Daily Trust (Abuja)

19 December 2012

Nigeria: Sects and Politics

opinion

"The lizard finds a resting place only when the wall cracks." -Hausa Proverb

Guests at the recent wedding of Vice President Namadi Sambo's two daughters witnessed more than two unions. Many of them were taken aback by the manner Sheikh (Dr) Ahmad Gummi reacted to the inclusion of the prayer, Salatil Fatih, by Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi when he prayed.

Dr Gummi, the symbolic pillar of the Jamaatu Izalatul Bidia Wa Ikamatus Sunnah, a group which regards the Sultan Bello Mosque Kaduna as its exclusive forte, complained over the inclusion of the Salatul Fatih in Shiekh Dahiru Bauchi's prayers. He may well have protested only as a matter of duty, because he must have known that Shiekh Dahiru Bauchi, the undisputed leader of the rival Darika sect, cannot offer any prayer without concluding with Salatil Fatih. In the lion's den, so to speak, nothing could have stopped the aged Sheikh from reciting that prayer.

If the two Sheikhs whose routine skirmishes are now prominent features in the character of the northern Muslim community were deliberately put together and in a manner and order guaranteed to provoke each other, the plan worked. Even making allowances for the fact that the event involved the Vice President, the presence of the two leaders and a protocol which provides for both to pray was bound to generate some sort of stress in an event which had already drawn some local public displeasure owing to restrictions around the famous mosque. A reversal of the order of the prayers, such that Sheikh Gummi prayed first, may have avoided Dr Gummi's reaction, but that would have offended political sentiments as well as the perceptions that Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi is senior to Gummi, and should have prayed first.

In all, the brief incident left many Muslims saddened that Muslim inter-sect rivalry and hostility is still a major issue; and for non-Muslims who heard or witnessed it, it may serve as evidence of serious disunity among Muslims they may have been largely unaware of. More significantly, the incident confirmed the flurry of denials and repudiations of stories that the two clerics and a few others had struck a genuine pact to improve Muslim unity during the last Hajj.

In a context where frantic search for unity in the North is being made by politicians, political groups and elders, the persistent schisms between major sects in the Muslim north is a major challenge. Partisan politics during the 2011 elections showed an unprecedented capacity to tap into these divides, and as the build-up towards 2015 gathers momentum, politicians will exploit this strategic fault-line among northern Muslims to the hilt. Politicians who place premium on capturing national leadership to stop the national slide into anarchy and failure of the state will need to note the state of Muslim disunity. There are significant steps that need to be undertaken in the process of healing the major weaknesses of the north in particular.

First, leaders of sects need to look deeply and assess whether the interests of Nigerian Muslims is best served by retaining the fences they have erected around followers, or by building bridges that limit hostility, ignorance and weaknesses among the community. If they can move towards each other in a manner that improves inter-sect unity without offending important values and traditions, they can substantially reduce the tendency for partisan politics to exploit Muslim differences. On the other hand, if egos and weaknesses in character of leaders stand in the way of making sacrifices for enhanced unity, the future for northern Muslims in the context of Nigerian politics will be even bleaker.

Then the leaders themselves must take steps to reduce the levels of personal hostility towards each other, and send signals to followers to avoid irritants and offensive postures which fuel sectarian hostilities. The gulf which separates the major groups is not as wide as leaders make followers to believe; and in many instances, they are exploited merely to provide power bases for leaders and clerics. Third, the Izala and Darika sects need to recognize that the ground is fast shifting away from under them. There are emerging sects, or splinters of existing sects which are becoming more popular by the day, largely because many, particularly young Muslims, are frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the older sects or tendencies to address what they see as the basic problems of the Muslim community. Leaders of the more traditional sects need to close ranks and reach out to disillusioned Muslims who are drifting further away from their influences towards more radical tendencies, and creating additional problems for Muslims.

A major re-thinking of the state of northern Muslim unity is vital at this stage. The contest for elective offices in 2015 will largely use the North as a battleground, and majority of the casualties will be vital northern interests. A deliberate and purposeful unity among northern Muslims will enable them reach out to Muslims involved in the Jamaatu Ahlil Sunnah Lid'dawati Wal Jihad (a.k.a. Boko Haram) and engage them towards resolving their grievances.

There are millions of other Muslims all over the nation who are disillusioned by the failure to close the damaging gaps which sects and tendencies create among Muslims. Many Muslims from the lower parts of the north find it easier to relate with Muslims from the West because the manner dominant sects operate alienates them. Muslims from the western part of the country agonize over their inability to work with fellow Muslims in the north to reduce the powerlessness of the Nigerian Muslim community and deal with its challenges, including those of the JASLIWAJ insurgency. In the meantime, all Muslims suffer the stigma of being closet sympathizers or active collaborators of the insurgency in the eyes of security agencies and many Christians. They are unable to tackle perennial challenges such as the existence of millions of almajirai (child beggars) or crushing poverty among the population. Politics impoverishes, rather than empowers the majority of the Muslim population; and our political processes and systems are daily drifting away from core Islamic values.

The burden of leadership is to find solutions to complex social problems. The challenge for Muslim leaders at this stage is to reduce the damaging disunity which exists between Muslims because of deeply-entrenched sectarian divisions. They need to do this now, to limit further damage to the Muslim ummah, and because on the Day of Judgment, they will have to account for the manner they led and counselled followers.

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