x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Sectarianism is an excuse in Nigeria

Terrorist organisations in Nigeria stand to gain if divisions between Muslims and Christians are deepened.

Nigeria's political system was designed to contain sectarian conflict. In an arrangement not altogether unlike Lebanon's, where political offices are divided along religious lines, Nigeria's politics had been based on the tradition that the presidency would rotate between a Muslim and a Christian.

That practice was interrupted by the death of President Umaru Yar'Adua in 2010, and the succession of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, to the office that he continues to hold today.

After this past year of violence, there is speculation that this country of 160 million is on the verge of spiralling sectarian conflict. On Saturday, Mr Jonathan declared a state of emergency in response to the Christmas day attacks claimed by the extremist group Boko Haram. The same day, communal fighting killed more than 50 elsewhere in the country.

Fears about the sectarian divide are warranted. The violence over the past year has often taken on religious overtones - and Boko Haram's recent murderous campaign has been echoed by threats of violence from Christian militant groups. If this relatively unknown terrorist group is successful, it would drive a wedge between the Muslim-majority north and Christian-majority south that, some analysts have said, could lead to civil war.

Both sides do themselves a disservice. Boko Haram does have an Islamist agenda (its name roughly translates to "western civilisation is forbidden") but the fringe group does not even remotely represent Nigeria's Muslims, who comprise about half of the population.

The more recent attacks in eastern Nigeria were along tribal lines. Indeed, much of the violence near Jos in central Nigeria, pitting Muslims against Christians, has actually been over land and resources.

It is easy to view these conflicts along religious lines, but Nigeria's challenges are far more complex. From localised rivalries to the barely dormant rebel movement in the Niger Delta, the security situation will define the country in the coming year.

Boko Haram is a volatile element in this mix, a terrorist group that depends on provoking a violent reaction for its success. Mr Jonathan's government must convince Nigerians that this is a threat to every one of them, not some narrow sectarian agenda.