Sarah Reckhow. Originally published in the HIR Winter/Spring 2000 Issue.
The May 1999 inauguration of Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's first civilian president in several decades, along with the consideration of Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze as the successor to Pope John Paul II, position this nation with roughly equal proportions of Christians and Muslims for a new future of political and religious peace through democracy and reconciliation.
Since the state attained independence in 1960, Nigeria has been struggling with a destabilizing history of religious conflict and colonial rule. Northern Nigeria, where the Hausa people established an Islamic emirate 200 years ago, is populated primarily by Muslims. In 1886, Irish missionaries brought Christianity to Nigeria, and their influence converted much of the eastern half of Nigeria to Catholicism.
British colonizers drew the territorial lines that would become the modern state of Nigeria in 1914, disregarding the country's religious and tribal divisions. In fact, the colonizers often inflamed preexisting rivalries to help maintain British control. Independence did little to alleviate religious tensions; at the end of the 1960s the country endured a brutal 30-month civil war that claimed one million lives. The war began after an attempt by the predominantly Christian region of Biafra to secede from the Muslim government and ended with the Biafrans' surrender in 1970. Afterward, Nigeria fell under the control of a series of military rulers who have done little to prevent religious conflicts. Like the British colonizers, Nigeria's military leaders often manipulated and incited underlying religious and tribal tensions to maintain power.
Religious conflicts within Nigeria pose a potential threat to African regional peace as well: an internal religious conflict could involve Christians and Muslims in neighboring African nations. “The Balkanization of Nigeria would be disastrous for the world," says El-Haji Maitama Suie, a former presidential candidate. “If you wind up with a Muslim north that is landlocked, without oil, we will be forced to look to our brothers to the west and the north.”
Two pivotal figures have recently entered this environment of religious tension and tribal warfare: the political leader Obasanjo, who is focused on democratically rebuilding Nigeria, and the religious leader Arinze, who has the potential to reconcile Nigeria's religious differences. Obasanjo, unlike most of the leaders in Nigeria's troubled past, calls democracy a "fundamental imperative." In an October 1999 speech he remarked, "Today we affirm democracy and its values because it is good for us, not because the world demands it... [It is the] one form of government that guarantees the unity of our country in a sustainable way." Obasanjo has stated his commitment to "recognize the relevance of cultural units to which every citizen has a profound sense of belonging." Putting action behind his words, Obasanjo, a Christian, took an important step toward unity and peace by naming a Muslim as his vice president. Obasanjo's actions have earned him praise from unconventional quarters. "Regardless of religion, the president is our brother here in the southwest," says A.K. Moyosore, a Muslim chief imam of Surulere.
This marks the second time Obasanjo will serve as the Nigerian head of state. In 1976, he reluctantly accepted the presidency when his friend and colleague General Murtala Muhammad was assassinated. Obasanjo continued the work begun by Muhammad for transition to civilian rule, and in 1979 he stepped down whenAlhaji Shehu Shagari won the elections under the terms of the new constitution. Obasanjo temporarily retreated from politics in Nigeria, but in 1988 he helped establish the Africa Leadership Forum, and in 1994 the United Nations appointed him a roving ambassador.
In 1995, under the regime of General Sani Abacha, Obasanjo was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for opposing Abacha's government. He was released after Abacha died in 1998; the next year, Obasanjo ran as the presidential candidate for the People's Democratic Party and won. In his inaugural speech in May, Obasanjo promised to rebuild a unified Nigeria, saying, "with God as our guide and 1 20 million Nigerians working with me, we shall not fail."
By promoting a democracy, Obasanjo hopes to end government corruption, one of Nigeria's biggest political problems. He is currently championing an anti-corruption bill in the national assembly.A reduction in corruption would mean more funds to develop industry, especially in Nigeria's rich oil fields. In order to attract even more capital to these industries, Obasanjo hopes to ease Nigeria's US$13 billion debt. To aid in debt relief, he has traveled the world seeking foreign investment and imploring lenders to partially relieve Nigeria from part of its debt burden. Unlike Nigeria's previous leaders, Obasanjo hopes to integrate Nigeria's economy with the global market.
Politics and government policy will not suffice to solve long-standing religious tensions, however. Cardinal Francis Arinze, a religious man well-versed in mediation, especially between Christians and Muslims, may provide the missing link. A Catholic convert, Arinze received the Vatican post of president for the Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1984. In the past several years, Arinze's position has become increasingly influential in the Church because the rapid expansion of Catholicism into developing nations has caused the resolution of religious conflicts to become one of the Church's important goals. Named by Jesuit magazine as one of the top five candidates for the papacy, Arinze may become the first African pope since St. Gelasius I, who reigned from 492 to 496.
As president of the Council, Arinze has already made advances toward reconciling Christians and Muslims within Nigeria. For example, when Pope John Paul II visited Nigeria in 1998, Arinze arranged for him to meet with both Muslim and Christian leaders in the capital. More importantly, Arinze has opened dialogue between Christian and Muslim groups. If Arinze does become pope he may no longer be able to devote his entire attention to reconciliation, but he could still draw international attention to Nigeria's political and social challenges.
With this convergence of peace in both the political and religious arenas, Nigeria seems to be coming to the end of a long period of post-colonial violence and warfare. "We must engage Nigerians to live in peace with one another, despite the differences in religion," says Sule. “We must teach our people to understand the tenets of these two faiths.”