Christian, Igbo leaders call for national conference on Nigeria's future

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NIGERIA, 17 March 2000 (Newsroom) – Nigerians need to hold a national conference to decide if they want to continue as one country, leaders of a prominent Christian organization and a tribal political group said this month.

The Imo state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) chapter in eastern Nigeria said it supports the call of the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo, an Igbo socio-political organization, for such a conference. "Although Nigerian unity is worth wishing for, we cannot continue to live in a Nigeria that constantly exposes persons and groups to danger," CAN said in its communique read by the state chairman, the Rev. J.V. Obinna after a meeting last weekend.

Many Nigerians fear that the country is headed for civil war in the wake of religious riots last month that claimed more than 400 lives in Kaduna after Christians protesting the introduction of the Sharia (Islamic law) penal system were attacked by Muslim youths. Eight northern states, whose populations are at least half Muslim, declared their intent to insert Sharia into the penal code, but agreed to rescind the action after a meeting of President Olusegun Obasanjo, all 36 governors, and former heads of state.

Nigeria’s constitution permits Sharia as it relates to family matters such as inheritance, marriage, and adoption, but not criminal activity. Sharia penal law permits flogging, amputation, and beheading for some crimes. Separate lawsuits challenging the legality of Sharia were filed earlier this year in Zamfara state and Lagos. No court dates have been set yet.

The calls for a national conference on the country’s political problems dates back to 1994 when a presidential election was annulled by the military government of President Ibrahim Babagida.

Obinna said that "a national conference on the state and future of our nation would help to show us the way forward." Though Christians seek to live in peace with everyone no matter their religion and ethnic group, CAN warned that their peace-loving nature should not be taken for granted.

"Had the government taken our warning on the impending danger over Sharia seriously, the murderous violence and reprisals in Kaduna and other parts of the country would not have taken place," Obinna read from the statement. "We condemned in unequivocal terms the known and secret instigators and agents who used the cause of Sharia to kill fellow Nigerians and assault the integrity of Nigeria as one nation."

Some religious leaders believe that recent clashes between Muslims and Christians are politically motivated by disgruntled former military officers who were purged from the army by Obasanjo soon after he took office in May last year. Nigeria’s military has had a history of toppling democratically elected governments since the country achieved independence in 1960.

Leaders of Ohaneze Ndi Igbo in eastern Nigeria recently called for a national conference on the country’s future, calling the crisis over Sharia a "manifestation of a fundamental problem concerning the terms and conditions for association of Nigeria as a nation."

"Nigeria must remain a partnership in which all parties must be satisfied. Nigeria must also always bear in mind that a partnership in which some parties are not satisfied cannot endure," said Ben Nwabueze of the Igbo group.

At the same time, the Middle Belt Progressive Movement – whose members represent the central states of Benue, Nasarawa, Kogi, Kwara, Plateau, Niger, Taraba, Adamawa, and Gombe, as well as parts of Bauchi, Borno, Yobe, Kaduna, Kebbi, and the Federal Capital Territory – said it was determined to ensure that what it called the northern oligarchy would not use the introduction of Sharia to derail Nigeria's democratic government, according to The Guardian, Nigeria’s leading daily newspaper.

In a four-page communique the group’s members said they have been marginalized by northern politicians, who ruled Nigeria from independence in 1961 until May 1999, and that they are mobilizing the youth of the Middle Belt to ensure the area is not dominated by anyone.

The Anglican Communion reported that Bishop Benjamin A. Kwashi of Jos, Plateau state, said that as the local chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria he met with denominational leaders, tribal chiefs, and others who agreed to try to make Jos safe. They did that, he said, by resorting to prayer, setting up a special week of prayers among Christians in the state from February 28 to March 6.

Bishop Josiah Fearon of the Diocese of Kaduna warned in December of his concern that Nigeria may break up in a religious civil war over Sharia, according to the Church of England Newspaper. Kwashi also has expressed fears of a civil war, the newspaper said.

Nigeria experienced civil war beginning in 1967 when thousands of Ibos in northern Nigeria were killed, and tens of thousands more fled, triggering a secession bid by the southeast to create a separate country of Biafra. An estimated 1 million people died before Biafra was defeated by the rest of Nigeria.

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