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The Complex Dynamics of Religious Conflicts and the Boko Haram Sectarian Crisis in Nigeria

By Chiangi Michael, Supreme Court of Nigeria.


The two main religious groups in Nigeria (Christians and Moslems) have been known for violent clashes over the years. This has often resulted in the massive destruction of lives and property, as well as increased interfaith suspicion. Despite the clear provisions of sections 38(1) and 10 of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria, which have guaranteed freedom of religion and prohibited the declaration of a state religion respectively, the frequency of religious conflicts have unabatedly continued to wreak havoc on Nigerians. One major reason for this is that each side claims absolute monopoly over the true route to salvation. The recent problematique has been the evolution of Boko Haram, a violent Islamic group which has taken the centre-stage of violent conflicts with both authorities and perceived enemies of Islam in Nigeria. Their modus operandi has been the employment of violent assassinations, urban warfare, kidnapping, and bombing to advance their interest. The group was initially known for peaceful proselytization and non-violence but has now metamorphosed into a Jihadi faction with the aim of establishing a purely Islamic state governed by the tenets of sharia law. This paper therefore argues that religious conflict in Nigeria result among other things, from the refusal or failure by religious leaders to avoid scriptural exegeses that tend to promote violence. It is also the contention of this paper that the government's failure to establish a balanced development in all regions of the country and to effectively address the growing challenges of economic and social injustice among the diverse elements and groups also account for religious conflict in Nigeria.

Keywords: Religion, Boko Haram, Religious Conflicts, Fundamentalism


History has shown that religion has been used as a tool for social integration and unity in many societies. In the same vein, religion has also been used as an instrument of violence and conflict; hence it is a double-edged sword. At the turn of the 20th century, radical social scientist like Fredrick Engels, Karl Marx and Max Weber predicted the demise of religion and the imminence of secularism as an emerging paradigm. They contended that poverty, hardship and suffering makes religion a relevant socialndeavour, thus, maintaining that religion should be completely eliminated because of its elusive relevance to genuine human happiness. (Tucker 1978).

These social scientists did not envisage the resurgence of religion in the era of modernization. This is because modernity promotes secularism and the complete emancipation of humanity from the shackles of the growing dominance of religion. Unfortunately, however, the events that opened the 21st century, especially the spates of religious violence in many societies around the world suggest the continued preeminence, perpetuity and persistence of religion as a formidable force directing human conduct to a great extent. This is further demonstrated by such religious based wars as the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the altercation between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the festering war in Sudan, the long standing Israeli-Palestine conflict, the Sunni-Shi'a war in Iraq and the Arab spring among others. The prevailing assumption among contemporary scholars is that, the claims of religion have become highly relativized due to contentious exegeses or the abundance of conflicting doctrines, and the ever-increasing idiosyncrasy of peoples' religious beliefs and practices. (Dawson 2006).

The apologists of secularism have strongly advocated for the elimination of religion as a public affair. In fact secularization holds that even Christianity with its value centered on the promotion of western education intrinsically promote intellectual anarchism which has spontaneously reduced the significance of religion in human affairs. (Danjibo 2012). For instance, Christians have been advised to give to caesar what belongs to him and to God what is His. This explains why Christians are always careful not to mix secular matters with those of faith. As such there is a clear chasm between the church and the secular state. It seems that Max Weber's "Protestant Ethic" has made significant impact on the rise of capitalism, especially in the 20th century which had inadvertently weakened the strength and efficacy of religion in the society amidst consumerism and hedonism. (Weber 1978). To Karl Marx therefore, religion is seen as the opium of the oppressed masses and that man must of necessity, be emancipated from this ''estranged world of human objectification’’ (Tucker, 1978).

Samuel Huntington in his post-cold war treatise, "Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order" predicted that the evolution of the Arab world and the communist China would pose insurmountable challenges to Western Civilization. He argued that, in spite of the powerful significance of Western Civilization; the non-western societies have continued to oppose vigorously, the power of the West. In fact, Confucian and Islamic societies have attempted to expand their economic and military power resisting the "balance" against the west. (Huntington 2003). The West has on the other hand, integrated its Islamic and Persian heritage into a secular framework that eliminates religious dogma. This fact has never been acknowledged by the Muslims hence they are still overtly influenced and largely dominated by the uncritical connection with the ideologies of Prophet Mohammed and the symbolic significance of the Qur’an. Indeed Islam itself is interpreted to mean the total submission to the will of Allah, so it becomes difficult to separate Islam from the secular world since religion itself determines to a large extent everything about the life of a Muslim.

Thus, given this inflexible representation of Islam as a holistic device for the regulation of the entire lifestyle of its faithful, there is consequently no room for demarcation between spiritual and secular matters for devout Muslims. This extremist view of Islam is characteristically held by the adherents of the Wahhabi Islam. To them jihad is an instrument for the sanitization of Islam which according to them, have been infiltrated by unorthodox practices associated with modernization. This explains why religious conflagrations occur frequently in Muslim dominated parts of northern Nigeria. In order to fully demonstrate their piousness, fanatics of the wahabbi extraction respond with violence to any act which they regard as a violation of Sharia irrespective of the fact that other religious groups are correspondingly entitled to similar acts under the law.

Consequently, insidious and violent groups have sprung up in Nigeria at different times employing a multiplicity of modes of operation, including but not limited to acts of open terrorism, killing and kidnapping, as well as destruction of properties for the purpose of stamping out the harmful influence of western civilization. It is for this reason that the focal point of post-cold war political interactions has been the reconciliation and unification of western culture with non-western civilizations.

It was consequent upon the 9-11 attack of 2001, when the towers of New York were reduced to rubble by the Islamic fundamentalist attack led by Osama Bin Laden, and which resulted in the death of thousands of innocent people, that scholarship research became focused on identifying the correlation between religion and violence. Today, religious violence has assumed a complex and multifaceted dimension often orchestrated by dogmatic ideologies.

Suggested Citation:

Michael, Chiangi, The Complex Dynamics of Religious Conflicts and the Boko Haram Sectarian Crisis in Nigeria (January 12, 2018). Available at SSRN: or


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