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Can Nigeria's Christian President End Religious Conflict and Unite the Country?

Many wonder if Goodluck Jonathan has what it takes to eradicate extremism

Can Nigeria's Christian President End Religious Conflict and Unite the Country?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, has been facing increased pressure from those at home and abroad to put an end to the deadly violence and volatile animosity between the nation's Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. But critics claim the president may be ill-equipped to bring peace on his own. 

Nine months after being elected Nigeria's president in April 2011, Jonathan's popularity has plummeted. Already having to tackle brutal acts of violence in the north, where Muslim extremists are targeting the Christian community, the embattled leader has also faced massive protests over his decision to cancel oil subsidies, a problem of a different nature for those distressed by the religious violence.

Jonathan has faced criticism for not taking efficient steps to protect Christians regurlarly targeted in attacks by Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. In fact, the president incited something of a scandal recently when he publicly admitted that he is convinced there are Boko Haram sympathizers in his own government.

"Jonathan has come across as clueless when it comes to dealing with Boko Haram," journalist and commentator Tolu Ogunlesi told CNN recently. "No senior security officers have lost their jobs, nothing seems to have been done."

In September, Jonathan responded to critics during a speech, saying: "I don't need to be a lion ... I don't need to operate like the pharaoh of Egypt, I don't need to be an army general, but I can change this country without those traits."

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Yet, since then, Jonathan has ramped up efforts to eradicate extremists. In a recent post on his Facebook page, the president suggested that he plans to get tougher with terrorists, writing: "a terrorist attack on one person is an attack on all of us."

On Thursday, Jonathan challenged Boko Haram members to come forward and state their demands as a basis for dialogue, BBC News reported. The day prior, Jonathan also sacked the chief of police and his six deputies amid calls for a shake-up in the security forces.

But will his efforts convince observers that he can lead a conflict-torn nation? Many experts remain skeptical.

Nigeria's Civil Rights Congress Shehu Sani reacted with no enthusiasm to the news of the president's call to negotiate with Boko Haram.

"It's better late than never, but the question the president needs to answer is why the government has waited for so long?" the congress said in a statement to BBC. "Thousands of people have lost their lives over a path that was taken by the group and then a strategy that was taken by the government that has not been able to produce a result."

After a rise of violence in recent years, including church bombings during the Christmas season, which were launched in five cities and left over 30 people dead, Christians reportedly started to migrate out of the north. After the recent Christmas bombings, Boko Haram issued a statement in which it called for Christians to leave the region and for other Muslims to come back to the north.

Local Christian organizations are also pointing to continuous, scattered acts of violence against Christians.

Although official Muslim leaders in Nigeria declared that there is no conflict between Christianity and Islam, Boko Haram declared the mainstream followers of Islam "traitors," reported CNN. The group was also reported to have associated with foreign Islamist terrorism organizations.

The acts of violence are reportedly already causing instances of retaliation from Christians against Muslims, especially in the south, as confirmed by International Christian Concern. Such turn of events have prompted prominent Nigerian authors, including 1986 Nobel Prize winning playwright Wole Soyinka, to issue a statement urging calm.

Just facing the religious conflict will be a difficult challenge, which Jonathan might not be able to face without outside help, sources have told The Christian Post. Some experts have even suggested that it might take a Muslim leader to really handle the situation properly.

The fact that Jonathan is Christian is a disadvantage, Jonathan Racho, regional manager for Africa and Middle East at ICC, told CP recently. If he takes drastic action against Boko Haram, he might be accused of marginalizing Muslims, since a part of his government is Muslim (including some politicians allegedly sympathizing with Boko Haram). At the same time, the president needs to act quickly to prevent more violence on both sides, as well as identify and get rid of officials associated with the terror group, Racho said.

Financial support from the outside might be necessary to help rid the government of those who "identify themselves with their religion more than with their nation," Racho said, referring to Muslim extremists who are willing to exterminate Christians in the name of fulfilling the Boko Haram ideology.

Foreign intelligence skills would be of value as well, he added, as the president and his government "need advice in how to deal with domestic and international terrorism." It is crucial to cut Boko Haram's financing, and President Jonathan might need help in identifying the source of the terror group's funding.

Nigeria's case is additionally complex because the country lacks the tradition of strong leaders who would unify the country and suppress sectarian conflicts, unlike in the Middle East, which has a tradition of dictatorships which, nevertheless, tend to hold sectarian violence under relative control, Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, told CP.

Farr expressed skepticism about Jonathan's chances to succeed in ending the religious violence. Bringing stability to the country might actually call for a wise, liberal Muslim leader, he said. "In some way a Muslim can do that in a way a Christian never could," he told CP.

Farr added he did not have anyone specific in mind, suggesting that a good alternative to Jonathan might not exist at this point. At the same time, generally, Christians have to be very cautious of elections, as Nigeria is one of many countries ailing from corruption. It is often the case that officials, once elected, no longer consider themselves representatives of the entire nation, Farr said.

"Can Christians survive under a Muslim? It would depend on the Muslim," he said. "At the end of the day it would have to be a liberal, tolerant Muslim that brings that country together."

But Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst and Adviser on Radical Islam at Christian Action Network, is cautious about wishing for a Muslim leader, and skeptical that such a leader would indeed be liberal and tolerant.

"The Islamists in Nigeria will never be happy until they have a Muslim leader that makes demonstrable progress towards Sharia-based governance," he told CP. "If Jonathan were a Muslim who stood for democratic values, they'd be fighting him as well. There will never be peace until the Islamists, and especially the terrorists like Boko Haram, are marginalized and defeated."

Jonathan needs to rid the country's government and security forces of Islamist infiltrators, Mauro told CP. He also needs to find anti-Islamist Muslims he can ally with in condemning the actions of extremists.

"The stories of Muslims persecuted by the Islamists should be told loudly," he added. "There has to be an ideological battle."

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and accounts for over half of West Africa's population, with 250 ethnic groups calling the nation their home, according to the U.S. Department of State. The dominant ethnic group in the northern two-thirds of the country is the Hausa-Fulani, most of whom are Muslim. The Yoruba people – comprised of both Christians and Muslims – are predominant in the southwest.

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