Religioscope - When reading one of your books such as Religion
in Calabar (1989),an ethnographic and historical analysis
of religious pluralism in the town of Calabar in south-eastern
Nigeria, one can see how amazingly diverse the religious
landscape in Nigeria can be. This is obviously to a large
extent the result of missionary activities by a variety
of indigenous or foreign groups, isn't it? And is it correct
to conclude that religion really matters in Nigeria?
Hackett - The religious diversity and vibrancy of
Nigeria can be attributed to a number of factors: it is Africa’s
most populous country (it is said that one in every six Africans
is a Nigerian); there are at least 250 different ethnic groups
with their own languages, cultures, and religious systems;
in addition to this indigenous cultural bedrock Islam and
Christianity have expanded and taken root since the eleventh
and nineteenth centuries respectively. Then as now Nigerians
have been exposed to a variety of Islams and Christianities
whether from the Middle East or North or East Africa, or Europe,
North America, Korea, South Africa, etc. But it should
be noted that Nigerians are very mobile in search of education
and employment, and not only take their religion with them
to other parts of their world (the largest church in London
these days is a Pentecostal church run by a Nigerian evangelist,
Matthew Ashimolowo), but also bring back new ideas and connections. In this regard, there is a considerable range of spiritual
science, usually Eastern-related, esoteric and metaphysical
movements, such as the Rosicrucians, Eckankar, Holy Grail,
the Aetherius Society.
is indeed part of the fabric of people’s lives, and strongly
tied in to their cultural identities, as well as their efforts
to survive amidst life’s contingencies and the insecurities
of the Nigerian state. It is difficult to find an atheist
in Nigeria! I would say that the majority of Nigerians
support Nigeria’s secular status as articulated in the Constitution.
However this is interpreted to mean that Nigeria is a multi-religious
state. The government must remain neutral with regard
to religious organizations but that does not mean non-involvement.
For example, the government provides money to support pilgrimage,
and religious buildings. However the whole issue of
“secularism” is increasingly contentious and subject to varying
Religioscope - Islam has been present for a long time already in Nigeria. However, since
the late 1970s, there have been increasing tensions and
conflicts, and the drive to introduce the Shari'a in several
States of Northern Nigeria is deeply resented by Christians.
How do you explain this rise in religious militancy? Does
it reflect local circumstances, or should one see it within
a wider context of "resurgent Islam"?
Hackett - It is explained partly by local circumstances, namely political and economic
problems, which have driven, people to more revivalist and
in some cases more radical forms of Islam. These are
particularly appealing to the youth who are particularly affected
by Nigeria’s periods of military rule. The rise of these
types of groups can also be seen in the context of the resurgence
of more militant forms of Christianity also. One
can see how they are affected by each other’s strengths and
gains, e.g. Christian students becoming more politicized and
Muslim students becoming more active in their use of the modern
mass media. There is also a moral dimension to the growth
of this more radical Islam and Christianity, namely the protest
of the youth against corrupt politicians and the mismanagement
of the country’s resources.
Naturally Nigerian Muslims are aware of wider developments in the Islamic
world. I was told by a Muslim university lecturer last
August that perhaps up to 10% of all Muslims go the Middle
East for some aspect of their education.
The drive to implement full Shari`a in several northern states in the last
three years has been attributed to political ambition, secessionist
tendencies, concerns about moral degradation, and religious
renewal. As with everything in Nigeria there is no simple
answer. Just as the political ramifications of this
religious initiative were becoming more obvious and the whole
thing seemed to be dying down along came September 11 and
it picked up steam again. One has to have a historical
perspective though—the call for a full Shari`a has been made
in previous republics, particularly at times of constitutional
revision, but to no avail.
Religioscope - While most reports focus on Islam, what is the role and what are the responsibilities
of militant Christian groups? More than once, evangelical
missionary activities seem to have created serious turmoil
in some areas of Nigeria. Does this mean that we might increasingly
see Muslim and Christian activist groups opposing each other?
Hackett - It is true that we tend to hear more about Muslim violence on Christians
but aggressive Christian proselytizing on the part of the
newer Pentecostal and evangelical churches and movements,
particularly using the mass media, has angered Muslims on
a number of occasions. These newer groups are often
self-determined and do not respect the protocols of earlier
times in terms of territory, authority, etc. They see
converting Muslims as a real challenge and make much of their
The recent report of Human Rights Watch on the Jos riots in early September
2001 indicates that fighting and destruction occurred on a
general scale and that it was impossible to determine who
initiated the violence.
Religioscope - The highly publicized case of Safiya Hussaini has sparked outrage from
human rights groups and women's organizations worldwide.
The verdict has now been overturned on March 25, 2002. In
addition, the Federal Ministry of Justice declared on March
21 Shari'a to be unconstitutional, since it is discriminatory
(i.e. applies only to Muslims). Why now? Do you see those
moves as a direct result of international pressure?
Hackett - From what I learned from a recent conference on Nigeria at Harvard Law
School which involved several human rights activists, the
decision to overturn the verdict on Safiya Hussaini was influenced
by the views of moderate Muslims who saw the sentence as too
harsh, as well as international public opinion.
The declaration by the new Attorney General that full Shari`a discriminated
against Muslims was an interesting twist. Some state
governors have already said they would ignore this citing
certain sections of the Constitution which grant powers to
the states, e.g. Section 4 (6), Section 4 (7), Section 6 (1),
Section 6 (4) Section 277 (1).
Religioscope - But what are the consequences for the country and the future of internal
conflicts? A total of 12 of 19 States in Nigeria's Northern
region have extended the jurisdiction of Shari'a law to
criminal matters and moral offences in the past two years.
The issue seems to be bound to escalate, since it is made
a symbol of Muslim self-affirmation.
Hackett - It has indeed led to talk of the creation of a separate northern and Islamic
state but there are probably far more voices for national
integration than for secession. It is unclear whether
it will expand to more states and whether it will become a
major issue in the 2003 elections for which electioneering
has already heated up. At any rate it remains a very
sensitive issue which most of the participants, including
a Chief Judge, were very reluctant to discuss at the above-mentioned
conference at Harvard last week.
Religioscope - In a recent paper, you mention the fact that media have played a role in
fanning religious conflict in Nigeria, and that the growth
of media coverage and production has accentuated the perception
of religious fault lines by projecting them to a national
or even international level. According to your observations,
this would mean that media coverage could actually contribute
to transform local tensions into something much wider?
Hackett - There is plenty of evidence of how local conflicts get transformed into
national issues by virtue of media coverage, especially if
that coverage is particularly biased and provocative which
it often can be. It is important to note that the coverage
may be determined by media ownership—i.e. Muslim or Christian. These incidents of ethnic and religious violence also get
reported more internationally because Nigeria is seen by many
as a barometer of what is going on in the rest of Africa,
and because it represents an interesting case of a country
which has moved from being renowned for its religious tolerance
up to about 30 years ago to one known the world over for its
interreligious tensions and conflict.