When I lived in Nigeria just a few short years ago, the term "sectarian violence" was not really something that came up. Inter-religious conflicts had plagued the country's middle belt on and off for the better part of a decade. But these were less religious conflicts than they were communities butting heads over scarce land, insecure resources, and really poor opportunities for justice when wrong was done. I never felt animosity between religions, even when I spoke with some of the less-savory members of a given side. The feeling was more of a competition—a sort of frantic scramble to control the scarce, whether that meant grazing and farming land or converts to the faithful.
So in recent weeks, as headlines proclaiming Nigerian sectarian strife have splashed across the papers, I've had to look twice. It's an incredibly painful and dangerous turn of events, as is already obvious from the hundreds left dead by the violence of Boko Haram, and retaliatory clashes.
It also, however, raises the real question of what the power of the narrative does in cases like this. There is something very alarming about introducing such a charged term into the debate. Could we cast a self-fulfilling prophecy? Sectarian strife signals something visceral, even irrational, and unbeatable through political debate. It renders the conflict an existential one in which all members have, de facto, chosen sides.
Increasingly, that seems to be how the conflict is being viewed within the Nigerian press, let along the international papers. The narrative follows simply: Islamic extremists under the umbrella of Boko Haram want to install an austere version of sharia law. Christians, reacting to the barrage of violence thrust upon their churches, schools, and neighborhoods, have reacted angrily—often taking to the streets and searching out perceived or real perpetrators for vigilante justice. Muslim communities, besieged by the angered, react.
It's hard to capture the moment when it slipped into that cycle. As I've written in the past, Boko Haram is a symptom of larger governmental issues that have been left to fester too long and too painfully. But now that symptom risks becoming its own disease.
Evidence of that came this week, when the top US general following Africa, Carter Ham, reported that Boko Haram could be collaborating and sharing resources with other similarily-minded regional groups, including Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Islamists in Northern Mali. If they do—or even if they can succeed in fomenting anger locally, for much longer—Nigeria and its neighbors could be fighting back against a sectarian narrative for a very, very long time.
(Note: For another thoughtful read on the power of narrative in dealing with these crises, see Alex Thurston's piece on coverage of Sharia law in Mali.)