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A Christian Response to Contemporary Challenges in Nigeria

Dr Patrick SookhdeoPresentation to DIVCCON 2012  by The Very Rev’d Dr Patrick Sookhdeo

November 2012

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A Christian Response to Contemporary Challenges in Nigeria

1.    Islam in Nigeria

‘In Nigeria, three things are intertwined; religion, politics and ethnicity and the three are beclouded with corruption, poverty and insecurity. It is therefore difficult to solve one without considering all other underpinning factors’. [1]


Islamist successes following the Arab Spring have energised Muslim efforts to subvert sub-Saharan Africa, both in the gradual expansion of Islamism by dawa and in violent jihadi efforts. The Sahel and West Africa offer a fertile ground for the weakened Al-Qaeda core to re-energise and re-launch its mission of global jihad.  Recent attacks in Nigeria, the ongoing insurgency in Somalia, and the Tuareg Islamist takeover of northern Mali exemplify the Salafi/jihadi expansion in the northern half of the African continent. This development raises the prospect of an arc of regional instability encompassing the whole Sahara-Sahel region.  Al-Qaeda and its franchises and allies are now seizing upon and exploiting local grievances with the ultimate aim of securing a stable foothold in these vulnerable countries.  As a result, the focus of Western anti-jihadist counter-terrorism is shifting to Africa.   Western intelligence and security services now recognise the rise of a new challenge as jihadism evolves and spreads into territories of ungoverned, or loosely governed, space across large stretches of Africa. From West Africa to East Africa, across the sub-Saharan region, there is a new phase of jihadi activity that will trigger further turmoil. [2]

Earlier this year Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies (including Tuareg and other African fighters) plundered weapons left by Gaddafi’s fall in Libya, becoming so well armed that they were able to overrun large parts of northern Mali.  Libyan weapons have also turned up as far away as Nigeria, in the hands of Boko Haram, one of the most dangerous jihadi groups in Africa. As an unintended result of Gaddafi’s downfall, jihadis from Algeria to Nigeria to Mali have become better armed and more dangerous.[1]  There are fears that the Sahel region is becoming the Afghanistan of Africa, as many foreign jihadis flow into the region along with weapons and funds to support them.[2]

Nigeria, with its multiple ethnic and religious tensions as well as deep economic inequalities, is ripe for infiltration by radical Islamic groups.  The spread of radical Islamism from the Arab world into the Sahel and West Africa, creates a serious threat that Nigeria’s large Muslim population will become increasingly radicalised and involved in the transnational jihadi campaign to destabilise the region.[3]

Against a background of widespread corruption and government inefficiency , calls for a return to true original Islam have a growing appeal; Wahhabi, Salafi and other well-funded ideological movements from abroad (including radical Shias from Iran) are making the most of this.

Following the rise of the Al-Shabaab movement in Somalia, the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the rise of Islamist jihadi Tuareg groups in Mali linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), Boko Haram in Nigeria has intensified its violent attacks on Christians and government agencies in northern Nigeria as it strengthened its ties with the Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the region, receiving training, arms and funds.  It appears that Boko Haram has adopted classic Al-Qaeda methods and tactics and has accepted the latter’s ideology, narrative and cause. [4]

Boko Haram’s objective in unleashing acts of violence in Nigeria is the removal of all things Western (including a Christian presence in Nigeria) and the creation of a state based on sharia.  If the intensity of attacks continues, there is the potential for Nigeria to be destabilised to the extent of triggering a full scale civil war.

Origins of Islam in Nigeria

After the initial Islamic conquest of North Africa in the 7th century and the conversion of the Berbers (who controlled the trans-Saharan trade routes), Islam spread gradually to sub-Saharan West Africa, especially from the 10th century onwards.  The method included not only trade but also jihadi conquest, in which Muslim armies on horseback swept periodically across the semi-desert regions of West Africa from what is now Senegal to northern Nigeria.  A number of local kings were converted to Islam, and powerful feudal empires were created establishing the religion of Islam in what was effectively a process of colonisation.

By the 15th century there were settlements of Muslim Africans in all of West Africa up to the edge of the tropical rainforest,[5] and Islam became the religion of the elite ruling class in many of the Sahel and Savannah kingdoms and chieftaincies.[6]  By the 16th century Islam was well established in what is now northern Nigeria.  There were several small kingdoms, mainly ruled by emirs from the Hausa and Borno tribes, in which Islamic scholars filled important positions as clerics and advisors to the ruling emirs.

Sufi tariqas (orders or brotherhoods) had arisen in the region during the 15th century, the two main ones being the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya.  The Sufi brotherhoods became the main organised form of West African Islam; they played a dominant role in the religious discourse and helped to spread Islam through mission activity and trade.

The Qadiriyya is the oldest and most widespread Sufi order, with branches all over the world that are loosely tied to its centre at Baghdad. It was founded in Baghdad by 'Abd al-Qadir Jilani (d.1166), considered the greatest Sufi saint in Islam, later spreading widely.  The Qadiriyya stress piety, humility, moderation and philanthropy and have appeal to all classes of society being strictly orthodox.

The Tijaniyya order, founded by al-Tijani in 1781 in Fez, Morocco, founded Muslim kingdoms in West Africa. They taught submission to the established government, and their influence is still an important factor in the region, where it is associated particularly with conservative businessmen.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Muslim reformers changed the political landscape of large parts of West Africa, most notably in what is now northern Nigeria, through jihad. Under Usman Dan Fodio (1754-1817), a member of the Qadiriyya brotherhood, the region experienced an Islamic revival, which focused on returning to Islamic sources in their most literal form, establishing a sharia state, and a violent jihadi expansion.  Dan Fodio initiated a reform of the local syncretistic Islam, imposed sharia, and urged the Fulani and Hausa to a jihad which started in 1802. He established the Sokoto Caliphate (1803), expanded the Muslim area in West Africa, and transformed Islam from a tolerated minority religion to the official religion of state. His forces attacked and raided non-Muslim neighbours and took many slaves. Slaves were also the tribute demanded from dependent non-Muslim vassals, as slaves formed the basis of the Caliphate’s economy.  The fear of Muslim domination felt by neighbouring non-Muslims of the time has left a legacy to today.[7]  Many pagans in the Middle Belt accepted Christianity to escape Muslim Hausa-Fulani domination and to be independent of Fulani emirates.

The Sokoto Caliphate was a confederation of emirates that recognised the overlordship of Dan Fodio as the Sultan.  By the mid-19th century, the Sokoto Caliphate consisted of 30 emirates with Sokoto operating as the capital.  Kano was the wealthiest and most populous emirate within the Caliphate.  Adamawa was geographically the largest emirate, stretching far to the south and east of its capital at Yola and at one point extended into modern Cameroon.

At its height in the mid-19th century, the Sokoto Caliphate was the largest empire in Africa, covering a huge area that included northern Nigeria and parts of what is today southern Niger and northern Benin. The Caliphate also pushed Islam further south into Nupe and across the Niger River into the northern Yoruba-speaking areas.  It was more than a political empire: it was also a religious community, differing from its Islamic neighbours to the north and west because of its puritanical piety, and from the animist peoples to the south because of its rejection of paganism. At its summit was the Sultan, who combined the roles of king and high priest.  Based in Sokoto, he claimed descent from the Muhammad and ruled through the emirs.  Today’s Sultan and emirs are descendants of the men who originally seized power in the early 19th century.

In the decades following Dan Fodio’s death in 1817, the Sufi brotherhoods spread their influence and recruited members from the newly conquered territories.  They enjoyed a high level of patronage from the Sultan and emirs, who saw them as allies in the grand project of renewing and spreading Islam in West Africa.

Colonial Era

When the British arrived in northern Nigeria towards the end of the 19th century, first as traders and then as colonial administrators, they established a system of indirect rule, allowing traditional Muslim rulers to continue to govern, reinforcing their positions under the loose administration of the British, and firmly establishing an extremely powerful Muslim elite.

In 1900, Frederick Lugard was appointed as High Commissioner of the British Protectorate of Northern Nigeria.  His goal was to conquer the entire region and obtain recognition of the British protectorate by its indigenous rulers who were the emirs of the Sokoto Caliphate.  Lugard’s main achievement was to transform the British commercial sphere of influence into a viable territorial unit under effective British political control. To maintain peace and stability in Northern Nigeria, Lugard adopted a policy of indirect rule, governing through the emirs of the Sokoto Caliphate who had either been militarily subdued or who had agreed through diplomatic means to come under the British protectorate.  The colonial power also promoted Sufism as a form of Islam which could be controlled.

The terms of indirect British rule were that the Muslim emirs must accept British authority, abandon the slave trade, and cooperate with British officials in modernising their administrations.  In return, the colonial power confirmed them in office.  The emirs retained their caliphate titles but were responsible to British district officers, who had final authority.  Caliphate officials were transformed into salaried district heads of the British authorities, responsible for peacekeeping and tax collection. Most of the activities of government were undertaken by the emirs and their local administrations, subject to British approval.  The emirs were also permitted to continue traditional Islamic education practices rather than having to introduce a British education system in the north. The new colonial legal system included some components of sharia and recognised a limited sharia competence in the north of the country.  Sharia courts – known as area courts – had jurisdiction over matters of personal status law, such as divorce, inheritance, and domestic disputes. Criminal and other public matters were dealt with under the Penal Code for Northern Nigeria. This created a dichotomy between federal and area courts.[8]

British colonialism in the long run bolstered the control that political Islam had in northern Nigeria.  In exchange for support of British rule, Ahmadu Bello (1910-1966, the first premier of Northern Nigeria and Sardauna of Sokoto) was able to insist “on the teaching and practice of Islam in this region”.  Traditional Islamic clans coalesced into a northern party that effectively excluded Westernised intellectuals and secularised non-Muslims. [9]  By its system of indirect rule, British colonialism gave preference to the existing Muslim sultans, emirs and elites over the disorganised and fragmented systems in non-Muslim ethnic groups to the south.  Indeed the British handed these Muslim elites control of areas in the Middle Belt populated by non-Muslims the Muslims had never conquered.  The power of northern Muslim elites was strengthened, as the British supported the Fulani hierarchy to rule on their behalf and keep law and order.  The British colonial administration thus entrenched the legacy of the Sokoto Caliphate, especially in its discriminatory treatment of non-Muslims.[10]

Christian missions entered Nigeria during the colonial era.  Despite opposition from the colonial authorities, most non-Muslim tribes were converted to Christianity before independence.  Christian missions played an important role in the abolition of slavery and where thus seen as enemies by the slave-trading Muslims.  Christian missionaries brought a measure of freedom to the non-Muslims under British-Muslim rule who were subjected to forced labour and servitude.  In some places in the Middle Belt, Christian converts rejected the servitude and inferior status imposed upon them.  The allegiance of the people shifted from the British-Muslim rulers to the new missionary-convert teachers and evangelists.  Christians in northern Nigeria saw Christian missions and Christianity as liberators from the colonialism of the Sokoto Caliphate, the Sultanate of Kanem-Bornu and the British administration. [11]  Christian missions laid the infrastructure of education and health services that later enabled non-Muslim south Nigeria to develop faster than the Muslim north.

Since Independence

With its multiethnic and multifaith population, modern Nigeria adopted a secular constitution that placed power in the hands of elected officials, when it became independent in 1960.  However, the politically well-established Hausa and Fulani elites of the north continued to wield a considerable power.  Muslim military officers, such as Babangida and Abacha, formed the main power centre in the Nigerian state, especially in the various military governments.  Of the nine government leaders since independence, only three have been Christians.  There was a symbiotic relationship between Muslim officers leading the military government and the traditional Muslim political leadership (sultans, sardaunas, emirs, etc.). [12]

Prior to the emergence of a legitimate democratic government at the end of the 1990s, Nigeria had experienced ethnic tension, civil war (Biafra), and frequent military coups.  Its oil wealth was mismanaged, leading to a precipitous decline in living standards for masses. [13]

Islamism in Nigeria received a boost when the power of the governing Muslim national elite declined dramatically with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, to the presidency in 1999.  Two of the immediate visible effects of this invigoration of political Islam were the adoption of sharia in one-third of Nigeria’s states and violent attacks by Muslims on Christians in the north.[14]  This violence has caused tens of thousands of deaths since 1999.

The adoption of sharia in twelve northern states in 2000 threatened to polarise the country into a Muslim north and a Christian south.  Non-Muslims remember their historical experience of the dehumanising effect of Islamic colonialism, slave raiding, slave trading and slavery. While Muslims may aspire to be faithful and obedient to Islam and the Qur’an, non-Muslims see a revival of Islamic colonialism, slavery and dehumanisation.  Their historic experience under Islam governs their perceptions today. [15]

Independent Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and is the seventh largest oil producer in the world.  It has gained a reputation as a regional peacekeeper in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. Yet its own internal political order has been very fragile with religious and ethnic tensions, not only in the north but also in the oil-producing Niger delta region.[16]

Contemporary Islam in Nigeria

Since the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate, sharia principles had been applied in northern Nigeria to issues of civil law such as marriage, divorce and adultery.  Resenting the growing influence of Christians in post-independence federal Nigeria, Muslims in the north began pressing for the full implementation of sharia at the local state level as part of a campaign to challenge the secular nature of the Nigerian state. [17]

In the 1970s the Constitutional Assembly rejected Muslim demands for a new federal sharia court of appeal.  However calls for sharia redoubled in the 1980s, and in 1999 Ahmed Sani, governor of Zamfara State announced that his state would adopt sharia in January 2000. Other northern states, including Niger, Kano, Borno and Sokoto, soon followed Zamfara’s lead.  Sharia was an immensely popular theme with the Muslim masses who saw it as the solution to all their problems.  It became an identity marker and a deeply emotional slogan. By 2004 twelve states had adopted sharia and there were attempts to expand it to Middle Belt states.

Muslim politicians encouraged the concept that sharia would miraculously produce a just society.  They presented themselves as champions of Islam and used the sharia issue to distract attention from the fact that the Muslim elite in the north had failed to improve people’s lives, had failed to invest in education and development and was rife with corruption.[18]  The Muslim north is much less well developed economically than the non-Muslim south with its oil-based wealth.

The threat posed by Islamism in Nigeria

Islamism aims to purify Islam and strip it of all pagan impurities and of all foreign (and in particular Western) secular ideas and practices.  It seeks to do so by encouraging Muslims to live by a literal interpretation of the Quran and other Islamic sources, and to model their lives on the first Companions of Muhammad and their disciples (the salaf, or ancestors, hence the term Salafism).  

The resurgence of Islamism in Nigeria following independence was strongly influenced by Saudi-educated Islamic religious scholars who challenged popular Sufi versions of Islam. [19]  Saudi-based and Saudi-funded global Islamic groups like the Muslim World League (MWL) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) have played an important role in this.  A 1974 Muslim World League Conference called on all Muslim states to support a Muslim missionary drive and the implementation of sharia. This resulted in an explosion of Islamic institutes and organisations for training and sending of missionaries, as well as for building of mosques, training imams, establishing Islamic schools and colleges and publishing Islamic literature.  The influence of strict Wahhabi Islam from Saudi Arabia was paramount, allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and to similar groups.  Islamist dawa (mission) also used economic development funded by oil-rich Gulf states to further its growth in Nigeria.

Islamism was further boosted in Nigeria in the late 1970s during Obasanjo’s first military administration (1976-79), when the Constitutional Assembly rejected Muslim demands for a new federal sharia court of appeal.  Christians saw it as an attempt to impose Islam on Nigerian society.  Muslims, especially students and intellectuals in Kano and Zaria, were inspired by the1979 Iranian Revolution to organise pro-sharia demonstrations.  They were also inspired by the jihad in Afghanistan (1979-89) and by what they saw as a worldwide Islamic resurgence.  Their leaders preached in the slums about justice, government corruption, and Islam (including sharia) as the solution.  Muslim radicals condemned the Muslim elite as a feudalistic club that enhanced social injustice and attacked them for deviating from Islam and for not ruling by the Quran. [20]

The modern resurgence of Islam gradually infiltrated Nigerian Muslim communities and radicalised many, its aims closely matching those of the Islamic revival under Usman Dan Fodio.  The growing Islamisation of Muslim society in Nigeria is now evident by the growth in Islamic banking, in the halal industry, and in the increasingly visible Islamic clothing including the hijab, gender segregation and mosque building.

Islamist groups seeking to enact revolutionary change include Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah, Ja’amutu Tajidmul Islami (Movement for the Islamic Revival, MIR), and Boko Haram.

Islamic Movement of Nigeria is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Its leader Yaqoub al-Zakzaky is the most famous radical Muslim preacher in Nigeria.  He was an economics student at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria when the Shia Islamic Iranian Revolution broke out.  Inspired by Khomeini and the Revolution he admitted to embracing both Sunni and Shia teachings.  He surrounded himself with gangs of young bodyguards and created a para-military force (horas) along the lines of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  Despite the Sunni ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, Zakzaky became increasingly involved in radical Shia ideology, which caused a split in his organisation, some members alleging that the Iranian government paid Zakzaky’s expenses.  Zakzaky’s power centre was in Kaduna.  He rejects Nigeria’s secular constitution and seeks to establish an Islamic republic under sharia.

Jama’atul Izalatul Bid’ah Wa’ikhamatul Sunnah (Izala for short), led by Abubakar Gummi, is an anti-Sufi movement.  Over the years, the Saudi Arabian government is reported to have given the Izala significant material support and encouragement channelled through the Saudi Arabian embassy in Nigeria.

Jamaatu Tajdidul Islami (Movement for Revival of Islam) is led by Abubakar Mujahid who split from Zakzaky in 1994 because of the latter’s perceived Shia tendencies.  Its power centre in Kano.  Mujahid, who admires the Taliban in Afghanistan, has instigated anti-Christian riots and called for an Islamic state.

The Maitatsine movement has engaged in ongoing, Islamist-inspired violence against the police and other symbols of the Nigerian state.  Maitatsine terrorist operations were not so much intended to build Islamist institutions as to target Nigerian state institutions.

Boko Haram’s official name is “Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal Jihad”, which means “people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad”.  It evolved out of the “Taliban group in Nigeria” and its ideology is modelled on that of the Afghanistan Taliban, by whom one of its leaders was trained.[21]  In spite of government efforts at its eradication it has shown unprecedented vigour and cruelty in massive attacks on Christians, government security forces, UN mission headquarters and moderate Muslims.

Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2009 in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri with rudimentary bombs and drive-by shootings of men on motorbikes who targeted police and church ministers. After a crackdown in that year by the Nigerian government, which caused the Boko Haram leadership to go into exile, it re-emerged in 2010 in a much more violent mode and determined to seek revenge against the Nigerian state for executing its leader.  The group’s methods rapidly evolved, with its first suicide bombing hitting the UN headquarters in Abuja, the capital, in August 2011, killing 25 people.  Suicide-bombings, barely known before in West Africa, are now the most potent weapon in Boko Haram’s arsenal.[22]

The group has issued statements expressing solidarity with Al-Qaeda and has threatened the United States.  It is very hostile to democracy and to Western “anti-Islamist” education.  It has repeatedly stated that it seeks the imposition of strict sharia throughout Nigeria.  Boko Haram members generally do not mix with other Islamist groups in Nigeria, even praying in separate mosques in the larger northern cities of Maiduguri, Kano and Sokoto.

Some observers describe the “core Boko Haram” as the immediate followers of the late sect leader Mohammed Yusuf.  However, others consider Boko Haram to be more of a “grassroots insurrection,” or an “amorphous cloud” that has emerged from the larger context of Muslim grievances and frustration with the government.  The group’s membership is also thought to be bolstered by extremist elements from Chad, Niger and Cameroon who cross over the notoriously porous northern border regions into Nigeria.  Boko Haram representatives have been present among the jihadi rebels in Gao, in north Mali, earlier this year, claiming to have come to help their brothers in the fight to impose Sharia in Mali. [23]

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria is its increasing collaboration with other militant Islamist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab.  The rapid evolution of Boko Haram points to the sharing of weapons and expertise among various terrorist organisations across the African continent.  Boko Haram’s evolving tactics and targeting are apparently the result of these ties.  The exile of the Boko Haram leadership in 2009 helped them to develop connections in Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Sudan, and it is believed that the group purchased weapons in some of these countries.  Such cross-pollination of weapons, tactics, and bomb-making expertise can quickly increase the capabilities of terrorist groups.

Nigerian state capacity to combat Boko Haram in the north is limited and they have so far failed to stop their deadly attacks.  According to some sources, soldiers deployed in northern Nigeria have been deserting due to a lack of pay and low morale after many Boko Haram attacks.   In addition there appears to have been a lack of urgency among senior commanders regarding the need to deal with Boko Haram, which has intensified its war on Christians and other targets in 2012.  Although a number of arrests have been made and suspected militants killed, the Nigerian authorities have been powerless to bring the violence to an end.

Sufi-Salafi hostility

The Sufi Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya orders have a historically important position within northern Nigerian society.  The widespread respect they command is based on their role in the early spread of Islam in the region and in their links to the Sokoto Caliphate.  These ties give them a special religious, political and social legitimacy.  Even today the Sultan and various emirs, continue to exert enormous influence including through their links with the Sufi orders.

Many observers emphasise the peaceful, inclusive nature of Sufi West African Islam, pointing to the role the Sufi brotherhoods have played in forming the regional culture of tolerance.  They often contrast tolerant Sufism with the political and puritanical Islamist movements, such as Salafism, that impose much stricter rules of conduct on their adherents.[24]  Of course, as we have seen, Sufi orders in the past were involved in jihad, so it is quite conceivable that they could metamorphose into a violent activist mode in the future.

Islamist movements, whether Muslim Brotherhood type, Salafi or jihadi, are hostile to Sufism which they accuse of the serious Islamic sin of “shirk” (associating anyone with Allah as a co-deity) for its veneration of Muslim saints and shrines.  We have already seen that the Izala was established specifically to oppose the Sufi brotherhoods.  Sufis today are on the defensive everywhere as Islamists attack them and their shrines, for example, recently in Libya and in Timbuktu, Mali.  As a result, governments and Western states are increasingly seeing Sufism, with its widespread network of religious and welfare institutions, as a bulwark against radical Islamism.

The heads of the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya orders in Nigeria realise the challenge facing them from Islamists and have committed themselves to stem the slide into radicalisation.  They are involved in both a religious and a welfare confrontation as they seek to expand their networks and institutions as alternatives to those offered by Islamists.  While Islamists disparage and attack local governments, state agencies and security forces, the Sufi orders seek to engage with them in a constructive way.

The popularity of services offered by Islamist groups such as the Izala and IMN makes the community programmes financed and run by the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya extremely important.  These represent the main alternatives for welfare for many poor people living in the north.  Both the Islamists and the Sufis built their programmes around education – schools and colleges, lessons and courses.  Both Sufi brotherhoods have programmes that also include sermons and prayer sessions, workshops, seminars, meetings, rallies, and events to celebrate important dates in the religious calendar, just as the programmes of the IMN do. In addition, because of their status within Nigeria’s religious community, the leaders of the two brotherhoods appear regularly on national television and radio.  This, arguably, gives them access to a much broader audience than that of the Islamist leaders.

US and UK engagement

The West has a range of strategic interests in Nigeria, the main ones being the maintenance of its important oil sector, ensuring the undisturbed flow of oil to the West (the US is dependent on Nigerian oil for 11% of its oil imports); and the containment of the Islamist jihadi threat especially in the north.  

To safeguard the oil flow, the US encouraged the establishment of a dedicated naval force, the Gulf of Guinea Guard Force (GGGF) to protect shipping and oil rigs from pirates and Niger Delta activists.  The force is made up of US, Nigerian, Equatorial-Guinean and British naval assets.

In northern Nigeria, the US aims at efforts to limit the operations of Islamist jihadi insurgent and terror groups.  Nigeria, as the most populous and militarily strongest state in the region holds the key to the region’s stability.  It is a driving force in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU).  Nigeria led the efforts to contain the violence in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but is now faced with destabilisation and violence within its own borders.

In response to the situation, the US set up the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) in 2002 to try and restrict the area of operations of the radical jihadis.  Its primary purpose was to help Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger protect their borders against Islamist insurgents and terrorists operating out of Algeria.  The US European Command (EUCOM) also set up a Special Forces Group in Mali to operate a training centre for units from all four states.  In 2005 the US launched a new Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) involving Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Algeria to help the governments of the region stem the flow of funds and recruits across their borders to jihadi organisations.

The British government has been offering financial help to the Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Zaria and the leading sheikhs of the Sufi brotherhoods. It has paid for both the Sultan of Sokoto and Sheikh Qaribullah Nasir Kabara, leader of the Qadiriyya brotherhood, to visit the UK.  The sheikh’s visit included dialogue on conflict resolution, the role of religious leaders in peaceful dialogue, and peaceful engagement with Islamic institutions.[25]

The UK has also paid for various conferences and other civic events to which the north’s religious leaders have been invited as guests of honour.  The funding came from schemes organized by the  British High Commission, and are separate from the much larger programmes managed by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Although the sums are relatively small, they establish a pattern by which the British government deals directly with the Sufi brotherhoods to pursue socio-political objectives.

US policy-makers are recommending that the United States and its allies – most notably Britain, France and the EU – must become far more actively engaged in and with Nigeria. They should provide both Sufi brotherhoods with assistance to finance their education programs; provide them with up-to-date learning materials; encourage U.S. and other Western schools and colleges to set up staff and student exchange programmes; encourage them to cooperate more frequently, and to a greater extent, with one another; and encourage them to strengthen their ties with the Sultan and emirs.  The diplomatic, economic, and military investment that is currently being offered is insufficient to face the developing reality of rising radical Islamism coupled to economic failure and government corruption.  The Fund for Peace research institute recent forecast that Nigeria will become a failed state sometime during the next decade, a truly frightening scenario. [26]

Despite the killing of thousands of Christians (and many Muslims) in violent terrorist attacks, the US government has failed to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organisation.  It seems caught up in the wrong assumption that that Boko Haram has developed as a result of poverty in northern Nigeria and that increased aid is therefore the solution.  The disregard of the Islamist ideology undergirding Boko Haram and other radical groups in Nigeria will inevitably impede implementing the right strategy and tactics of dealing with that threat.

Persecution of Christians

Since the introduction of sharia in twelve northern states Christians have increasingly been discriminated against and are now facing repeated violent attacks on their persons, churches and property.  On 1st January 2012 Boko Haram gave an ultimatum to the Christians living in the northern states which invited them to leave or be killed.  The ultimatum came with a grace period of just 3 days.  A number of planned attacks followed the passing of the deadline.

Anti-Christian riots and attacks on Christians and their churches and homes have become regular events in the North and Middle Belt.  Islamist leaders and organisations are often the catalyst, while local government and police forces are frequently slow to respond.  The escalation in violence has badly affected the Christian infrastructure in northern Nigeria.  Christian villages have been targeted with their dwellings destroyed and their water sources polluted, church buildings have been bombed by a combination of grenade attacks, suicide bombings or fire and Christian businesses have also been intentionally targeted.  The attacks have resulted in the displacement of thousands of Christians from the northern states.  Those displaced are moving to safety in the south of Nigeria.


Nigeria is facing multiple threats that act as catalysts to violence, terrorism and fragmentation.  Corruption at every level endangers social cohesion and increases alienation from the state and its institutions.  Inter-ethnic tensions and Niger Delta separatism endanger stable oil production and export.  However, Islamist ideology and terrorism are currently the main threat to the state as they are part of the regional expansion of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadi groups in the Sahel and West Africa. Islamist violence also increases Muslim/Christian tensions and the danger of civil war.

It is imperative to understand the ideology of violent Islamism and its link to classical Islamic doctrine and the history of jihad in the region.  Fighting the ideological battle is as important as efforts at improving the economic welfare of the poor masses and the eradication of corruption. As long as traditional Islam in the north continues to dream of dominance in the state and glorifies the jihadi history of the Sokoto Caliphate while regarding non-Muslims as subservient dhimmis, the radicals will always find recruits. What is needed is a root-and-branch reform of Islam in the north.

It is incumbent on Western states to actively support all groups within Nigeria that can contribute to stability, peaceful relations between the various communities and social cohesion. Whether Muslim Sufi orders or Christian churches and organisations, these can counter the trend to radicalisation and contribute to internal harmony.

1.   A Christian Response

The Spiritual Conflict (Ephesians 6:10-18)

It is vital to recognise the spiritual nature of the conflict in which we are engaged and the need to have the protection of the divine armour.


Sound doctrine is an essential defence against:

•         19th and 20th century liberalism

•         Post-modernism

Important principles:

•               Do not give up mission in return for dialogue    

•               Maintain Biblical foundations:

§  In the Christian tradition, Muhammad cannot be accepted as a prophet.

§  In the Christian tradition, the Qur’an cannot be accepted as the word of God.

§  In the Christian tradition, Islam cannot be considered a way to God.

§  Defend Biblical truth.

§  Avoid compromises and syncretism.

•               Beware of movements such as “the insider movement”

This is a missiological movement based on an extreme form of contextualisation, which teaches that Muslims who accept Jesus should not be "extracted", but rather remain as "insiders", not just within the Muslim cultural milieu but also within the Muslim religious framework.


Model of the Trinity for the Church – helping to avoid unnecessary disputes and divisions:

§  Father – Son – Holy Spirit

§  Unity in diversity

§  Relational and interdependent


•               Ethics

•               Integrity

•               Financial transparency

•               Honesty


•               Presence

•               Service (diakonia)

•               Engagement (dialegomai)

•               Proclamation

•               Acculturation

•               Suffering and martyrdom

•               Signs and wonders

•               Prayer

•               Prophetic

•               Vision of the End (Habakkuk 2, Matthew 28, John 13)


Engagement in all aspects of society to defend the Christian community:

·       Politics

·       Education

·       Finance

·       Legal

·       Media

·       Culture

·       Security and law enforcement


•               Unity of effort

•               Clear objectives

•               Attainable goals


[1] H.E. Judge Prince Bola Ajibola, quoted in: “Report On The Inter-Religious Tensions And Crisis In Nigeria” of the International Joint Delegation of The World Council of Churches and The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, May 2012.

[2] Valentina Soria, “Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa”, RUSI, UK Terrorism Analysis, No. 2, April 2012.[1]  “US consulate attack in Libya: the warning signs were there in Benghazi”, The Telegraph, 19 September 2012.

[3]  “US consulate attack in Libya: the warning signs were there in Benghazi”, The Telegraph, 19 September 2012.

[4] Hamid Yes, “West fears ‘African Afghanistan’ as Jihadis find new safe haven”, Al-Monitor, 6 June 2012.

[5] Jonathan N. C. Hill, Sufism In Northern Nigeria: Force For Counter-Radicalization? Strategic Studies Institute, May 2010.

[6] Valentina Soria, “Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa”, UK Terrorism Analysis, No. 2, April 2012, RUSI.

[7] J. Kenny, West Africa and Islam, Takoradi (Ghana), AECAWA 2000, 88-102. The tropical rainforest hosted the tse-tse fly whose bite was deadly for the camels and horses of the traders; thus the spread of Islam through traders stopped at the edge of the rainforest.

[8] P.J. Ryan, ‘In My End is My Beginning. Muslim and Christian traditions at cross-purposes in contemporary Nigeria’, in B. Soares (ed.), Muslim Christian Encounters in Africa, 189 (187-220).

[9] Karl Maier, This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis”, London: Penguin, 2000, pp. 148-159

[10] Muhammad Khalid Masoud, “Application of Islamic Law in Courts”, ISIM NEWS LETTER  9 / 0 2.

[11] David Dickson, “Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda”, United States Institute Of Peace, Special Report 140, May 2005.

[12] Yusufu Turaki, Islam, Colonialism and Slavery in Northern Nigeria, McLean VA: Isaac Publishing, 2010.

[13] Yusufu Turaki, Islam, Colonialism and Slavery in Northern Nigeria, McLean VA: Isaac Publishing, 2010.

[14] David Dickson, “Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda”, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 140, May 2005.

[15] David Dickson, “Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda”, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 140, May 2005.

[16] David Dickson, “Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda”, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 140, May 2005.

[17] Yusufu Turaki, Islam, Colonialism and Slavery in Northern Nigeria, McLean VA: Isaac Publishing, 2010.

[18] David Dickson, “Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda”, United States Institute Of Peace, Special Report 140, May 2005.

[19] Karl Maier, This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis”, London: Penguin, 2000, pp. 176-179.

[20] “Sharia ‘used in Nigeria politics’ ”, BBC NEWS, 21 September 2004.

[21] David Dickson, “Political Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda”, United States Institute Of Peace, Special Report 140, May 2005.

[22] Karl Maier, This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis”, London: Penguin, 2000, pp. 162-191.

[23] Anna Borzello, “Tracking down Nigeria’s ‘Taleban’ sect”, BBC NEWS, 14 January 2004.

[24] “Nigeria’s troubles: Getting worse”, The Economist, July 14th 2012.

[25] “Periodical Review: Summary of Information from Jihadi Forums, June 2012”, ICT’s Jihadi Websites Monitoring Group, IDC Herzliya.

[26] “Islamist Terrorism In The Sahel: Fact Or Fiction?”, International Crisis Group, Africa Report N°92, 31 March 2005.

[27] Sufi News and Sufism World Report, April 27, 2008,, accessed 30 October 2012.

[28] Jonathan N. C. Hill, Sufism In Northern Nigeria: Force For Counter-Radicalization? Strategic Studies Institute, May 2010. rate this publication click here.

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