A Christian van Gorder: Nigeria torn by violence, oligarchy – Waco Tribune-Herald

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Members of the congregation at the Celestial Church of Christ Olowu Cathedral on Lagos Island in Nigeria sing and chant in prayer for their country, and against the forces of evil, on Feb. 24 ahead of national elections which were held the next day.
Amid the final throes of Jacksonian democracy in rough-and-tumble America, 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau famously went off to live in a 10-by-15-foot cabin on Walden Pond. While in the woods, the great thinker quit reading newspapers because the news was too overwhelming, too depressing. Thoreau thought the barrage of news left folks unable to forge connections with their neighbors.
“We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he wrote, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
I can relate to a degree. I have discontinued a daily habit of watching television news. However, while I agree with Thoreau that constant news-cycle immersion can be exhausting to the point of stress, I still take time each day to read the morning paper with my coffee because, so far as I’m concerned, it’s beneficial to connect with, and learn about, those around me, even from other parts of the world. As a person of faith, an Anabaptist Christian, I add what I learn to my prayers, focusing on those who are suffering as chronicled in daily news dispatches.
So why should you care about faraway Nigeria? Because, to put it in Thoreau’s terms, there’s something mighty important to communicate, even as we in 21st century America struggle with cultural, religious and racial differences to the point of strife, even violence. Nigeria is the largest nation in Africa with the continent’s biggest economy. It’s the seventh most populous country in the world. Yet politically, economically, culturally, religiously and socially, Nigeria now teeters on the edge of chaos.
Perhaps I have more insight than most. My wife is from West Africa.
In 2016, the World Bank declared Nigeria the “capital of poverty.” Since then, due to crime, corruption and a population explosion, matters have gotten worse. And within 30 years, there’ll be more folks living in Nigeria — about 375 million — than in the United States.
This hellscape is in the vise-grip of short- and long-term problems. Inflation has doubled in 2023 and a recent currency transition has led to folks queuing for hours at banks to withdraw their money to fund basic necessities for their families. Only 60 percent of school-age children actually attend school. The national GDP is less than it was 50 years ago. In contrast, South African schools are abysmal but almost all school-age South Africans attend. And the GDP of South Africa has doubled since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Cardinal Peter Ebere Okpaleke, bishop of Ekwulobia in southeastern Nigeria, says the nation faces the age-old challenge of violence. Northern Nigeria is largely controlled by Islamists who make money through ransom kidnappings. The center of the country is awash in heartache due to a murderous land grab initiated by northern herdsmen and farmers. The International Crisis Group in 2022 found that more than 10,000 Nigerians had been killed in armed conflict and more than 5,000 individuals were kidnapped. Illicit drugs run rampant.
Nigeria is ultimately impacted by two pivotal dynamics: one, it’s a global force in oil production, pumping 1.5 million barrels of crude oil a day — a statistic that impacts us all. Second, it’s home to a parade of corrupt, incompetent and self-serving political leaders. After a hopeful start with the end of British rule in 1960, Nigeria hosted a succession of ruthless military dictators and crooked oligarchs. Consequently, many Nigerians feel voting is a waste of time. Only 29 percent of eligible voters participated in the recent “selection” orchestrated by the All Progressives Congress (APC) ruling party.

Complete with 18 presidential candidates, last month’s farce of an election proved a comedy of errors as technology promising transparency malfunctioned. The tsunami of voting irregularities was so egregious every opposition party claimed the results were a sham. In fact, they were a foregone conclusion: Overseen by outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari, the APC quickly claimed victory.
Opponents plan to challenge election results in court. Especially demoralized were more than 10 million youths voting for the first time. They put their faith in Labour Party reform candidate and businessman Peter Obi. Blocking this arguably naïve hope and reform: 70-year-old APC candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the godfather of Nigerian politics. Tinubu brazenly ran with the narcissistic slogan “It’s my turn!”
This sums up how unethical politicians think of national service. Tinubu is an extraordinarily wealthy power broker. No one knows quite how Tinubu gained his affluence. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a massive portion of his wealth involves money-laundering funds garnered from the heroin trade. Before Obi came along, it seemed the APC electoral scheme was to have a puppet opponent — another shady character named Atiku Abubakar — to offer at least some illusion of a legitimate election. Abubakar, 76, will probably share with the APC some of the inevitable plunder of the nation’s treasury. Sadly, oligarchs such as Tinubu and Abubakar rule in a nation where 90 percent of the people live on about $2 a day.
At 61, Obi is a career politician but also a businessman with a relatively clean track record. An Igbo Christian — he’s Catholic — Obi had a running mate who was a Muslim, tapped as a gesture of interreligious mutuality. In contrast, one famous Islamist imam supporting Tinubu predicted his victory would initiate a noble “call to jihad!”
Nigeria is considered by some the most religious nation on Earth based on weekly attendance at religious services. Yet the country has faced horrific religious violence. Muslims kill Christians and Christians sometimes respond by killing Muslims. It’s a tragic cycle that conflicts with two faiths that claim to promote peace and mutual respect. Catholic priest Isaac Achi — a friend of Father Anthony Odiong, for several years director of campus ministry at St. Peter Catholic Student Center at Baylor University — burned to death at Nigeria’s Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church on Jan. 15 after Islamist terrorists set fire to the parish rectory. Another priest at the rectory, Father Collins Omeh, escaped but suffered gunshot wounds.
Christians and Muslims have struggled to live together in peace for decades. According to the CIA World Factbook, Nigeria is 53 percent Muslim, 47 percent Christian. Many extremists want to Islamize Nigeria and marginalize non-Muslim communities: On Pentecost Sunday in 2022, an extremist group attacked Nigeria’s St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church; more than 40 Christians were murdered. Priests have often been at the center of attacks because of their bold stands for peace and justice in a world devoid of local safeguards. According to the Vatican, four Catholic priests were killed and 28 priests were kidnapped last year in Nigeria. Including evangelicals and Catholics, more than 7,600 Christians were killed in Nigeria between January 2021 and June 2022.
Why should we care? Because Nigeria is destined to become a famine-stricken basket case. Cardinal Okpaleke warns that “despair could unleash negative forces that will lead to a further deterioration of an already bad situation.” Nigerians need fast friends who can help avert a colossal disaster. Each of us can reach out. Charitable missions such as the intercultural peace-building vision of the West Africa Theological Seminary merit financial support. In Waco, there’s a Nigerian church — the Redeemed Christian Church of God — that you might consider visiting. And one of the most venerable Catholic churches in Waco, St. Jerome, has a wonderful Nigerian priest, Father James Ekeocha. Waco’s Muslim community also is home to Nigerians.
For these neighbors, we must offer encouragement. If you’re a person of faith, the least you can do is also the most you can do: Pray!
Nigeria opposition dismisses ‘sham’ election as ruling party’s Tinubu takes lead (Feb. 28): Nigeria’s main opposition parties on Tuesday (February 28) called for the country’s presidential election to be scrapped, alleging that results showing the ruling party’s candidate in the lead had been massively manipulated. FRANCE 24’s Chinwe Ossondu tells us more.
A. Christian van Gorder is an associate professor of Islamic Studies and World Religions at Baylor University. His many books include “Violence in God’s Name: Christian and Muslim Relations in Nigeria.” He is a member of the Tribune-Herald Board of Contributors.
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Members of the congregation at the Celestial Church of Christ Olowu Cathedral on Lagos Island in Nigeria sing and chant in prayer for their country, and against the forces of evil, on Feb. 24 ahead of national elections which were held the next day.
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