David Ehrhardt shares what he hopes readers will take away from his book Creed and Grievance. This publication is part of a trilogy on religious conflict in northern Nigeria, alongside Sects & Social Disorder (2014) and Overcoming Boko Haram (2020), all based on in-depth research coordinated by the lead editor of all three books, the late Abdul Raufu Mustapha.
My first visit to Nigeria took place in the summer of 2006, as a green MPhil student in Development Studies at Oxford, interested in violence and conflict resolution in the north. My supervisor at the time was Raufu Mustapha, who would later become my DPhil advisor and co-editor of the Creed and Grievance volume. His untimely passing in 2017, mere months before the publication of this book, was an unbelievable loss. It was Raufu’s recommendation that led me to northern Nigeria, and Kano in particular, and his mentorship and guidance that have been indispensable throughout my academic career. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Nigeria, and certainly would not have expected it to be the treasure trove of research material, friendships, and personal development that it turned out to be.
Northern Nigeria was a different place in 2006 than it is today. Kano was more of a bustling metropolis then, there was less fear of insecurity, and its streets were dominated by thousands and thousands of achaba motorbikes (which have since been prohibited and replaced by yellow motor rickshaws, known locally as keke napep). Democracy had only recently returned, after long years of military dictatorship under General Abacha, alongside the reintroduction of sharia criminal law in the twelve northern states of the country, and both were causes for optimism for many Nigerians. Religious conflict and violence were present, but largely in the shape of acrimonious federal politics and occasional violent riots. Boko Haram was still a marginal and ignored sect in the faraway northeast, and Maiduguri a town with a friendly and dusty reputation – not the theatre of protracted insurgency and civil war it has since become.
Today, many know northern Nigeria only as yet another case of the global Christian-Muslim confrontation, with Boko Haram as its starkest illustration. More recently, farmer-herder violence throughout the Middle Belt have reached the international news, further entrenching the north’s image as a conflict-ridden place. Yet most northern Christians and Muslims – by far – live and work together peacefully. And in doing so, they build on long traditions of tolerance, inclusion, and interfaith cooperation.
Of course, years of poor governance and state retreat, combined with a volatile political climate, have put these traditions under pressure. But even so, many of them are remarkably adaptive and resilient. Kate Meagher, for example, shows in her chapter in Creed and Grievance how informal economic organisations – for example, of motorbike taxi drivers, pepper soup sellers, tailors, tyre sellers, and butchers – support active cooperation between Christians and Muslims. Many more examples of such cooperation come up throughout the volume, and they illustrate the everyday interfaith relations that are prevalent throughout the region, and that I have witnessed on so many occasions.
What do I hope readers take from the book? First, an appreciation of the vibrancy and significance of religion in northern Nigeria, both among Christians and Muslims. Not merely as the bone of politicized contention and intergroup competition, but much more meaningfully as a source of moral and spiritual guidance, of ideological conviction and idealism, of collective action, and of social and public services. Nigerian religion is fantastically dynamic, and has inspired anything from asceticism to corruption, and from spirit exorcisms to state-funded pilgrimages. Few things matter more to Nigerians than their religious beliefs and affiliations, and I hope the book, alongside its companion volume Sects and Social Disorder, conveys some of its complexity and significance.
Second, the authors in Creed and Grievance each underline that there is no interminable or inescapable religious conflict between Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims. Of course, there is political and economic competition between members of different faiths. In some cases, Muslims and Christians even fight over religious beliefs. But more often than not, religion is a frame to interpret complex political-economic situations in ways that are politically and socially expedient. Thus, for example, competition and conflict over land or indigeneship rights, as on the Jos Plateau, comes to be interpreted and framed as Christian-Muslim tensions, or even the evil machinations of one religious group to marginalise the other. Creed and Grievance is our attempt to make sense of the main conflicts and violent encounters in the north – sharia implementation, Boko Haram, and the different Middle Belt conflicts – by placing religion in each of the relevant social, political, economic, and historical contexts.
Thirdly, the book highlights the central role of politics in Nigeria’s interfaith relations, in particular when these relations become confrontational. The Nigerian state is often seen as weak, but it isn’t – it’s just more focused on power games than on popular welfare. But the ways in which policies, laws, and politicians deal with religious diversity have a huge impact on the way people of different faiths relate to each other. From this, we derive two general policy principles: first, that more could be done to preserve and learn from informal forms of cooperation and tolerance and, second, that inclusive statecraft – a democracy that protects minority rights and interests – is of great importance for the stability of the country.
For me, Creed and Grievance, and the Islam Research Programme (IRP) that produced it, have been exciting opportunities to explore what religion means in contemporary Nigeria. In this, it has been particularly satisfying to work with the Nigeria Research Network, a group of outstanding Nigerianist scholars, without whose expertise and commitment to intellectual rigour this book could never have been written. Currently, I’m continuing the exploration in a slightly different direction, with a focus on the role of traditional rulers (e.g. Emirs and chiefs) in urban governance and conflict resolution in different parts of Nigeria. Although it pains me that I now have to do this without Raufu’s mentorship, it is a great pleasure to have been able to publish this volume together with him.
This article was originally published in the African Griot Volume 17.
This guest post was written by David Ehrhardt, Assistant Professor of International Development at Leiden University College. Visit his website www.davidehrhardt.com.