The politics of conversion in northern Nigeria

Forced conversion as a strategy exclusive is not to Islamist terrorism in northern Nigeria. Everyone's been in on the act.

Child refugees in Madagali, northern Nigeria, near where Boko Haram displaced people (Immanuel Afolabi, via Flickr CC.

In Boko Haram’s video released earlier this month, a member of the group (presumed to be Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader and spokesperson) claimed that the kidnapped girls in northeastern Nigeria, many of them born to Christian families, have been “liberated” by conversion to Islam. Predictably, Christian media outlets in the United States and “anti-jihadi” vigilantes online all rushed to condemn this. The Christian Association of Nigeria described the conversion as evidence of war against Christians and Christianity. The secular western media reported it but reserved comment, following up with stories of the hatred of non-Muslims among Boko Haram’s leadership. Though the group has targeted Christians in violent acts, we should not misread forced conversion as a strategy exclusive to Islamist terrorism. The history of conversion in Northern Nigeria, as in many countries at many points in history, shows that coercing or controlling conversion has long been a strategy of political power. (A good comparison comes from India, where evidence shows competitive and coerced conversions to Christianity and Hinduism).

In Northern Nigeria, 19th century Christian missionary conversion campaigns upped the ante in the struggle for converts. Jihads swept the region in the early 19th century in an effort to reform lapsed Muslims, rather than to convert nonbelievers, but the competition for converts escalated when, during the 19th century European scramble for colonies in Africa, Christian missionaries from many European countries, the United States, and Canada sought to carve out spheres of denominational influence in the region. Even before the British formally conquered Northern Nigeria, Christian missionaries from England and Canada sought desperately to reach Kano from Lagos. German missionary Karl Kumm believed that the non-Muslims of the Sudan (which would have included the people in Chibok a century ago) should be converted to Christianity to serve as bulwarks against expanding Islam. (The American Church of the Brethren, with a more humanitarian agenda, opened a mission station in Chibok in 1941. The links between Northern Nigerian and American Christians remain: on May 7, 2014, the Chibok church asked its former parent church in Elgin, Illinois, to pray for “the safety of all children,” Muslim and Christian.)

Missionaries’ presence in the region added layers of complication to the complex political relationship between Muslim and British authorities. Latter day defenders of Christendom would doubtless be surprised to learn the extent to which British rule in Northern Nigeria was predicated on cooperation with local Muslim elites, who collected taxes and administered sharia courts. Elsewhere in Africa, the British generally embraced Christian missions as handmaidens, but, in Muslim Africa, the British tried unsuccessfully to block their evangelism and occasionally went so far as to encourage the mistreatment of Christian converts in Muslim areas, rather than risk unsettling the status quo.

In 1926, for example, a Muslim teacher of boko (which then had a range of meanings that have since been forgotten, notably by the US National Counterterrorism Center), converted to Christianity. This worried his British boss, who brought the recent Christian before the Kano emir to assess the “truth” of his conversion. The emir did not force the man to recant, but, over the ensuing decades, Western-educated Christian Northern Nigerians were frequently subjected to intense pressure from British and Muslim authorities to become Muslims in exchange for jobs in government. In certain contexts, religious conversion was an expression of political loyalty and a path to social advancement.

Not surprisingly, the complicated politics of conversion in Northern Nigeria often unfolded in Western-oriented schools, which Muslim clerics perceived as a tool of the missionaries used to seduce Muslim youths. Clerics pressured political leaders to limit enrollment in Christian schools by stipulating minimum ages for children. Some Christian Nigerians, too, reacted against the missionary legacy in education. Tai Solarin, an educationalist who founded the Sunflower School in a predominantly Christian area of southwest Nigeria, for example, regularly fought religious crusades undertaken by students, mostly Pentecostal. The efforts to separate conversion from education are ongoing and contested.

Forced, coerced, incentivized—religious identification in Nigeria has only sometimes been about free will, as Westerners aghast at conversion by kidnapping might assume. Indeed, many missionaries were the enemies of free will. In 1958, two years before Nigerian independence, a British-appointed commission studied minority affairs in the North, finding that Christians numbered 550,000, Muslims 11 million, and “pagans” or “animists” nearly 4.5 million. The commission worried about the missionary tendencies in both world religions: “Islam is a dogmatic and prosleytising religion—but not the only one. There are intolerant people on both sides of this controversy and there will always be instances of intolerant behavior. This is a matter that only legislation can point the way.” No laws against unwanted proselytism ever came. Islam and Christianity continue to struggle it out in Nigeria—with increasing levels of violence on both sides, albeit more on the majority Muslim side in the North, and the total disappearance of those professing to be practitioners of indigenous religions.

No modern state in Nigeria—the colonial or postcolonial—has dealt effectively with minorities, missionaries, or religious dissent. We must now place our hopes in political and military authorities, not religious ones, to find the missing children and disarm Boko Haram, whose violence (and counter-attacks by government forces) has led to thousands of civilian deaths since its designation by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 and the Nigerian government’s declaration of the state emergency in 2013. Boko Haram is a product of fear of government’s violence and intimidation, lingering from contests over conversion, religion and political identity in the  past and casting doubt over the future. Collective organization to pressure the Nigerian government is heartening, but moral appeals inflamed by the media and religious partisans hark back to the colonialist mentality of saving souls in Africa and fall into the trap set by the anti-colonial salvationism of Boko Haram. Uninformed and unscrupulous salvationism should not obscure the tangled history of Muslim and Christian competition in Northern Nigeria.


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