Unrest in Nigeria

A Political Elite with No Plan of Action

Political agitators in Nigeria are using the dispute over caricatures of Mohammed as a pretext to incite violence between Muslims and Christians, writes Thomas Mösch in his commentary

A car passing by a destroyed mosque in Onitsha, Nigeria (photo: AP)
A car passing by a destroyed mosque in Onitsha, Nigeria. The root of the violence lies in the political and economic dominance of the south and the fact that the Muslim dominated north feels left behind

​​Without a doubt the current caricature controversy has very little to do with a recent series of murders and arson attacks in several Nigerian cities. The reason is clear: In only one of the cities was the unrest linked to anti-Danish protests.

The sad truth of the matter is that there are groups and bands of individuals throughout the most populous country in Africa that use every opportunity to exploit people's differences in order to achieve their own ends, pitting Muslims against Christians, and stirring up rivalries between various ethnic groups.

North versus South

Such tendencies are most common where social and economic prospects remain particularly bleak. The Muslim dominated north feels left behind now that the south, in addition to its dominant economic role, has assumed political leadership with the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

There is also considerable upheaval in the south. After seven years of official democracy, most residents in the oil-rich Niger Delta have yet to receive a greater share of the oil revenue flowing from their land.

The recent spate of attacks on the Christian minority in the north and continuing instability in the Niger Delta show once again that Nigeria's political elite has failed to come up with a convincing plan of action for the country's future. In Nigerian politics – as in the world of business – it's everyone for themselves.

Many major players in Nigeria are willing to do anything to get what they want, even if it means risking civil war. Up until now, President Obasanjo has barely managed to keep the country from sliding into total chaos.

Strategies for staying in power

He has achieved this by making concessions, for example, tacitly accepting the introduction of Islamic law in the north, a move that was unconstitutional. In other cases, he has reacted with by using such excessive military force that there is little difference between his rule and the old military regime.

As if that were not enough, now President Obasanjo has left the door open to a possible third term of office. Next year Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a new president – and the current constitution prevents Nigeria's current leader from running again.

While Obasanjo has not publicly said that he will stand for re-election, there is widespread speculation that he is working behind the scenes to remain in office, and the president's supporters are pushing to amend the constitution – a highly controversial issue. In the city of Katsina, it was this dispute that sparked brutal attacks on Christians.

Political solutions that go beyond religious differences

In the run-up to the elections, many politicians are turning to religion to mobilize their supporters. Taking advantage of the uproar over the caricatures of Mohammed to bolster their popularity, legislators in the northern majority Muslim state of Kano cheered as the parliament burned the Danish flag – a sad diversion from the real problems facing the country.

If Nigeria is to have a future, politicians and religious leaders there must realize that they have to find Nigerian solutions to Nigerian problems. This can only happen if they go beyond religious and ethnic differences.

Unfortunately, many people long for the old days, when their lives were entirely dictated by their own, assumably traditional values. Europe has repeatedly endured the painful experience of discovering that there no going back. Africa is in the process of learning the same lesson.

Fortunately, there are people in Nigeria who understand that it is better to join hands and tackle the challenges of the future together. The international community should give them its full support.

A leading positive force for change is the "Center for Inter-Religious Dialogue" in Kaduna, a city that has seen recurring violence between Muslims and Christians.

Each bloody clash leaves hundreds of dead in the streets. Many who routinely pour oil on the fire have finally realized that violence only breeds more violence. Perhaps this explains why the situation has remained relatively calm in Kaduna, at least for the time being.

Thomas Mösch

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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