Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Islamic fundamentalism's roots spread deeper in secular Nigeria

The anniversary of an Islamic holy war 200 years ago in Nigeria highlights the increasing role of Islam in Africa today

REUTERS , Sokoto, Nigeria

Courtiers of the sultan parade through the streets of Sokoto, Nigeria. A traditional exhibition, called a Durbar, was held to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was Africa's largest Muslim empire, stretching from Niger to Cameroon.


Firebrand Muslim preacher Hussain Yusuf Mabira attended the 200th anniversary celebration of Islamic holy war in Nigeria, and was sickened by the display.

Thousands flocked to the northern town of Sokoto to remember the 19th century Islamic scholar, Usman dan Fodio, whose empire conquered swaths of West Africa and ruled northern Nigeria for 100 years.

Mabira said the ceremony had become just another tool for secular politicians, eager to hide their failings and paper over the sectarian divide -- which has killed thousands -- in the country's young democracy.

"The celebration is an innovation. It has nothing to do with Islam, it is only a political gathering," said Mabira, one of a growing number of Nigerian preachers pushing for an Islamic state in the world's seventh largest oil exporter.

As if to prove the point, the born-again Christian President Olusegun Obasanjo wore the costume and towering headdress of an emir to address the gathering of clerics, traditional kings and West African presidents assembled for the event.

Below his podium, horsemen in colorful flowing robes charged past kicking up dust, followed by drummers and footmen in medieval dress brandishing clubs and swords in a mock display of battle.

Only "infidels" would destroy a house of worship such as a church or mosque, said former military ruler Obasanjo, in a reference to a surge in ethno-religious violence that has killed more than 1,000 Nigerians over the past two months.

"We all belong to one entity, and that entity is Nigeria," he told the crowd. Outside the enclosure, armed policemen horse-whipped the swelling crowd into line.

Oil rich Nigeria's population of 130 million, the biggest in Africa, is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims who have competed for dominance since the country's creation by the British 90 years ago.

Dan Fodio's bloody religious campaigns which pushed from the dry Sahel to the rainforested southern coastal regions of Nigeria, still reverberate across the huge West African country two centuries later.

Last month, fighting over fertile farmlands in the central state of Plateau killed hundreds of Muslims, sparked reprisal killings of Christians in the northern town of Kano and prompted Obasanjo to declare a state of emergency in Plateau.

The surge in religious conflict has accompanied the country's return to civilian rule since 1999, when Obasanjo's election ended 15 years' rule by the military, dominated by Muslim generals.

Pogroms in different parts of the country against minorities, both Christian and Muslims, have spread as tribal and religious communities compete for wealth and political power amid economic stagnation.

Usman's Sokoto Caliphate ceased to wield real power after independence from Britain in 1960, when the central and state governments became the "kingmakers."

In a famous case of meddling, the late military dictator Sani Abacha replaced the sultan in 1996 over a disagreement related to an inheritance and replaced him with another of dan Fodio's descendents.

"The caliphate does not exist anymore," said Dr. Abubakar Siddique Muhammed, head of political science at the Ahmadu Bello University, the northern region's premier tertiary


"But by giving the impression that it does as before, it can be used as a device to ensure unity for the north against southerners in order to mobilize support for their own politicians," he said.

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