The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa'ad Abubakar III (Spiri-tual head of Muslims in Nigeria) and his Christian counterpart, Archbishop John Onaiyekan (President of the Christian Association of Nigeria) have intensified a joint campaign on which they have embarked to ensure that religion is not seized upon to worsen the periodic disputes between Nigeria's ethnic and political factions, that often erupt into violence.
Such disputes have occurred in the past in Kano, Sokoto and other cities, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. In the most recent violence, which took place in Jos, capital of Plateau State, on November 27 and 28, 2008, over 500 people lost their lives.
Details of the troubles can be found at this website:www.guardian.co.uk
The Sultan and the Archbishop are co-chairmen of an organisation formed in 1999, called the 'Nigerian Inter Religious Council' (made up of 50 per cent Muslims and 50 per cent Christians) that meets quarterly to discuss ways of fostering religious tolerance.
Despite its existence, the spate of conflicts in which religion is employed to play a part continues unabated. In Jos alone, there was murderous violence in 1994, 2001 and 2004, before the riots of November 2008.
The Sultan and the Archbishop have divined that unless they act more vigorously to intervene in national affairs, not only will their organisation become irrelevant but the nation itself might be torn apart again.
(Nigeria had a terrible civil war between 1967-70, which cost the lives of an estimated two million people.)
Their efforts must be emulated by every country in which ethnic divisions can be seized upon to cause problems, as we in Ghana are currently witnessing in Tamale and its environs.
The Sultan did not mince his words when he addressed the Governor of Jos, Mr John Jang, and his Council of Ministers at a meeting in Jos a few weeks after the riots. He declared that the causes of the periodic “madness” in parts of Nigeria included the “hunger and poverty” that was prevalent in the country.
The Sultan said: “It is not just politics; it is not just religion; it is total hunger and poverty in the land [so] that you have a ready-made army anytime, anywhere, in their hundreds of thousands.
[You give them] just one or two thousand naira and they are ready to form an army for you.”
This state of affairs applies to almost every African country, including Ghana. So we'd better listen and listen well.
In fact, this is probably the first time a high-profile religious leader has spoken in such starkly blunt terms about what could narrowly be said to be a political subject — namely, the poverty issue.
Most Nigerians realise that the country is sitting on a time bomb, with a population of about 150 million, only a small number of whom are able to enjoy tolerable educational facilities, adequate health establishments, decent housing, pipe-borne water and —especially — uninterrupted electricity.
On top of this mass of deprived citizens sits a small 'political and business class' — made up of professional politicians and ex-military officers serviced by businessmen with enormous savoir-faire — who engage in a 'musical chairs' type of political gamesmanship in seeking access to power and the money power brings.
As, in the mean time, the lot of the mass of the population never seems to change for the better, resentments are built up which, as sociologists know only too well, can erupt into internecine violence amongst the very people who are suffering.
The frustration caused by seeing a small minority of fellow-citizens engage in conspicuous consumption, can act as a tinder-box to emotional eruptions for which religion provides an easy spark.
It is therefore extremely significant that the Sultan of Sokoto has not feared to “talk politics” but has so directly pointed his finger at the social conditions that underlie the unrest that causes the riots.
His speech will make the federal Government of Nigeria uncomfortable, for it will no doubt signal to the Government that the “do-nothing” charge that the populace often throws in its direction, is finding an echo amongst the most influential and basically apolitical sections of Nigerian society.
The Sultan's statement has aroused much comment in Nigeria.
One publication pointed out that “in Nigeria, there are some communities where religion is used as [a] standard for employment, promotions, and loyalty.
People are 'forced' to exchange their religion for patronage, employment, contracts, admissions and all that citizens [should] enjoy without being cajoled to [accept] belief in one particular faith.
“The Sultan could mean well for the country. [His] liberal approach to religion notwithstanding, Nigerians should be concerned about religious fanatics.
The fanatics, if learning from the Middle East in particular, should be the Sultan's main target [in decrying] religious intolerance in Nigeria.
Fanatics should end burning houses, properties, and places of worship, just [on] some flimsy excuses.
“(The) Sultan should continue to impress on his followers the need for religious tolerance…. He has to work on the fanatics that have invaded the Traditional Rulers, Community Leaders, Politicians, and the Civil Service all across the country…. If the fanatics fail to understand the importance of religious tolerance, the Sultan's efforts would be washed away by the torrential rainfall into the Ocean.
Nigerians should focus on things that bring them together instead of things that divide them.
Religious harmony would bring accelerated development in any community, especially northern Nigeria.
“Nigeria could surpass any developed country provided Nigerians are tolerant of one another's religious beliefs and ethnic affiliation. Dubai, another hidden haven for some wealthy Nigerians, would be a child's play.”
And in an editorial, http://www.punchng.com/Articl.aspx?theartic=Art20081231043842, the Punch newspaper said:
The Sultan of Sokoto has been making very instructive comments on the whirlwind of violence that swept across Jos, the Plateau State capital, recently.
He has also been able to isolate some of the root causes of the rampant ethno-religious violence in the State.
According to the revered religious leader, sectarian unrest is rife in the state partly because there is a bulging army of hungry persons in the country who could be enticed and mobilised with peanuts at short notice to unleash mayhem on the society.
The disturbances, he added, also persist because the perpetrators have always been allowed to go unpunished.