YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – The weaponization of identity breeds hatred and conflict, says a leading Nigerian prelate.
Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto in northern Nigeria was speaking Nov. 2 during the first International Summit of Religious Leaders ahead of the upcoming G20 conference.
“Hatred feeds on the weaponization of identity, marginalizes the other, and creates the conditions for their dehumanization, and inevitably takes us down the dark road to the justification of violence, and ultimately murder,” Kukah said.
He said this was of particular relevance to Nigeria- a country where religion has been effectively weaponized through the “manipulation of historical narratives between Christians and Muslims and setting ethnic groups against one another.”
He said that narrative draws its origins from the Sokoto Caliphate which was a Sunni Muslim kingdom in West Africa. Founded by Usman dan Fodio in 1804, the Caliphate spread across West Africa, spanning present-day Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria. It was however dissolved in 1903 when the British conquered the area, and annexed it into the newly established Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
“Most Muslims in northern Nigeria have continued to re-echo sentiments of the old caliphate which views Christianity as a foreign religion,” while endorsing Islam as an African religion, Kukah said.
Yet Islam, according to the prelate, is also foreign to Africa, having originated from the Arabian Peninsula.
The bishop said the Muslim elite tend to see “the institutions of the modern state as an alien imposition that attempts to displace their own religion, with western education as a foreign enemy to Islam. They thus consider the present constitution and secular laws as fundamentally subordinate to Islam, and in practice ignore the written laws of the land as they see fit.”
Because of this, the Christian faith has become endangered, “both physically and socially.”
“Christian religious tradition and history is prohibited in most public schools, whereas Islamic religious fundamentals are everywhere required in these same schools. Therefore, except for the very poor, Christians do not send their children to public schools,” Kukah said.
“Occasionally deserving Christian students complain that they are often denied admission to university placements of their choice. In cases of employment and promotion even indigenous Christians suffer discrimination while other non-Muslims in the state civil services are often offered contract employment. The result is that conditions are created for self-doubt, fear, and anxiety among children of diverse faiths,” the bishop said.
Kukah said the structural Christian persecution has been compounded by “a growing culture of overt Islamic violence spanning over the last decades, a form of violence that now threatens much of Africa.”
The brutal killing of Deborah Samuel, a young Christian student in Sokoto state, is an example of what Christians can suffer in northern Nigeria. She was murdered by Muslim students on May 13 after being accused of blasphemy after complaining about the forced introduction of religion into an academic study group.
Despite the condemnation of her killing by the state governor, “many Islamist extremists applauded the murder, claiming it was justified, and calling for additional violence against any who might ask for legal justice against the perpetrators,” Kukah said.
The bishop added the rise in Islamic extremism has led to an upswing in “the abductions and kidnapping of clerics across the board.”
“While we have had cases of the abductions of very visible Muslim clerics in parts of the North-East and North-West, the abductions of senior Christian Church men have been far more pronounced, targeted and vicious,” Kukah said.
He explained that in his Sokoto diocese, priests and seminarians have been murdered by bandits, while others have been kidnapped for ransom.
“These persons have been held for various spaces of time, depending on how quickly ransom money can be raised and negotiations with the bandits concluded. In all of these, huge ransoms were paid to secure their release,” he said.
“Hundreds of worshippers have been murdered in mosques and churches across the country,” he said, and expressed concern that while that is happening, the world looks on, “as if this cauldron of violence in Africa’s most populated country will never reach comfortable people elsewhere. “
He said Nigeria – a country full of natural and human resources – should have been a really beautiful country, but “after well over ten years of battling Boko Haram, insurgency, banditry, and ethno-religious violence, our weary citizens are absorbed in self-doubt, their natural happiness clouded by a dark and deep despair.”
He said such violence “degrades us all and robs us of our fundamental dignity as human beings.”
The prelate came up with a number of proposals, emphasizing the need to build strong state infrastructure that should help stave off the exploitation of the fault lines of religion and ethnicity by politicians to foster a system of patronage, counter nepotism and fight against corruption.
Kukah also called for a strong constitutional order wherein religious and ethnic identities would not be used to subject fellow citizens to all forms of torture, including death, and wherein decisive punishment is meted out to those who kill in the name of faith.
Thirdly, he called for equality of religions so that “no religion or ethnic group is superior to the other.”
Finally, the prelate recommended the development of “a comprehensive, integrated program of education” which he said remains the cure for extremism.
“It is not enough for leaders of faith to continue to engage in mere moral rhetoric or meaningless ‘dialogue’ designed to appease donors while leaving our people as victims,” he said.
Kukah noted that the first victims of all religiously inspired violence by extremists are always their own people.
“In Northern Nigeria, majority of those who have died in the hands of Boko Haram, ISWAP [an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group], bandits or kidnappers have been Muslims. In the ISIS war in Iraq, the majority of victims were Muslims. This should sound the alarm that it is not about just religion but about our common humanity,” he said.