Nigeria goes to the polls amidst fears of Muslim-Christian conflict
"We want to live together peacefully, as brothers and sisters. I therefore ask for your prayers that the upcoming elections can be held peacefully, without violence and without bloodshed."
With about 170 million inhabitants, Nigeria has the biggest population of any country in Africa—and one just about equally divided between Muslims (mostly in the north) and Christians in the south. Presidential elections, that had been slated for Feb. 14, 2015 but have been postponed until March 28, 2015, are pitting the incumbent, President Jonathan Goodluck—a Christian—against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim.
The two also faced off for the presidency in 2011, when, after Goodluck’s narrow victory, charges of vote rigging by Buhari triggered Muslim attacks on Christian communities that left 800 dead. The Buhari camp has denounced the postponement of the election, charging it is a tactic used by the incumbent to avoid defeat.The contest takes place against the backdrop of the reign of terror in the country’s north-east by jihadist group Boko Haram, which has destroyed some 1,000 churches in the past four years. This year alone, Boko Haram already killed 2,000 people, most of them Christians. Thus far, the Nigerian army has failed to make inroads against the Islamic extremists.
To preview the elections, international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need spoke Feb. 5 with Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, whose own jurisdiction is under constant threat from Boko Haram.
What makes this election so significant, not only for your country, but for all of Africa?
Archbishop Kaigama: Due to its sheer size and population, Nigeria
is considered a giant in Africa. People everywhere look to the country.
Everything has an effect on others, including the negative: consider the
terrorist activity of Boko Haram: It started in Nigeria and spread quickly. Neighboring
countries—Cameroon, Niger and Chad—are now also at risk. If the people flee the
violence, if many millions were to flee, for example to Ghana or Cameroon, this
would have a severe impact on these countries.
It is very important to stop these kinds of developments. After all, when Nigeria is doing well, this affects all of West Africa. If war were to break out in the country, it would destabilize the entire region.
The presidential race is broadly depicted as a contest between Islam and Christianity. Is religion to blame for all the bloodshed?
Everything has the potential to cause violence, including the daily struggle to survive. Religion involves the heart, the core, and is for this reason often very emotional. Religare, however, actually means ‘to be connected’, and therefore, refers to the fact that people live in relationships, in friendships, as sisters and brothers before God. As I myself have experienced it, religion also means helping others, something that the Catholic Church does worldwide, for example through education or medical care. In the village in which I was raised we did not have streets, a school, a hospital—until the Irish missionaries arrived.
But why does it so often come to outbreaks of violence in the name of religion?
Killing others in the name of religion is a blatant contradiction to everything I have just described. This is an abuse of religion. Some use religion for their own purposes because they want to draw attention to themselves. They resort to weapons and kill because they want to be seen or heard. Religion is their means to an end. If we look closely, we will find other reasons: destroyed families, a lack of education, social inequality, irresponsible government policies, bad economic policies and others. All of these things drive young people into the wrong hands. The violence of religious fanatics is a sign that many things are not as they should be.
What are your hopes for the election?
It is time to show solidarity. We want to hold free and fair elections without violence. We want democracy, good government policies and that militant Islamist groups change their attitude. We want to live together peacefully, as brothers and sisters. I therefore ask for your prayers that the upcoming elections can be held peacefully, without violence and without bloodshed.
ACN photo: Archbishop Kaigama