The man on horseback and the better angels of our nature

Chief of Army Staff Lt.-General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, ably represented by Lt.-General Lamidi Adeosun; all protocols duly observed. I feel honoured to be invited as Keynote Speaker on this occasion of the Second Army Spiritual Warfare Seminar.

When I first heard about the concept of spiritual warfare in connection with the Nigerian army, I was rather taken aback. The military are a fighting machine. They are trained to use kinetic force to suppress or degrade an enemy. They perform combat duties in pursuance of their constitutional mandate of upholding the defence and territorial integrity of our country. When one hears of spiritual warfare, therefore, it sounds very much like a contradiction in terms. Some people would even think of it in terms of deployment of “African juju”in fighting the enemies of our country. I have since been made to understand that this is not the purpose of these seminar series.  Rather, the army hierarchy, in their wisdom, aim it to be a means of changing the religious narrative while battling the insurgents that have brought so much grief to our country.

This year’s theme is:“Insecurity in Nigeria: Repositioning Authentic Religious Narratives in the Information Spectrum.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in the framing of this theme. Warfare is primarily anchored on the utility of force. But woe betide the army that relies on force alone. There have to be intellectual, psychological and informational instruments as well. In our day and age, social media technologies are capable of doing much good. But they are also capable of causing untold damage.

The Arab Spring that toppled the old tyrannies in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt was effective mainly because of the effective deployment of social media technology.  Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. We cannot behave like the Luddites of old who went about smashing all technological objects, in the belief that technology is evil. And we cannot suppress it as they do in China. The Chinese have never pretended to be a democracy. What the Mandarins in Beijing can get away with, we in Nigeria cannot.

For much of human history, religion has been a key factor in the emergence of conflict. According to the Encyclopaedia of War, of the 1,763 known conflicts of modern times, about 123 of them (amounting to 6.98 percent) have been determined primarily by religious factors. And of the 100 deadliest atrocities known in human history, 11 were religious in origin and provenance.

At its best, religion has served to enhance the better angels of our human nature. At its worst, however, can turn men into beasts. In 1915 the Ottoman Turks woke up one morning and killed more than 1.5 million of their Armenian Christian neighbours. It is a bag of shame that Turkey will carry forever. When Adolf Hitler set upon the systematic liquidation of Jews and other “undesirables”, he demanded to know, “Who remembers the Armenians?”

Some of the most violent wars of our 20th century were caused by religion. This is true of the Lebanese civil war; the bloody genocidal wars of the Sudan; the Afghan wars; and the brutal Israel-Palestine wars.

I am constrained to say both Christianity and Islam have been guilty of intolerance. Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Shintoism have historically been more tolerant of other faiths. Unfortunately, fanaticism has become our common disease. Jewish fanatics have often gone on killing sprees among the defenceless Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Hindu fanatics have done nasty things to their Muslim neighbours in India. Buddhist monks – of all people – have treated Rohingya Muslims with exceptional brutality in Myanmar.

The rise of populism in the New Europe — in Hungary, Poland, Italy, France and Germany – is due to fears about a new“Islamic peril”. In July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik took a submachine gun and went on a spree, killing 69 camping youths on the Norwegian island of Utoya. He said he needed to jolt his people from their benighted slumber in the face of an imminent Muslim invasion.

Globally, September 11, 2001 was a turning-point. The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York was long in the making. It began as long ago as the 1930s with the Egyptian intellectual and activist Hassan Al-Banna. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood as a vehicle to actualise his dream of a new Islamic Caliphate. The latter Salafi version of the Islamists look back to the medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Taymiyyah who preached a virulent theology that brooked no dialogue whatsoever with non-Muslims. The serial defeats of the Arabs by Israel from 1948 to 1968 and 1973 led to what is termed “al-Nakba” (the great disaster). The Iranian Revolution of 1979 gave added impetus to the new Islamist reawakening.

The rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida was premised on the need to build a strong Islamic army to enforce Sharia and to revive the global Islamic Caliphate.  The Mujaheddin victory over Soviet Empire in Afghanistan gave them renewed confidence that there was no power on earth they could not defeat if they put their minds to it. This has been the cause much grief today.

Boko Haram, al-Shabbab, the Islamic State in West Africa and other sundry warriors, all share this zeal to create an Islamic state by force of arms. More than 60,000 have died from insurgency in Nigeria, with more than three million in IDP camps. The material devastation is one thing; the erosion of social capital and the complete breakdown in trust is yet another. I believe that the violent narratives that threaten to destroy our country today are aided and abetted by sinister machinations of foreign powers. There is evidence of arms being shipped into our country from Turkey. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are implicated in our current troubles, in addition to Western powers desire the dismemberment of our country for real politik geostrategic reasons.

You the military have sacrificed so much to keep our country together. We have lost many young men in battle. Most of you were never trained for asymmetric warfare. We hear complaints about shortages in arms and logistics. Our task as civil society is to support you and to stand by you.

Changing the narrative is imperative. The devils want us to believe there can only be perpetual war between Muslims and Christians. I believe we are all children of Abraham. In medieval Spain, Christians, Jews and Muslims flourished together in such glorious cities as Alhambra, al-Andalus and Cordoba. Today, Muslims and Christians live peacefully in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Among our own Yoruba people, Muslims and Christians live together in the same households. We are not enemies; we are brothers.

Those who teach that Western education is “haram” need to be reminded that the Holy Qur’an enjoins Muslims to go as far as China in search of knowledge. They also need to be reminded that Muslim sages were far ahead of their European counterparts in such fields as medicine, engineering, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, prosody and mathematics.

Albert Einstein once noted that God does not play dice with the universe. The Almighty is doing a great thought experiment with Nigeria. Ours is a high and noble destiny. But there are no guarantees anywhere. We cannot realise our destiny unless our country is reinvented as a free and prosperous democracy anchored on the rule of law and social justice. We must love one another or die. The choice is ours.


(Being the summarised text of a keynote address at the Second Army Seminar on Spiritual Warfare, held at the Army Resource Centre, Abuja, Thursday December 3).


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