Sunday, January 31, 2010

Religious Conflict in Africa's Middle Belt

Nigeria has recently been getting some negative press as the U.S. looks into the personal history of the Christmas Day suicide bomber. This last week Hillary Clinton suggested the country breeds radicalism.

But few people likey caught another headline coming out of Nigeria, also having to do with religious based violence. Last week Jos, Nigeria erupted in violence between the town's Christian and Muslim populations. This rioting razed property all over the town, left over a 200 Christians and Muslims dead, and thousands displaced.

While the story doesn't have any direct connection with international terrorism, it's significant b/c these riots were a reprisal to predecessors taking place in 2001 and 2008, and also symptomatic of other similar Muslim-Christian outbursts that frequently erupt in this part of middle Nigeria, where the Christian populations (mostly in the South) meet the mostly-Hausa Muslim populations from the North. This religious fault line--in general, where Sub-Saharan's Northern Mulsim populations mix with Southern Christians--is sometimes called the "middle belt," and can be said to stretch horizontally across all of Africa.

The Atlantic Monthly published a very interesting expose of this issue last year called "God's Country." Also, last year an Anthropologist Barbara Cooper published a book called Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel which essentially examines a very similar type of religious tension, but this time in southern Niger.

Of course, not the entire middle belt is marred by such thick religious tension. My former post in Northern Benin and my present one in Southern Mali, for example, see the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims. Also, labels like middle belt run the risk of oversimplifiying certain conflicts that also have political competition and resource-control as root causes (i.e. Sudan).

Neverthless, the middle zone is an important area to watch, not least because this trully is one of the world's most impoverished regions. And, as we see more and more, it's also in the interest of international security to identify these kind of hotbeds where poverty thrives, and political-religious radicalism and violence seem to breed. Ultimately the best defense strategy is to address the systematic poverty and to help make these regions thrive.