Dec 20th 2014
IN NIGERIA’S commercial capital, Lagos, the candle-like minarets of the Central Mosque look out over streets and alleyways filled with a plethora of churches and cathedrals. Yet these two Abrahamic religions do not co-exist quite as peacefully in many other parts of Nigeria, which is about half Muslim and half Christian; bouts of violence have broken out periodically since the 1960s, mainly in the northern and central parts of the country, many of which are under Islamic law, or sharia .
With elections scheduled for February 2015, there are growing concerns that these long-standing rivalries may be brought closer to the boil. On December 11th Nigeria’s main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), selected as its presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a septuagenarian Muslim from the north. He will stand against the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, just as he did in 2011. That campaign was among Nigeria’s bloodiest, with more than 800 people killed in sectarian fighting. Some worry that, with both parties playing up religion, there is now potential for even worse bloodshed.
Mr Buhari was the military ruler of Nigeria between 1983 and 1985 before being himself overthrown in a subsequent coup. He has a reputation for incorruptibility and firm discipline (during his time as military ruler, civil servants who arrived late for work were forced to do squat-jumps). However many Christians, who predominate in the south, view his brand of Islam as too strident for their liking.
Worries about the fair treatment of Christians have also been exacerbated by the situation in the northeast, where Boko Haram, a jihadist group, is trying to establish an Islamic state. Instability has killed more than 16,000 people. Many of the victims are Muslim, but the Islamists have also singled out Christians for murder or forced conversion to Islam.
“Bad governance, inefficiency and corruption have stirred up religion to the point that it becomes a defining identity,” says Matthew Kukah, a respected public intellectual and Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto in northern Nigeria. “The worry is whether [Buhari] has the capacity to rein in the excesses of his supporters, a good number of whom may not possess the reflex for showing tolerance.”
Many Muslims, meanwhile, feel alienated by a president who has failed to narrow deep divides between the more prosperous south and impoverished north. He is also seen as partisan in representing a diverse nation, despite his appointment of a Muslim running mate. In October Mr Jonathan made a “private pilgrimage” to Jerusalem, where he was reported to have visited various Christian and Jewish holy sites but no Muslim ones. “Whether Goodluck likes to hear it or not, he is seen by most Muslim masses in Nigeria as the most pro-Christian president,” Ahmad Gumi, a controversial Muslim cleric, wrote in an open letter earlier this year.
Mr Buhari had thought of choosing a fellow Muslim as his running mate. Instead he picked Yemi Osinbajo, a lawyer and a senior Pastor in the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Mr Buhari has avoided an obvious provocation to Christians. Pray that good sense continues to prevail.