A large portion of global current events coverage in the last year has been directed towards Arab revolutions and their subsequent political transformations–and rightfully so. But Arab Middle Eastern countries aren’t the only places where significant protests have arisen; from Moscow to Malé, Lhasa to Quito, Athens to Delhi, people have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to distribution inequality, ethnic/religious persecution, and corruption. One story that slipped largely under the radar earlier this year is notable for its multifaceted issues as well as some of its parallels to Egypt. Nigeria was the location. Like most of the Arab revolutions of the past year and a half, it was the local Nigerian population, not international actors, that catalyzed the opposition movement and was the source of the protest’s relative success.
In January of this year, the Nigerian government announced that it was going to curtail oil subsidies to its citizens. Parts of the Nigerian government are linked to large multinational corporations for oil extraction; Nigeria boasts the 8th largest production in the world, and is the 5th largest exporter to the US. Aside from the environmental damage caused by hundreds of unprosecuted oil spills, the majority of Nigerians, facing even more pressing economic challenges, viewed the slash in subsidies as the last straw. Nigerians of Christian, Muslim, and other backgrounds took to the streets in the tens of thousands, demanding the government provide for the average worker. Even amid religious tension, especially prevalent in the north of the country, and facing a growing threat of violent Islamic extremists, there was a seemingly unwavering solidarity between Christians and Muslims.
January’s events in Nigeria echoed similar religious violence and subsequent inter-religious cooperation in Egypt during the height of protests in Tahrir Square. In times of great difficulty, religious tensions were once again overshadowed by a climate of respect and common purpose. What is it about protests and other contexts of challenge that bring people together, even if they are from groups where tension is often boiling at the surface?
There’s a few possibilities. Economists would probably argue that financial needs trump any or most human difference. Anthropologists and sociologists might say that challenging times can present an opportunity for groups and communities to rethink or assert their best qualities through unity. Interestingly, most justice-oriented religious scholars and practitioners would say “all of the above.” Regardless of a country’s economic or political structure, all religious teachings (that I know of) emphasize social and economic justice for people, no matter who they are. What social and economic justice looks like is for those people in any given area to decide for themselves. And Nigerians of all faith backgrounds came to the similar conclusion; they felt they were getting the short end of the stick. It’s that simple.
Many interpret the Mandarin term wei ji as meaning both chaos and opportunity. Inter-religious responses to the economic and political turmoil in Egypt, Nigeria, and other contexts fittingly represent the essence of wei ji. This past January, Nigerians of all backgrounds reminded us of the unimagined possibilities that could emerge from cooperation in times of chaos. Let’s just hope that more situations of possibility turn into realities.
Have you ever been involved in a protest or movement where you teamed up with fellow citizens of a community very different than your own in hopes of achieving a common cause? Did your experience change any negative perceptions of that group? Did it reinforce ill feelings in any way? Are there other issues besides energy conservation/environmental degradation that are common causes to all groups that might engender inter-religious cooperation and respect? Please leave your comments below.