Politics for God: religion, politics and conflict in democratic Nigeria.

Author:Onapajo, Hakeem


Many have researched and written on the politicization of religion or the religionization of politics in Nigeria (Bienen, 1986; Clarke, 1988; Ibrahim, 1989; 1991; 1994; Agbaje, 1990; Hunwick, 1992; Kukah, 1993; 1995; Kastfelt, 1994; Enwerem, 1995; Kukah & Falola, 1996; Falola, 1998; Mu'azzam & Ibrahim, 2000; Best, 2001; Obadare, 2006; Loimeier, 2007; Imo, 2008; Marshall, 2009; Wakili, 2009; Adebanwi, 2010; Sodiq, 2009). Of these, the earlier ones have indeed dwelled sufficiently on how religion shaped and heightened the tempo of politics in the early political history of Nigeria. And, they demonstrated the significance of religion to the formation of political parties, political mobilization, political legitimacy and voting behaviour of the people in previous democratic experiments of the country.

Hence, they have excellently provided a detailed account of the salience of religion to the major political debates, conflicts and series of collective violence that once characterized the early and recent history of Nigeria. Since the inception of a renewed democratic regime in 1999, religion has continued to surface in the political sphere of the country; and the dramatic and dynamic changes religion has taken in the contemporary global political space has further given much impetus to the phenomenon of religion and politics in Nigeria, and elsewhere.

Given the abovementioned, scholarly focus has again begun to centre on the politics of religion and religion in politics in Nigeria's new democracy. While noting this, it is duly observed that not enough justice has been done to this phenomenon in recent times, most especially on its significance to the multiple conflicts and violence fast enveloping the nation recently. Therefore, this paper is conceived to provide an analysis of the link between religion and politics and its relationship with the increasing rates of violent conflicts being experienced in the country within its present democratic era. Thus, the objective is to push further a thread of discussion on this topic and thereby to contribute to an existing body of literature on the phenomenon by examining the theoretical discourses on the political sociology of religion and the state in order to contextualize the intersection between religion, politics and conflict in the present democratic era of Nigeria.

Religion, Politics and Conflict in the State: A Theoretical Discourse (1)

Contrary to the assumptions of the modernization and secularization theorists who suggest the decline or insignificance of religion in the modern politics of the state (see Deutsch, 1953; Rostow, 1959; Almond, 1960; Apter, 1965; Smith, 1970), religion has not ceased to occupy a significant position in the political and economic configuration, and thus, it has resurfaced dramatically and virulently in recent times. Samuel Huntington (1993) consciously observed this trend and theorised that religion including its cultural composition will be a major drive of contemporary global politics. In this regard, Fox and Sandler (2003, p.562) suggest that an important area where religion takes a central stage in the politics of the state is in its ability to 'bolster or undermine' political legitimacy. Religion can thus be a viable instrument to legitimatize or illegitimatize political regimes (Lewy, 1974; Johnston & Figa, 1988; Nasr, 1988; Haynes, 1994; Juergensmeyer, 1995). This occurs mostly in a country where it is legitimate to invoke religion in political discourses, and where there is diversity in the religious population of a particular country (Fox, 2001).

Given the above, religion represents a significant element of ethnicity and an important source of identity which informs the basis of group discrimination and grievances in particular nations. Fox (1997, p.5) notes from the work of Gurr (1993) that 'religion is salient if it is a defining trait that sets a group apart' and has the capability of shaping all forms of group's political and social activities (Fox & Sandier, 2003, p.568). In this circumstance, there is a possibility of discrimination against minority religious and identity groups by the majority based upon their dissimilar interests and goals in the society (Fox, 2001). Upon perceived discrimination or threat to the survival of a religion, religious institutions can therefore 'play important role in mobilization for both protest and rebellion' (Fox, 1999, p.135)., this is more aided when religion supports the use of force when its core interests are being threatened (Fox & Sander, 2003, p.566). In this light, Juergensmeyer's study (2003) shows that popular modern religions have a strong nexus with situations of violence.

Furthermore, religion represents a strong social force in the politics of the state given its capacity for effective political mobilization. Fox and Sander (2003, pp.567-568) give six major reasons why this is so. One, the restriction of religious activities is often difficult for state regimes; two, religious organizations often enjoy good patronage in the media; three, religious organizations have the capability to easily unite differential social groupings in the society; four, religious organizations have the 'ready-made' platform for political meetings; five, religious organizations are often strong in weak states; and six, religious organizations have strong international links and enjoy global solidarity. (2)

Religion in Nigeria: An Historical Background

Islam and Christianity form the two dominant religions in Nigeria. Given the colonial 'civilization' agenda and the resultant demonization and paganization of the historical African traditional gods, the essence of the traditional religions were systematically exterminated in the religio-cultural life of the Nigerian peoples after their contact with colonialism. The peoples have since then preferred to be identified with Islam and Christianity. Governments have further conceived the officialization of these two religions as a necessary step towards actualizing national unity in the country (Ibrahim, 1991, pp.116-117). Nigeria's contact with Islam predated that of Christianity and European colonialism. It was facilitated by its spread into Africa south of the Sahara through trade and commerce. The northern part of Nigeria is symbolic to the history of Islam in Africa south of the Sahara and Nigeria in particular, as it penetrated the area through the Kanem-Borno Empire in the 11th century before spreading to other Hausa states.

The eventual incorporation of contradictory local customs into the core of Islam and the further degeneration of Islamic practices by the activities of the ruling class led to the Holy Jihad staged by Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio in the 19th century. The Jihad and the establishment of the expansive Sokoto Caliphate therefore facilitated the spread of Islam across the region and into the heartland of some western Nigerian societies such as Ilorin (see Clarke, 1982; Hiskett, 1984; Sulaiman, 1987; Rasmussen, 1990; Kukah & Falola, 1996).

Islam penetrated the traditional societies of the Yoruba speaking peoples of south-west Nigeria given their established commercial relationship with the peoples of the North, particularly the Nupe and Fulani. The exact period of its real contact with the region remains a subject of controversy, but a mosque was reported to have been built in the old Oyo empire around 1550 (Sani, 2011). The conversion of some influential rulers and chiefs in this region became a significant watershed in the history of Islam among the Yoruba. Islam found its easy acceptance by the Yoruba as it had sufficient answers to some of their various spiritual concerns, and for its accommodation of some of their traditional Yoruba cultural practices which Christianity tends to displace (Sodiq, 2009, p.650-651). For instance, Islam appreciates the existence of the Jinn and the methodology of dealing with them, which the Yoruba religiously deified and dreaded. Furthermore, Islam recognises polygamy which was common among the peoples who see many wives and children as a sign of wealth. Also, the return of the liberated formerly enslaved from Sierra-Leone and Brazil in the 19th century further boosted Islamic evangelization in the region, most especially in Lagos (Gbadamosi, 1978).

Nigeria's voyage into the world of Christianity began in the 15th century with the visitation of the Roman and Catholic missionaries to the coastal areas of the Niger-Delta region in the southern part of Nigeria. Although a few churches were built and converts recorded in this period, the vibration of Christian evangelization was only felt and expanded after the return of the liberated slaves from Sierra-Leone and Brazil in 1842.

This was against the backdrop of the thriving missionary enterprise of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, originally sent to Badagry and Abeokuta of the Yoruba speaking region. Christianity soon recorded a boost in the southern region given its opposition to the slave trade and its promotion of Western education. In 1888, an indigenous Church was established following a break away from foreign missionary leadership in response to an accumulation of grievances concerning racial discrimination. This event marked the emergence of indigenous Christian churches in Nigeria. And while this marked the first wave of indigenous Christianization in Nigeria, the proliferation and phenomenon of the Aladura churches that sprang up from the Yoruba Christians signifies a second wave (see Olupona, 1991; Sodiq, 2009; Adogame, 2010).

In contrast to the smooth process Christian evangelization underwent in the South, its process in the North was somewhat rough for some obvious reasons. Islam had already become well established in the North and its Muslims had read extensively and known much about Christianity in their Islamic texts given their exposure to early Islamic...

To continue reading