The Shifting Dynamics of Religious Violence in Nigeria’s North

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Suicide car bombers attacked three churches in northern Nigeria over the weekend, killing at least 16 people and wounding dozens more.
The attacks, for which Boko Haram has claimed responsibility, sparked reprisal killings, while also focusing international attention on the religious tensions in the West African country split between a Muslim-majority north and a Christian-majority south.
Zachary Warner, a research analyst in Africana Studies at Bowdoin College, told Trend Lines that it is important to understand these attacks as part of a broader battle for control of the public space, which includes social practices, morality and governance, in northern Nigeria and the country’s “Middle Belt.”
Warner called this “a fight over the very organizing principles of Nigerian democracy: Who should define them? Who is a legitimate voice in the discussion? And whom should the system serve?”
He added that Boko Haram’s killing of civilians to assert its own view on these questions is nothing new. Pointing to the “repeated iterations of conflict” dating back to at least the early 19th century, however, he noted that “much of this has been infighting within the sizable Muslim community, with various factions claiming a particularly Islamic legitimacy.”
But these dynamics are changing, Warner said. As growing Islamic consciousness is met with growing insecurity among Christians, there are new attempts to diminish Muslim control in northern Nigeria.
“The two are ironically similar projects,” he said, explaining that both are about “constant spiritual renewal through new social practices and exegesis of respective holy texts, translating into a need to ‘win’ Nigeria for God or Allah.”
Turning to Boko Haram, Warner explained that the insurgency is very complex and not as well-defined a threat as it is often portrayed in the American media.
“Boko Haram . . . has come to mean a range of actions causing instability and violence in the north and Middle Belt,” he said, explaining that street violence as well as international terrorist networks linked to al-Shabab and al-Qaida fall “under the same aegis of generalized insecurity that we call Boko Haram.”
Warner said his sense is that support for Boko Haram is not widespread.
“Many resent the government, but they also don’t want to go about their daily lives wondering if any of their [relatives] will get killed in a suicide bombing. Elite politics is widely condemned, but Boko Haram is not seen as a viable alternative,” he said. “With no political option to throw their support behind, people tend instead to turn inward and seek refuge through increasingly new and dynamic forms of spirituality, which is one of the reasons why there has been such rapid change within both charismatic Christianity and reformist Islam over the past half-century in Nigeria.”
Warner said it is important to note that the conflicts in Nigeria are not just about religious tensions, but in fact concern a wide range of clashing identities, including ethnic, religious and regional differences.
“Because of this diversity, we have to be very careful to not essentialize this fight into a ‘clash of civilizations’ type of irreconcilable religious war,” he said.
The Nigerian government, he added, is doing little to address these tensions. So even if Boko Haram is eliminated, he said, the violence in Nigeria will continue.
“Mention is made of the need for peace, and elites call on religious leaders to preach peace, but the same problems — political exclusion, economic stagnation, perceived religious illegitimacy, corruption — go unaddressed,” he told Trend Lines. “The strongest steps toward peace are the federal government instituting a state of emergency in certain states, but these steps go in the entirely wrong direction.”
Instituting a state of emergency only militarizes what is “essentially a localized social conflict,” Warner said, and it increases state intrusion in the lives of the northerners, even when “the very problem is said to be such intrusion.”
Calling the conflict in Nigeria a “perversely violent” debate over “the very fabric of the nation,” Warner said outside actors, including the United States, are constrained by the fact that they “are generally agreed to have little role in the discussion.”
“Perhaps there’s room for us to help with economic development programs to alleviate the broader processes of exclusion in the north,” he said, “but consistent failure of the Bretton Woods institutions to deliver on poverty reduction and macroeconomic stability leave me skeptical as to such prospects, and of the scope for our involvement more generally.”

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