Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

More than ten thousand Nigerians have lost their lives in communal unrest since 1999. One incident in Kaduna State alone claimed more than two thousand lives. And in the 2006 riots that erupted across the world over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Nigeria had more of its citizens killed than did any other nation. If there is merit to the idea of a global clash of civilizations, Nigeria looks like the epicenter.

This massive country of more than 130 million people, home to a seventh of all Africans, has in the past been divided mostly by ethnicity. Since the 1990s, however, religion has arisen as another major fault line. Nigeria is split roughly in half, both in population and geography, between a Muslim north and Christian south, along a line that runs from the southwest to the northeast corners of the nation. Three ethnic groups constitute two-thirds of the nation’s population: the northern Hausa-Fulani, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim; the southwestern Yoruba, who are roughly half Sunni Muslim and half Christian; and the southeastern Igbo, who are predominantly Christian. (The remaining third of Nigerians belong to more than two hundred minorities, many of whom live along the fault line.)

Recent surges in political activity from both the Islamic north and the Christian south have aggravated the nation’s rift and brought Nigeria increased attention from both militant Islamic movements and the West. And over it all is Nigeria’s fragile democracy, in search of the right ways to accommodate and calm the ­religious divisions that threaten the country. The question, then, is this: Can democracy manage—or even survive—the rift in Nigeria?

Neither the north nor the south is religiously monolithic. Northern Nigeria, for instance, has seen many Islamic waves throughout its history, and in the past the leadership of each wave has eventually been assimilated into the moderate Muslim elite. Much of this elite belongs to two Sufi brotherhoods, known as the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya, who incorporate a host of traditional African practices into their Islamic worship.

One recent reform movement, known as Izala, rose in the 1970s and attacked the African practices of the Sufi brotherhoods by preaching a return to Islamic fundamentals. The leaders of Izala, however, continued the historical pattern, and by the 1990s they had largely reached an understanding with the Sufi brotherhoods. But their followers continue to clamor for the extension of Shari’a, and in recent years other radical movements have appeared, appealing to the growing number of unemployed, educated men frustrated with elite corruption and political ­mismanagement.

The most notable of these radical movements is the Ikhwan (often referred to as the Shi’ites, not because they are dogmatically Shi’a but because they were inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution). The Ikhwan demand the transformation of Nigeria into an Islamic republic, with Shari’a law applied to the entire country, but they have done so in a largely peaceful fashion. Several smaller groups, however, seek to impose an Islamist state by force. The most notable of these is the so-called Nigerian Taliban, who attacked a Nigerian police station in 2004 and raised the flag of the Afghani Taliban shortly before they were routed by the Nigerian army. Most estimates place the total number of Taliban and other militant Islamist cells in Nigeria at no more than several dozen men, but fears persist that they could draw on dissatisfied youths from Izala or other mainstream movements if socioeconomic conditions do not improve.

The patchwork of Islamic sects in Nigeria found new political influence with the adoption of the Shari’a criminal code in twelve of Nigeria’s thirty-six states from 1999 to 2001. The code’s emergence was initially a political matter: As Nigeria’s military government handed power to a fledgling democracy in 1999, the leading opposition party searched for an issue to distinguish itself from the ruling party. When the opposition governor of Zamfara State seized on the idea of implementing the Shari’a criminal code in his state as a campaign platform, he unleashed a popular force that he did not foresee. Nigeria’s federal system had allowed any state to enforce the Shari’a civil code since 1979 but only in cases between Muslims and only where all parties elect to use Shari’a instead of the secular courts.

The Zamfara governor’s installation of the Shari’a criminal code with its Hudud punishments of amputations and stonings quickly caught the attention of national and global media. Other Muslim-majority states felt immediate pressure to implement their own versions, overseen by commissions of imams and, in some states, enforced by Hisbah militias.

Interestingly, the leader of the Ikhwan condemned what he called “political Shari’a” as only a half-hearted effort led by opportunistic politicians, and he renewed his calls for an Islamic republic. Other militant groups went further, arguing that the corrupt politicians in power were lackeys of the hegemonic West and must be removed, with the entire system remodeled to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban. Such sentiments appear to have caught the attention of Osama Bin Laden, who included Nigeria in his 2002 list of Muslim countries he hoped were ripe for his brand of uprising.

Meanwhile, Nigeria in the 1990s saw the rise of Christian fundamentalist movements in the south even larger than the Islamist groups in the north. Initially led by pastors and self-proclaimed prophets employed or inspired by American evangelists in the 1980s, the Nigerian Pentecostals soon became a sociopolitical force. Offering instant miracles, faith healings, prophecies, and outstanding musical entertainment, these churches won massive numbers of converts. The most successful churches soon filled football stadiums on Sundays and had sufficient followers to maintain continuous services throughout the week.

Nigeria’s mainstream Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches took note and began to offer enhanced entertainment with their services. Their clergy, however, typically could not engage in the on-demand miracles and prophecy. But where the mainstream churches could compete was in conversions in the ­Muslim north. Initially, much of the proselytizing took place among Nigeria’s few remaining animist communities. Quickly, however, the churches were engaged in massive conversion campaigns of Muslims across Nigeria. Catholic Church officials estimated that the number of Catholics in northern Nigeria alone surged by 50 ­percent from 1987 to 1997, and the last decade has likely seen an even larger increase.

As Muslim-Christian religious clashes intensified, some Christian communities organized their own local youth militias to promote and protect their interests, particularly among the Christian immigrant communities in the Muslim cities of the north, which have been frequent targets of mob action during religious riots. Although they are divided by denomination, an increasing number of Nigerian Christians see themselves as jointly sharing a global mission to be a bulwark against Islam—as the West grows, in their eyes, decadent and less faithful to core Christian values.

Nigeria has made a number of important strides toward deepening democracy since the military surrendered power in 1999, particularly in the National Assembly and the judiciary. Nonetheless, politics remains dominated by powerful political godfathers and their patronage networks, and the alliance of these networks produced the rigged victories of the April 2007 elections. Corruption has skyrocketed, to the point that the former president and vice president traded accusations of corrupt dealings last year, and five former governors have already been arrested since they stepped down from office in May.

While the newspapers are dominated with accounts of the power struggles and corruption of the godfathers, Nigerian democracy has produced an important innovation, almost without notice. Over the last few years, a new form of Islamic democracy has developed in the Shari’a states, within the secular Nigerian federation, and has gained enough national acceptance that Shari’a was hardly mentioned as an issue in the 2007 elections. Many of the twelve Shari’a governors have proved just as corrupt as other political godfathers, yet this corruption has not undermined public support for Shari’a. Indeed, Shari’a and democracy have become closely linked in the eyes of much of the north as an important check on elite abuses and some insurance of good governance, a Nigerian version of vox populi, vox dei.
The democratic system also produced some fascinating responses to the nation’s Muslim-Christian clash. After the 2000 riots in Kaduna, religious leaders mediated a framework for coexistence that the governor and state legislators later used as a basis to negotiate the “Kaduna Compromise” in 2001. This agreement provided for a partial implementation of the criminal code but ensured that it would be used only among Muslims, even in areas of general impact, such as the sale of alcohol or separation of men’s and women’s transport vehicles. Most important, the compromise gave Christian communities a say in how the code would be implemented, providing them some guarantees that Christians would not be subject to its provisions. Subsequently, the state of Kaduna has remained fairly quiet, while other parts of the north have faced religious violence since 2000.

The openness of the democratic system has also allowed the many divisions within both Islam and Christianity to rise to the surface to be debated locally. These intrareligious issues have taken some pressure off the Muslim-Christian rift, while decentralizing the conflict has allowed more opportunities to address flare-ups locally before they become national crises.

So far, the Nigerian federal government has been able to avoid the legal contradiction of Shari’a criminal law at the state level and official secularism in the federal constitution. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo wisely ignored pressure for a federal judicial ruling, hoping to gain time for the passing of what he saw as a “fad.” Although Obasanjo was wrong about Shari’a being a fad, his willingness to leave the issue to the states allowed time for democratic politics to work out a series of local compromises that few people loved but most could live with.

Yet the absence of a national compromise on the Shari’a criminal code remains tinder that any number of potential sparks could ignite. Several legal cases challenging the constitutionality of the code are still working their way through Nigeria’s slow but increasingly independent judiciary. If one of those cases makes it to the Supreme Court and forces a divisive judgment, the impact could be catastrophic.

Lack of economic progress and continuing elite corruption also threaten the fragile democratic situation in Nigeria. Growing hosts of frustrated youths on both sides of the religious divide could join militant factions, which take advantage of local, national, or international incidents to vent their anger. In the north, Bin Laden’s hope that Nigeria will become a new front in his war remains, at best, wishful thinking. Nonetheless, economic crisis and poor governance could still make it possible, and several small pockets of militants, such as the Nigerian Taliban, stand poised to benefit if state and federal governments cannot reverse the situation.

So, too, extensive Christian proselytizing throughout core Muslim regions is seen by northern Muslims as a direct provocation. Yet evangelism is perceived by many Nigerian Christians as a central obligation of their faith. It is the one goal on which all the Christian churches agree, yet it is the one issue that Muslim groups cannot accept.

Nigeria’s new president, Umaru Yar’Adua, is a moderate but devout Muslim and a former Shari’a governor who was handpicked by outgoing president and born-again Christian Obasanjo. Although Yar’Adua came to power through fraudulent elections in April 2007, he has shown himself increasingly credible and intent on improving governance. His faith and Shari’a credentials will likely give him greater leverage in managing potential Islamist challenges from the north, but they also leave him little influence with the Christian evangelicals from the south.

Leaders of violence-prone groups on both sides of the religious fault clearly benefit from bad government, corruption, and economic decay. President Yar’Adua should be pressed to follow through on his promised reforms to deepen democracy as soon as possible. But his tenuous position on the religious divide should be kept in mind as well. A national version of the Kaduna Compromise may offer one solution—which could make Nigeria a model of interest to the United States in its war on terror.

Without progress in democratic and economic reform, however, the nascent religious compromises of recent years will not hold, and Nigeria may well become what it has long threatened to be: the violent epicenter of a global clash of civilizations.

Darren Kew is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of a forthcoming book on democracy-building in Nigeria.

Jeff Attaway from Abuja, Nigeria, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.