ineffective governance in Africa's biggest country, terrorist organisation Boko
Haram is tightening its grip there. Moderate Muslims and the Christian
community are equally terrified by its rise. The Goodluck Jonathan Government
faces a real challenge
been bombing South Sudan again recently, only a couple of months after the two
countries split apart. Sudan is mostly Muslim, and South Sudan is predominantly
Christian, but the quarrel is about oil, not religion. And yet, it is really
about religion too, since the two countries would never have split apart along
the current border if not for the religious divide.
was split along the same Muslim-Christian lines for nine years, although the
shooting ended last year and there is an attempt underway to sew the country
back together under an elected Government. But in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest
country by far, the situation is going from bad to worse, with the Islamist
terrorists of Boko Haram murdering people all over the country in the name of
imposing Shari’ah law on the entire nation.
situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought
(in 1967-70, which killed between one and three million people),” said
President Goodluck Jonathan. That’s a major exaggeration — the current death
toll in Nigeria from terrorist attacks and Army reprisals is probably only a
few hundred a month — but the potential for much greater slaughter is certainly
interview with Reuters, President Jonathan said, “If Boko Haram clearly
identify themselves now and say... this is the reason why we are confronting
Government or this is the reason why we destroyed some innocent people and
their properties, why not talk to them?” But it’s pointless: He already knows
who they are and what they want.
loosely translated, means ‘Western education is forbidden’, and the
organisation’s declared aim is to overthrow the Government and impose Islamic
law on all of Nigeria. In a 40-minute audio message posted on YouTube two weeks
ago, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened that his next step would
be to carry out a bombing campaign against Nigeria’s secondary schools and
This is not
only vicious; it is also completely loony. There is no way that Boko Haram
could conquer the entire country. Only half of Nigerians are Muslims, and they
are much poorer than the country’s 80 million Christians. The Christian south
is where the oil is, and the ports, and most of the industry, so that’s where
most of the money is too. The same pattern is repeated in many other African
countries: Poor Muslim north; prosperous Christian south.
no plan behind this. Islam spread slowly south from North Africa, which was
conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, while Christianity spread
rapidly inland once European colonies appeared on the African coast in the last
few hundred years. The line where Islam and Christianity meet runs across
Africa about 1,100 kilometres north of the equator (except in Ethiopia, where the
Christians have the highlands and the Muslims the lowlands).
the Muslims ended up with the desert and semi-desert regions of Africa because
Islam had to make it all the way across the Sahara, while the more fertile and
richer regions nearer to the equator and all the way down to South Africa are
mainly Christian because the Europeans arrived by sea with much greater
economic and military power. But some 350 million Africans live in countries
that straddle the Christian-Muslim fault line.
probably won’t be a full-scale civil war in Nigeria this time around, but Boko
Haram is targetting Christians indiscriminately. The Nigerian Army, not best
known for its discipline and restraint, is almost as indiscriminate in
targetting devout but innocent Muslims in the northern States that are home to
the terrorist organisation. Christians are already moving out of the north and
Muslims out of the south.
It will get
worse in Nigeria, and it is getting bad again in what used to be Sudan, and
Ethiopia is an accident just waiting to happen. Even Ivory Coast may not really
be out of the woods yet. There is a small but real risk that these conflicts
could someday coalesce into a general Muslim-Christian confrontation that would
kill millions and convulse all of Africa.
and Islam have been at war most of the time since Muslim armies conquered half
of the then-Christian world, from Syria to Spain, in the seventh and eighth
centuries. There was the great Christian counter-attack of the Crusades in the
12th century, the Muslim conquest of Turkey and the Balkans in the 15th and
16th centuries, and the European conquest of almost the entire Muslim world in
the 18th to 20th centuries.
It is a
miserable history, and in some places it is likely to continue for some time to
come. But nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa does the frontier between
Muslim-majority and Christian-majority areas derive from conquest: These
populations are not looking for revenge.
Haram’s style of radical Islamism is an import from somewhere else entirely,
and it would be a terrible mistake for large numbers of Muslim Nigerians to
embrace it. On the other hand, it will be a terrible mistake if Nigeria doesn’t
get a choke chain on its Army, whose brutal actions are all too likely to drive
Nigerian Muslims in exactly that direction.
Gwynne Dyer is a syndicated columnist based in