The Nigerian elections have happened, except in a few states for the governors, where a rerun has now taken place and results are emerging – again, mostly contested on account of violence. The national elections have been challenged in the court, and further comments on these judicial proceedings are improper by a foreigner in advance of a ruling.
However, now that the elections are past there is an opportunity for a reset and new beginning in some of those things that are of wider concern around the world, concerns of justice and peace of significance for all who love Nigeria and care for its people.
For a Christian leader, one of the major issues is the level of violence or potential violence in different parts of the country, especially where there is an element of systematic violence perpetrated against vulnerable sections of society, including against Christians. Such worries are not only, of course, about Christians. All killing matters terribly, and in some parts of Nigeria, there have been far more Muslims than Christians murdered, for example by Boko Haram. In the north west (Zamfara State) kidnappings and killings by bandits have been very severe.
However, I am writing especially about the continuing herdsmen and farmer disputes in the middle belt of Nigeria. Let’s be clear, these are of immense complexity, with historic causes deep in the past, and parallels around the world. As well as the long history, the clashes are very probably influenced by climate change, and driven by socio- economic factors. When looking at any conflict, one of the worst things one can do is to try and simplify it into one issue, or a couple of issues, for that prevents anyone addressing the challenge posed, and treats people only as categories, not human beings.
But let’s also be clear, in many parts of Nigeria, and especially in the middle belt, there is a distinct element that relates to belief where Muslim and Christian communities are suffering appalling outrages, in part because of their faith. Christians are unquestionably being targeted and have been for many years. It is an area I know reasonably well, having been there on several occasions, including during periods of severe disturbance and violence. I am aware of the complexity, and cautious about being too prescriptive, but I am also aware of evidence of a clearly religious dynamic to the attacks, by some of the herdsmen groups, with weapons coming down from further north in Africa.
We have to add to the immense physical suffering of people in the middle belt, including the Christian farmers who have seen enormous losses of people, the economic suffering by people elsewhere in areas of Nigeria that should be rich. At the heart of these is the Niger Delta, known in Nigeria as the south-south, where almost all the oil is produced onshore or offshore. Here there remains sporadic violence, militia activity, immense distinctions between rich and poor, huge levels of pollution, and the marginalisation and terrible suffering of those without resources. The governorship elections in River State were postponed, as they were in Kano, Benue, Sokoto and Bauchi, owing to the localised violence which made INEC - the electoral umpire - declare them inconclusive.
Finally, no discussion of violence in Nigeria is proper without a focus on Islamic State in West Africa and Boko Haram, both in the North East of the country. In recent weeks there have been rocket attacks on Maiduguri, and there have been further captures of hostages, both in the North East and in other parts of Nigeria, including the murder of yet another Christian pastor. Many schoolgirls, notably Leah Sharibu, are still held and suffering profoundly.
Again, we must not oversimplify, but very often the Christian minorities are especially vulnerable.
We know from experience in the UK that dealing with insurgencies, such as the troubles in Northern Ireland, is sophisticated, complex and demanding of time and effort on an extraordinary scale. British history means that a British person should always speak with humility.
On the other hand it is the fundamental understanding of the theory of government that its first duty is to the security of all its citizens impartially, and ethical government requires that to be done with justice. It is right for religious leaders to speak out, even in places outside their own country, when the poor face dreadful hardship, when inequality adds to it, and insecurity renders many lives close to intolerable.
Nigeria has the greatest population in Africa, enormous talent, vast natural resources, a life and energy which is comparable to anywhere in the world. Its potential is enormous.
My prayer and hope for Nigeria is that the elections having now past, and whatever the outcomes of court cases challenging the result, that there can be a collective national effort to ensure security, the end to all religious discrimination and to the persecution of Christians in areas where they are vulnerable, and care for the poor. We pray that this extraordinary, brilliant and wonderful country may emerge on the world stage as the leader it should be.
Justin Welby is the 105th and current Archbishop of Canterbury