News reports of clashes between Muslims and Christians in countries such as Nigeria are increasingly common, yet clashes occur in some communities but not others. Under what conditions does religious identity become the fault line of communal violence? This paper argues that informal power-sharing institutions on the communal level are essential in shaping the incentives of potential perpetrators, and avoiding or reducing violence. Both qualitative and quantitative evidence is provided to back this claim, drawn from interviews with community leaders in 38 Nigerian districts, and complemented with quantitative analyses of a new dataset capturing inter-religious violence on a sub-national level. In conducting the research, the authors seek to trace the process by which local power-sharing institutions exert influence on actors’ incentives to engage in religious violence, and therefore increase our understanding and ability to reduce such violence in the future.
The analyses of the findings show that the overall degree of inter-religious violence is significantly lower in districts with power sharing than in those without. Two causal mechanisms are identified through which informal power-sharing institutions operate. First, such institutions affect the incentives of elites to appeal for cooperation, with power-sharing shown to elicit significantly more conciliatory rhetoric from leaders. Second, power-sharing affects the general population’s perception of the inter-religious tensions, with individuals living in districts with power-sharing institutions less likely to experience religious diversity as threatening. The author therefore concludes that local-level and informal power-sharing institutions are an important foundation for communal peace and inter-religious cooperation, and a deterrent to violent confrontation.