1 Nov 01: Rising Muslim Power in Africa Causes Unrest - Norimitsu Onishi
- Rising Muslim Power in Africa Causes Unrest in Nigeria and Elsewhere
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
KANO, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
"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
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."