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Religion and Conflict in Nigeria: Learning to Play Well With Others

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On a brilliantly sunny Monday morning at the start of the rainy season, a couple of dozen young men gathered for a game of soccer in Jos, capital of the state that encompasses the temperate volcanic plateau in central Nigeria. At first glance the event seemed unremarkable -- laughter, friendly taunts and a fairly casual level of competition were the order of the day.

But the armed guard who kept vigil by the gate at the Hillcrest School was the first indication that more serious matters were at stake. Jos is an uneasy place -- nearly 4,000 people have died in violent conflict over the past decade -- and the young Christians and Muslims on the field had converged from parts of an increasingly segregated city where goodwill between Christians and Muslims is often hard to find.

"Sports is one of the easiest ways to bring people together," said coach and referee Moses Gyok, 35, a Christian from a religiously mixed family. "Right now there is no issue of Christ or Muhammad. Just sports."

As Augustine Davou loped off the field, Gyok added, "People are tired of the crisis. Everybody suffers."

"Poor man suffers," said Davou, who is studying philosophy and religion at the University of Jos. "Schools are closed, bank is closed, roads are closed, it's the poor man's trouble. Rich man can send a driver, hire escorts."

Gyok nodded, conceding the point. "As long as we are alive, we will be doing this," he said as he watched the momentarily untroubled young men at play. "Or until the cultures are different."

The cultures that Gyok had in mind are more complex and run deeper than the Sunni-dominated Islam and largely Pentecostalized forms of Christianity that claim roughly equal portions of Nigeria's 170 million people. For example, "What tribe are you from?" (not "What church do you go to?") was the first question a curious group of young boys asked a visitor in a poor Christian neighborhood in Jos. Ethnicity remains the heart of identity for most Nigerians, underlying religious affiliation and bedeviling efforts to forge a common sense of nationhood.

That said, the solutions to the country's obdurate problems -- poverty, widespread political and economic corruption, periodic epidemics of disease and violence and, above all, ethnic rivalry -- must inevitably come from allied groups of individuals acting as Christians and Muslims. For Nigeria's government has yet to find a way to settle the unending discord, and Christianity and Islam are essentially the largest of Nigeria's several hundred frequently quarrelsome tribes.

Two days before the soccer match, some of the young men on the field had gathered at a community center to watch a documentary about a group of children who were traumatized by civil war in Uganda. Like the "Peace Cup" football games, the discussion that followed the film is a project of the Young Ambassadors for Community Peace and Interfaith Foundation (YACPIF), a local non-governmental organization that was conceived in response to the need for conflict prevention and strategies to build sustainable peace.

Heavy rain pelted the community center's corrugated metal roof as the conversation inevitably turned from Uganda's troubles to the roots of the ongoing conflict in Jos.

Augustine Davou cited the opportunistic relationship between corrupt politicians and unemployed young adults -- those under 30 account for nearly three quarters of Nigeria's population -- as a big problem.

"Most of the people who are doing this violence during elections, these are people who are thinking that they don't have a future," he said. "They say an idle man is the devil's workshop. So most of the youths that are hanging out in the street, doing nothing, those are the major set of people that the politicians are using for violence."

"The issue of indigenes and settlers is another major factor that leads to the crisis of Plateau State," said Damulak Bello Yusuf, a Muslim who is majoring in geology at the University of Jos.

Moses Gyok agreed that the issue of rights related to land and ethnic identity -- one thread in a tangle of conflicting imperatives at the heart of the current national constitution, which was ratified in 1999 -- was a deep source of tension in Jos, which has grown from little more than a rural crossroads to a city of nearly 1 million over the past century.

"Even those who claim that the land belongs to them came from somewhere else," Gyok said.
Members of the local Berom, Anaguta and Afizere ethnic groups were designated as indigenes in Plateau State in the early1960s, at the end of British colonial rule. The ostensible motivation behind the "federal character" provisions in Nigeria's post-independence constitutions has been to prevent larger groups from barring smaller ones from participating in civic institutions and receiving benefits related to education, employment and land ownership. In a country with one of the highest population growth rates in the world -- and a corrupt political system where funding streams are as leaky as oil pipelines in the Niger Delta -- those entitlements to scarce resources have almost inevitably become a source of fierce conflict. The controversy surrounding a political appointment in 2001 finally brought the simmering sectarian anger in Jos to a boil.

"It is seen as a religious crisis because the so-called indigenes, they are mainly Christians," Gyok said. "And those who are seen to have come from afar, the Hausa-Fulani, are mostly Muslims. That's why it is described as religious, but it is about the issue of power, land ownership and so on."

Still, everyone agreed that even if the real cause of violent instability in Jos isn't strife between Christianity and Islam in Nigeria's Middle Belt, representatives of those communities have to take responsibility for finding a way out of the conflict.

"The people in Plateau State take their religion very important," said Yusuf. "So our religious leaders, both the Muslims and the Christians, they need to take part."

The challenges of rallying broad, grassroots support for that kind of leadership were apparent at a Sunday service the next day. From the pulpit at Jos's largest Assemblies of God congregation, where he serves as both the denomination's District Superintendent and the regional head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev. Yakubu Pam declared, "I want to announce to the church today, we will we stand under the power of the Holy Spirit anywhere we can march, anywhere we can go, we will not be afraid of anybody."

Driving home his point about the relevance of this form of spiritual power for the main worries on the minds of his parishioners, Pam said, "If the church embraces the power of God, Boko Haram" -- the Islamist group linked with violence in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa -- "will not make the newspapers."

Jonah Jang, governor of Plateau State, sat in the front row of Pam's congregation of roughly 3,000. In his own address to the gathering, Jang declared, "Plateau is a Christian state."

The homilies from Jang and Pam, both of whom are Berom, would not have offered much encouragement to the Hausa-Fulanis and other Muslims who constitute nearly half the population of Jos and sizeable minorities in the rest of Plateau State. But in a subsequent interview at his nearby home, Pam, the president of YACPIF and a key leader in other peace-building efforts, was obviously committed to the cause of religious conciliation in Jos.

"Some pastors promote enmity between us and Muslims," he said. "This is because they lack knowledge -- they don't know the word of God."

These pastors also, in Pam's view, overlook the more mundane causes of conflict in Nigeria.

"The biggest problem is the issue of land ownership," he said. "Each ethnic group wants identity with the land. Hausas happen to be Muslims. Other ethnic groups are Christians. So the war now goes to religion. All these other things, they channel it through religion. But Jos people are just like the Israelites -- they really fight for the land."

And although he said he was happy to have the governor as a visitor in his church, he believed that, at least in the near term, religious leaders rather than elected officials would have to address the factors driving poor Christian and Muslim youth to engage in violence.

"The only way to stop the war is to go to these young people," Pam said. "They are the principle actors. If you stop them from fighting, the people who push them to fight will lack who to go and to push to fight. That is the issue that needs to be put on the table, but the government is not willing. So we are just trying to do it on our own."

In his remark about those who push young people to fight, Pam pointed to an important factor in Nigeria's unrest that is difficult to see from afar but commonly acknowledged among those who are intimately acquainted with the country's problems on the ground: There are many local and regional ogas ("big men") who have contrived ways to profit from the ongoing instability.

Umar Farouk, the Jos representative for Jama'atu Nasril Islam (the Association for the Success of Islam, the Muslim counterpart to CAN) and the public affairs officer for the city's Central Mosque, called these men "crisis entrepreneurs."

"When there is crisis, they have the opportunity to control some certain resources," he said. "Because they will be given relief materials to go and distribute, then they have their own share. Sometimes if they are given they don't even deliver. They are even praying, let there be crisis. So they even give people, especially these young people, they give them a little token and say, 'Go on -- cause trouble there.' They feed when there is conflict."

Farouk said that the local government's discrimination against non-indigenes or "settlers," most of whom are Muslims, has created disparities that have grown more acute as Jos has become more starkly segregated. According to Farouk, the neighborhoods where his congregants must live have fewer basic services -- from functioning schools to piped water -- than other parts of the city. And while the Central Mosque has collaborated with Yakubu Pam and other Christian leaders on projects aimed at addressing poverty and alleviating violence, the persistence of attitudes of intolerance based on both religion and ethnicity ultimately hinges on the actions of those who hold political power.

"Before the crisis you could hardly differentiate between who's a Christian and who's a Muslim," he said. "We in Jos have to embrace everyone as ours. We will not discriminate. These are issues that if only government can address, it will go a long way in getting the confidence of the people."

At the end of the soccer game the following day, Idris Adam, a 19-year-old Muslim from a predominantly Christian neighborhood where there are few Muslims left, offered his assessment of the "Peace Cup" project.

"Above all," he said, "it's very uniting in the sense that people from different religious backgrounds come together, set aside their differences and focus on one thing. I think to that extent you can see that we are actively participating, both Muslims and Christians, embracing each other, talking to each other, communicating effectively, sending the message of peace."

We should hope that the message of peace reaches well beyond the troubled streets of Jos. Nigeria is our sixth-largest supplier of imported petroleum -- after Russia and just ahead of Kuwait. For that reason, and also because any large-scale humanitarian crisis in the country would quickly overwhelm and destabilize its much smaller West African neighbors, Nigeria's fate has serious consequences for the United States.

And arguably, whether 170 million Nigerians succeed or fail at learning to play well together will augur the prospects for peace among the broader array of quarrelsome human tribes. That should be a subject of concern for all of us.

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