POLITICIZATION OF RELIGION AND THE RELIGIONIZATION OF POLITICS IN NIGERIA

POLITICIZATION OF RELIGION AND THE RELIGIONIZATION

OF POLITICS IN NIGERIA

  

 

BY

 

PROFESSOR P.P. IZAH

DIRECTOR,

INSTITUTE FOR DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH

AHMADU BELLO UNIVERSITY

ZARIA

BEING A PAPER PRESENTED AT A ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION ON POLITICS AND RELIGION IN NIGERIA

HELD IN JOS ON 14TH OCTOBER, 2013

 

 

INTRODUCTION

          Since this is a round table let me begin with global generalization before coming to the issue of religion and politics in Nigeria and how we must manage these pull of opposites if our polity is to survive and forge ahead.  Let me say that the religious revivalists or fundamentalism among both Christians and Muslims has affected the political process globally. In the USA, Christian fundamentalism in the south, called ‘Bible Belt’ has forced politicians to move to the right especially among Republicans.  Issues that are fundamental to them are adopted by Republican candidates. At a broad level it is unimaginable for a Muslim to be elected president of the USA, just like it is not likely that a Catholic will become prime minister of U.K.  We should not panic just because Christian or Muslim groups tend to support one of their own.  I have also deliberately tone down the rhetoric about politicization of religion in Nigeria and rather present a chronological development of religious involvement in politics.  I venture to say that despite the insecurity in the north-east it will be an over simplification to cast the problem largely in religious terms for far more Muslims lost their lives than Christians and more mosques were destroyed than churches.  Finally, I suggest that we must focus on education and the provision of adequate jobs, and an accountable government which dispenses justice equitably.

          The issue of religion and politics in Nigeria dates back to the colonial period.  Colonial policies deliberately promoted religious pluralism in Nigeria.  While missionaries were actively encouraged to join the colonial powers in the “civilization” mission in southern Nigeria to establish churches and mission schools, their activities were severely restricted in Muslim northern Nigeria.  As a result, the southern part of the country were generally more advanced in terms of Western education than the northern region.  Along with Western education was the introduction of the common law legal system. This common law legal system of course had its origin in Judea-Christian tradition.

          The Muslim legal system – the Sharia which was the dominant legal system in the caliphate and Borno in the 19th century began to be restricted in application, and applicable mostly among rural people.

          With independence and increasing education among Muslims, they began to demand for a legal system that reflect their beliefs and custom (Islam).  The constitution bequeathed to Nigeria wSaXA secular constitution despite the fact that by 1960 Nigeria was clearly a very religious state dominated by two major religions, Islam and Christianity.  For Christians the separation between church and state dates back to Jesus times when he distinguished what belonged to the Roman Emperor and what belonged to God.  But for Muslims – Islam is a way of life and cannot be separated from their political organization or how they are governed.  In other words what I am saying is that the seed of the politicization of religion and the religionization of politics was sown during the colonial period.  But the amicable relationship and respect between northern political leaders and the British colonial authorities downplayed the potential conflict between the two religious groups.

          The introduction of party politics and Western type of democracy (I don’t want to say liberal democracy for we aspire to, but we don’t have liberal democratic system yet) in essentially peasant societies with limited class differentiation meant that religious and ethnic differences formed the bases of ‘we’ and ‘they’ as the political parties mobilized support.  So the NPC was predominantly Hausa/Fulani cum Muslim while AG Yoruba and NCNC predominantly Ibo.  Ideally politics ought to serve as a vehicle for the reconciliation of conflicting claims among contending parties, but this process was rudely terminated in January 1960 through a military coup.  The process of learning the political art of compromise was terminated.

          The prolonged military rule had its impact on the polity in several ways.  Without political parties, religion became the major source of differentiation, political differences were seen through religious prism.   In the transition to the Second Republic, Muslims saw an opportunity to voice their disapproval of Muslim’s marginalization in the skim of things and demanded the introduction of Sharia legal system in the country. A compromise was eventually arrived at after heated debate in the Constituent Assembly in 1978. Sharia courts up to an appeal court were established in states with large Muslim population and customary courts were also established both with limited scope, largely confined to personal matters like divorce, inheritance and marriages.  For the first time Muslims challenged the status quo on religious grounds, that the Nigerian state to all intent and purpose was a Christian state and they demanded for change. The Second Republic did not last long.  It was terminated by a military coup in December, 1983.

          During the Buhari regime religious issues took a back seat as the administration, although headed by two Muslims showed no favourtism towards Islam and the regime in 1984 restricted pilgrimage to Mecca to only 150,000 pilgrims on the ground that the country could not afford it.

          Religious issues took the centre stage again during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida who had declared himself President and sought legitimacy from Western media institutions.  It is believed that Babangida encouraged the formation of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).  It was also this period that moves were made to restore diplomatic relations with Israel in order to woo the support of the Western media dominated by Jews – CNN, New York Times, Washington Post and the Murdock expanding media empire.  When Muslims protested at the support Christians gave to the move, Babangida literally said “ga naku” meaning have your own, by taking the country into OIC as a full fledged member.

          It is under Babangida that this manipulation of religion to attain a political goal really became an art of governance.  His deputies were Christian by design – Ebute Ukiwe and late Aikhomu.  Before him, Gowon throughout the civil war period had Awolowo as the Vice-Chairman of the FEC, Shagari during the Second Republic tried to reenact the NPC/NCNC alliance through the formation of coalition government of NPN and NPP.  Buhari’s regime had two Muslims at the head of affairs.  When Babangida finally concluded an election both the SPD presidential candidate and his vice were Muslims but they received majority votes even in predominantly Christian states like Benue, Delta and Cross River.

Clearly Nigerians rejected the religious balancing as an absolute requirement.  The dictatorial regime of Sani Abacha overheated the polity so much because all mediums of expressing dissent were suppressed forcing these to be represented in churches and mosques.  And when the transition got under way by the establishment of another Constituent Assembly in 1998 the demand for Sharia was resurrected and this time, was met with a stiff resistance from Christians organized through CAN. Henceforth Muslims and Christians through their places of worship began to campaign on behalf of their faithfuls.  Muslims and Christian groups became the major plural strata and demand for religious balancing was and is openly canvassed.

          With a return to elected government in 1999, beginning with Zamfara, northern governors, one after another introduced Sharia legal system.  This of course led to widespread protest from Christian groups, but President Obasanjo was smart enough to read the political undertone and urged Nigerians to ignore it calling it ‘political sharia’.  True enough the resistance has died down and life in most of the states are back to status quo.

          So there is alcohol consumption and prostitution and as well as embezzlement of government resources.  But it is a potent political force used by politicians when in a fight with a candidate of the opposite faith.  In the 2011 presidential election, twelve of the far northern states which are predominantly Muslim voted for Buhari while the predominantly Christian south/south and south-east massively voted for Jonathan.  The North Central and South West had mixed results as well as mixed religious faith.  The exception to this was Adamawa and Taraba who are in the North-East but have Christian majority population.

          Today it is taken for granted that the president of this country cannot come from the same religious background as his vice-president.  It is today alleged that CAN has become an integral part of the Jonathan administration.

          Why this superficial religious intensity?  I think has its rots in bad government.  The inability of successive regimes to provide equity in governance has led to the reliance on the religious institutions for guide and consolation.

          The way forward is to insist for good governance and accept the basic teaching of the major religions which focus on respect for the individual and assistance to the poor.  We must move closer to the Yoruba notion of religion.  In Yoruba land, you are Yoruba before you are Christian or Muslim.  Religion must be gradually made personal whether or not the state is secular.  Such acts as the president kneeling in front of a pastor and be carried by the media is clearly an act of politicizing religion as was evident from the response of Daily Trust newspapers, while all the major papers in the south Guardian, This Day, Sun, Vanguard – all carried the picture on their front page, Daily Trust ignored it completely.

         Government must endeavour to treat all religions equally and Nigerians must demand so.