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Religious Mix a Source of Tension in Nigeria

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Religious Mix a Source of Tension in Nigeria

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Religious Mix a Source of Tension in Nigeria

Religious Mix a Source of Tension in Nigeria

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Nigeria's religious make-up is roughly half-Christian, half-Muslim, and there has been recent violence between the two groups. Steve Inskeep talks with Sue O'Brien, assistant professor of African history at the University of Florida, about how politics in Nigeria's fledgling democracy is inflaming religious tensions.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Nigeria is a major source of U.S. oil. Steve Inskeep found that it's also sending more spiritual things this way.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Africa's most populous nation is a recruiting ground for competing religions. University of Florida Professor Sue O'Brien says you can find evidence of their strength without leaving home.

Professor SUE O'BRIEN (African History, University of Florida): Nigeria is currently undergoing a huge Christian renaissance, and they are major exporters of various, different denominations of the Christian faith all over the globe, including right here in America. The Redeemed Church of God--which is part of a global Pentecostal movement based in Nigeria--they're centered in Dallas, and they're planning a huge, sort of, redemption camp, as they call it, to be built and to host about 50,000 congregants. They just had their annual convention in Madison Square Garden last summer, and folks from about 6,000 parishes across the globe joined the convention.

INSKEEP: Are these Nigerians abroad? Or are they actually attracting converts from other ethnicities?

Prof. O'BRIEN: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. At this point, they are attracting, primarily, African immigrants. But they are self-consciously trying to reach out to American populations. They've been only marginally successful thus far. But they're working on it.

INSKEEP: So, it's plausible that someone could wake up in the morning in their home, which is heated with Nigerian gas, get in the car, drive to the gas station, get some Nigerian oil on their way to the Nigerian church.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Yeah, precisely.

INSKEEP: Now, this is all coming out of the most populous country in Africa--a country that's been described as roughly half Muslim, roughly half Christian. How long has that been the case? And how did it become the case?

Prof. O'BRIEN: The north of Nigeria has a very long history of Islamization. It's really since the ninth century, the north of Nigeria has been oriented toward North Africa and the Middle East. The Christian legacy in Nigeria is a much more recent one, dating from the early to mid-19th century, and it's closely associated with British colonization.

INSKEEP: This must lead to a certain amount of tension.

Prof. O'BRIEN: It does. And it's erupted-these Muslim/Christian tensions-especially in periods of political transition.

INSKEEP: Like now.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Like now. Precisely. So, now, since 1998 when the former dictator of Nigeria, Sani Abacha, passed away, Nigeria's been going through a democratic opening.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned that Christians have great strength in Nigeria right now. They're, in some ways, pitted against, not just any Muslims, but a very particular brand of Islam.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Yes. I mean, Islam in northern Nigeria has been transforming itself from within. And these are movements that are closely oriented with Wahhabi versions of the faith, which is the dominant form of Islam in places like Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: This is the kind of Islam that is closely associated, in American minds, anyway, with terrorism.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Yes, it is. But it's really about a competition for control of the state. There's a lot of political manipulation, one could say, by the political elite to use religious identity as a way to garner votes and electoral constituencies. And you know, I think, if you talk to the average Nigerian, their frustrations are with lack of infrastructure and the failure of the state. They're not as concerned with, you know, hating Christians or hating Muslims, as all that. They just want their fair share at economic development.

INSKEEP: Sue O'Brien is an assistant professor of African history at the University of Florida.

Thanks very much.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Thank you.

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