KANO, Nigeria — A controversy over Nigeria's apparent move to join an international Islamic organization has brought fresh reminders here of the serious religious and ethnic tensions underlying Africa's most populous country.
The government of Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, in power since a coup last August, appears to be in a quandary over the issue. But Western diplomats and Nigerian political analysts fear that it could spell a sharpening of distrust between the largely Muslim north of the country and the mostly Christian south.
"Anytime you start talking about religion in this country, you are playing with fire," said Segun Agbetuyi, a banker in the leading northern commercial center of Kano. "At its most extreme, what you're talking about is Christians and Muslims fighting each other in the streets."
There is no indication that tensions have risen anywhere near that level, but cities in northern Nigeria have been torn by rioting Muslim extremists twice in the last five years. In both instances, the army was called on to put down the rioting, and the result was about 5,000 deaths. With that as background, any religious controversy in Nigeria is regarded as dangerously volatile.
Conference Role at Issue
Political analysts are watching the situation closely because, they say, the controversy over whether Nigeria has joined--or will join--the Organization of the Islamic Conference comes at a time of renewed distrust between north and south in Nigeria.
Interviews suggest that opinion on the question is split almost exactly along geographical and religious lines, with southern Christians firmly opposed to joining the organization and northern Muslims decidedly in favor of it.
There is a growing feeling in the south of the country that the northerners, who have dominated Nigerian national politics for 20 years, have performed poorly as leaders, and that the country's current economic crisis is due largely to mismanagement by northern politicians and military rulers.
Islamic Law Debated
The argument coincides with another religious-ethnic debate recently gathering force. Muslims are pressing for the institution of \o7 sharia \f7 (or Islamic) courts in southern regions of the country. Sharia courts, which hear only domestic and civil cases for Muslim litigants, are a fixture in northern Nigeria, but they have not been established in the south.
The Islamic Conference issue has been taken up by the vociferous but not always enlightening Nigerian press, and advocacy or opposition on the question depends, as with the population at large, on geography and religion.
Curiously, one of the major issues seems to be whether Nigeria actually did join the organization at its January meeting in Morocco. The Nigerian government has made no announcement of having joined, and when news reports from Morocco reached Nigeria, they unleashed a storm of controversy.
The Islamic Conference has 45 members--Nigeria would be the 46th--and most have a majority Muslim population. However, some African states with a distinct Muslim minority, such as Sierra Leone and Benin, are also members.
The organization's charter says that its purposes are to "promote Islamic solidarity" and to "consolidate cooperation . . . in the economic, social, cultural, scientific and other vital fields." Most of the time at the recent meeting was devoted to attacking the United States for imposing sanctions against Libya, a member of the conference.
Nigeria, whose 100 million people are about 50% Muslim, has sent observer teams to the conference's meetings since its inception in 1967, but this year, for the first time, Nigeria sent a delegation led by a Cabinet minister, Rilwanu Lukman.
Conference officials stated clearly that Nigeria had joined the organization and that the conference regarded Nigeria's new membership as its major accomplishment at the meeting.
Back in Nigeria, the minister of information, Lt. Col. Anthony Ukpo, declined to confirm or deny the report, saying only that the government would make a statement in due course.
'Hot Potato' Issue
In a recent interview, Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria's foreign minister, declined to discuss the issue. "It's a hot potato," he said.
A few days later, Gen. Babangida announced that he had appointed a committee to look into the matter. The appointment of committees has so far been Babangida's method of playing for time and defusing sticky political issues.
The stakes could be high for Babangida's government, which already faces an array of serious financial problems and needs as much broad-based political support as possible if it is to carry out a tough program of economic reform.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Lagos, A.O. Okogie, is among those most upset by the prospect of Nigeria's joining the conference.