Rising Muslim Power in Africa Causes Unrest in Nigeria and Elsewhere

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November 1, 2001 Fair use for educational/research purposes only


Rising Muslim Power in Africa Causes Unrest in Nigeria and Elsewhere


ANO, Nigeria, After Friday Prayers recently, hundreds of Muslims gathered in front of the emir's palace here and held a peaceful demonstration against the American campaign in Afghanistan. But the peace in this ancient Muslim city, already tense from a recent surge in religious clashes elsewhere in this West African nation, did not hold.

Within hours, residents recalled, youths trooped out of poor Muslim neighborhoods, where posters of Osama bin Laden have become hugely popular. They invaded the Christian quarter, whose residents fought back with arms, waving T-shirts emblazoned with American flags and shouting pro-American slogans.

A three-day riot ensued and at least 100 people died, according to the Red Cross, yet another addition to some 5,000 Nigerians killed in religious clashes since military rulers handed over power in 1999. Most of these conflicts stem from the rise of Islam as a political force and the stunning spread of hard-line Islamic law from one small Nigerian state in 1999 to a third of the country's 36 states today.

Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, an often overlooked member of the world's Muslim community, is growing in size and influence. Statistics on religious affiliation are difficult to come by, and are too sensitive a topic for governments with mixed populations. But most experts agree that Islam is spreading faster than any other faith in East and West Africa.

In Africa it is not difficult to see why. Islamic values have much in common with traditional African life: its emphasis on communal living, its clear roles for men and women, its tolerance of polygamy. Christianity, Muslims argue, was alien to most Africans. Today, while Islam embraces the poor, they add, Christian churches are more interested in making money a criticism that is widely shared by many African Christians.

Other Western values like democracy have been a disappointment here, often producing sham elections, continued misrule and deep poverty. Muslims have become an angry, organized force in several important African countries, and it often comes with a wariness of the West especially the United States.

"The Muslims are winning they have won," said the Rev. Benjamin Kwashi, 46, the Anglican bishop of Jos, a city in central Nigeria where at least 500 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians in September. "Islam is growing very fast. For many Africans, it makes more sense to reject America and Europe's secular values, a culture of selfishness and half-naked women, by embracing Islam."

Uneasy Religious Neighbors

Islam came to sub-Saharan Africa on camel caravans that crossed the Sahara and boats that crossed the Indian Ocean; Christianity arrived from Europe on the coasts of West Africa and in much of central and southern Africa. Today, northern Africa is predominantly Muslim and the south is Christian. In between, the two religions rub shoulders uneasily.

In East Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania, where American embassies were bombed in 1998, Muslims have long been shut out of power. That has given rise there, as well as in Uganda, to the emergence of radical Islam. Radicals have organized themselves politically and some have received military help from the Islamist government of Sudan.

In turn, the governments of Kenya and Uganda have supported rebels opposed to the Sudanese government. In the Horn of Africa, governmental collapse in Somalia in the last decade led to a rigid application of Islamic law. In Sudan and Chad, Muslim northerners have long dominated Christians in the south, and new oil wealth is likely to tip the balance more in their favor. Sudan's Islamic government has sharpened its war against the Christians in the last year; Chad's Islamic government is likely to face opposition once it starts pumping oil in the Christian south in a few years.

In West Africa, Ivory Coast has seen its Muslim population grow politically unified. In a country that was once a model of tolerance, successive Christian leaders in the last decade have sidelined Muslims, who have come to identify themselves as Muslims, first, Ivorians, second. Even in countries with near- total Muslim populations, like Mali or Niger, Islamic clerics have begun agitating and challenging their governments.

But it is in Nigeria, Africa's most populated country, that the rise of Islam as a political force has been most explosive and violent. It began shortly after the country emerged from nearly 16 years of ruinous military rule. The 120 million inhabitants were living in a society where almost everything had collapsed. Their leaders were above laws and preyed on ordinary people.

Perhaps sensing this void, the leaders of a small northern state called Zamfara introduced Islamic law, or Shariah, in late 1999. The move proved wildly popular.

Crime has reportedly dropped in some of the states with Shariah, with all of them banning alcohol and prostitution. Women are pressed to cover their hair; girls are separated from boys at school, if they are schooled at all.

Cow thieves have had their hands cut off. A teenage girl was given 100 cane strokes for premarital sex; another woman has just been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

Soon northern politicians encouraged the spread of Shariah, partly to challenge their new Christian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was its military ruler until the late 1970's.

But the real push for Shariah came from the ground. Ordinary people moved to Zamfara to live under the laws. Politicians who resisted initially, fearing a loss of power, gave in.

When Shariah was introduced last year in the northern city of Kano, Nigeria's biggest Muslim city, hundreds of thousands celebrated downtown. No one had ever seen such a crowd. Kano has been a center of a new generation of radical Islamic preachers who have been spreading anti-Western messages here and pressing the government to impose Shariah.

In Fagge, one of the biggest Muslim neighborhoods in Kano, a place where children and goats share dirt roads and open sewers, Osama bin Laden posters are plastered on many walls and stickers on many vehicles.

On a recent evening, a group of boys and young men were sitting on a cement floor on a street in Fagge, waiting to hear a lecture by one of the most popular preachers, Umar Sani Fagge.

A reporter was told on this occasion and on two other visits that Mr. Fagge was unavailable and was asked to leave.

Tapes of Mr. Fagge's sermons have sold well among young Muslim men for 75 cents each, a significant sum here.

The best seller now is a lecture on Afghanistan by Mr. Fagge and another popular young preacher, Yahaya Farouk Chedi, and two others.

In the lecture, delivered in the language of the Hausa ethnic group, one preacher explains how the Afghans won the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan. The victory, he said, came because God was on their side. The Afghans, he said, would offer a prayer, kiss grains of sand and toss them to stop the Soviet tanks.

"I'm prepared to go and fight America," said Aminu Barde, 23.

Sayid Ali, 20, a resident of Fagge, added: "Anywhere Muslims should love Osama. America does not love Islam. So I'm happy over what happened to America, and I feel more should happen so that America can feel the impact of what it does to others."

Asked to explain the emergence of Islam in politics, Dr. Ibrahim D. Ahmad, the president of Hisbah, which has deployed hundreds of young men in green uniforms to enforce Islamic law in Kano, said: "It is the failure of every system we have known. We had colonialism, which was exploitative. We had a brief period of happiness after independence, then the military came in, and everything has been going downward since then. But before all this, we had a system that worked. We had Shariah. We are Muslims. Why don't we return to ourselves?"

Jihad, Two Centuries Ago

Islam came centuries ago to the Hausa ethnic group who dominate northern Nigeria. Two hundred years ago a famous jihad was started to spread Islam as far south as possible. The jihad reached the center of the country, now known as the Middlebelt, where the Hausa converted the natives to Islam.

But the campaign stopped at Jos, the capital of Plateau state, about 200 miles south of here. The effects of the jihad linger still, especially in areas inhabited by Hausa settlers and natives who resisted Islam, eventually becoming Christian or remaining animist.

The historic tension between these groups, fed by the government's neglect and scarce resources, lay behind the clashes in September.

To Christians in Jos, Muslims are more aggressive and are getting strong support from the Arab world. By contrast, African Christians can no longer rely on the backing of a secular West.

"We have been abandoned by the West the West no longer believes in God," Bishop Kwashi said on Sunday, after preaching at St. Bartholomew's Anglican Church in Jos. "If a church here goes to America for assistance, it might get $10,000, $15,000 a year. But when the Saudis fund a project, they will fund it from start to finish."

A few months ago, the federal government appointed a Muslim to head its poverty program in Plateau state. Since these programs are essentially a way to dole out money to supporters, a lot was at stake. The Christians, fearing the rise of Islam in their midst, protested.

"We Hausa, we Muslims, our people have been here for 200 years," said Ado M. Ibrahim, a Hausa leader in Jos and the owner of a primary school. "We tell them we have the same rights. But they are always trying to portray us as outsiders."

Soon leaflets began appearing around town, "Vote for Muslim Party," with the signatures of prominent Muslims. Mr. Ibrahim said they were forgeries intended to mobilize the Christians against them. But Christians said they were genuine.

An Explosion of Anger

The anger on both sides exploded on Sept. 7, as Muslims prepared for Friday prayers. Although versions differ, everyone agrees the violence began at a mosque. As the faithful gathered inside and spilled outside onto the surrounding streets, a young Christian woman tried to go up one of the streets. "She said she must pass," recalled Musa Abdullahi, 42, who was praying on the street at the time. "The young guard told her she could not pass while we were praying. I begged him to let her pass. She went to pass, but he stopped her. She shouted, `I must pass!' "

What happened next is in dispute. Muslims say Christians suddenly attacked them with bows and arrows and rocks a planned offensive. Christians say Muslims began attacking them on the streets and burned down two churches.

The riots went on for days, and were reportedly inflamed by the Sept. 11 attacks in America. At least 500 died, though a Western diplomat in Abuja said the real figure might be as high as 2,000.

The riots in Jos, meanwhile, were reverberating elsewhere in the country, especially here in Kano, where many of the Muslim Hausas, outnumbered in Jos, had fled.

Kano, even in the best of times, is a city with an undercurrent of despair. Hundreds of children beg on the streets or sell fuel in jerrycans on the highways; grotesquely crippled men crawl on streets strewn with mounds of garbage. In a near-feudal hierarchy, men who have become rich by siphoning profits from Nigeria's oil wealth live in huge compounds. Despite more than two years of civilian rule, the average Kano resident's condition is getting worse. In this context, the rise of Shariah has proved seductive.

Given the general social tensions, the trouble in Jos and the start of the American military campaign in Afghanistan, Kano found itself on a knife edge. When the Nigerian government announced its support of the attacks on Afghanistan, Muslims organized a protest on Oct. 19.

In explaining why Muslim youths then attacked Christians, Abdulkarim Daiyabu, 56, the chairman of Izala, a prominent Muslim organization here, said, "The young men were encouraged by hunger and the belief that Islam was being degraded." For some, it seems, Osama bin Laden has become a symbol and leader of the world's dispossessed.

During the Persian Gulf war, residents here protested against the United States and put up posters of Saddam Hussein. But in the last decade, the sanctions on Iraq and a perception of United States bias in favor of Israel, have hardened opinions against America, residents here said.

Foreign diplomats in Nigeria say they have noticed the change in attitude, though they say it should not be overstated. "These are extremely impoverished people living on Islam, air and three months of rain a year," one Western diplomat said. "There has been an accretion of anger building up over the years."

On one of the 75-cent tapes widely circulating here, a popular young Islamic preacher, Yahaya Farouk Chedi, was introduced as the "commander." Mr. Chedi is heard joking that even though he is called the "commander," he has no gun. If he had a gun, he said, he would have started using it already. According to Mr. Chedi's speech on the tape, America is the great enemy of Islam and he summons Muslims to fight it. He describes the Sept. 11 attacks as the "work of God," causing his listeners to cheer. May God increase the attacks on America, he says. "Amen," the boys respond. "Amen."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 01, 2001

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