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Can Muslims and Christians Find Peace in Nigeria?

Wukari is a partially destroyed city. It is a city at war with itself.

Wukari is the capital of the Jukun kingdom in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. Its residents are Christian, Muslim, and Traditionalist. The majority are Christian, members of the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria because of over a hundred years of South African and CRC evangelism, education, and health care missions. The long-serving traditional ruler is also Christian.

For many years Jukuns of all three worldviews have lived in relative harmony, with the occasional serious conflict. But all that has changed in Wukari. Ten episodes of major conflict have left 2,600 people dead, 8,500 homes – not to mention businesses – destroyed, and over 50,000 people displaced. The damage in Wukari is most evident in the Muslim section of town and large segments of that population have fled, but there are many Christians displaced and destitute as well, particularly from the rural areas around Wukari. The Reformed churches of Nigeria are struggling to cope with the needs of these displaced persons.

The death and destruction in Wukari is a microcosm of what is happening globally. Understanding the situation there is perhaps a doorway into a deeper understanding of what is happening on a larger scale. It is more complicated than it looks.

Because of my history working with World Renew in West Africa, I have spent several weeks in the Middle Belt region for each of the past two years at the request of the Reformed churches in that region’s Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation Committee (PJRC), with Dr. Hizkias Assefa, a world class peace process facilitator. It is this group and this facilitator that in the early 2000s brought a lasting peace to the conflict among ethnic groups in the Takum area of Middle Belt.

Can it be done again? Maybe. But there are huge barriers.

The Middle Belt region is explosive. Religion is a main ingredient – but it is not the only ingredient.

Religion

The religious roots of the conflict run deep. Islam in Nigeria has long had a strong militant element that wants to expand Islamic sway from its stronghold in the North all the way to the Atlantic coast.

So too, the Christian South - and Middle Belt in particular - sees its sacred purpose as blocking Muslim expansion and planting churches in the Muslim-majority North. Nearly word for word, both 19th century missionaries and contemporary Nigerian church leaders speak of this calling.

Scarce land and resources

But like a tooth with an abscess, this sensitive and volatile religious root is being awakened by more mundane but powerful irritants: the struggle for the survival of traditional ways of life and the distorted instinct for money and power.

For Muslim Fulani cattle herders, clashing with mostly Christian farmers, all three are at stake. They are partially nomadic and every year the cows move with the greening grass, from north to south and back again. Since Cain and Abel these two ways of living have clashed. But it is getting worse. In the Middle Belt as in much of Africa, populations are increasing dramatically, leading to clashes over land use.

  • Farmers encroach on cattle corridors.
  • Cattle damage farm fields. Cows are stolen.
  • Herders need to account for their cows to their wealthy owners.
  • Wealthy owners arm herders with easily purchased military assault rifles to protect their cows.
  • People are killed, and the cycle of death and retaliation begins.

For this and other reasons, people who have lived together as Jukuns for as long as they can remember are now enemies. Muslims no longer participate in Jukun tribal rites. Jukun Christians and Traditionalists see them as traitors, loyal to the Northern (and international) Muslim powers who would take their land and rule them.

Muslims see themselves as an oppressed religious minority who have lost political power and influence and are at the mercy of the majority. Religious identities are hardening. Both sides see it increasingly necessary to resist conversions in their communities while a religious imperative requires them to evangelize the other.

This is a volatile and dangerous mix of religious conviction, territorial politics, and a struggle for survival of ways of living. It is ripe for manipulation by outside forces for motives totally unrelated to the region. It takes only a very small spark to set off major destruction. A shooting after a soccer match. A dispute over a phone card sale. Perceived disrespect of a funeral.

What is to be done? Can we help? Maybe, but realistically, there is only a small chance of peace in that region anytime soon.

Relationships are broken. A Christian peacemaking group like the one I worked with has very little leverage with Muslim leaders in the area. They can gather key Christian Jukun to the table but who will gather key Muslim Jukun, many of whom have fled to other cities? And will key leaders on both sides risk conversation, knowing the risk of being assumed to be traitors by their own people?

There are also powerful forces, not well understood, outside the region who have national or geo-political interest in stirring conflict wherever the pre-conditions exist. These forces finance, arm, and foment both sides to a greater or lesser extent.

In the face of biblical commands to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, to support the faithful, and above all to bring Christ’s shalom to a violent world, what are we called to do? What are our brothers and sisters who are suffering from this violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt called to do? How can we stand with them in ways that are truly helpful?

This conflict can only be ended by the will and action of local leaders and followers – especially religious leaders. Our role may be to support and nurture the small flame of shalom represented by the Peace, Justice and Reconciliation Committee by enabling their impulse to seek peace with the help of people like Hiskias Assefa.

Is the Spirit of peace and justice moving in Middle Belt? Can we be a part of demonstrating to a demoralized world that the gospel has the power to make peace, promote reconciliation, and build more just societies?

Will we invest our time and money in that faith?

Because if it can be done in Wukari there is hope it can be done elsewhere. What an example that would be! What a witness. Pray – and stay tuned…

[Image: Flickr user Josh Townsley, under Creative Commons license]

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