Delegitimating Human Rights Organizations

Delegitimating Human Rights Organizations

Last year while working with an Israeli Human Rights organization in Jerusalem, I had an opportunity to see the State of Israeli through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compare B’Tselem (a human rights organization) activists to traitors, and condemned all the Israeli human rights organizations. This happened partly because of B’Tselem’s support of the United Nations whose agency, UNESCO, had passed a resolution that denied the connection of the Jewish people to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These events created a backlash against human rights organizations in Israel, and raised important questions on the issue human rights organizations and how they obtain their legitimacy?

Through various readings I have been able to explore that question, particularly, the State of Israel’s attempts in delegitimizing human rights organizations. My reflection seeks to answer the following questions: Can external validity such as the one provided by the international community legitimate Israeli human rights organizations in the absence of local support? Why do countries and leaders who often question the legitimacy of institutions such as the United Nations selectively rely on these same organizations to legitimate some of their local actions?  How can we explain the process of through which members of Israeli human rights organizations such Breaking the Silence lose their legitimacy considering that while serving as soldiers they were considered heroes? Does this lead to incompatibility?

These questions about the challenge of the legitimacy of Israeli human rights organizations occupies has occupied a central place in debates in Israeli and international media since last year. If legitimacy is a matter of consent (Zelditch, 2006), where do human rights organizations derive their legitimacy from, and given that they fight regimes and systems that perpetuate inequality, do they need any kind of consent to operate? Those eager to discredit human rights organizations in Israel argue that the organizations have lost touch with daily lives of Israelis, and that is why they are investing their efforts on the global front because they have lost all hope of generating change in Israeli public opinion.[1] They further argue that since the human rights organizations receive substantial amounts of funding from foreigners, they should not be trusted. Last year the state of Israeli passed a law that regulates Israeli human rights organizations.[2] The law undermines the legitimacy of the organizations by limiting their funding, and requiring them to state that they rely on foreign funding in all communication with the public and on TV, newspapers, billboards and online. The law also requires representatives of human rights organizations to declare that they depend on foreign contributions to the heads of parliamentary committees when participating in meetings. The idea here is to represent the organizations as deriving authority from foreign governments that fund them. Thus, questioning their legitimacy. Did they succeed? Although, I do not have statistics or any research to enable me to answer that question, through observation, and talking to Israelis as well as Palestinians, I learned that human rights organizations do not enjoy much support in the Israeli society.

Since the State of Israel presents itself as a democratic state akin to Western European or North American countries, the human rights organizations can claim legitimacy by appealing to norms, values, beliefs, practices, or procedures that are already accepted in a democratic society (Zelditch, 2006). But such a claim to legitimacy will only succeed to the extent that whatever it appeals to has already been accepted in Israel. For instance, the generally accepted human rights laws and conventions such as International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Convent on Civil Rights, and Universal Declaration on Human Rights. One will then expect that a country like Israel will allow human rights organizations to freely operate or better still, stop violating human rights. Unfortunately, the reality is different. So, how can human rights organizations in Israel gain legitimacy?

According to Zelditch, they need to challenge pregiven structures in Israeli society. These structures encompass norms, values, beliefs, purposes, practices, or procedures that legitimate power (Zelditch, 2006). They should strive to build local consensus “in specific, concrete situations out of whatever structure is pregiven and the specific circumstances of the situation” (Zelditch, 2006. P. 347).


[1] Shlomi Eldar (2016). Why human rights NGOs are losing support of Israel Public. Al-Monitor, accessed on 3/27/2017

[2] Cook Jonathan (2016). Israel seeks to publicly shame human rights groups. Aljazeera, accessed on 3/27/2017

Zelditch, M (2006). “Legitimacy theory” in Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. (California: Stanford University Press)

The Chinese Community in Kenya: Pitfalls and Possibilities

The Chinese Community in Kenya: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Two years ago, Kenyan authorities arrested a Chinese restaurant owner who allegedly had a “no African” policy in his restaurant. The restaurant, simply known as Chinese Restaurant, is located in Kilimani, an affluent suburb for the upper class in Nairobi. Local newspapers reported that the restaurant only allowed tax drivers or Africans accompanied by Chinese, European or Indian patrons.  Most Kenyans were outraged by these reports; they took into social media calling for the deportation of the Chinese business owners. The government was at first reluctant to act but they finally gave in to public pressure and arrested the restaurant owner for running a business without a license – but not for racism as most Kenyans would have preferred.

The restaurant cited security concerns as a reason why they barred Africans into the restaurant but this does not hold considering that they even barred prominent Kenyans, a former cabinet secretary, and a permanent secretary who would not by any chance be members of Al-Shabaab, the militant Somali based terrorists that the Chinese patrons were afraid of. Even if the threat was plausible, it is not a viable reason for profiling people and singling out a race as potential terrorists. Most Africans considered the actions of the Chinese patrons as racist but there is no way of knowing their true motive. It could be that they were truly concerned about their safety or they did not simply consider Africans worthy of their company. I have considered this question carefully, and I contend that what happened in Nairobi was a matter of misguided cultural power dynamics between Africans and Chinese patrons.

Most Chinese in Kenya have no previous experience with the various ethnic groups that make up the country. Even though Chinese contact with Kenyans dates back to Sung Dynasty (960-1279), it’s only recently that their presence in Kenya has become noticeable.  There is archeological evidence of Chinese presence in the Kenyan coastal region, particularly in Lamu. Local legend has it that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors washed up on the shore hundreds of years ago, and the locals rescued them.  The sailors converted to Islam, intermarried with Africans, and were assimilated into the community. A report on China Daily, July 11, 2005 indicated that DNA tests conducted on Kenyan women in Lamu confirmed that they were of Chinese descent. This indicates that Africans and Chinese have had a cordial encounter and are not incapable of living together. However, the recent wave of Chinese migration into Africa while beneficial economically, it poses new type of cultural challenges.

China established diplomatic relationship with Kenya in December 14, 1963, shortly after Kenya’s independence. Despite the two country’s different economic models – Kenya having embraced capitalism while China favored communism – they have continued to enjoy a cordial relationship. According to the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies’ 2008 report on China-Africa Economic Relations, The Chinese embassy in Kenya is arguably their largest embassy in Africa both in terms of size and employees.  This may perhaps explain the surge in Chinese immigrants to Kenya in the last two decades. The Chinese contractors are managing major government and private constructions across the country.

Despite the thriving construction industry, the major Chinese immigrants are mostly merchants, importing merchandise and selling to retailers in Kenya. I have observed that Chinese traders in Kenya rarely deal with the locals directly; they prefer working with middlemen, thus avoiding the necessary contact that can boost their familiarity with the host.  Furthermore, the Chinese construction companies do not hire Kenyans; they do all the work and sometimes prefer living in their own quarters. With this kind of lifestyle, the Chinese have little exposure with local people, and have no way of learning about local culture, leave alone embracing it.

Interestingly, due to Chinese investment in Kenya, some Kenyans are learning Mandarin through the Chinese sponsored Confucius Institutes around the country. However, one cannot stop to think that the cultural literacy is only happening one way, hence creating a cultural power dynamics. Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New empire in Africa, has extensively covered this aspect of cultural power dynamics between ordinary Chinese investors and Africans. French writes a story about a Mr. Hao Shengli, an investor in Mozambique whose belief about Africans is in the lines of “I didn’t think they were so clever, not so intelligent…we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully” Obviously Mr. Hao does not hold Africans in high esteem. To him African culture is subservient to his.

As much as Mr. Hao is not a representative of Chinese people, in a way he is typical of most investors who now flock various cities across Africa. Most countries in Africa have yet to reflect on the impact of Chinese investment in their countries. But with the increasing immigration of Chinese businesspeople into African cities, this kind of reflection is inevitable. As often is the case, the most noticeable effects are on cultural compatibility. The Nairobi incident demonstrates that there is a wide cultural divide between Africans and Chinese. This issue must be addressed with utmost urgency lest the cordial relationship China enjoys with African countries be ruined.

Of course it is upon the Chinese businesspersons to learn the African philosophy of Ubuntu (humanness), and African Values of community. There is a lot to be gained through mutual respect and honest dealing. As much as the Chinese government is investing in Africans who are trying to learn Chinese culture, it should do the same to the Chinese who want to learn African cultures. For China to represent a new awakening, it must do, and behave better than the European colonizers at whose hands Africans were humiliated and their dignity violated.

The incident in Nairobi, for all we know, may have been a misunderstanding but nevertheless it sowed seeds of discord and loss of trust that the Kenyans had for Chinese business-people.  Deliberate steps must be taken to restore the relationship to its better form. It seems to me that cultural knowledge may be the most important business skill that any Chinese hoping to invest in Kenya or Africa ought to possess. History shows that most Asians who have come to Africa for whatever reason usually prefers to build a home in their host countries. The Indians who built the railway in East Africa are now part of our proud heritage. Even though most of them never made any effort to integrate or assimilate to the local culture, they somehow found ways of maintaining a healthy relationship with Africans. There are a few exceptions to this, for instance, the tragedy that came with Dictator Idi Amin of Uganda who in the 70s expelled Asians from Uganda. The Ugandans saw the Asians as a threat to their economic lives. Of course they were wrong but populist ideas and reasoning often do not go together.

There is no better way of securing the future of Africans and the Chinese than to invest in cultural programs that foster mutual respect. Such programs might include student, farmers, businesspeople, and government exchange programs among others. Of course, such programs often take long in impacting a society. But they are worthy looking into.


Modern nuclear weapons increases insecurity in the world

Modern nuclear weapons increases insecurity in the world

Modern nuclear weapons have the potential to reignite arms race and increase the risk that nuclear weapons might be used. Thus, in order for the U.S. to strengthen its global leadership in nuclear disarmament, enhance its ability to deter new weapon states, improve its efforts to prevent nuclear terror, and reduce the danger of the use of nuclear weapons, it should stop building modern nuclear weapons and replace existing ones with potentially equally effective ways of achieving deterrence. Such ways will include the use of advanced conventional weapons or better still, as Pope Francis puts it, investing in building trust between nations so as to pave the way for total nuclear disarmament.

The world is rich with countless technologies that can contribute to national security that were not available when the decision was made to develop nuclear weapons and such technologies can now be used for deterrence.[1]  For instance, the degree of precision and power of today’s conventional weapons makes them essentially an alternative to nuclear weapons. Though they may not have the utility necessary to substitute nuclear weapons completely, they are capable of acting as a deterrence given the changing landscape in the military and political roles of nuclear weapons.[2] Ordinarily, the U.S. kept nuclear weapons to deter nuclear and conventional attack from Russia and also to maintain the balance of power. Russia built nuclear weapons for the same reasons. Other major powers such as the U.K and France have nuclear weapons to deter conventional attacks from Russia and to probably elevate their political standing in the world. But as Cortright and Vayrynnen point out in their book, Towards Nuclear Zero, deterrence has moved from bilateral to a triad,[3] which makes it unlikely for the major nations with nuclear weapons to use them. Thus, instead of building modern nuclear weapons, the U.S should develop conventional precision weapons for deterrence but more importantly, lead other nations towards a complete disarmament.

Modern nuclear weapons will not make the world safer, in fact, they will heighten tensions and inspire an arms race. Already the testing of B61 has received considerable criticism from other nuclear powers. Russia called it irresponsible and provocative while North Korea termed it as a security threat to its people. Some of these countries (and even more) can also make the same weapons, hence undermining the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. The magnitude of nuclear force in even the smallest feasible weapons can lead to unprecedented consequences. Furthermore, modern nuclear weapons are not immune to uncertainties in weather conditions or errors during delivery and during target identification. A simple mistake can lead to devastating consequences. Pope Francis cautions, “nuclear weapons have long-term consequences for the world, hence, we ought not to make them easier to use, for that will devalue not just their devastation, but the lives of the survivals worldwide”[4]

In his much cited Prague speech, President Obama noted that the U.S has a moral responsibility to lead other nations towards nuclear disarmament.[5] Given that the US and Russia have been limiting their nuclear arsenal since 1969 – the US has reduced its stockpile by 84% from a Cold War peak of 31, 255 warheads in 1967  – it can be construed that the President’s speech referred to a more accelerated process. I do not think President Obama’s modern nuclear weapons, though less in number meets the spirit of his Prague speech.  Having nuclear weapons in any form is an indication that their use is not inevitable and this does not make the world safe. With the increase of non-state terrorists who can easily acquire nuclear weapons, the world should reconsider whether it is safe for any country to have a nuclear infrastructure. The US is perhaps the only country with the political influence and capability of leading other nations in achieving this. But in light of its own nuclear advancement activities, less powerful nations may not trust it to negotiate a total nuclear disarmament. Hence, countries like India and Pakistan will continue increasing their nuclear arsenal.[6]

Countries often cite deterrence as the main reason for keeping nuclear weapons but some scholars have countered that argument terming it as an imperfect security strategy,[7] immoral,[8] and impractical.[9] If indeed deterrence is the main motivation, conventional precision technologies may be able to serve the function but it seems nuclear weapons mainly function to maintain the balance of power, and as long as this continues, the world will be at risk. If political leaders cannot commit to getting rid of the nuclear scourge from the world, the citizens must do this by themselves. Civil societies and ‘towards nuclear zero’ movements should keep pushing for the realization of this goal.

[1] Lukasik, S.J., Precision technologies as possible alternatives to nuclear weapons, Center for International Strategy, technology, and Policy. Pg. 3. Accessed on 4/3/2016

[2] Cortright, D. & Vayrynnen, R. (2010) Towards Nuclear Zero. New York, NY: Routledge. Pg. 15.

[3] Cortright, D. & Vayrynnen, R. (2010) Towards Nuclear Zero. New York, NY: Routledge

[4] Pope Francis (2014) Papal statement during the Conference on Humanitarian Impact on the use of Nuclear Weapons. Vatican

[5] President Barack Obama’s remarks during his visit to Czech Republic, 2009. Accessed 4/3/2016

[6] “World Nuclear Forces,” in SIPRI Yearbook 2011: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Oxford University Press, 2011), Pg. 320-359.

[7] Cortright, D. & Vayrynnen, R. (2010) Towards Nuclear Zero. New York, NY: Routledge. Pg. 20

[8] Pope Francis (2014) Papal statement during the Conference on Humanitarian Impact on the use of Nuclear Weapons. Vatican

[9] Lukasik, S.J., Precision technologies as possible alternatives to nuclear weapons, Center for International Strategy, technology, and Policy. Pg. 3. Accessed on 4/3/2016


Thoughts on Sohail Hashmi’s Saving and Taking Life in War: Three Modern Views

Thoughts on Sohail Hashmi’s Saving and Taking Life in War: Three Modern Views

Human life is priceless. The Quran 6: 51 and 25: 68 cautions, “Do not slay the soul sanctified by God, except for just cause.” Sohail Hashmi has explored the views of modern scholars on when to preserve life and when to take it. He focuses on modern scholars because they seek to reinterpret the grounds for war – classical scholars were mainly preoccupied with how to conduct war because to them war was a norm; hence, one did not need to develop principles on when to go to war. Hashmi’s focus on modern scholars is also informed by the presence international law which is at tandem with Islamic. Hashmi discusses the views of Abu al Mawdudi, the founder of Jama ‘at-I Islam, Muhammad Hamidullah, and Wahba al- Zuhayli. The three scholars adopt the same methodology and substance in the study of the theory of jihad and more importantly they mostly concur on the ethics of killing and saving life. This article will examine their views on jus ad bellum.

Mawdudi’s position is that of the Quran: only a just cause can justify taking a life, otherwise human life is sacred (Q6:151). According to Mawdudi just cause can be defensive or reformative. He contends that life can be taken in the case of homicide, when one is retaliating. Though he does not explain the rationale behind this, one can deduce that a murder is a danger to the society, hence should not be allowed to live.  This position is however controversial given the recent debates on death sentence; whether human beings do have a right to take another life in contexts out of war. Mawdudi’s also argues that one who opposes the spread of Islam or one who spreads disorder in the domain of Islam has no right to hold onto his or her life. He further adds two more justifications from the hadith, namely: adultery and apostasy. These are contested justifications in the modern era. Issues such as apostasy have elicited a lot of debate in the recent past. The changing landscape in the nature of religion and its relationship with the state has necessitated some scholars to argue that apostasy ought to be redefined in the contemporary world where separation of state and religion is the norm. Why would anybody be killed for turning his back on a religion?

Hamidullah contends that Muslims have always thought of war as something unavoidable, but not desired. Like Mawdudi he also points out that life can be taken in the case of defense. But he goes further to include other justifications such as sympathetic, and punitive.  He explains that Muslims can take lives in war where they are defending their allies.

Zuhayli on his part contends that war is a necessary aspect of human existence, one sanctioned by the Quran for self-defense and preserving a just society.  Like Mawdudi, he argues that war can be waged against those who block the preaching of Islam. He does not explain how the explosion of technology affects the way Islam is preached or how the ever tight state borders affect the preaching of Islam. Whereas it was easier to enforce this justification in the early centuries of Islam, the modern world poses numerous challenges. There are now laws which stipulate what one can do beyond the borders of his or her country. Nowadays, preaching is an activity that is well undertaken by none state actors who do not have much power compared to governments.

The three scholar’s views on jus in bello are well aligned with the Geneva conventions and the Just War Theory. They all draw a distinction between combatants and ex-combatants and then goes ahead to state that ex-combatants must not be killed. They also concur that prisoners of war should not be killed; instead, they should be set free or ransomed. On Weapons of Mass Destructions, the scholars disagree. Mawdudi argues that Muslims are obliged to develop and acquire all types of weapons (Q 8:60). Zuhayla contents that WMD should be permitted but must only be used as a last resort and only in retaliation.

Muslim-Christian Encounter in Colonial Africa: An Assessment of Ali Mazrui’s “Triple Heritage.”

Using Ali Mazrui’s triple religious heritage as a lens, this article looks at the interplay between Islam, indigenous religion, and Christianity in the experience of colonial northern Nigeria. It finds out that characterizing modern Nigeria as a nation with three religious traditions – Christian, Islamic and indigenous, is to simplify a highly complex and pluralistic religious situation. Thus Mazrui’s triple heritage, while helpful in explaining the nature of Christian- Muslim encounter in Yorubaland, does not represent the full experience of Muslim-Christian encounters in Nigeria. The article concludes that the British colonial policies created unhealthy relationship between these religions, and in order to achieve peace, scholars and peace activists should work towards promoting inclusive religious pluralism.


Muslims and Christians have encountered each other and interacted in various ways in Africa for centuries.  The roots of their encounter go back to around 613 when the first group of Muslims was forced to move from Arabia and found refuge in the Christian kingdom of Axum (present day Ethiopia). According to Ibn Ishaq, the Ethiopian King wept profusely when he heard the leader of the Muslims, Jafar ibn Abu Talib, recite some of the verse of the Quran about Jesus. It is reported that the King later declared that there was a small difference between what he professed about Jesus and what Muslims believe. Consequently, the King rejected a Meccan decree to extradite the Muslims probably because he had been influenced by an awareness of an affinity between Christianity and Islam.[1] This account marks the first Muslim-Christian encounter in the heart of Africa, an era of relatively stable relationship and limited impact.[2]

Commenting on this encounter, Benjamin Soares noted that the boundaries between Muslims and Christians have not always been rigid, fixed or unchanging.[3] Nothing explains this phenomenon better than the story of Yarima Inusa, a Muslim, baptized by Charles Dudley, a Christian missionary in Nigeria. Inusa maintained both Islamic and Christian beliefs. In his private diary, the convert, one entry reads: “I gave a Quran to Zarafi and to Jibo a New Testament.”  Inusa’s story, in many ways, beclouds the boundaries that appear so rigid in the history of Christian-Muslim encounter in Africa.[4] Studies on the nature of the early Muslim-Christian encounter in Africa indicates that followers of these two religions lived side by side, converted to each other’s religions, learned, appropriated, and borrowed from each other. Among the scholars who have written about these encounter is Ali Mazrui, a prominent Kenyan scholar who passed away in 2014. Mazrui used a concept he termed as “Triple heritage”, which refers to African Indigenous religions, Islam and Christianity to explain the nature of Muslim-Christian relations in Africa. He argued that indigenous religions have often mitigated the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam.[5]  Using Mazrui’s concept of “Triple Heritage” as a lens, this paper will examine Muslim-Christian encounter in colonial Nigeria.

Triple religious heritage

Triple religious heritage was first articulated in 1967 by Edward Blyden, a Pan-Africanist and a Liberian politician.[6] It was later developed in 1970 by another pan-Africanist and founding president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. In his book, Consciencism, Nkrumah traced the origin of the contemporary African religious heritage to three major forces: Indigenous traditions, Islam, and Euro-Christian impact.[7] Ali Mazrui expounded and propagated this concept with great eloquence, passion, and persistence. Most of his writings are informed by this world view.[8]

In his seminal work, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Mazrui explained that contemporary Africa’s triple heritage is composed of indigenous, Islamic and Christian legacies, and that indigenous African religion is the most tolerant of the three religions. He attributed this to the communal nature of indigenous religions, which is different from either Islam or Christianity – the two religions are universalist in aspiration and are always seeking to convert others. He further asserted that the best embodiments of this heritage are Nigeria and Sudan.[9]

Scholars have discussed how much Christians and Muslims in Africa (excluding North Africa) owe to Indigenous religions – though ‘encounter’ implies a meeting of rivals,[10] Muslim-Christian encounter in colonial Africa was not necessarily combative because distinctive local African elements gave to distinctive synthesis.[11] For instance, unlike North Africa, which was Islamized through conquest and was subsequently Arabized, much of West Africa especially Nigeria retained its African identity.  Using Nigeria as a case study, this paper seeks to dissect this triple religious heritage concept with the aim of explaining the nature of Christian-Muslim encounter in Colonial Nigeria.

Why Nigeria

This paper contextualizes this study in Nigeria, first, because Mazrui has used it to validate his theory of triple heritage. Secondly, because Nigeria has almost equal population of Christians and Muslims and has a unique ethnic composition with three major ethnic groups that have played a major role in Christian-Muslim encounter – Hausa (majorly Muslim), Igbo (majorly Christian), and Yoruba (equally divided between Muslims and Christians). Of the three, it is arguable that the strongest and most resilient indigenous culture is the Yoruba. [12] The Yoruba culture has absorbed both Christianity and Islam, and still insisted on the supremacy of the indigenous. According to Mazrui, the Yoruba are the best illustration of the triple heritage at work – with the indigenous as the first among equals. Moreover, Mazrui has stated that Christianized Yoruba are usually Yoruba first and Christian second, and Islamized Yoruba are usually Yoruba first and Muslims second.[13]  Thirdly, Nigeria has a significant number of people who still subscribe to indigenous religions. In fact, research shows that even those who confess to either Christianity or Islam, still incorporate elements of indigenous religions in their daily life.[14] One wonders, if the indigenous religions are the glue that ties Muslims and Christians, why is Nigeria experiencing interreligious violence? Those are the factors that make Nigeria a perfect case for studying the triple heritage concept. The next section will briefly describe the origin of the three religions (Indigenous, Islam, and Christianity) in Nigeria and highlight early encounter.

Origin of Indigenous, Islamic and Christian Religions in Nigeria

Majority of the Christians in Nigeria live in the southeastern geographical zones while majority of Muslims are concentrated in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the country. The southwest and north-central zones have reasonably balanced numbers of Muslims and Christians; except for Benue State, which is entirely composed of Christians and followers of Traditional Religion.[15]

Nigerians were religious people long before the coming of Islam and Christianity. They followed the traditional religion of their ancestors and traditional religion in this sense does not refer to primitive practices, but rather to the indigenous religion that has been handed down from generation to generation.[16] This is a religion embedded in the people’s myths, folktales, songs, dances, liturgies, shrines, proverbs, and pithy sayings. “It is a religion whose historical founder is neither known nor worshipped; it is a religion that has no zeal for membership drive, yet it offers persistent fascination for Africans, young and old.” [17] It is at the backdrop of these religion that we examine the emergence and expansion of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria.

Scholars believe Islam first entered northern Nigeria around the fourteenth century,[18] when the Wangarawa from Mali brought Islam to Nigeria.[19] Initially, indigenous religions were a huge road block to Islam in Nigeria. It thus took a long time before Islam got a foothold in the country and even this was only possible because Hausa Kings chose to embrace both Islam and indigenous religions – not wishing to offend powerful cult priests, they continued to practice ancient rites. Consequently, Muslim converts tolerated indigenous practices. But it was not until the seventeenth century that Islam got well established in several northern cities. Whereas the original expansion of Islam from the fourteenth century to eighteenth century was mainly achieved through the activities of traders, missionaries, brotherhoods, and political leaders, the nineteenth century ushered in a new era of expansion in the form of jihad of Usman dan Fodio who believed he had a mission to reform Islam.[20] Dan Fodio saw himself as the “Renewer of Faith” sent by God.[21] Interestingly, his jihad was first aimed at the Hausa Muslims who he accused of practicing a corrupted Islam due to their tendency to incorporate indigenous religious practices into Islam. Hence, he sought to purify Islam by ridding it elements of indigenous religion and he successfully managed to establish Nigeria’s first caliphate, Sokoto. Fodio’s determination to seek the islamization of entire Nigeria was put to a stop by the British.

When Lugard’s army captured the territories he had conquered, Dan Fodio’s Islamic empire came to knees. However, Lugard was very keen not to antagonize Muslims. He pledged to preserve their freedom to practice Islam (I will talk about the effect of this in the next section). Nevertheless, he forced them to pledge allegiance to his majesty King George V and his representative the Governor-General of Nigeria, hence, highlighting the political subordination of Muslim leaders.[22] This event marked the beginning of special consideration accorded Islam and Muslims by colonial administration. As Islam was spreading in the second half of the nineteenth century, Christianity was just laying its foundations.

Christian entry into Nigeria can be traced back to around 1848 thanks to the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Earlier attempt to evangelize Nigeria by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century had failed because the Portuguese were more concerned with business than evangelization. Unlike Islam, they failed to take into account the importance of Indigenous religion, hence failed in their mission. [23]

The fact that Islam had already gained a foothold in northern Nigeria made it difficult for Christians to evangelize. When Samuel Ajayi Crowther and other freed slaves or returnees (as some preferred to call them) from Sierra Leone, Latin America and Brazil made their way into Nigeria, It was believed the era of Christianity had finally come. The European missionaries saw this group as reliable instruments for evangelization in Nigeria and beyond. However, the group met a strong resistance when they tried meeting the Emir of Kano around 1891. They had assumed that the high population of uneducated northern Nigeria will embrace Christianity and missionary education but were disappointed when the Emir repudiated their plans.[24]

Whereas in the north, Christianity had to confront Islam as established religion, it was different in many Yoruba towns because both religions appeared around the same time. Christianity’s appropriation of Western education was to give it an edge in Yoruba land. Mazrui argues that Islam had a strong hold in northern Nigeria because it was more culturally accommodating and less subject than Christianity to ‘disafricanization’, and also because of its flexibility in leadership structure – no formal head of global Islam.[25] Thus, Muslim missionaries in northern Nigeria could indulge particular departures from mainstream Islam.

We will now look at how colonization impacted Muslim-Christian encounter in the early twentieth century.

Impact of colonization on Muslim-Christian encounter

Before the merger of 1914, present day Nigeria was two entities, northern and southern. The merger gave it much the form it has today, and created a colonial entity that was much more religiously diverse than otherwise would have been the case. The northern with its predominantly Islamic majority and the southern which was composed of people who practiced animism, but who under the pressures and enticements of colonial and missionary education, were gradually becoming Christianized.[26]

Colonial policies in northern Nigeria benefited Islam and antagonized Christianity. Sir Fredrick Lugard, the steward of the colony, operated with the false assumption that Islam was by default the religion of the people, even though the presence of indigenous religions was evident. Lugard and his team assumed that non-Muslim indigenous people would become Muslims eventually.[27] Therefore, based on the scheme to sustain this assumption, Lugard pledged to the Sultan the commitment of the British administrators to protect the Muslims of the north from Christian evangelization. His successors upheld this pledge, which by implication meant that Christian missionaries would not penetrate northern Nigeria. Of course Lugard was not interested in preserving Islam, he was interested in the economic gains and the existing political structure of the Fulani political leaders were ideal for the success of the Indirect Rule system, which he favored strongly toward a successful British control of the vast land in northern Nigeria.[28]

Lugard gave the emirs of the north the power over granting access to the Christian missionaries. He was cautious not to antagonize northern Muslims. For instance, he did not press hard for introducing Western education into these Muslim areas or for teaching English language. This policy defined the nature of Muslim-Christian encounter during the colonial era and it set the tone of conflict between these two religions.

Several failed attempts by Christian missionaries to evangelize northern Nigeria proved that Muslims in northern Nigeria had deep-seated resentment toward Christianity and Christians.[29] But one thing that was to rattle these social conditions of Islam-dominated northern Nigeria was the significance and necessity of Western education. Colonial administrators soon faced one challenge: Quranic schools, which were the only ones allowed to operate in the Islam-dominated territories, could not provide the skills needed to run the colony. For instance, the railway services, which connected the north to the south, needed engineers and other Western educated skilled workers and professionals. Thus, Lugard allowed Christian missionaries to introduce schools in the north since they were the only ones with the funds to establish the kinds of schools needed. Soon Christians started engaging in proselytization. A large group of their converts were “nonindigenous” native Christians, who had immigrated to northern Nigeria to provide the skilled and civil service jobs needed in the north. The second group consisted of indigenous people of the north who embraced Christianity because of the western education and the opportunities it offers. The third group of Christians consisted of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.[30]

Over time many of the emirs and northern aristocrats who came to understand the importance of western education approved it for their children and ward. In time those who accessed western education became new leaders of the society. Minority ethnic Muslims embraced western education since they could not access Quranic education.[31] Overall the impact of western education on these non-Muslim minorities of northern Nigeria will be felt decades later and become even more widespread in post-independence northern Nigeria.

The Yoruba and Triple heritage effect

Christian-Muslim encounter in Nigeria was not uniform, it differed from one region to another. For instance, eastern Nigeria has never been won by Islam which explains why it is free of Muslim-Christian violence. North-central Nigeria has a large Christian population, and the rest of the region is predominantly Islamic, and in the west, both religions have a long history of peaceful coexistent. Both Islam and Christianity failed to displace many aspects of Yoruba culture, enabling the Yoruba to moderate their tensions and competitions in constructive ways. Unlike dan Fodio who decried the prevalence of Islamic practices in the Hausa states, the Yoruba Muslims found they had to accommodate and incorporate indigenous religions that have tended to give Yoruba Islam a different orientation to the present day. In Yoruba many aspects of traditional religions came to influence Islamic practices, or at least became tolerated to a degree that enabled people of different religions to coexist. In the words of Mazrui: “The Yoruba managed a successful case of accommodation in the nineteenth century, which has minimized tension and violence in the region.”[32]

J.D.Y. Peel’s studied Christian and Muslim presence in the nineteenth century Yoruba land and revealed that Yoruba people “responded to Christianity and Islam as alternate variants of the same phenomenon, to be assessed by a common criterion of their effectiveness in mediating between God and man.”[33] Peel’s assertion emphasizes the ecumenical character of African culture. Thus, it is not reasonable to speak about the encounter between Christians and Muslims within African societies without reference to the cultural standards that guarantee and condition this relationship. For instance, in Yorubaland, Christians and Muslims live side by side, celebrate their differences and do not see doctrinal differences as constituting a formidable barrier to interfaith encounters and relations. Theirs is not lazy pluralism, where the particularity of each faith is obliterated for the sake of ‘getting along’ but rather a de jure religious pluralism – “which holds that the existence of multiple religions is not only a defacto social reality but also a de jure divine-human relationship.”[34]

One of the significant points of departure in interfaith encounter among the Yoruba people is the acceptance of the presence and legitimacy of other religions as symbolic mediators of the sacred encounter.  This understanding of other religions, according to Akinade Akintunde, is not derived from an evaluation of them as abstract systems or structures. Rather, it is based on an unequivocal appreciation of the experience of people who practice and the activity of God in their lives as portrayed in their ethical and spiritual commitments.

It was easier for the Yoruba to accept other religions because theirs unlike Christianity and Islam, which tend to be universal, is of a communal nature. For instance, as Mazrui pointed out, the Yoruba do not seek to convert the Ibo to Yoruba or vice versa. Nor do either the Igbo or Yoruba compete to convert a third group like the Hausa. Thus, by not being proselytizing religion, indigenous religions never fought each other. Instead they mitigated the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam, which were seeking to convert the whole humankind.[35]

Mazrui further points out that due to their accommodating nature, indigenous religions were easily combined with either Christianity or Islam. This means that a Yoruba traditional worshiper could embrace Christianity or Islam but a Christian cannot be a Muslim at the same time and vice versa.

John S. Mbiti, a renowned African religious scholar, takes the centrality of indigenous religions in Muslim-Christian encounter to another level by asserting that Islam and Christianity had made very little ideological penetration into the African mind. That the two are religious for one day of the week, for the other six days and for all times of crisis the African traditional religions predominate.[36]

Inclusive religious pluralism in Nigeria like the one the Yoruba practices may be the key to solving Christian-Muslim violence.


The British colonial policy on Islam and Christianity discouraged followers and leaders of both religions in maintaining healthy relationships, for they tended to see each other as rivals. They were not encouraged to conveniently coexist, their negativity toward each other became even more glaring in the post-independence era. These policies sowed unhealthy regional politics that sought for what was best for each region rather than what was in the best interest of Nigeria as a country. Despite this, Yoruba land has enjoyed relative peace and positive relationship between Muslims and Christians not just because of the centrality of indigenous religion in their beliefs, but because of their inclusive plurality.

Given that most scholars seem to agree that an inclusive religious plurality enabled Yoruba Muslims, Christians and indigenous religionist live harmoniously, peace activists or inter-faith scholars should focus on how the theology of inclusive pluralism can be applied in Nigeria. Scholars contend that Islam has the most explicit inclusivity, evident in sacred scriptures (Q. 29:46; Q. 4:163-164; Q. 30:22-29 and 49:13; Q. 2:148 and 5:48). [37]

Early Christian fathers such as Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and many others may have made it difficult for the church to embrace pluralism[38] but recent developments indicate that the church has made steps in recognizing Islam. These efforts should be taken to a further step where all religions can embrace inclusive pluralism.

[1] Haafkens, J., “The Direction of Christian-Muslim Relations in Sub-Saharan Africa”, in Y. Haddad & Haddad (red): Christian-Muslim Encounters, (University Press of Florida, 1995)

[2] Voll, J., “African Muslims and Christians in World History: The Irrelevance of the “Clash of Civilizations”, in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, Brill, 18-38

[3] Soares B. (ed). Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa. (Boston, MA: Brill), 13

[4] Shankar, S. (2006): “A Fifty-Year Muslim Conversion to Christianity: Religious Ambiguities and Colonial Boundaries in Northern Nigeria, c. 1906-1963”, in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, Brill.

[5] Mazrui, A.,“African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.”Third World Quartery, 10  no. 2 (1988), 499-518.

[6] Blyden, E. 1967. Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. 3rd Edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

[7] Nkrumah, K. Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-colonization. (London: Panaf Books Ltd, 1970)

[8] Adem, S. “Ali A. Mazrui, the Postcolonial Theorist” African Studies Review, 57 no. 1 (2014), pp. 135-152.

[9] Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple heritage, (Toronto, Little, Brown & Company, 1986)

[10] Benjamin Soares

[11] Voll, J (2006): “African Muslims and Christians in World History: The Irrelevance of the “Clash of Civilizations”, in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, Brill. pp.18-38.

[12] Mazrui, A.,“African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.”Third World Quartery, 10  no. 2 (1988), 499-518.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Tolerance and Tensions: Islam and Christianity in Africa, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010

[15] Sampson, I.T., (2014) Religion and the Nigerian State: Sitruating the de faacto and de jure Frontiers of State-Religion Relations and its Implications for National Security Security, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 3(2). Pp. 311-339.

[16] Okpalanozie, M.J. Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion in Nigeria: Conflicts and Challenges to Peaceful Co-existence. (Germany: eos, 2011)

[17] Awolalu, J.O., “Sin and its removal in African Traditional Religion” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44/2 (1976), p.275

[18] Al-Hajj, C.F.M.A., “A Seventeenth Century Chronicle on the Origins and Missionary Activities of the Wangarawa” in Kano Chronicles, 1:4 (1968), p.11.

[19] Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple heritage, (Toronto, Little, Brown & Company, 1986), 95

[20] Falola, T (1998). Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

[21] Okpalanozie, M.J. Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion in Nigeria: Conflicts and Challenges to Peaceful Co-existence. (Germany: eos, 2011)         , 58

[22] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan, 2013)

[23] Okpalanozie, M.J. Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion in Nigeria: Conflicts and Challenges to Peaceful Co-existence. (Germany: eos, 2011)

[24] Kenny, J., “Christian-Muslim Relations in Nigeria” in Islamo Christiana, Rome, 1986), 172.

[25] Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple heritage, (Toronto, Little, Brown & Company, 1986) 114

[26] Folola, T., Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998), 34

[27] Andrew E. Barnes, “ ‘The Great Prohibition’: The Expansion of Christianity in Colonial Northern Nigeria,” History Compass 8, no 6 (2010): 441

[28] Folola, T., Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998), 52

[29] E.A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, 1842-1914: A Political and Social Analysis (London: Longmans, 1966), 117ff.

[30] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan, 2013), 23

[31] Ibid. 24

[32] Mazrui, A.,“African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.”Third World Quartery, 10  no. 2 (1988), 499-518.

[33] Peel, J.D.Y., Engaging Islam in Nineteeteenth-Century Yorubaland,” (NAMP Position Paper 27), 27-30.

[34] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan), 2013), 156.

[35] Mazrui, A. (1988). African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion. Third World Quartery, 10 (2), pp. 499-518

[36] Mbiti, J. S., African Religions and Philosophy. (London, UK: Heinemann, 1968), 263

[37] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan, 2013), 160.

[38] Ibid. 160


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