Nigeria: Is there a Christian Jihad?

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos
By Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos

Director of Research at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in Paris.

Posted on Thursday, 25 March 2021 20:10, updated on Wednesday, 31 March 2021 15:06
A church by the river nun near Yenagoa, in southern Nigeria © Akintunde Akinleye / REUTERS

While Boko Haram monopolises the attention in northern Nigeria, in the south, some insurgent groups use religious arguments and claim to be Jesus’ followers to justify their rebellion.

Nigeria is often portrayed as a country on the “frontline” between a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. From this perspective, observers concerned about religiously motivated violence are mostly preoccupied with Boko Haram’s bloody episodes in the Lake Chad region. They are so preoccupied with the issue of terrorism in Africa that they pay little attention to insurgents groups who claim to be Jesus’ followers when they take up arms in southern Nigeria.

From Biafra to the Niger Delta

Those nostalgic for the Republic of Biafra often use religious arguments to justify their rebellion. They have taken up the legacy of the secessionists who, between 1967 and 1970, insisted on being the Catholic victims of a genocide committed by Muslims, even though the head of the Nigerian state at the time was Christian.

Surrounded by an enemy with a much larger and superior firepower, supplied amongst others by Arab countries, the Igbo of the Biafra region had set their sights not only on Rome, but also on the Holy Land. Since then, some of them have presented themselves as belonging to one of the lost tribes of Israel. For example, Nnamdi Kanu – one of the leaders of the Biafran protest who was detained by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government in 2015 – says he converted to Judaism while in prison. Others have founded a Biafran Zionist Movement.

Generally speaking, protests against the misdeeds of the ruling Muslim class in northern Nigeria have found some resonance within the Igbo diaspora overseas. In fact, they have a global audience on social media and on ‘Voice of Biafra’, Kanu’s pirate radio station,  which broadcasts from the UK. Further south, along Nigeria’s Atlantic coast, the insurgents fighting the government in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta were not left out either.

Like the Igbo, some Ijaw in the region have, for example, compared themselves to the Jews who, by following Moses, freed themselves from the chains of “slavery” – from the yoke of the Muslims in the north, in their case. The Niger Delta Avengers – which emerged in 2016 – has, among other things, denounced the tyranny of Abuja and called President Buhari an “Egyptian pharaoh”, a rhetoric familiar to jihadist Salafists who criticised the dictators in power in the Arab world.

On a more peaceful note, the Ogoni of the Niger Delta have also anchored their struggle around religion. Before being hanged in 1995 by a junta then led by a Muslim general from the north, writer Ken Saro-Wiwa led the first protest marches of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), organising masses, prayer vigils and nightly Bible readings. He evoked the prophet Jeremiah’s ‘Book of Lamentations’ to equate the repression of the military regime, as well as the pollution caused by the oil companies, to the destruction of Jerusalem and the persecution of the Jews.

Caliphate and greed

The difference, one might say, is that the protesters in southern Nigeria are not seeking to impose a Christian state, unlike the Boko Haram jihadists who dream of establishing a caliphate.

However, there are several indications that the political is strongly influenced by the religious. The evangelical cities that developed in enclaves on the edge of the large cities of the south ended up having some of the characteristics of proto-states within a state.

In 1990, mutineers allegedly supported by evangelical churches in the Niger Delta even attempted a putsch to “cleanse” Nigeria by expelling the predominantly Muslim northern states from the federation. Today, some drug traffickers and gangster syndicates called ‘cultists’ also seem to imitate jihadist practices. In Igbo areas, for example, rival groups sometimes behead people and kill pastors.

Their criminal motives certainly distance them from any religious agenda. This is not very surprising as many Boko Haram fighters are also driven by greed, much more than by Islamic ideals. Rebels and so-called “godfathers” in the south use religion to disguise petty materialistic concerns.

But it is very easy to lose oneself in it. Asari Dokubo, founder of one of the main armed groups in the Niger Delta in the early 2000s, has just proclaimed himself head of a virtual Biafra de facto Customary Government, even though he converted to Islam in the 1990s.

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