Religious communities

“Dignity and self-esteem”

Like several other Nigerian states, Plateau State is haunted by communal violence, with Christians pitted against Muslims. The root cause is not spiritual, and some religious leaders are promoting peace. Unfortunately, not all are doing so, as Becky Adda-Dontoh told Hans Dembowski in an interview. She works for the Catholic agency AGEH in the context of Germany’s Civil Peace Service.
In January 2010, soldiers patrolled the streets of Jos after communal violence had claimed more than 300 lives. picture-alliance/dpa In January 2010, soldiers patrolled the streets of Jos after communal violence had claimed more than 300 lives.

International media report clashes between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Is the root cause really religion or is this the kind of conflict between nomadic people and farmers that occurs in the entire Sahel region?
Well, the tensions you mention play a role, but nonetheless, the conflicts in Nigeria are driven by religion to a considerable extent. When suicide bombers or mob violence target places of worship, the result is often retaliatory attacks. There certainly is animosity between what people consider to be “enemy faiths”. Nigerians are passionate about religion, so it is easy for leaders to manipulate sentiments to promote their own, selfish agendas. The point is that, unfortunately, ethnic groups tend to belong to particular religious faiths. In Plateau State, where I work, the indigene tribes tend to be Christian, whereas the settlers are mostly Muslim. In local parlance, “indigene” people descend from tribes that traditionally lived in a parti­cular area, whereas “settlers” are new to that area. The difference matters because the Nigerian constitution privileges local descent over residency.

What else contributes to conflict?
Basic human needs matter very much. Consider subsistence, identity and participation in public life, for instance. It adds to the problems that few people trust the security forces. Arbitrary arrests, torture and other human-rights abuses, and the growing culture of impunity further fuel conflicts. In Jos, the capital of Plateau State, the indigenes tend to perceive the military as being on the side of the settlers, while the settlers think the police is on the side of the indigenes. Such perceptions undermine the role and authority of the security forces. People would rather take the law into their own hands than rely on the military or police. Many Nigerians believe that justice is for the highest bidder in their country.

Both Islam and Christianity proclaim themselves to be religions of peace. Don’t religious leaders promote reconciliation?
Generally and openly, most religious leaders promote peace, but some fuel tensions by provocative preaching and inciting people to violence. Some even tell followers to arm themselves so they can fight the “enemy”. They are not as visible as those who openly promote peace. Ignatius Kaigama, the Catholic Archbishop of Jos, is one of the most high profile religious leaders. He is seen as an advocate of peace and reconciliation. For instance, he recently inaugurated a multi-purpose Dialogue Reconciliation and Peace Centre. He also cooperated with the late Emir of Wase, Alhaji Abdullahi Haruna Maikano, and his predecessor. He regularly consults with other Christian and Muslim religious leaders. The regional leaders of NACOMYO – the National Coalition of Muslim Youth Organisations – are also promoting Muslim-Christian cooperation in Plateau State. For instance, they invited Christian leaders to the central mosque in Jos last year. This was important, because the mosque and its surroundings were considered a no-go area for Christians. The re-integration of Jos’ polarised communities is gradually beginning.
How do Muslim religious leaders deal with disagreement among one another?
Sani Suleiman of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission says there are a variety of ways in which they do so:

  • A traditional way is to bring the issue before the emir, who is a traditional leader and regarded as an imam and judge in northern Nigeria. The emir and his advisers then arbitrate on the matter and everyone is expected to obey his decision.
  • The most common way, however, is to resolve ideological disagreements through debate among the leaders, who all refer to the Quran or other religious sources. Sani says any party can request that such an intellectual debate be held on an issue.
  • A third way is a mediated settlement by family elders, including some rituals to signify reconciliation.
  • Finally, Muslim authorities from other parts of Nigeria are sometimes asked for advice.

Are all disputes resolved one way or another?
No, some are not, and that can have disastrous consequences. In August 2011, for example, leaders of the Izala sect disagreed with other Muslim leaders on where to perform the Eid prayers. In spite of evident security risks, they went ahead to do so at the sect’s Rukuba Road prayer grounds, and violent clashes with Christian youth ensued.

Do Christians who belong to different churches disagree among one another?
Yes, there are cracks among the Christian leaders too. It is known that the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria recently wrote to the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to express some reservations. Placing such issues on the table for discussion like this is a way of handling disagreements. There are reports of disagreements among Christian leaders over Christians’ rights to take up arms and defend churches against attacks. Some leaders are in favour of doing so, others strongly oppose it.

What impact does the economic situation have?
Unemployment levels are high in Nigeria. A bulk of the youth is idle and open to political manipulation. Poverty makes some of them susceptible to being hired for acts of violence. Conflict and crime are interlinked. Criminals are interested in creating crises in order to loot and steal. Hungry-looking, drug-using youths are potential recruits for violent gangs and militant-fundamentalist outfits, of which Boko Haram is probably the most dangerous one. If there were more jobs, in agriculture in particular, there would be less frustration and less conflict in Plateau State.

Boko Haram is considered a terrorist movement by the Nigerian government. Is it isolated or does its message resonate among the people?
You may say Boko Haram is isolated publicly and officially. The majority of Nigerians – both Christians and Muslims – condemn its violence and indiscriminate killings. At the same time, many Nigerians privately identify with Boko Haram’s stance on poverty and bad governance. In northern Nigeria, rising poverty and the military’s excessive use of force is generating disaffection towards government institutions and creating a fertile recruiting ground for Boko Haram among Muslim youths. A young man in Jos once told me he would volunteer to join Boko Haram if he knew how to contact them. He said he saw no future for himself due to his family’s desperate poverty. So if Boko Haram would pay him to fight, he would do it. I asked him if he was really willing to kill people for a supposed better future he could not guarantee, and he said he was “living dead” himself, and since no one cared, why should he care? This is the level of desperation of some able-bodied youth.

Do conflicts abroad – say in Somalia or Mali – have a bearing on grass-roots developments in Nigeria?
Yes, they certainly do. The Kogi State ambush on Nigerian troops on their way to Mali earlier this year was an example. And so was the kidnapping of seven foreigners in Bauchi in February. In a message to the media, the kidnappers stated they were retaliating for Europe’s role in the French intervention in Mali. It is common to hear idle Muslim youths passionately discuss violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Mali with a perception of western aggression against these countries. Radicals can easily capitalise on such sentiments. The Libyan conflict has bearings on Nigeria too. Nigerians who fought for Libya’s former government have returned home, some with heavy weapons. Boko Haram is certainly interested in recruiting them.  

Do the impacts of climate change, such as rainfall becoming less reliable, matter?  
Yes, climate change matters very much. As you mentioned earlier, conflicts are escalating between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and pastoral farmers over grazing lands in several Nigerian states, including Plateau State. Desertification is minimising grazing land, so there are ever more disputes. Erratic rainfall and flooding, moreover, exacerbate the difficulties of poor rural families, so more young people than previously are moving from the villages to the urban areas where, all too often, they can only join masses of unemployed and frustrated peers.
Is there a gender angle to violent conflict?
Women are targets of physical and sexual attacks. Some are harmed intentionally to inflict shame, humiliation and psychological pain on their husbands and fathers. Women and children are the worst affected by violence, but they are the least represented on governmental peace initiatives. Some women, however, are coming together to promote peace and protest against violent behaviour by non-violent means. Other women, are gradually taking more active roles in riots, fed up with seeing sons and husbands being killed. A third group is agitating against security forces whom they accuse of human rights abuses and sexualised violence.

To what extent does religion, and expressing it in radical terms, satisfy people’s need to find a sense of identity and self-esteem?
The innate need of every human being to belong drives many Nigerians who perceive themselves to be marginalised, disenfranchised and excluded from governance to seek that sense of belonging from their faith, whether Christian or Muslim. This is especially so in situations of conflict, when the general perception is: “You are either with us or against us.” The need to identify with a group and seek protection from the enemy makes people identify strongly with their religious community and can lead to radicalisation. To a large extent, the driving issues are dignity and self-esteem, but not spiritual connection.

Your job is to promote peace. What exactly do you do?
The most important thing is to gain the trust and confidence of the people we work with. It is essential to respect their culture. Before an intervention in any community, we first introduce ourselves to that community’s religious, political and traditional security leaders. Then we discuss the peace needs of their community with them. We always show appreciation of their status and office. Obviously, we use polite language, and dress in a way they find acceptable. We do our very best not to offend them ever. The second step is to train persons we call “community peace agents”. They are chosen in cooperation with the community leaders. We convey basic peace-building skills to the peace agents. Early warning monitoring has also proved useful. Community members often see early conflict indicators. Supported by the peace agents, they can contribute to resolving tensions by peaceful means early on. Finally, it makes sense to build and maintain strategic relationships with the military, police and security forces in general. Personally, I have learned a lot about conflicts and various communities by networking with other civil-society agencies that promote peace.


Becky Adda-­Dontoh is a peace adviser for the Justice Development and Peace Commission in Jos, Nigeria. She works on behalf of AGEH, a Catholic agency that takes part in Germany’s Civil Peace Service (CPS). The CPS is funded by the German government and gets advice and support from ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL’s CPS-secretariat.

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