As the two groups waited in the heat to be counted, the meeting’s tone soured. “You could feel the tension in the air,” Abdullahi Abdullahi, a 55-year-old Muslim lawyer and community leader, said later. A tall, thin man with a space between his two front teeth and shoulders hunched around his ears in perpetual apology, he was helping to direct the crowd that day. No one knows what happened first. Someone shouted arna—infidel”—at the Christians. Someone spat the word jihadi at the Muslims. Someone picked up a stone. “That was the day ethnicity disappeared entirely, and the conflict became just about religion,” Abdullahi said. Chaos broke out, as young people on each side began to throw rocks. The candidates ran for their lives, and mobs set fire to the surrounding houses.
After that episode, the Christians issued an edict that no Christian girl could be seen with a Muslim boy. “We had a problem of intermarriage,” Pastor Sunday Wuyep, a church leader in Yelwa, told me on the first of two visits I made in 2006 and 2007. “Just because our ladies are stupid and attracted to money,” he sighed. Economics lay at the heart of the enmity between the two groups: as merchants and herders, the Muslim Jarawa were much wealthier than the Christian Tarok and Goemai. But Pastor Sunday, like many others of his faith, felt that Muslims were trying to wipe out Christians by converting them through marriage. “It’s scriptural, this fight,” he said. So he and the other elders decided to punish the women. “If a woman gets caught with a Muslim man,” Sunday said, “she must be forcibly brought back.” The decree turned out to be a call to vigilante violence as patrols of young men, both Christian and Muslim, took to the streets. What eventually transpired, in the name of religion, was a kind of Clockwork Orange.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with 140 million people (one-seventh of all Africans), and it’s one of the few nations divided almost evenly between Christians and Muslims. Blessed with the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves, it is also one of the continent’s richest and most influential powers—as well as one of its most corrupt democracies. Last year’s presidential election in particular—in which President Olusegun Obasanjo, an evangelical Christian, handed power to a northern Muslim, President Umaru Yar’Adua—was a farce. Ballot boxes were stuffed by thugs or carted off empty by armed heavies in the pay of political candidates. Across the country, political power is a passport to wealth: according to Human Rights Watch, anywhere from $4 billion to $8 billion in government money has been embezzled annually for the last eight years. The state has all but abdicated its responsibility for the welfare of its people, roughly half of whom live on less than $1 a day.
In this vacuum, religion has become a powerful source of identity. Northern Nigeria has one of Africa’s oldest and most devout Islamic communities, which was galvanized, like many others, in the 1980s by the global Islamic reawakening that followed the Iranian revolution. For Christians, too, in Nigeria, there’s been a revolution: high birthrates and aggressive evangelization over the past century have increased the number of believers from 176,000, or 1.1 percent of the early-20th-century population, to more than 51 million, or more than a third now. Thanks to this explosive growth, the demographic and geographic center of global Christianity will have moved, by 2050, to northern Nigeria, within the Muslim world.