Why Nigeria matters.

Author:Kew, Darren

More than ten thousand Nigerians have lost their lives in communal unrest since 1999. One incident in Kaduna State alone claimed more than two thousand lives. And in the 2006 riots that erupted across the world over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Nigeria had more of its citizens killed than did any other nation. If there is merit to the idea of a global clash of civilizations, Nigeria looks like the epicenter.

This massive country of more than 130 million people, home to a seventh of all Africans, has in the past been divided mostly by ethnicity. Since the 1990s, however, religion has arisen as another major fault line. Nigeria is split roughly in half, both in population and geography, between a Muslim north and Christian south, along a line that runs from the southwest to the northeast corners of the nation. Three ethnic groups constitute two-thirds of the nation's population: the northern Hausa-Fulani, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim; the southwestern Yoruba, who are roughly half Sunni Muslim and half Christian; and the southeastern Igbo, who are predominantly Christian. (The remaining third of Nigerians belong to more than two hundred minorities, many of whom live along the fault line.)

Recent surges in political activity from both the Islamic north and the Christian south have aggravated the nation's rift and brought Nigeria increased attention from both militant Islamic movements and the West. And over it all is Nigeria's fragile democracy, in search of the right ways to accommodate and calm the religious divisions that threaten the country. The question, then, is this: Can democracy manage--or even survive--the rift in Nigeria?

Neither the north nor the south is religiously monolithic. Northern Nigeria, for instance, has seen many Islamic waves throughout its history, and in the past the leadership of each wave has eventually been assimilated into the moderate Muslim elite. Much of this elite belongs to two Sufi brotherhoods, known as the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya, who incorporate a host of traditional African practices into their Islamic worship.

One recent reform movement, known as Izala, rose in the 1970s and attacked the African practices of the Sufi brotherhoods by preaching a return to Islamic fundamentals. The leaders of Izala, however, continued the historical pattern, and by the 1990s they had largely reached an understanding with the Sufi brotherhoods. But their followers continue to clamor for the extension of Shari'a, and in recent years other radical movements have appeared, appealing to the growing number of unemployed, educated men frustrated with elite corruption and political mismanagement.

The most notable of these radical movements is the Ikhwan (often referred to as the Shi'ites, not...

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