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Nigeria’s Religious Leaders Must Condemn Violence – OpEd

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By Peter Welby*

Decades of attacks by paramilitary and terrorist groups have blunted our senses to the death and destruction they bring. We are insulated from the high death counts and suffering, which are sadly all too regular. Sure, when it is closer to home we feel it: A neighboring country or somewhere you have visited, or a family like your own are who have suffered. But the majority of the world’s violence washes over us.

This reaction is wrong, but understandable. There is only so much blood and violence that the ordinary member of the public can engage with before the impact is lessened. Whenever something becomes ubiquitous, the human brain tends to desensitize.

But there are negative consequences to our fatigue. In Yemen over the past few weeks, humanitarian agencies have been forced to inflate the likely casualty figures to wholly unrealistic levels. They do this to get people to notice, and it works. In the heat that is generated, the light is lost.

Nigeria is a country whose great suffering has been largely ignored. Occasionally, something happens that piques global consciousness: The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014, for example. But, most of the time, it is ignored — just another violent incident in a violent world.

Over the weekend, more than 200 people were killed in clashes between Fulani herders and farmers. This is the latest in a recent escalation of herder-farmer violence, although such violence has been depressingly regular since the late 1990s. The situation requires an environmental solution as much as a political one: Land available to herders is decreasing as the Sahara expands south.

This problem is not unique to Nigeria. Settlers claim to be indigenous, protecting their land. Nomadic groups claim that they are herding in the same land as they have done for generations. In the case of the clashes at the weekend, a herder leader claimed that the attack was a response to the theft of cattle.

In this case, however, religion has intensified the conflict, as it so often does. Most of the clashes occur in the region known as Nigeria’s “Middle Belt,” an area that mixes people from the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. There are some tribes, notably the Yoruba, that contain both Christians and Muslims, but the majority do not.

The Fulani herders are almost entirely Muslim, the farmers largely Christian, from a variety of tribes (these latest clashes were with Berom farmers in Plateau State). And, in such a situation, deaths are no longer considered a matter for the communities and the government, or even the tribe, but one of persecution and religious war.

Religious leaders get involved; churches and mosques become places for stockpiling weapons; a rural danger becomes an urban one; and the conflict suddenly becomes much harder to resolve. Community mediation may settle the immediate presenting issue, but won’t help with its consequences.

It’s not as if Nigeria has a shortage of interreligious tension. The religious divide coincides with many of the other divisions in the country: Economic, natural resources, education and history.

The Emir of Kano — the second-most senior traditional Islamic leader in Nigeria, and also Fulani — has identified one of the key problems with these disputes. Because the herders involved are almost exclusively Fulani, the language used identifies the violence with the Fulani. And, as the majority of the Fulani are Muslim, it is therefore identified with Nigeria’s Muslims.

Nigeria’s security forces have often been drawn into the problem, with both Christians and Muslims claiming that they are biased. Perhaps a bigger problem currently, however, is their weakness as a result of long-running campaigns against Boko Haram in the north and militias in the south. This has led to prominent Christians, such as Gen. T.Y. Danjuma, to call on Christian communities to arm themselves.

The consequences are clear. Christian troublemakers describe this as yet another example of Islam’s war on Christians. The more conspiracy-minded point out that President Muhammadu Buhari is himself a Fulani. And Islamist extremists are adept at using these opportunities to further their cause.

There is talk of finishing the campaign of Usman dan Fodio (founder of the Sokoto caliphate, which ruled much of the north of Nigeria and beyond for 100 years up to the early 20th century), and legitimate questions about how attackers come to be so well armed (Buhari has linked the recent spike in violence with arms smuggling from Libya).

Regardless of presenting causes, it seems clear that some groups are taking advantage of the situation. There are many religious leaders involved in seeking to end the violence, but the prescription for this sort of religious violence is very different from the extremist violence of Boko Haram and the like.

Grievance, and the perception of grievance, plays an outsized role. Vendettas obstruct resolution. And fear between communities grows, trust diminishes, and even ordinary interaction in daily life is often lost.

What we need is religious leaders to both call for and demonstrate restraint rather than revenge, while security forces are bolstered and encouraged to do their duty. Ultimately, the best guarantor against intercommunal religious violence is a strong state and wise religious counsel, which mediates rather than agitates.

* Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics. Twitter: @pdcwelby


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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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