What happened to the vibrant Churches of North Africa – the rise and fall of North African Churches in the early centuries’ Christianity, is a history, Christians and Churches in Nigeria today, should not neglect to equip themselves with in the face of what is happening presently in the country. Today, as we speak, except for the Coptic Church in Egypt, which survived as a minority and pays tax to the Arab Muslim government to exist and function in Egypt, the vibrant Churches of North Africa have all elapsed – from the Horn of Africa to the Maghreb and then to greater part of Sahel sub-Saharan Africa. 

The history of what happened to the flourishing North African Churches of the past centuries when the Arab-Muslims invaded the area in the 7th century A.D, spanning to the present times, is a lesson Nigerian Christians and Churches at this time of the country’s checkered history should not be in a hurry to overlook. To overlook that experience of North African Churches, how those Churches have disappeared, is to invite similar experience for present-day Christian presence in Nigeria, and by extension to Africa in general. God forbid!

Christianity in Africa is not a recent happening, nor is it a by-product of colonialism – its roots go back to the very time of the Apostles. The Church had been flourishing on the Northern shore of this continent for six hundred years before Islam was born. In those days, Egypt in the Horn of Africa and Carthage in the Maghreb Africa, with their great theologians, such as Athanasius and Augustine, were the pillars of the universal Church. Unfortunately, through Arab Muslim occupation, starting in 640 A.D., the expansion of Christianity received a heavy blow. It died out entirely in North Africa yet has survived as an oppressed, though significant, minority in Egypt until the present time.

The subsequent history of Christian presence in Africa is for many centuries like a trickling stream through the desert. Yet God’s providence never let it dry up and in our days, it has become a great flood watering the whole continent from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Unfortunately, recent happenings in Nigeria’s socio-political and religious landscape casts a very disturbing cloud of concern over the future of Christianity in the Africa’s most populous country. Anti-Christian agents have arisen again, with the same tactics and agenda to wage a devastating assault on Churches and Christians of Nigeria. Whether they will succeed with their sinister agenda again in the continent through Nigeria, is yet to be seen! However, one thing is certain. The unfolding anti-Christian and anti-people’s events in Nigeria’s socio-political landscape are not palatable. 

This article seeks to present a bird’s eye-view of the experience of North African Churches of the early centuries’ Christianity, and what lessons Churches and Christians of Nigeria can learn from it in the light of what is happening in the country today. To appreciate the enormous challenges facing the Churches and Christians of Nigeria today, we need to go back to the history of the demise of the vibrant Churches of North Africa.

The Problem

Students of history of Islam and Christianity in Africa would tell us that the way Islam expansionism happened in Africa has been ambivalent. Patrick Ryan calls it “dialectic” of inculturation and disinculturation. In its early stages as it arrived in any African ambient, Islam accommodated some practices in the African traditions. But as it gained ground in Africa, it began to react against some of those practices it had earlier tolerated. In this way, Islam was able to succeed in Africa. 

However, I would like to add that Islam succeeded in Africa because, as a religion, it was never treated by African governments as a foreign religion. Furthermore, the success of Islam in Africa lies to a large extent, in the fact that the propagation of the religion has been done by African Muslims. The foreign missionaries assisted in the background. 

In addition, Christianity made more inroads in those places in Africa where traditional religion was strongest but very little progress where Islam had been planted during the Arab invasions of the continent. As a result of this, Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest, not weakest, suggesting a degree of indigenous compatibility with the gospel, and an implicit conflict with colonial priorities and radical Islam.

Muslim expansion and growth, on the other hand, which occurred, were most impressive in areas where the indigenous religions, particularly as organized cults, had been vanquished or else subjugated, and where local populations had either lost or vaguely remembered their name for God. For this reason, colonialism as a secularizing force helped to advance Muslim gains in Africa. The end of colonial rule inhibited the expansion of Islam in Africa, whereas the opposite seems to have happened with Christianity. 

Another thing is that the Muslims’ invasion of Africa, which began as early as the seventh century has more political intrigue than mere concern for religious welfare of the Africans. By the seventh century, the people of the Arabian peninsular had already consolidated themselves and accepted Islam as their unifying religion. Backed with their religious beliefs, Arab-Muslims advanced towards North Africa, and by the eighth century, the whole of North Africa had been Islamized. 

As if that was not enough, the Arabs advanced towards Europe through Portugal and Spain, with the intention of not only Islamizing the people of Europe but also colonizing them. So much so that it could be said that later advances and expansions into the interior of Africa by the European nations were to some extent, attempts to curtail the Arab-Muslims’ intransigence and aggression. Africa became a kind of battleground between Arabs and the Europeans’ war of supremacy, political, religious and economic domination and control. Islam for the Arabs, and Christianity for the Europeans, respectively, assumed important tools for each group, in waging that war within the African soil. 

The Fall of Vibrant North African Churches

Students and experts of Islam in Africa all agree that the Arabs have two main interests in their advances into the continent of Africa. These are religious and economic interests. The conquest of North Africa by the Arab-Muslims in the seventh century was executed with Quran on the one hand and the trans-Saharan trade on the other. 

The religious interest was carried out through Muslim jihads (Holy Wars, a Muslim belief that sees as a religious duty, the killing of those who refuse to accept Islamic religion). The economic interest on the other hand, came to be executed when the Arab-Muslims started plundering the African interior (especially in Sudan and Eastern Africa, and later in the Sahel regions of West Africa) and engaged in the human merchandise (of slave trade). 

The Arab slave raiders concentrated on destabilizing villages and weaker African kingdoms to increase the human merchandise. The trade gathered momentum when Islam came across the desert into the regions of West Africa. There it spread rapidly through jihads and the conversion of some African kings. The Arabs also went down the East African coast, as far as Madagascar and South Africa. In all these places, the slave dealers went with huge armies, so much so that the traditional African kingdoms had to raise their own armies for self-defense. But the weaker ones could not cope with the well-equipped armies of the slave raiders. Some of the African chiefs and kings became afraid and so instead of protecting their subjects, they became agents through which the latter were sold into slavery. The Arabs continued the slave trade long after the trans-Atlantic trade had been stopped in the 1860s.

The devastating effects of the Arab onslaught still survive in today’s Africa. For example, the Arab conquest of North Africa made it possible for the religious and socio-political structures and cultural expressions of this part of the continent to assume Arab characters. So much so that what we refer to today as African traditional society would apply more to sub-Saharan Africa than to North Africa. By the eighth century, when the whole of North Africa was Islamized, the Christian Churches of that region disappeared completely. However, as said before, the Coptic in Egypt was reduced to a state of protected minority (dhimmi). Ethiopia, which survived as a Christian empire, was completely cut off from contacts with the other Christian nations in Europe. 

Today almost every African country has a Muslim community. In countries where Muslims are on the majority, they exercise great political influence and use government machinery in advancing the course of Islam. In addition, there are campaigns by radical Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadist’s Movements to create Islamic States in some African countries, such as in Algeria and Egypt. In countries where Muslims are slightly below the majority in numerical strength (such as in Nigeria, Ghana and so forth), there are constant campaigns by the radical Muslim Brotherhood, ethnic-irredentists, fundamentalists, promoters of Caliphate agenda and protagonists of extremist Muslim movements for enthronement of Sharia in the Constitution and for full membership in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).

Where such demands are not met, the result could be religious intolerance, acrimony and in some cases, civil wars (such as the ones experienced in Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria, Central African Republic, etc.). The common belief among many radical Muslim Brotherhood, religious bigots, ethnic-irredentists, and Jihadists’ Movements, is that Africa is for Islam and that the Quran must be enthroned at the Atlantic Ocean (African coastal regions). They believe that the Petro-dollars is given to them by Allah for this purpose and for the Islamization of the whole world. 

The Nigerian Reality

As a result of all these, today, in Africa, religious battles between the Christian and Muslim communities have taken place in many countries, with particularly violent encounters in Nigeria and Sudan. In Nigeria, a country almost evenly divided between Christian South and Muslim North, tens of thousands on both sides have lost their lives in recent years as a result of religious and ethnic violence and conflicts that are on regular occurrence in that most populous African country. It is no longer secret to say that the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970), which claimed the lives of an over estimated three million people, especially from the South Eastern part of the country (Ndigbo), was caused principally by religious and ethnic conflicts. That is, the sharp religious and ethnic divides in the country not considered in the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria by British colonial masters in 1914. 

Religious violence has divided Nigeria between the Muslim North and the Christian South. This scenario is played out especially during political elections of the nation’s President. Religious as well as ethnic sentiments are the major factors that determine the results of many of the national political elections in Nigeria since the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria by the British colonial masters in 1914. For example, during the regime of President Obasanjo (a Christian from the South West of the country (1999-2007), all the 12 States in the North of Nigeria unilaterally adopted the Islamic Sharia Law as the legal system in their respective states. Nigeria as a federation has 36 States. The common Law, which defined the country as a secular state is what is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. 

That means that while the rest of the country is governed by the common law as enshrined in the nation’s Constitution, the Muslim dominated Northern regions decided to follow a different legal system based on Islamic Law. In this scenario, one can only imagine the sufferings and humiliation followers of other religions or citizens from other parts of the country residing in the Sharia States of Northern Nigeria, experience in this part of the country on daily basis. And how people of indigenous ethnic-nationalities of those states are subjected to second class citizens by the Hausa-Fulani dominated government. 

The present federal government of Nigeria is completely, headed and controlled by one particular ethnic-group, Fulani Sunni Muslims from Northern Nigeria. The government by all indications is pursuing a sinister agenda of Islamization and Fulanization of Nigeria. Since it came to power in 2015, it has aimed at altering the demographic contours of the indigenous ethnic-groups of the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria. It does this by sponsoring the dreaded marauding Fulani herdsmen militias, which the government had invited from all over Africa to Nigeria. 

The Fulani killer-herdsmen militias move around with AK47, terrorizing the people, killing, destroying villages and farmlands, and raping women, without any apprehension from the government and security operatives. The killer-herdsmen, together with other terrorist groups operating in the North East zone, Boko Haram, ISIS-ISWAP, etc., today operate as non-state actors for the government’s agenda of Islamization and Fulanization of the country. The killer-herdsmen (or bandits as they are called in the North), target specifically, Christians and indigenous ethnic-communities of the Middle Belt and Southern regions. 

All these imply that, violence in the socio-political landscape of Nigeria today is as result of the federal government’s refusal to respect the religious and cultural sensitivity of Christians and indigenous ethnic-communities. It is caused by the continued attempt of the henchmen at the federal government to impose Sunni Islam and Fulani civilization on the rest of Nigerians. 

Implications for Nigeria as a “Secular State”

Hope Solo, US female foot-ball goalkeeper, speaking of the harassment she had to endure all these years, says, “Silence will Not change the World.” 

In the context of this article, it means that Christian religious leaders and politicians, indeed, all people of goodwill, have an obligation to speak out against the plot to “kill Christianity” in Nigeria and subjugate to perpetual servitude as second-class citizens, indigenous ethnic-populations of the country by the present dispensation. 

It is time for Church leaders, Christian politicians and people of good conscience to speak out, condemn without fear or favor, what is happening in the country today under the watch of the present central government at Abuja. Church leaders and Christian politicians with good conscience should endeavor to put in motion concrete actions to save Christianity and indigenous ethnic-populations that inhabit this country. 

The present situation where Muslim extremists with the complicity of those at the corridors of power are on daily basis killing, maiming Christians, destroying their farmlands, villages and places of worship, without any conceited effort on the part of the government to arrest and bring to justice those who are committing these heinous crimes against Christians and humanity, is unacceptable. Christian religious leaders and politicians have an obligation to confront the government over the danger of tacit aiding of religious extremism and terrorism in the country.

Furthermore, Church leaders have the obligation to remind the government of the obligation of the state towards protecting the lives and property of citizens, the fundamental human right of worship of every citizen irrespective of creed, ethnicity, philosophy or political persuasion. Church leaders have obligation to caution the government of the dangers involved when those in corridors of power abuse their duties and many other obligations of the state to the citizens, especially, in matters of security of lives and property, religious freedom, justice, equity, freedom of expression, and inclusive governance in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Nigeria. 

Moreover, when the issue of separation of power between the Church and State is under threat as is evident in Nigeria today, Church leaders and Christian politicians must raise their voice and call the civil authority to order. They must caution the government to respect the nation’s Constitution on the secular nature of the Nigerian state, and the need to uphold people’s fundamental right of worship, in freedom and truth. The Nigerian Constitution and United Nations’ Charters and Conventions are clear on separation of power between the Church and State. The Nigerian State is obliged to respect the Christian Churches’ rights and obligations to worship and function in freedom and justice in the country. Government should stay clear and hands off from meddling into Church administrative or financial affairs. To do the contrary is to invite a religious war, I am sure the government would not be able to win at the long run.

At independence in 1960, Nigeria opted for liberal democracy and parliamentary system of government. The country choose Common Law and liberal democracy. This is the system of government and political structure accepted and adopted at independence by all the federating units, and enshrined in Nigeria’s founding Constitution of 1963. This Constitution and subsequent ones respected and protected religious freedom and separation of powers between the Church and State.

Unfortunately, however, somewhere along the line, following long years of military incursion into the political governance of Nigeria – the imbalance of power, and over-preponderance control of the government at the centre by Muslim military officers from the North, today, the country, unfortunately, has continued to slide into Sharia Islamist’s driven dominance, governance structure and style. The result of which is that today, Nigeria, more than ever, is caught in-between practicing two conflicting ideologies, Common Law and Sharia ideology. 

Moreover, following the notoriety of lopsided federal government of President Buhari, and the unfolding Islamization and Fulanization agenda of his administration, Sharia ideology and protagonists seemed to have won in the battle against liberal democracy and Common Law in Nigeria. This is the driving force of the present political imbroglio besetting Nigeria. We all know what such a scenario portends for the country’s fragile union and national cohesion! For this reason, Church leaders, Christian politicians and all people of goodwill should speak out and call the government to order before it is too late.

As the leaders of Nigerian Christian Elders’ Forum (NCEF) reminded us few months ago, the problem with Nigeria is NOT Christians versus Muslims or Muslims versus Christians. There is no war between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. The problem with Nigeria is rather the manipulation of Islam for political purposes and selfish interests of a very small minority – those who hold the Word captive. This is the threat and it is discernible in the difference between a Muslim and Islamist.

A Muslim practices Islam as religion while an Islamist manipulates Islam as political ideology. This is the reason Islamism is referred to as “political Islam.” “Islamism is a conscious attempt to manipulate religion as tool for political and cultural domination. While Islam is a religion, Islamism, otherwise called “political Islam”, “is a set of ideologies that holds that Islam is not only a religion but a political system.” In other words, as a political system, Islamists insist that Islam is meant to dominate the environment in which it is practiced: “In a sharply divergent society like Nigeria, any attempt to implement the principles of Islamism portends great danger for the nation. It is this Islamist political ideology that is driving the crisis in Nigeria.”

This is why many people hold, and rightly too, that the 1999 Constitution is part of the problem with Nigeria. In fact, the 1999 Constitution provided the enabling environment – the fertile ground for the present-day problem Nigeria is passing through. The 1999 Constitution is a compendium of dual conflicting ideologies pulling the country in two opposing directions – Sharia ideology and democracy. Unless this conflict is resolved, Nigeria will remain in turmoil because democracy and sharia ideologies are antithetical to each other. “The entire crisis in the country, summed up as corruption, mediocrity, insecurity and ethnicity, are consequences of the dual conflicting ideologies plaguing Nigeria.”


Christian leaders, politicians and all people of goodwill should recognize the looming danger facing Christian presence in Nigeria today under the present dispensation. Any government driven by a Sharia ideology, religious bigotry and ethnic-irredentism is not only antithetical to modern democratic principles, but such a government is above all, anti-Christian and anti-people-oriented. Such a government ought to be confronted with all the strength available, head on. Failure to do so, portends serious danger to the Church and society in general. 

This is the task before Christian leaders, politicians and all people of goodwill in Nigeria today. There is need to make hay while the sun shines.

By Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji, a Roman Catholic Priest, Professor Ordinarius of contextual theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome.

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