Religious Movements and Lethal Violence in Nigeria: Patterns and Evolution.

Author:Danjibo, Nathaniel D.


Violence has unfortunately become synonymous with the Nigerian state. Although intergroup violence predates Nigeria's independence, since independence in 1960, the Nigerian state has been in the throes of lethal violence occasioned by the intolerance between religious groups whose adherents are emotionally attached to their faith. The divergence of religious groups in the country has also worsened the negative peace that characterises inter-religious relations. What has been the case in Nigeria is contrary to the recent statement by President Prenab Mukherjee of India who avers that "religion cannot be made a cause of conflict," especially due to intolerance among religious adherents. To a great extent, religion has been made a perennial source of lethal violence. Hotspots of religious violence include Plateau, Kaduna, Kano, among other states in the North.

Oshodi (2011) also is of the opinion that the historical trajectory of the Nigerian state has been punctuated by a number of actions, inactions and contradictions which have continued to resonate with contemporary realities and challenges associated with political and socio-economic implications. According to Albert (1991, 19), "ethno-religious crises are part of the urban problem in Nigeria." Such crises had been in existence in most parts of northern Nigeria. Since the Maitastine violence and the Zagon Kataf Conflict, which culminated in the setting up of a judicial commission of inquiry on the 10th of February, 1992, as well as the Danish cartoon conflict in Northern Nigeria, religious violence has become an aspect of intergroup relations. A new dimension is now the Boko Haram insurgent violence. Almost all the religions in Nigeria have high regard for human co-existence and thus discourage violent actions against neighbours. Regrettably, people responsible for the fatalities are not atheists as most of the perpetrators have a particular religious group they identify with. In fact, the fierce contest and conflict has mostly been between Muslims and Christians.

It has been noted by scholars that religion is a central part of human existence (Giddens, 1993, cited in Oraegbunam 2011, 186). And this fact has not adequately been given consideration by adherents of religious groups, hence the resurgence of violence and failure to accommodate. The centrality of this phenomenon explains why Nigeria is a heterogeneous and secular society with various religious groups such as Christianity, Islam, and ATR Secularism in this context refers to non-adoption of any particular religion as state religion, and this means that citizens are not accommodated on the basis of their religion. By implication, individuals are seen as citizens and not regarded as members of a particular religious group, as contained in chapter one and article 10 of the 1999 constitution which states that the Government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion (Ogoloma 2012, 65). The Constitution shows that citizenship is above religious affiliation and this gives every member of the state a sense of belonging.

In the pre-colonial era, Africans had different traditional belief systems, which offered them the opportunity to worship their various indigenous gods based on their traditions of origin. But everything changed with the advent of the foreign religions of Christianity and Islam. Ibenwa (2014, 6) asserts that "Christianity and Islam in Africa marked the beginning of religious pluralism on the continent, thus putting to an end the monolatric religious system that operated in the traditional African societies." Although some scholars argue that ATR is intrinsically pluralistic, it is not as pluralistic like the foreign religions. Secularism is a derivative of existential philosophy. Events in Nigeria since independence have shown that both Christians and Muslims act fundamentally as if the religions originated from the country rather than from an alien land (Danjibo 2012, 236). Such fundamentalism has evolved and aggravated what this article refers to as hostility perception in intergroup relations fuelled by excessive pride in religious groups with debilitating implications for peaceful co-existence.

Religion is a source of profound comfort and good in the world (Laderman 2015). Given that religion is an important driving force among humans (Firth 1952, cited in Agunwa 2014, 91), it is still realistic, despite religious violence, to take advantage of religion as a channel of enhancing intergroup relations.

Madu (2003, 46) believes that religion involves man's recognition of the existence of powers beyond himself, which created the universe and sustains, preserves and provides for this universe, thereby making it possible for a society to comprehend the relationship between God and man. It refers to a spiritual and social phenomenon which consists of sovereign power, with a spiritual component consisting of non-physical, immaterial, incorporeal, intangible or invisible entities such as God, Satan, angels, demons, heaven and hell (Dzurgba 2008, 10), as well as believers, salvation, sinners, infidels, born again and deliverance, among others. As a social institution, religion is described as a dependent and independent variable which usually affects the societal structure to the extent that social units also influence religion (Oraegbunam 2011, 187). From the foregoing, it is evident that the belief in a supernatural being (the existence of God) is responsible for the conviction that faith is crucial and demonstrates the actions of people who follow the tenets of the religion that offers assurance of salvation. In this regard, the supernatural being is usually seen as the giver of knowledge, wealth and power.

History has it that religion creates a platform for extremists and other adherents to justify their actions, particularly violent behaviour and bloodshed against fellow humans in the name of God (Nwankwo 2015). In the Gambia for example, literature shows that extended families of Muslims, Christians, and practitioners of the traditional Awasena ("religion of pouring") had contributed to the conflicts that manifested along religious lines as a result of resistance to conversion to Islam through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (Thomson 2012). According to Laderman (2015), religion has become one of the most powerful social-cultural forces in history, having the capacity to cause conflict. The havoc it has wrecked in Nigeria's scenario is the series of fatalities involving the protagonists whose relentless acts of inciting religious cleavages have heightened tensions in most parts of the country.

Issues surrounding religion are just one of the many sources of violence in Nigeria, namely crime, land issue, cattle grazing, oil production and distribution, car accidents, football clubs' disputes, political crisis, natural disaster, market issues, witchcraft and sorcery among others (Adams 2014; Abu-Nimer 2000; Afeno 2014; Alqali 2015; Alegbeleye 2014; Akpomera 2015; Akinpelu 2015; Animasawun and Aremu 2015; Okolie-Osemene 2015a; Animasawun 2013; Agbigboa 2013; Bello 2015; Bonkat 2014; Chukwu 2014; Jimoh 2015; Makai 2015; Munir and Olojo 2015; Nwankwo 2015; Uwa 2015; Egharevba and Iruonagbe 2015; Onuoha 2012; Onwuegbuchulam, Whetho and Mtshali 2014; Onah 2014; Nwanya 2014; Ukoji 2014; Okolie-Osemene and Okoh 2014; Titus 2015; Sampson 2012; Wariboko 2015).

Religious violence has created many cliches in the country, namely religious militancy, extremism, fundamentalism, religious terrorism, religious bigotry, religious pluralism, religious prejudice, The Muslim north, The Muslim community, The Christian community, The Christian south, radical Islamist (jihadi-Salafism), conflict sensitivity, religious antagonism, religious incitement, religious rights, freedom of worship, religious zealots, clash of theologies, Islamophobia, and religious discord among others. Unfortunately, most of the aforementioned cliches hamper inter-religious dialogue.

However, given that conflict is an inevitable part of human existence (Albert, 2001; Okolie-Osemene 2015b), the problem remains that such issues escalate to violent attacks by parties that eventually amount to fatalities. In Kano for example, why is it that both Christians and Muslims have become the merchants of violence? It is worrisome that every little misunderstanding between the Muslim community and their Christian counterparts is greeted by invasive attacks by one side while the other prepares for a violent defensive response. This has manifested itself for years in Sabon Gari area of Kano state so much so that some southerners who have lived there for more than three decades refused to relocate down south despite requests by their parents and siblings to leave the north due to religious disturbances. There are several Christian minorities from the north including those from Kano State residing in Sabon Gari.


The article makes use of primary and secondary sources relevant to the study including Nigeria Watch database which maps the trends of violent deaths, media reports, available literature, statements of religious leaders aimed at abating religious violence and key informant interviews. It also adopts qualitative analysis to discuss ways in which religious confrontations have contributed to lethal violence and actions of religious groups.

Theoretical Discourse

Explaining the intergroup relations between Christians and Muslims in the context of violent conflicts requires a theoretical discourse which is anchored on the hostility perception theory characterised by mutual suspicion and competition to evangelise and win more souls. Indeed, inter-religious relations in Nigeria have not only become synonymous with hostility perception but have also assumed debilitating proportions at the detriment of national integration. For instance, Catildi (2011, 29) argues that hostility...

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