Towards Achieving Ethno-Religious Peaceful Co-Existence in Nigeria


Political and media discourses are dominated by the poisoned rhetoric of religious fundamentalism especially among the three Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  This predominant discourse is fueled by both imaginary and real clash of civilization thesis promoted by Samuel Huntington in the late 1990s.

This paper adopts a causal analysis approach in examining the ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria and then takes a detour from this prevailing discourse to make a case for interdependent perspective that sees the three Abrahamic faiths working together in different contexts to engage with and proffer solutions to social, political, economic and cultural problems within localized context of different countries. Hence, instead of the hate-filled antagonistic discourse of superiority and dominance, the paper argues for an approach that pushes the frontiers of peaceful co-existence to a whole new level.


Over the years till date, many Muslims across the globe have noted with nostalgia the trends of modern debate in America, Europe, Africa, and Nigeria in particular about Islam and Muslims and how this debate has been conducted primarily through sensational journalism and ideological attack. Therefore, it will be an understatement to say that Islam is on the front burner of contemporary discourse and unfortunately misunderstood by many in the developed world (Watt, 2013).

It is noteworthy to mention that Islam from time immemorial in an unequivocal language honors, respects and holds sacrosanct human life. According to Qur’an 5:32, Allah says “…We ordained for the Children of Israel that he who slays a soul unless it be (in punishment) for murder or spreading mischief on earth shall be as if he had slain all mankind; and he who saves a life shall be as if he had given life to all mankind…” (Ali, 2012).

The first section in this paper provides a critical analysis of the various ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria. Section two of the paper discusses the nexus between Christianity and Islam. Some of the underlying key themes and historical settings affecting Muslims and non-Muslims are also discussed. And section three concludes the discussion with summary and recommendations.

Ethno-Religious Conflicts in Nigeria

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation state with over four hundred ethnic nationalities associated with many religious congregations (Aghemelo & Osumah, 2009). Since the 1920s, Nigeria has experienced quite a number of ethno-religious conflicts in the northern and southern regions such that the roadmap to its independence was characterized by conflicts with the use of dangerous weapons such as guns, arrows, bows and machetes and ultimately resulted in civil war from 1967 to 1970 (Best & Kemedi, 2005). In the 1980s, Nigeria (Kano state in particular) was plagued by the Maitatsine intra-Muslim conflict orchestrated by a Cameroonian cleric who killed, maimed and destroyed property worth over several millions of naira.

Muslims were the major victims of the attack though a few number of non-Muslims were equally affected (Tamuno, 1993). The Maitatsine group extended its havoc to other states such as Rigassa/Kaduna and Maiduguri/Bulumkutu in 1982, Jimeta/Yola and Gombe in 1984, Zango Kataf crises in Kaduna State in 1992 and Funtua in 1993 (Best, 2001). The group’s ideological leaning was completely outside the main stream Islamic teachings and whoever opposed to the teachings of the group became an object of attack and killing.

In 1987, there was an outbreak of inter-religious and ethnic conflicts in the north such as the Kafanchan, Kaduna and Zaria crises between Christians and Muslims in Kaduna (Kukah, 1993). Some of the ivory towers also became a theatre of violence from 1988 to 1994 between Muslim and Christian students such as Bayero University Kano (BUK), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria and University of Sokoto (Kukah, 1993). The ethno-religious conflicts did not abate but deepened in the 1990s particularly in the middle belt region such as the conflicts between the Sayawa-Hausa and the Fulani in Tafawa Balewa Local Government Area of Bauchi State; the Tiv and Jukun Communities in Taraba State (Otite & Albert, 1999) and between the Bassa and Egbura in Nasarawa State (Best, 2004).

The southwestern region was not completely insulated from the conflicts. In 1993, there was a violent riot induced by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections in which the late Moshood Abiola won and his kinsmen perceived the annulment as a miscarriage of justice and a denial of their turn to govern the country. This led to a violent clash between the security agencies of the federal government of Nigeria and members of the O’dua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) representing the Yoruba kinsmen (Best & Kemedi, 2005). A similar conflict was later extended to the South-south and South-east Nigeria. For instance, the Egbesu Boys (EB) in the South-south Nigeria historically came into being as an Ijaw cultural cum religious group but later became a militia group that attacked government facilities. Their action, they claimed was informed by the exploration and exploitation of the oil resources of that region by the Nigerian State and some multinational corporations as a travesty of justice in the Niger Delta with the exclusion of the majority of the indigenes. The ugly situation gave rise to militia groups such as Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) among others.

The situation was not different in the southeast where the Bakassi Boys (BB) operated. The BB was formed as a vigilante group with the sole aim of protecting and providing security for Igbo businessmen and their clients against the incessant attacks from armed robbers due to the inability of the Nigerian police to live up to its responsibility (HRW & CLEEN, 2002:10). Again from 2001 to 2004 in Plateau State, a hitherto peaceful state had its bitter share of ethno-religious conflicts between the mainly Fulani-Wase Muslims who are cattle herders and the Taroh-Gamai militias who are predominantly Christians cum adherents of African traditional religions. What started initially as indigene-settler skirmishes later culminated into religious conflict when politicians exploited the situation to settle scores and gain upper hands against their perceived political rivals (Global IDP Project, 2004). The brief glimpse into the history of ethno-religious crises in Nigeria is an indication of the fact that crises in Nigeria has had both religious and ethnic colorations as opposed to the perceived monochrome impression of religious dimension.

Nexus between Christianity & Islam

Christian-Muslim: Adherents of Abrahamic Creed of Monotheism (TAUHID)

Both Christianity and Islam have their roots in the universal message of monotheism which Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) peace be on him (pboh) preached to mankind during his time. He invited humanity to the only One true God and to liberate mankind from the servitude of man to man; to the servitude of man to the Almighty God.

The most revered Prophet of Allah,  Isa (Jesus Christ) (pboh) followed the same path as reported in the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  In another portion of the NIV of the Bible, Mark 12:32 says: “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him” (Bible Study Tools, 2014).

Prophet Muhammad (pboh) also pursued the same universal message with vigor, resilience and decorum aptly captured in the Glorious Qur’an 112:1-4: “Say: He is Allah the One and Unique; Allah Who is in need of none and Whom all are in need; He begets not nor was He begotten. And none is comparable to Him” (Ali, 2012).

A Common Word between Muslims and Christians

Whether Islam or Christianity, what is common to both sides is that adherents of both faiths are human beings and fate also binds them together as Nigerians. Adherents of both religions love their country and God. In addition, Nigerians are very hospitable and loving people. They love to live in peace with one another and other people in the world. It has been observed in recent times that some of the potent tools used by mischief-makers to cause disaffection, hatred, disunity and tribal war are ethnicity and religion. Depending on which side of the divide one belongs, there is always the propensity by one side to have an upper hand against the other. But Almighty Allah admonishes all and sundry in Qur’an 3:64 to “Say: O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; erect, from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than God.” If then they turn back, you say: “Bear witness that we (at least) are bowing to God’s Will” to reach a common word in order to move the world forward (Ali, 2012).

As Muslims, we enjoin our Christian brethren to genuinely recognize our differences and appreciate them. Importantly, we should focus more on areas where we concur. We should work together to strengthen our common ties and design a mechanism that will enable us to mutually appreciate our areas of disagreement with mutual respect to one another. As Muslims, we believe in all the past Prophets and Messengers of Allah without any discrimination between any of them. And on this, Allah commands in Qur’an 2:285 to: “Say: ‘We believe in Allah and what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and to Isaac and Jacob and his descendants, and the teachings which Allah gave to Moses and Jesus and to other Prophets. We make no distinction between any of them; and to Him do we submit” (Ali, 2012).

Unity in Diversity

All human beings are the creation of the Almighty God right from Adam (Peace be upon him) to the present and future generations. The differences in our colors, geographical locations, languages, religions and culture among others are the manifestations of the dynamics of human race as mentioned in Qur’an 30:22 thus “…Of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors. Indeed there are Signs in this for the wise” (Ali, 2012). For instance, Qur’an 33:59 says that it is part of a religious obligation of Muslim ladies to wear Hijab in public so that “…They can be recognized and not molested…” (Ali, 2012). While Muslim men are expected to maintain their masculine gender of keeping beards and trimming their moustache to differentiate them from non-Muslims; the latter are at liberty to adopt their own mode of dressing and identity without infringing upon the rights of others. These differences are meant to enable mankind recognize one another and above all, actualize the real essence of their creation.

Prophet Muhammad, (pboh) said: “Whoever fights under a flag in support of a partisan cause or in answer to a call of a partisan cause or to help a partisan cause and is then killed, his death is a death in the cause of ignorance” (Robson, 1981). To underscore the importance of the aforementioned statement, it is noteworthy to mention a scriptural text of the Qur’an where God reminds mankind that they are all progenies of the same father and mother. God, the Most Exalted summarizes the unity of mankind succinctly in Qur’an 49:13 in this perspective: “Oh mankind! We created you all from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (Ali, 2012).

It will not be totally incorrect to mention that Muslims in the Southern Nigeria have not received fair treatment from their counterparts particularly those in governments and organized private sector. There have been several cases of molestation, harassment, provocation and victimization of Muslims in the South. For example, there were cases where many Muslims were being labeled sarcastically in government offices, schools, market places, on the streets and neighbourhoods as “Ayatollah”, “OIC”, “Osama Bin Laden”, “Maitatsine”, “Sharia” and recently “Boko Haram.” It is important to mention that the elasticity of patience, accommodation and tolerance Muslims in the Southern Nigeria are displaying despite the inconveniences they encounter, is instrumental to the relative peaceful co-existence the Southern Nigeria is enjoying.

Be that as it may, it is our responsibility to work collectively to protect and safeguard our existence. In doing so, we must avoid extremism; exercise caution by recognizing our religious differences; show high level of understanding and respect for one another such that all and sundry are given equal opportunity so that Nigerians can live in peace with one another irrespective of their tribal and religious affiliations.

Peaceful Co-Existence

There cannot be meaningful development and growth in any given crises-ridden community. Nigeria as a nation is undergoing a horrific experience in the hands of members of the Boko Haram group. The menace of this group has done terrible damages to the psyche of Nigerians. The adverse effects of the dastardly activities of the group to the socio-political and economic sectors of the country cannot be quantified in terms of losses.

The quantum of innocent lives and property lost to both sides (i.e. Muslims and Christians) due to the nefarious and ungodly activities of this group cannot be justified (Odere, 2014). It is not only sacrilegious but inhuman to say the least. While the prodigious efforts of the Federal Government of Nigeria is appreciated in its drive to find a lasting solution to the security challenges of the country, it should redouble its effort and avail itself of all means including but not limited to engaging the group in meaningful dialogue as encapsulated in Qur’an 8:61 “If they incline to peace, incline you as well to it, and trust in Allah. Surely He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing” in order to nip in the bud the spate of the current insurgency (Ali, 2012).


Protection of Religious Freedom   

One observes that the constitutional provisions for freedom of worship, religious expression and obligation as entrenched in section 38 (1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are weak. Therefore, there is a need to promote a human rights based approach to the protection of religious freedom in Nigeria (US Department of States’ Report, 2014). Most of the tensions, conflicts and resultant conflagrations in the South-west, South-south and South-east between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is because of the flagrant abuse of the fundamental individual and group rights of Muslims in that part of the country. The crises in the North-west, North-east and North-central are also attributed to the flagrant abuse of the rights of Christians in that part of the country.

Promotion of Religious Tolerance and Accommodation of Opposing Views

In Nigeria, intolerance of opposing views by adherents of the major world’s religions has heated the polity and caused tension (Salawu, 2010). Religious and community leaders should preach and promote ethno-religious tolerance and accommodation of opposing views as parts of the mechanisms of deepening peaceful co-existence and harmony in the country.

Improving Human Capital Development of Nigerians       

Ignorance is one source which has engendered abject poverty in the midst of abundant natural resources. Coupled with the increasing high rate of youth unemployment, the level of ignorance is deepening. Owing to incessant close down of schools in Nigeria, the educational system is in a state of comatose; thereby denying the Nigerian students the opportunity of acquiring sound knowledge, moral rebirth and high level of discipline especially on different methods of peaceful settlement of disputes or conflicts (Osaretin, 2013). Hence, there is the need for both government and the organized private sector to complement each other by improving the human capital development of Nigerians especially the youths and women. This is a sine qua non for the attainment of a progressive, just and peaceful society.

Spreading the Message of Genuine Friendship and Sincere Love

Instigation of hatred in the name of religious practice in religious organizations is a negative attitude. While it is true that both Christianity and Islam profess the slogan “Love your neighbour as yourself,” this is however observed more in the breach (Raji 2003; Bogoro, 2008). This is a bad wind that blows no one any good. It is high time religious leaders preached the genuine gospel of friendship and sincere love.  This is the vehicle that will take mankind to the abode of peace and security. In addition, the Federal Government of Nigeria should take a step further by putting in place legislation that will criminalize the incitement to hatred by religious organizations or individual(s) in the country.

Promotion of Professional Journalism and Balanced Reporting

Over the years till date, recent studies have shown that negative reporting of conflicts (Ladan, 2012) as well as stereotyping of a particular religion by a section of the media in Nigeria simply because some individuals misbehaved or committed a condemnable act is a recipe for disaster and distortion of peaceful co-existence in a multi-ethnic and pluralistic country like Nigeria. Therefore, there is a need for media organizations to adhere strictly to the ethics of professional journalism. Events must be thoroughly investigated, analyzed and balanced reporting given devoid of personal sentiments and bias of the reporter or the media organization. When this is carried out, no one side of the divide will feel that it has not been treated fairly.

Role of Secular and Faith-Based Organizations

Secular Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Faith-based Organizations (FBOs) should redouble their efforts as facilitators of dialogues and mediators of conflicts between conflicting parties. In addition, they should step up their advocacy by sensitizing and conscientizing the people about their rights and the rights of others especially on peaceful co-existence, civic and religious rights among others (Enukora, 2005).

Good Governance and Non-partisanship of Governments at all levels

The role being played by government of the federation has not helped the situation; rather it has deepened the ethno-religious conflicts among the Nigerian people. For instance, a study indicates that the federal government was responsible for dividing the country along religious lines such that the boundaries between Muslim and Christian often overlap with some important ethnic and cultural divides (HRW, 2006).

Governments at all levels should rise above board, be non-partisan in its delivery of dividends of good governance and be seen as just in their relationship with their people. They (Governments at all levels) should avoid discrimination and marginalization of the people when dealing with developmental projects and religious matters in the country (Salawu, 2010).

Summary and Conclusion

It is my belief that our sojourn in this multi-ethnic and religious setting called Nigeria is neither a mistake nor a curse. Rather, they are divinely designed by Almighty God to harness the human and material resources of the country for the benefit of humanity. Therefore, Qur’an 5:2 and 60:8-9 teach that the basis of mankind interaction and relationship must be righteousness and piety-driven to “…Help one another in righteousness and piety…” (Ali, 2012) as well as compassion and kindness respectively, “As for such (of the non-Muslims) as do not fight against you on account of (your) faith, and neither drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave towards them with full equity: for verily, God loves those who act with fairness. God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of (your) faith, and drive you out from your homelands, or aid (others) in driving you out: and as for those (from among you) who turn toward them in friendship, it is they, who are truly wrongdoers!” (Ali, 2012).


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This paper was presented at the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation’s 1st Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding held in New York City, USA, on October 1, 2014.

Title: “Towards Achieving Ethno-Religious Peaceful Co-Existence in Nigeria”

Presenter: Imam Abdullahi Shuaib, Executive Director/CEO, Zakat and Sadaqat Foundation (ZSF), Lagos, Nigeria.


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