Beyond salvation

Nigeria hosted the Miss World pageant hoping this would help clear its anti-secular image. But the plan backfired when Muslim fundamentalists in the country’s north responded violently to an article in a daily which they thought insulted the Prophet Mohamed. Instead of an international reputation as a democratic and secular country, Nigeria is now beset with more internal strife. –YaleGlobal.

Beyond salvation

The sectarian violence that resulted in the cancellation of the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria threw into sharp focus the country's ominous religious divide
Gamal Nkrumah
Thursday, November 28, 2002

Beauty is only skin deep, but in Nigeria, it has assumed such profoundness that in the preparations to stage an international beauty queen pageant an estimated 250 lives were lost because of sectarian violence. The beauty queens spent 10 largely successful and stress-free days touring Nigeria, stopping mainly in the predominantly Christian southern parts of the country. Expediently, they avoided the mostly Muslim north where violent rallies initially erupted to protest the staging of such a pageant in which near-naked contestants would vie to win what in conservative religious eyes was an iniquitous and highly dubious trophy.

The contestants were given the red carpet treatment -- they were feted and fussed over wherever they went. The Nigerian government had invested dearly, both in financial and political terms, in hosting the pageant. After years of bad publicity because of corruption, sectarian violence and lately, the sentencing of two women, presumed adulteresses, to stoning to death by Islamic Shari'a courts, Nigerian authorities were keen to present a largely secular and democratic image of Nigeria to the world.

The current Miss World, Agbani Darego of Nigeria, is the first black African woman to win the much sought after title. Since traditionally, the pageant is staged in the home country of the reigning beauty queen, Nigerian authorities were given a golden opportunity to brighten the country's tarnished image.

Everything, unfortunately, went horribly wrong. As turnarounds go, this was in the major- league. First there were doubts about Nigeria's capacity to host the international event. There were security concerns to begin with, but Nigerian authorities went to great lengths to assure the organisers that the country was perfectly safe. Second, the date of the event was shifted to 7 December after the end of the holy month of Ramadan to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities.

Then came the bombshell. The popular Nigerian daily This Day published an article in which it suggested that the Prophet Mohamed would probably have selected one of the contestants as a bride had he witnessed the beauty pageant. And, all hell was let loose.

The article was the spark that ignited the flames of religious rioting in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna. It was, in effect, a declaration of war. Angry Muslim mobs attacked the Kaduna offices of This Day and the violence claimed the lives of over 250 people and an estimated 500 were injured. Kaduna, in the predominantly Muslim north, has been the scene of sectarian violence as it is home to a large Christian minority of over 40 per cent of the population.

The Miss World contestants were hurriedly flown out of Nigeria on Saturday to London, which the pageant's organisers chose as a new venue.

His country in the news once again because of religious rioting, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo warned against what he called "irresponsible journalism" which he regretted was "committed against Islam". This Day editor Simon Kolawole was promptly detained and the reporter fired.

"It is unfortunate that the main event was cancelled in Nigeria," Christopher Ariyo, minister plenipotentiary at the Nigerian Embassy in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We regret the organisers' decision to move the venue to London, and especially so because the Nigerian government was prepared to provide maximum security for the contestants."

There is growing concern that newspaper articles that mix shock value with humour, and in- your-face insults with slurs on Islam and Muslims fan the fires of sectarian strife. "We enjoy an absolute freedom of the press in Nigeria. It is regrettable that some journalists take advantage and resort to extreme sensationalism in what amounts to an abuse of democracy," Ariyo said. "Given the timing and sensitivities surrounding religious matters in Nigeria, the publication of the article was not right."

The Nigerian government has taken some tentative steps to remedy the situation. A night-time curfew was enforced and hundreds of suspected trouble-makers were arrested. In Kaduna, more than 1,000 Christians barricaded themselves in a local brewery compound and sought police protection from avenging Muslim zealots. This Day retracted the article and issued a public apology. "We regret the article was published during Ramadan, but we accept the apology of the publishers," said Kaduna state Governor Ahmed Mohamed Makarfi. Kaduna state announced that Christian defendants will be tried by civilian jurisdiction, while Muslims will stand before Islamic Shari'a courts.

Many Nigerians believe that a hidden foreign hand is, at least, partly to blame. "I salute the courage of the contestants. They came all the way here despite the opinions of the international press, particularly the British press," Nigeria's Information Minister Jerry Gana said angrily. He spoke of an "international conspiracy" designed to "show that an African country like Nigeria cannot host [large international gatherings and events like the Miss World beauty pageant]".

There were fears that militant Islamists will target the beauty queens for retribution, especially as the contestants were accommodated in five- star hotels near Abuja's main mosque. Organisers were worried that zealots might go on the rampage after Friday prayers and physically attack the beauty queens. But the Nigerian authorities insisted that neither of the two five-star deluxe hotels were that close to the main mosque. "Security was heightened at the Abuja Sheraton and Hilton and there was never any danger to the lives of the contestants," Ariyo said.

The Nigerian capital Abuja is a multi-religious city, and as it is a fairly recent creation, is relatively free of the impoverished shantytowns that have unfortunately become a defining feature of the urban Nigerian landscape. These slums also happen to be hotbeds of militant Islam in northern Nigerian cities, seething with poverty, unemployment and social unrest due to the near complete breakdown of social welfare, health and educational services provision.

In February 2000, over 2,000 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna. There were other incidents of violence since, in other northern Nigerian states, such as Kano, which is the economic powerhouse of the region, and which also has a relatively large and prosperous Christian minority. Similar clashes have also taken place in Plateau state.

It is against this grim backdrop that the nascent Nigerian democracy struggles to find itself. It is in the context of Nigerian democratisation, too, that the imposition of Islamic Shari'a law in 12 predominantly Muslim northern Nigerian states two years ago has alarmed both non- Muslims and moderate Muslims in Nigeria.

Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, a leading secularist, has called for "punitive internal sanctions" against states implementing Shari'a. Soyinka said the application of Islamic Shari'a laws in these states "make them de-facto independent states -- theocratic states -- within what is a secular constitutional arrangement".

Mercifully, no woman has actually been stoned to death in Nigeria, and both local and international human rights organisations are determined to protect prospective women on death row for ostensibly committing adultery. Moreover, Obasanjo has vowed that no Nigerian is to be stoned to death for adultery. Nevertheless, high-profile incidents such as the case of Amina Lawal -- a Muslim woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in March by an Islamic Shari'a court in Bakori, in northern Nigeria -- have attracted much attention. On 19 August, a Shari'a court of appeal in Funtua, Katsina, overturned the death sentence, but still Nigeria's image was irreparably damaged. The acquital in March of another Muslim Nigerian woman, Safiya Husseini, also hit the headlines.

There is a sense that Nigeria lags behind other African countries on the road to democracy. "We have dug ourselves into Shari'a; into a situation where we have become the laughing stock of the world, because we are discussing things like stoning women to death in the 21st century," said professor Chinua Achebe, the veteran doyen of Nigeria's literary scene and perhaps the most widely read and influential of Africa's writers. Achebe, an ethnic Igbo from southeastern Nigeria, is among many Nigerians -- Animists, Christians and even Muslims -- who do not want to conform to a strict Islamic lifestyle.

"Because someone else doesn't want us to stage the beauty pageant, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to," a Muslim Nigerian student at Cairo's Al-Azhar University told the Weekly. "People now mistakenly think that Nigerian Muslims are aiding and abetting terrorism and oppressing their Christian compatriots," he said. "It is really sad that we, in Africa, seem to be having a throwback period that's all about bigotry and narrow-mindedness." Like many other Nigerians, he believes that it is time to rectify a period of deep disappointments.

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