Why the Cartoon Protest turned Lethal in Northern Nigeria


Sunday B. Agang


In September 2005 a Danish newspaper, Jyllylands-Poste, published a series of 12 Cartoons which included a caricature depiction of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb on his head. The Moslems in Denmark non-violently protested the publication. But in the respect for freedom of the press, the Danish Government apparently did not do anything to abate the situation.

In late January 2006 it was reported that the Danish Imams, who protested the publication of 12 Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September, announced that they wanted to end the dispute. For four months the Imams and their radical Muslim organizations have unsuccessfully demanded government censorship.  No attention was given to their concern. Instead, to worsen matters, in January 2006 a couple of Norwegian newspapers decided to republish the cartoons in support of the Danish paper.

In early February 2006 Moslems in the other Moslem countries followed suit in responding outrageously to the publications. These protests have spilled over to many other countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, resulting in the killing of innocent lives, torching of foreign embassies and boycotting Danish products, among other things. Of course I think this publication was indeed insensitive to the volatile situation in the global community.

In Nigeria several states, in the violent torn Northern region, also joined their cousins in the Moslem world. Kano State merely cancelled a contract with the Danish Government. But in Maiduguri, the Born State capital, the protest resulted in the death of 51 people, mostly Christians, and the torching down of 40 churches.  In Bauchi, the protest against the cartoons was said to have started from a government secondary school on February 20, 2006 and gradually spilled into the town, creating pandemonium. People ran helter-skelter with parents rushing to schools to pick their children while business places were quickly closed. In Maiduguri where the riot started, a Reverend Father, Mr. Mike Gajere of Saint Rita’s Catholic Church was among the victims as he was attacked by the hoodlums and set ablaze with petrol.

In a related development, at least one person was killed while five persons sustained various degrees of injuries in Katsina Feb. 18, 2006. Police allegedly shot into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the planned public hearing on the amendment of the 1999 Constitution, which they believed was aimed at creating a third term in office for President Olusegun Obasanjo.

These attacks of non-Muslims in the northern region of Nigeria have resulted in counter-attacks in the Christian South Eastern region. In the Nigerian Vanguard, it was reported that “Christian mobs rampaged through a southern Nigerian city Feb. 21, 2006, burning mosques and killing several people in an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence that followed deadly protests against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad over the weekend. Residents and witnesses in the southern, predominantly Christian city of Onitsha said several Muslims with origins in the north were beaten to death by mobs which also burned two mosques there.” As of Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006 the number of people killed in the Onitsha counter reaction has risen to 100.

The violence appeared to be in reprisal for anti-Christian violence Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 in the mostly Muslim northern city of Maiduguri in which thousands of Muslims protesting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad attacked Christians and burned churches, killing at least 51 people.

I am struck by this phenomenon of protest in Nigeria. Why the difference in reaction between Kano, Katsina and Borno States? Why would a protest against a foreign newspaper publication turn to violence meted out to innocent Christians in Nigeria?

My take on this is that the cause of these spirals of violence is multifaceted. First, there is the immediate anger against the publication as well as pressure to show solidarity with the Moslems’ Ummah. A second reason is to connect that dot with what is going on in some of the countries where the protests are severest. In Nigeria for example, there is a general animosity with the way things are going in the political arena. The Katsina state protest against alleged-planned constitutional amendment of the 1999 Constitution is a window to the Maiduguri violent attack on Christians and torching down of churches. There has been rumor that President O. Obasanjo of Nigeria wants to go for another third term in office next year, 2007. This rumor does not settle well with his Vice President Abubakar Atiku (a Muslim from the Maiduguri area) and other top politicians who are also vying for the Presidency in 2007. When you look at the reaction in Kano and Maiduguri there is a difference. In Kano, which is a claimed center of Islamic culture, Danish contract and product were rejected. In Maiduguri however, the reaction was far more than anger against the Danish or other European nations. Rather, it was outright violence meted against innocent Christians and their places of worship and businesses.  This Maiduguri protest has a political undercurrent which is connected to the general discontentment of the political situation. Third, ethnic and religious grievances have been embedded in most parts of the Nigerian nation.  It’s almost a social phenomenon. Fourth, Born State is the former North West headquarters, and thus the acclaimed center of Islamic religious purity. It is partly this background that has heightened the reaction.

In sum, the cartoon controversy has been hijacked by unscrupulous politicians who are always looking for opportunity to stir up any situation for the satisfaction of their lethal interests. Generally, the situation reveals human beings continuously masking the larger socio-political, socio-religious, and socio-economic discontentment. It is a built-in-anger that seizes any opportunity to strike its lethal intentions.

The intentions of the Maiduguri protest and the resulting killing of innocent lives, and burning down of churches, could help just peacemakers in Nigeria call attention to motives that some protestors have for unscrupulous behavior.

Second, our freedom should not be exercised to the detriment of others. Christians should not forget that in a world infested with the agents of death we are called to be servants of life!

Third, we should equally realize both in the Middle East and in Europe, Muslims are rebelling against their regimes of oppressors. Rebellion has been defined by Russell as “a form of violent power struggle in which overthrow of the regime is threatened by means that includes violence.” Rebellion has normally taken two forms: either mass or coup d’état. Above all, we must not forget that violence keeps some people in business. This includes weapon manufacturers, politicians, contractors, oil companies and economic brokers.

Finally, we ought to remember that Jesus urge us to be just peacemakers in a world prone to violence in the name of God!! Just a thought

Sunday B. Agang

SOT Fuller Theological Seminary