Written by: Gregory Cochran
Article source: www.persecution.org

Researchers entering the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., pass between two massive works of art: statues carved by sculptor Robert Aitken nearly a century ago. One of the statues borrows its inscription from the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. The well-worn quote applies fittingly to the interests of the National Archives. It reads simply, “What is past is prologue.”   

Those who appreciate Shakespeare will recognize the quote for its role in exposing the sinister motives in the mind of Antonio, a dastardly ambitious villain. Antonio convinces another unsavory character — Sebastian — to attempt to murder his father and take his place as king. The famous line inscribed at the National Archives was originally penned so two fictional villains might justify murder in pursuit of a powerful agenda.  

After Shakespeare’s original publication, the quote generated its meaning, a phrase now used to pay homage to history while eagerly engaging a better-informed future. The past is prologue. The present (thus the future) offers an opportunity for action.

Major actors in the Middle Belt’s theater of violence in Nigeria are rushing center stage to seize the present opportunity. For them, the past is prologue — the past being interpreted as that era that left the business of Islamizing Africa undone. The past explains the present violence in the same way a prologue explains the motives of characters in a story. The past is prologue. The present demands action. The action is unfolding in violent clashes with all whose ideologies fail to affirm satisfactorily the prescribed ideal of Islamization.

Major players have intentionally and undeniably viewed Nigeria’s violence through the lens of global jihad dating back to the 19th Century success of Usman dan Fodio. Former head of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, linked his organization directly to this history in 2014. As terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky notes“As is his wont, Shekau used the address regarding the Chibok girls to deliver a major political message. Most important was his praise of Usman dan Fodio, the uprising he led, and his subsequent establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th Century. Shekau noted that the Boko Haram was drawing inspiration from the legacy of dan Fodio.”  

Shekau, when he was still alive, declared unashamedly that the jihad of the past was essentially a prologue to the present opportunity for further global jihad. As Shekau once said, “Infidels, hypocrites, and apostates: Do not think Jihad is over. Rather Jihad has just begun. O America, die with your fury!” Shekau, of course, was killed in 2021. But others embraced the jihad, continuing to view the present violence in its connection to the past for the future Islamization of Africa’s central region in general and Nigeria’s Middle Belt in particular.

For some reason, expert commentators hesitate to connect the present violence with past jihad. For example, Michael Nwankpa, writing for the Hudson Institute, argues that the Fulani herder violence along with the institution of Shariah in 11 northern states has no connection to Boko Haram or jihad. For Nwankpa, Fulani violence was incited by the aggressive actions of Christian political leaders in the south — as a means of protection and defense and not connected to jihad or Islamization. However, Nwankpa does admit a sense in which “The adoption of Sharia law by these northern governors could be understood as a drive by Hausa-Fulani elites to Islamize northern Nigeria, ignoring the protests of the significant Christian minorities in those states.” He, of course, rejects the notion. For Nwankpa and some other experts, Fulani attacks have no relation to Boko Haram or to historical jihad.

Contrary to Nwankpa, Christians believe the past is, in fact, a prologue to the present violence in the Middle Belt. Christians believe that the adoption of Sharia law is part of the ongoing, historical jihad. Many Christians and political leaders in Nigeria view the Fulani violence — not just Boko Haram’s violence — as jihad. While serving in the House of Representatives, one such leader, Simon Mwadkon, directly tied Fulani violence to the historic jihad. As this report notes, [Mwadkon] told journalists … that the attacks on his constituents by the radical Fulani is a continuation of the ‘jihad’ which started since 1804 to forcefully Islamize minority tribes in the Northern part of the country, adding that his people were regretting their hospitality to the Fulani.”  

When Mwadkon’s interpretation was contradicted by a statement from the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association saying that the violence in question was an effort by the Fulani to retaliate against prior violence against them, Mwadkon flatly denied any truth to the claim, noting that his district had never taken part in violence against the Fulani before the attack.  

Mwadkon further reiterated, “It had been the agenda of the Fulani since the jihad of Usman Dan Fodio, who proclaimed that for the whole North to be Islamized, all the Northern minorities must be conquered. It has been the agenda since 1804 when the jihadists failed to capture the Middle Belt region, which they want to use as a launching pad to capture the south. They believe that once the Northern minorities were captured, they’d be willing tools for the capture of the South.” In other words, Mwadkon believed that the past is a prologue to Nigeria’s present violence.

More recently, Ezenwa Olumba — a British scholar specializing in cultural responses to violence — has argued that it is not only reasonable but necessary to view the present violence in Nigeria regarding the historical narratives. Olumba, though sympathetic to the typical climate change narrative explaining the herder and farmer violence, maintains, “People resort to violence to redress present grievances viewed through the prism of past events. To promote sustainable peace when tackling deeply rooted conflicts, it is essential to understand the historical context and the significance of collective memory while employing a comprehensive strategy for conflict resolution.”  

For Olumba, the past is necessarily a prologue to the present violence and essential for any hope of reconciliation. In other words, Olumba argues that the collective memories of Christians, Muslims, Farmers, and Fulani necessarily shape their interpretations of present circumstances. As a result, no attempt to reconcile can be taken seriously unless the reconciliation addresses past grievances and clarifies historical agendas. Olumba makes no truth claim about the Christian perspective or the Fulani perspective, but he also makes no pretense of reconciliation without a thorough consideration of those historical perspectives. Future peace will elude capture if past grievances aren’t resolved. The past is prologue.  

The future cannot avoid the past, though it can excel it if reconciliation is employed. The future necessarily steps on stage only at the cue of the past. The statue outside the National Archives represents the future, not the past. Robert Aitken, the sculptor of the famous work, titled it simply Future. Perhaps the violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt is a relic of the past. Viewing the past as a prologue simplifies the narrative on violence in the Middle Belt. The explanation need not be complicated. The past is prologue. The greatest need for the region, however, is what Aitken’s statue is: the future.

Christian leaders and political power brokers need the clarity and the courage to write an epilogue to the centuries-old prologue. What is Nigeria’s afterword? Christians offer Nigeria hope — not through political prowess or economic success. Rather, Christians — as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth — have both received and been gifted the ministry of reconciliation. This ministry includes a message to proclaim: God is now not counting people’s sins against them. God is right now reconciling the world to himself. God is reconciling us to himself through Christ the Lord. In an epoch of violence, Christians cannot lose sight of reconciliation. Past sins can be confessed and forgiven, and parties reconciled. But they cannot be ignored or pretended out of existence.  

Presently, those continuing violence hope the final word is a kind of Islamization in which the country of Nigeria need not exist, her borders proving a nuisance to the larger theological vision of radical Islam. For other Muslims, Christians, and the population at large, Nigeria needs to exist as a monument to the future, sculpted by democracy, freedom of religion, and a ministry of reconciliation.

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Date published: 30/05/2024

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