The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Fight between Muslims and Christians masks real problems

Nov 25, 2002

More than 100 people were reported killed and hundreds more seriously injured in Nigeria last week. The cause of the riot was supposedly a newspaper article about the Miss World beauty pageant, which had been scheduled in Nigeria for December 7. The article was considered insulting to the Prophet Muhammad by some Muslims, who rioted in the northern city of Kaduna, burning down four churches, crying "Miss World is sin."On Sunday, November 23, the contestants who had arrived in Nigeria were flown out to London, England where the contest has been rescheduled.

This most recent rioting in Nigeria is part of a long-simmering religious controversy in a country of 100 million people divided among 250 ethnic groups, where a majority in the north practice Islam and a majority in the south practice Christianity. The current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, took over as a "civilian" in this country long under military dictatorship, but he is actually a former general who ruled the country from 1979 to 1983.

Nigeria's wealth comes from oil: it is the sixth largest producer in the world, selling about half to British Royal Dutch Shell and a little less than half to Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Texaco. But, like everywhere else, the revenues don't benefit everyone equally. The per capita average income was estimated at $300 in 1999 by the U.S. Department of State. But officially one in four people is unemployed; non-payment of wages to government workers is common. Only half the population has access to clean water, two fifth of the children under five are malnourished, and life expectancy is only 51 years.

In such a situation, politicians everywhere look for ways to divert the anger of the population. In Nigeria, as in many other countries today, they find that diversion in religion. Three years ago, President Obasanjo, who is a Christian, accepted the instituting of the Muslim judicial system of sharia in 12 northern provinces. These courts began handing out their typical sentences of punishment: amputation for theft and stoning to death for adultery.

Three cases have since come to world attention of Nigerian women sentenced to death for bearing a child out of wedlock. The sentences have not yet taken place, but some of the Miss World contestants publicly declared their opposition to this treatment of Nigerian women.

Muslim leaders were quick to brand this protest an insult to Islam, encouraging their followers to treat the contest as an attack on their religious beliefs. Hence the rioting in Kaduna. Instead of supporting the Nigerian courts, President Obasanjo declared, "I allowed sharia to exist because we are not a secular state. We are a multi-religious state." Apparently Christian leaders are no better in their attitudes, for a well known bishop, Alexander Ekewuba, wrote in a magazine: "The northerners will destroy this country. Let them thank God I am not a politician, otherwise any time they kill one Igbo man ..., I will order that 10 Muslims be killed here."In fact, such attitudes expressed by men of religion – supposed men of peace – have led to the deaths of thousands of Nigerians over the past three years. Muslim clerics promising to stone women to death and a Christian bishop threatening to kill his countrymen: this is where religious leaders lead the Nigerian people.

The Miss World contestants can be flown out of the country, but the millions of Nigerians left behind will suffer from the attitudes promoted by their religious leaders and from the politicians whose soldiers' guns rob them of any hope for a decent future.