-Fulani almost religion as it is Islam the way it’s practiced in the north, of the two places?
My second question really has to do with you, Alex. Because I’ve lived so much in the Gulf and spent so much time there recently where the Sunni-Shia struggle is getting to be quite prominent. I’ve read articles off and on over the years, but I’ve never seen any good sourcing on it, about the arrival of Shia Islam in Nigeria. And how on earth it could set down roots in this very rich tapestry you have described and who’s left to convert, I guess, is my question. (Laughter.)
I just—I don’t know much about it and I’d like to know how they do it. I don’t know if it’s with money or scholarships or something else that they’re offering that is appealing to people. But I find it baffling that Shia Islam could arrive late day in Nigeria, in addition to everything else that’s there right now.
So first, a question on how syncretic is Islam in northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria. And secondly, this question about the arrival of Shia Islam. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, I just—I’ve seen lots of references to it.
CAMPBELL: Let’s start first with the Shia and then—
THURSTON: OK. So, I mean, one issue with the Shia is just the poor quality of the data. So, you know, I’ve seen estimates for the Shia ranging as high—I think Human Rights Watch or Pew put it at, you know, three or three-point-five million people. That would be a huge—
COOK: In Africa?
THURSTON: In Nigeria.
CAMPBELL: No, no, Nigeria.
COOK: Oh, my God.
THURSTON: That would be a huge—I mean, if there’s ninety million, say, or maybe up to a hundred million Muslims in Nigeria and if three million of them were Shia, that would be a lot actually. I think the number may be under a million, but nobody knows is kind of the point.
COOK: Where is it? It’s only in the north?
THURSTON: I think—I don’t think there’s much, you know, Shiism in the southwest, you know, let alone in the southeast. So I think it’s overwhelmingly concentrated in the north.
In terms of conversions, I think it’s people—I think it’s internal conversions within the Muslim community much more than it’s people converting straight from, you know, a traditional religion or from Christianity directly to Shiism.
I also think that there’s got to be a major spectrum of what it means to be, you know, Shia in the north. I think for some people, it’s more kind of an oppositional, you know, anti-systemic kind of political or societal discourse, for some people it may mean that they, you know, genuinely have a theological conviction that Ali should have been, you know, the successor to the prophet Muhammad rather than, you know, Abu Bakr and so forth.
I think the appeal may have to do with a couple of things.
COOK: Educated people or uneducated people?
THURSTON: I think it’s both. I think—I mean, Zakzaky was a student, you know, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, was an engineering student at Ahmadu Bello University in the 1970s, you know, and I think a fairly well-educated person. And initially, it was kind of an elite, you know, student movement more than kind of a mass-based, you know, organization.
I think Iranian support can play some role. I mean, definitely, Zakzaky went to, you know, Iran many times, especially in the ’80s. Definitely, the Iranian government has, you know, formally protested his imprisonment. But I don’t think that the spread is just all due to, you know, Iranian money or influence. I think that there’s some real appeal to him. I think that there’s some appeal to having an anti-state, you know, discourse or an anti-systemic kind of discourse, and not in the same way as Boko Haram. And I think people—I mean, Boko Haram, I think, for people, you know, maybe who are a bit detached from the movement, I think they might have already always been able to see that it was somewhat self-destructive whereas the Shia is a mass movement that’s a bit more kind of, you know, mainstream than Boko Haram ever was.
I think also there’s an international component. I think we forget sometimes that Nigerians, like Muslims around the world or like people around the world, you know, they listen to the BBC, they watch CNN, they watch, you know, Al Jazeera or whatever it is. And people are upset about things that go on elsewhere.
And I think in particular, Muslims are upset about the situation of the Palestinians. And the Islamic Movement in Nigeria has presented itself as one of the foremost, you know, defenders—
COOK: Do they have their own mosques and their own madrassas yet?
THURSTON: That’s my—that’s my impression. Not always, but, you know, again, particularly in Zaria—
CAMPBELL: I’ve seen them. I’ve seen them, yeah.
COOK: Yeah. And schools.
THURSTON: Yeah. I mean, you know—
COOK: And welfare.
CAMPBELL: I mean, there’s—they’re there.
THURSTON: Yeah. But they’ve positioned themselves as, like, the formal—
COOK: I just never hear it talked about, so it’s so funny the idea of how big it is.
CAMPBELL: You do in Nigeria. Yeah.
THURSTON: And they’ve positioned themselves as spokesmen for the Palestinian cause, I think, in a way that—
COOK: The Shia do.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah—that resonates with people.
CAMPBELL: Femi, do you want to tackle the question about Hausa Islam?
VAUGHAN: So the comparison between northern Nigerian and sovereign Cameroon—but perhaps what I should do is focus attention on what I know best, which is northern Nigeria.
I suppose one can even extend the question to include other parts of West Africa where Islam, particularly in the Sahel, have a long history and is central to the social structure and social relations—
COOK: Sub-Senegal, which is more Sufi, as you know.
VAUGHAN: Exactly. But what’s really, I think, very important in the case of Nigeria and particularly northern Nigeria is the role of expanded Sharia, expanded Sharia in opposition to a notion of Nigeria’s secularity, drawn out of the idea of the English common law.
As you probably know, at the turn of the century, at the very beginning of the Fourth Republic, for two years, between 1999 and 2000 and 2001—we were talking about this earlier—much of northern Nigeria and central Nigeria was consumed by sporadic religious violence as a result of an introduction of Sharia law in twelve northern Nigerian states. Only two states in northern Nigeria were not part of this. I think Nasarawa, if I remember correctly, is one, and I can’t quite remember the second one.
CAMPBELL: I think Adamawa.
VAUGHAN: And, of course, the reason why people say Adamawa was not part of it is precisely because the vice president at the time is from Adamawa. So he was able to convince politicians and powerbrokers in Adamawa not to be a part of this movement.
So the role of religion, of Islam, is very much a part of the exigencies of the geopolitics of the Nigerian state and society itself. There’s always the idea that you have to use religion as a strategy to ward off a perceived assault from Christian movements and Christian structures.
CAMPBELL: So it’s reaction, too.
VAUGHAN: So there’s a constant reaction in ways in which we don’t see that in other West African context. So I think that’s really one way to think about this.
In Nigeria, the intersection of Christianity and Islam in central and northern Nigeria, to the exclusion of southwestern Nigeria—and this is really where the question about southwestern Nigeria is extremely important—southwestern Nigerians don’t interpret global grievances about jihad the same way in which northern Nigerians interpret those kinds of questions.
I mean, there are—one of the largest populations of Muslims in West Africa and southwestern Nigeria, their worldview is really very different and they don’t see themselves really as a central—as really seriously connected to much of what people are doing in northern Nigeria as Muslims.
CAMPBELL: No, they do not.
VAUGHAN: So I think it’s really very important to think about these questions not just simply as religious questions, but rather as religious questions that are implicated in a fiercely contested political context, in an environment where the making of the nation state is particularly arduous. Right? So that’s the way.
And then, of course, expanded Sharia as a response to secularity in Nigeria now becomes really a very important, powerful, mobilizing strategy and ideology as a—as a defense mechanism.
CAMPBELL: And yours is the last question I’m afraid.
Q: Well, I don’t want to keep us. I was also going to ask about the Shia and societal discrimination and what that looks like in the north and how you see that changing or growing worse right now. And also, with the upcoming elections, do you think religion will play a more important role than the last general elections? So, yeah, maybe just pick one.
CAMPBELL: Why don’t you focus on discrimination against the Shia in the north?
THURSTON: I mean, their, you know, their fortunes have waxed and waned sometimes. And, I mean, you know, as we were talking about with the schools and the—and the mosques and so forth, I mean, they’ve had the chance to really, you know, expand and put down roots. And I think other constituencies have sometimes been frightened by their growth, you know. And the Salafis in particular have been, I think—sometimes felt on the—on the defensive vis-à-vis the Shia, you know. So I think there is discrimination felt.
At the same times, sometimes they’re hard, I mean, even for politicians to ignore and so forth. So they’re not necessarily completely marginalized, even if they seem a bit more down-and-out.
CAMPBELL: You also made the point, which I think is very important. They are not all poor people.
THURSTON: Right. Right.
CAMPBELL: I mean, you know, they have—they have establishment elements.
THURSTON: And I think there’s kind of a triangular relationship now, not necessarily friendly, between the Salafis, the Shia, and the Sufis. And the Salafis have tried to enlist the Sufis in kind of a Sunni alliance against the Shia to say, hey, we’re all, you know, we’re all Sunnis, these guys, you know, don’t even believe that some of the companions of the prophet were upright, you know, let’s kick these guys out and then we can go back to, you know, arguing with each other. (Laughter.)
And the Sufis, from what I’ve seen, have said no way, no way, you know, we regard any sort of—you know, some of the Sufis are quite harsh on the Salafis and say, look, you’ve been criticizing us for thirty, forty years, all of you are sort of pseudo Boko Haram anyway. This is kind of the Sufi perspective on the—on the Salafis. That’s not my opinion.
You know, so the Sufis, I think, have been quite hesitant to enlist in any kind of cross-Sunni alliance against the Shia. And the Sufis sometimes even appear—you know, like, the Shia will organize, like, unity week or, you know, things like that. And Sufi sheikhs will appear alongside them sometimes. So I think the relationships are really complicated actually.
CAMPBELL: That’s the last word.