Nigeria's religions marching as to war

David Orr finds northern Christians and Muslims ready to do battle
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The Independent Online
Kano - The Church of the Brethren in the northern Nigerian city of Kano appears neither beautiful nor of great permanence. It was built from rusty sheets of corrugated iron, its pews and altar knocked together from planks of wood.

But that it should stand at all is a source of satisfaction to its pastor, the Rev Audu Drambi. Three times in four years the church has been destroyed. It was first burned down after Muslim youths rioted against the visit of a German evangelical preacher, Reinhard Bonnke, in 1991. Two years ago it was bulldozed by the city planners, whose motives, Mr Drambi believes, were primarily anti-Christian.

In May this year religious riots broke out again in Kano. What started as a dispute between two people over a stolen bag blew up into a three-day street battle in which scores of Christians and Muslims were killed and hundreds injured.

At this time, the Church of the Brethren, in the Muslim Brigade area of the city, once more fell victim to rampaging Muslim youths, as did Mr Drambi's house, which had already been burned down in 1991. "I'm afraid it could happen again," he said. "There's a lot of tension between Christians and Muslims in this town. My family and congregation has suffered, but I don't want to take revenge."

The rhetoric of the Very Rev Samuel Uche, the Methodist Bishop of Kano, is not so conciliatory. He has joined a government-sponsored forum to promote dialogue between Kano's two faiths. But should Muslims attack Christians once more, he is ready to respond. "If 20 people come to kill me I will gun down 10 of them before they get me", the bishop says. "All the Christian churches of Kano have mobilised since May. This time I have guns to protect myself."

In comparison to Islam, Christianity is a newcomer to the region. Long before Christian missionaries started to convert the south, Islam came to the north via the gold and salt trading routes of the Sahara.

In the early part of this century the first Christians, railway workers and office personnel in the colonial administration, reached Kano. Like many northern towns, Kano has a history of ethnic and religious conflict which stretches back to the early years of independence from Britain in 1960. In the mid-1960s, northern troops massacred southern immigrants out of resentment of their prominence in commerce.

In 1980 more than 4,000 people are thought to have died after a radical Muslim cleric urged his followers to rise up against everything "un- Islamic" in Kano. Moderate Muslims were horrified at the violence, which was only quelled by the army.

Since then Kano has gained a reputation as a hot-bed of Islamic fundamentalism. This was consolidated by an incident last December in which a Christian, alleged to have defiled the Koran, was beheaded by a mob.

The man, against whom no evidence was found in court, was dragged out of a prison, some say with the complicity of the warders. After the lynching, his head was paraded round the streets of the city on a stake.

The most recent outbreak of violence saw not only the destruction of Mr Drambi's church and home but the burning of Christian businesses near the market. On this occasion Christians fought back, and many of the victims of the disturbances were Muslim.

Today the streets where the riots occurred are the normal bustling, filthy, crowded thoroughfares of Kano's commercial area. But the tensions in this city of 3 million inhabitants are not far beneath the surface. Both the Christian minority and the Muslim majority fears unrest will erupt again.

"Islam is a religion of peace", says Abdulkarim Daiyabu, whose tiny mosque lies inside the crumbling walls of the Old City. "It is the government which is inciting hooligans to take part in attacks in the name of Islam. The military government has used many religious leaders to divide the masses, to distract them from the economic problems and cover up the politicians' corruption."

From a southern Christian who feels disenfranchised by the country's northern Muslim establishment, such an analysis might not be surprising; from a northern Muslim, his views appear very radical.

Sheikh Aminudeen Abubaker also believes the military regime, which seized power in November 1993, uses religion to create conflict. But he is less ready to let the Christian community off the hook. "The Christian leaders are teaching their followers that their only enemy is a Muslim", he says. "They're trying to stir up violence and fanaticism against the Muslims because leadership is in the hands of the Muslims in the north."

Christian leaders in Kano say the federal government refuses to grant land for the building of churches, that only Muslims enjoy access to the media, and that Christians are discriminated against in the fields of employment and education. Thus are the lines of conflict drawn. It is rumoured in Kano's Muslim quarters that most Christians have guns.Whatever goodwill exists between the two communities, it seems little provocation will be needed to rekindle religious hatred in Nigeria's interior.