An Interdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5, Issue 1, pp.1-17, Spring 2020
Date Submitted: June 10, 2019 Date Accepted: May 11, 2020
Religion and Identity Politics in Nigeria
Yemisi Olawale Isaac
University of Ilorin, Nigeria
Abstract: Genuine national integration in Nigeria has been contentious amidst different
religious beliefs, societal configurations (ethnic group and culture) and politics of identity.
Religion has been at the center of several burning national questions that transcend state and
power, such as the question of secular state, societal integration, ethno-religious mobilization
and the identity politics. Since independence, two dominant religions in Nigeria—Islam and
Christianity—have been dominant cultures; forces in Nigerian state and power structures
through individuals and organizations. Chauvinist politicians, elite and non-elite statesmen
have long exploited the power of religion not only to promote their narrow political interests
but also to cast a religion-based identity for Nigeria and in turn have damaged its social fabric
and prevented a national integration. This article examines the influence of religion on identity
of politics of Nigeria and how it impacted its national integration.
Key Words: Africa, Religion, Nigeria, Identity Politics, History, National Integration
…I must confess that I share the fears of possibilities of religious and sectarian
strife in this country. I believe that tribalism as a fallback position was destroyed
by the Nigerian civil war. But I regret to say that religious and sectarian
chauvinism is fast replacing tribalism as a vehicle of political cohesion. The use
of ethnic and or religious differences as a means of achieving political solidarity
is fraudulent enough but it becomes more disturbing when it is used to polarize the
people and thereby disturb the peace and stability of the country. I am not aware
of any country that has survived two civil wars. I am afraid that our country
Nigeria may presently be living between wars. I hope I am wrong but all the
ingredients and the sign to the contrary are there for any perceptive analyst to
see…my greatest fear are that there may be no Nigeria after our Nigeria after our
The amalgamation of January 1, 1914 conceived the geo-polity entity known as Nigeria
today. Nigeria became a colonial creation with little or no contribution and consent of the
people living within its amalgamated geographical boundary.
Convincingly, Nigeria was born
out by the imperialist ambition for administrative convenience and economic gains. The
amalgamation has become a recurring national question, which the present article does not
wish to delve into. Before the advent of the Arab merchants and the arrival of European
missionaries, African traditional religions were the main religions in the region. Arab
merchants introduced Islam to west Africa around the ninth century through North Africa and
Middle East. Starting from the fifteenth century, Christianity was introduced as a harbinger of
colonialism, and as an agent of monotheism, westernization, and education. Summarily, before
its political independence, Nigeria had three distinct religions each with strong influence on
people’s daily life.
Nigeria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with two hundred fifty different
ethnic groups. Out of these diverse groups three of them stand as dominant groups namely:
Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and the Igbo. The granting of independence brought forth the issues and
challenges of ethnicity, religion, and the question of identities. Hitherto, religion had fueled the
north-south dichotomy, heating up Nigerian politics until today. Religion, mainly Islam and
Christianity, is today rooted along societal and ethnic lines. The imperfect distribution of
Muslims and Christians is complicated by the ethnic and societal differences which created an
opportunity for politicians to play on identity politics. The northern part of Nigeria, with the
exception of Central Nigeria, known as the Middle-Belt, is predominantly Muslim, while the
southeast of Nigeria is predominantly Christian, and both religions are equally represented in
the southwestern Nigeria.
Theophilus Y. Danjuma, Speech made at Command and Staff College, Jaji, June 29, 1979.
See, James Smoot Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1958); Toyin Falola, The History of Nigeria (London: Greenwood Press, 1999); Tekena N. Tamuno and J. A.
Atanda, Edt. Nigeria Since Independence: The First Twenty-Five Years, Vol 3: Education (Ibadan, Nigeria:
Heinemann Educational Books, 1989).
See Obaro Ikime, Groundwork of Nigeria History (Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980);
Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies (Rochester, NY:
University of Rochester Press, 1998) 1-49.
Falola, Violence in Nigeria, 1.
Religion and politics in Nigeria have been a complex and controversial discourse. In
the pre-colonial period (majorly traditional religion), religion was a means for traditional rulers
to legitimize their rule—confirming their acceptance and recognition to the gods as well as
their subject after due sacrifice, religious, and traditional customs have been met. Usman Dan
Fodio (1754-1817), the founder of Sokoto Caliphate, turned Islam into a major force in
administration and politics in the administration of the loose confederation of Sokoto and
Gwandu Caliphates. Christianity entered in the southwest and the southeast portions of Nigeria
The study is motivated by the weaponization of religion within Nigerian societies and
political space and the intractability of crisis and violence in Nigeria today. The sub-sections
under this study puts forth a great deal of intellectual endeavor to address the religious
phenomenon by taking into consideration the influence of religion on the formation of identity
politics. The study invariably identified the challenges of such influence on crave for genuine
“Religion is a powerful force in societies around the world and in the lives of peoples
The word religion, etymologically, comes from the Latin word ‘re-ligare’ to
bind. Broadly speaking, religion includes actions of man with a Supreme Being or divinities in
respect to worship and loyalty. “Religion can be understood as a regulated pattern of life of a
people in which experiences, beliefs and knowledge are reflected in man’s conception of
himself in relation to others, his social world, the physical as well as the metaphysical world.”
Religion is a belief in the existence of a God or gods and a systematic worship of a God or
gods. It is a strong element influencing the thinking and daily life of its believers. In simple
terms, religion refers to the beliefs and practices based on a conception of the sacred.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle began his famous work, Politics, with the observation
that man is by nature a political animal. This by implication means that the essence of social
existence is politics and everyday human interaction is itself political. Individuals engage in
politics as they try to define their position in society, as they struggle for scarce resources, and
try to convince others to accept their points of view.
Politics can also be viewed as the process
of making and executing governmental decisions or policies,
the authoritative allocation of
values; or who gets what, when and how; the quest for power, order, and justice; the art of
influencing, manipulating and controlling others;
the process of conflict resolution in society,
and a struggle among actors pursuing conflicting desire on public issues.
Politics is the
Georgette Bennett, Joyce S. Dubensky, "Preface” pp. xv-xviii, in David Little (ed.): Peacemakers in Action:
Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) xv.
Malachy Ikechukwu Okwueze, Ethics Religion and Society: Biblical, Traditional and Contemporary
Perspectives (Nsukka, Nigeria: Prize Publishers, 2003).
Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965).
Ernest Barker (eds.), The Politics of Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 1.
Harold Dwight Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan, Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry (New
Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1982), 1-5.
Harold Dwight Lasswell, Politics: Who gets What, When, How (New York: P. Smith, 1972); Quincy Wright,
The Study of International Relations (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955), 130.
Austin Ranney, The Governing of Men (Hinsdale, Ill.; Dryden Press, 1975), 35-38; Vernon Van Dyke, Political
Science: A Philosophical Analysis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 134.
activity (negotiation, argument, discussion, application of force, persuasion, controversy,
bargaining, and compromise) by which issues are agitated and settled.
Politics can also be
seen as a means of striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power
among individual and groups within a state.
According to James D. Fearon, identity has two distinct but intertwined meanings:
“social” and “personal” identity.
Identity is a social category, created either by others or by
the group itself. Furthermore, as pointed out by Fearon, social categories have two
distinguishing features: “first, they are defined by implicit or explicit rules of membership,
according to which individuals are assigned or not to the category. Second, social categories
are understood in terms of sets of characteristics—for example, beliefs, desires, moral
commitments, or physical attributes—thought typical of members of the category, or behaviors
expected or obliged of members in certain situations.”
The concept of national integration has been espoused by various scholars arising from
the ambiguous nature of social science concepts. National integration involves the unification
of separate groups with different social and cultural identities for greater public good.
Ogunjenite conceived national integration as “building of nation-states out of disparate socio-
economic, religious, ethnic, geographical elements by translating diffused or unorganized
sentiments of nationalism into the spirit of citizenship…”.
National integration is an
amalgamation of diverse ethnic, religious, and social and economic groups into a nation-state.
The essence of national integration cannot be separated from national unity, nation building,
national loyalty, patriotism, and cohesion towards a greater public good. Ade Ajayi from a
structural perspective described national integration “as a process of holding tightly together
the various nationalities or ethnic groups and institutions in a dovetailed manner through the
bonds of contrived structures, norms and values”.
In sum, Awa’s definition identifies the
result of integration when he conceived national integration as “the process by which hitherto
distinctive and autonomous peoples and cultures incorporated into a multi-national states can
achieve higher levels of mutual trusts, cooperation and independence, shared values, common
identity and national consciousness.”
Summarily, the concept of national integration brings
culturally and socially divergent groups together in a singular territorial unit like the Nigerian
Barker, The Politics of Aristotle, 116.
Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Translated and Edited by A. M Henderson and
Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 148-154.
James D. Fearon, “What is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)?” Unpublished Draft, (Stanford, CA:
Department of Political Science, Stanford University, November 3, 1999), 13-14. Retrieved from
Identity-as-we-now-use-the-word-.pdf on May 5, 2020.
Fearon, “What is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)?” 13-14.
L.O. Ogunjenite, “Federal Character as an Integrative Mechanism: the Nigeria’s Experiment at Nation
Building” in Alternative Political Factor for Nigeria, Edited by S. Odugbemi, (Lagos, Nigeria: Nigeria Political
Science Association Publication, 1987), 224.
J.F Ade Ajayi, “The Problem of National Integration: A Historian Perspective”, Text Delivered on the 11th,
NISER Series Distinguished Lecture, Ministry of Sokoto, Sokoto, Nigeria (December 11, 1984).
E.O. Awa, “National Integration in Nigeria, Problems and Prospect”, Paper delivered at Bayero University,
Kano, Nigeria, Distinguished Lecture Series, no. 5 of NISER, 1965.
State. This kind of socio-cultural and political homogeneity should be a logical consequence
or function of productive inter-group relations.
The Phenomenon of Identity Politics
In his 1997 Annual Report, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi
Annan, lamented on the rise of negative forms of identity politics and their immense
This particularistic and exclusionary form of identity politics has intensified in
recent years within and among nations…. It is responsible for some of the most
egregious violations of international humanitarian law and in several instances of
elementary standards of humanity…. Negative forms of identity politics are a
potent and potentially explosive force. Great care must be taken to recognize,
confront and restrain them lest they destroy the potential for peace and progress
that the new era holds in store.
Identity politics, in other words, is basically a form of politics that claimed to cater to
the needs of a group through state apparatus. It involves the mobilization of identity
consciousness in order to create a mass base of support for the ruling class, and the elite
generally, in their factional struggles in the accumulation process. In addition, identity politics
connotes a relatively high degree of the subjective entering into politics. Identity is not only
about individuality and self-awareness, but also and especially about identification with, and
commitment to, shared values and beliefs, in a social collectivity into which a person belongs.
Identity politics as a political concept refers to the political activity of various ethnic, religious
and cultural groupings in demanding greater economic, social, and political rights or self-
determination. Identity politics claim to represent and seek to advance the interests of particular
groups in society, the members of which often share and unite around common experiences of
actual or perceived social and economic injustice, relative to the wider society of which they
form part and exist in.
Religion and Politics
Religion and politics have assumed the center stage of discussion and influenced every
state affair and power structure, promoting ethno-religious conflicts and political violence. The
basic question remains: why is there a recurring influence of religion on politics in Nigeria?
Why has there been a recurring effect of religion as an instrument of violence and national
disunity? A cursory examination of religion and politics reveals a double contrasting theme
that derives its power from different sources. Religion as a source of power is based in
spirituality while material forces and spheres are the basis of political power.
in Nigeria has been made a resource for conflict and national disunity. The logical conclusion
then is to try to measure the relationship of the three religions, politics, and state power.
The relationship between politics and religion is intimate because there is always a point
of convergence. More so, the relationship is complex because of the intricacies inherent in the
Kofi Annan, The Guardian (Nigeria), October 24, 1997; Jega Attahiru, “General Introduction: Identity
Transformation and the Politics of Identity under Crisis and Adjustment”, pp.11-23, in Attahiru Jega (ed.). Identity
transformation and Identity Politics under Structural Adjustment in Nigeria (Stockholm, Sweden: Elanders
Gotab, 2000), 11.
Terhemba Nom Ambe-Uva, “Identity Politics and the Jos crisis: Evidence, Lessons and Challenges of Good
Governance”, African Journal of History and Culture, pp.42-52, Vol. 2 (3), 2010.
Philip Ostien, Jamila Nasir and Franz Kogelmann, Comparative Perspectives on Shari’ah in Nigeria (Ibadan,
Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 2005).
politicization of religion. Hank Eso sees religion as a tool of politics and that in a real sense
both make strange bedfellows. In his words: “Just as soccer is singularly the sole and most
unifying factor in Nigeria, nothing is as divisive as religion-especially when it is used as a tool
Religion holds a strong influence in the politics of the state given its capacity for
effective political mobilization. Fox and Sandler gave six major reasons why this is so, these
reasons are as follows: (i) religious organizations have strong international links and enjoy
global solidarity, (ii) religious organizations have the capability to easily unite differential
social groupings in the society;(iii) religious organizations are often strong in weak states;(iv)
the restriction of religious activities is often difficult for state regimes;(v) religious
organizations often enjoy good patronage in the media and (vi) religious organizations have
the ‘ready-made’ platform for political meetings.
Identity Politics in Nigeria: Secularism and Sharia
The influence of religion on Nigerian identity politics has become recurring and more
dominant. This section seeks to examine the influence of religion through a discussion of
secularism and sharia, Islamic law, in Nigeria. Discussions about secularism or what can be
said to be a secular state has been subject to heated confrontational debates between adherents
of Christianity and Islam. Kukah’s comment on secularism is worth noting:
The debate over the religious status of the Nigeria state remains one of the most
passionate and acrimonious. The debate has often been beclouded by bellicosity,
zealotry, arrogance and prejudices. In the end, there has always been more heat
Secularism has been defined as a system which seeks to interpret and order life on
principle taken solely from this world, without recourse to belief in God and a future life.
Secularism is accepted to be the separation of religious practices from state affairs. This by
implication means the three dominant religions of Nigeria would not interfere in state policies
or matters of governance. By keeping religion out of politics, secularism can protect minority
religious groups from the members of majority religion. This means if one major religion is
dominant in government affairs; it will be unfair to the minor religion. In Nigeria, none of the
three dominant religions support secularism and this has threatened Nigerian national
integration. Looking at Christianity, Matthew (5:13-14) reads:
You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot
be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it
gives light to all in the house. Let your light shine before men that they may see
your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven.
This by implication means that Christianity cannot be separated from the world,
Christianity is to be used to govern the public sphere as it must be adhered to strictly and be
the totality of Christian existence.
Hank Eso, “Nigeria: Religion as a Tool of Politics”, April 16, 2003, Retrieved from
https://ihuanedo.ning.com/group/religiousskeptism/forum/topics/nigeria-religion-as-a-tool-of, on February 23,
Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler, “Quantifying Religion: Toward Building More Effective Ways of Measuring
Religious Influence on State-Level Behavior”, Journal of Church and State 45 (3), Summer 2003, pp.559-588.
Matthew Hassan Kukah, Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria (Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books Ltd, 1999),
The Holy Bible, The Revised Standard Version, China Collins Bible (Harper Collins Publishers, 1971).
The sharia debates have proven that secularism is not an option for Islam either. Islamic
believers view Islam as a holistic way of life and the readiness to abide by the doctrines to
govern the state as a Muslim Ummah despite any form of what can be described as modernity,
civilization, or Western governance process. This concept was clearly buttressed below:
Muslims believe that their religion, Islam, is a complete way of life which has made
copious provisions for all facets of life: practices, social involvement, economic
undertakings, political participation, technological innovations, legal
phenomenon and religious beliefs.
The Western democracies largely see religion as a factor regulating the relationship
between the visible and the invisible world, while they see politics responsible for regulating
the relationship between the society and the state. The Western concept of secularism sees
religion as a private affair, something between an individual believer with their God or god(s)
and a relation that should not spill over to the public domain.
This is contrary to Islamic
perspectives on politics; religion and politics are often intertwined in Islamic societies. As the
above-quoted text pointed out, in Islamic culture there is no clear separation of religion from
Like the currently dominant religions of Islam and Christianity, the traditional or
indigenous religions of Nigeria have been woven into the nation’s political fabric and it was
not restricted to private life in pre-colonial times either. Separating one’s spiritual life from his
or her public life is a foreign concept in Africa that must be rejected. The indigenous religion,
which had been in existence before the advent of the two foreign religions (Islam and
Christianity) had a profound system of politics. Indeed, traditional religion was woven into
local politics of the kingdoms and empires. Religion was used to fortify benevolence and the
trepidation that preserved the family as a unit and the village as distinctive community. In fact,
throughout pre-colonial times, all actions and mechanism of governance and endurance were
clothed in religion. This condition brings the question about the future of Nigerian state. Which
path could lead to a genuine national integration? In a multi religious society, the position of
secularism has been hotly debated.
On the issue of secular state, Kukah states the role played by the elite and politicians
using such national debates to promote self-agenda and ethnic identity politics.
The ground was therefore well laid and rather than the politicians seeing
themselves being divided only by the contending ideological presentations of their
party manifestoes, a lot of useful energy was diverted to building religious lagers.
Rather than mobilize Nigeria to their cause as politicians, the new political elite
were busy mobilizing religious constituencies for a war against one another.
Kukah argued that Nigerian citizens and adherents of religious organizations have
perceived secularism from different perspectives. Muslims argue that unless they stand on their
grounds, non-Muslims would continue to subjugate and humiliate them in matters of the
Ali Mazrui, “Shariacracy and Federal Models in the Era of Globalization: Nigeria in a Comparative
Perspective”, Paper Presentation at the International Conference on “Restoration of Shariah in Nigeria: Challenges
and Benefits”, London, April 14, 2001.
Ostien, Nasir and Kogelmann, Comparative Perspectives on Shari’ah in Nigeria, 305.
Matthew Hassan Kukah, Religion Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum. Books,
practice of their faith.
The non-Muslims on the other hand argue that indeed the debate was
not about Islam as a religion, it is largely a debate about the articulation and legal protection of
the liberty of Nigerians to live under a secular, democratic Nigerian state.
A group of Marxist
oriented scholars espoused a different perspective. To them the entire debate is not only a
flagrant distortion of the secular status of Nigerian state, but also part of the strategic game for
the control of the Nigerian state across religious and ethnic boundaries. Their argument was
anchored on the fact that these selfish elites really have no love for the Nigerian state beyond
their personal interests, when the majority of the poor Nigerians had no other place to call
home. The secularism issue has generated various sub-topics, such as Islamization agenda in
Nigeria or Christianization of Nigeria. However, we examine these issue, it is unambiguous
that the effect on genuine national cohesion has become a problem. At any rate the influence
of religion on Nigerian identity politics, either to detach it or use it to forge a unified identity,
has been tainted with emotions, passions, prejudice, ignorance, sentiment, fear of domination,
and parochialism, which has always replaced rational reasoning.
Secularism has today
reinforced national diversity in unity. A hot debate is whether Nigeria is still a secular state
despite the introduction of sharia in some northern states of Nigeria and Nigeria’s membership
of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1986, which later snowballed to a series of
religious motivated eruptions of violence of cataclysmic proportions across many states in the
Northern Nigeria axis.
The Sharia Debate
Nigeria has witnessed a controversial discussion as regards the introduction of sharia
courts to Nigerian legal system in northern Nigerian states. On January 27, 2000, Ahmed Sani
Yerima, the then Governor of Zamfara State, officially announced that sharia legislation would
be extended for personal law to all aspects of life including criminal cases.
Abdukareem Adisa stated that the introduction of the sharia legal system in the northern state
of Zamfara was the beginning of a religious clash with political authority.
The initiative taken
by Zamfara spread to eleven other northern states in the next two years. The crisis of the
Nigerian state evolved as sharia courts began issuing verdicts. Clashes and confrontations
broke out immediately between Christians and Muslims in Kaduna between 2000 and 2002,
which was one of the worst clashes since the Nigeria Civil Wars.
Moreover violence broke
out in Jos in September 2001, which led to the loss of lives and properties and threatened
national integration. How did these events affect the Nigerian political landscape? Can the
identity of a state be separated from religion? Section 10 of the 1999 Nigerian constitution was
Kukah, Religion Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria, 35-38.
Yusufu Bala Usman, The Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria, 1977-1987 (Kaduna, Nigeria: Vanguard Printers,
Hassan Matthew Kukah, “Religion and Civil Society” pp.225-235 in Maduabuchi F. Dukor, (Edt.), Philosophy
and Politics: Discourse on Values and Power in Africa (Lagos, Nigeria: Obaroh & Ogbinaka Publishers, 1998).
Je'adayibe Dogara Gwamna, Religion and Politics in Nigeria (Plateau State Nigeria, African Christian Textbook
(Acts) Publishers, 2010), 101.
Abdukareem Adisa, “Boko Haram: Security Implication in Nigeria” A Paper Presented in Lagos at A Village
Square Meeting on Security in Nigeria, 2011.
Center for Religious Freedom, “The Talibanization of Nigeria 2000: Sharia Law and Religion Freedom”.
(Washington: Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, 2002) p. 17.
amended in 2010 but it remains unambiguous. It states that “the government of the federation
or of a state shall not adopt any religion as a state religion.”
Christians have argued that the extension of sharia is a step towards creating a state
religion while the Muslims see sharia as a component part of the judicial and legal system in
northern Nigeria. Yusuf Turaki notes that:
The new Sharia legal system includes both civil and criminal matters. This raises
question of constitutional legality and human religious and cultural right. A
greater part of the debate dwells on these issues.
Scholars have argued from various perspectives. First, that sharia has been employed
to muster corrupt politicians. The sharia was also said to establish a patriarchal structure of the
north against the pressure of democratization. Politicians have adopted the introduction of
Islam to create a direct identity to the political landscape of the country. They adopted sharia
to emphasize the presence of Muslims in the national space. The influence of this religious
code has led to deadly confrontations between Muslims and Christians over the years. It is
therefore appropriate to argue in line with Sanusi that religious influence on identity politics
pre-dates the issue of sharia. He succinctly states:
The construction of a specific popular Islamic or popular Christian identity in
contradistinction to the demands for altering this collective pathetic condition has
enabled the dominant classes among Muslims and Christian to appropriate large
numbers of the deprived as cannon fodder in the competition for political and
economic space- with the Nigeria state as the principal arena.
With either emphasis on the introduction of sharia or shariacracy, the bone of
contention is that religion has been enacted by politicians and elites to militate against national
cohesion and further the north-south dichotomy. The sharia controversy and its polarization of
Nigerian political space has shown how dangerous the politicization of religion is and the role
it plays in the creation of identity politics in Nigeria.
The Politics of Interpretation and the Conspiracies of Perspectives
As noted above, Section (10) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (Federal Republic of
Nigeria, 1999) announces that “The Government of the Federation of the state shall not adopt
any religion as state religion.”
However, Section 38 (1) holds that:
Every person shall be entitled to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion,
including freedom to change his [sic] religion or belief, and freedom (either alone
or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate
its religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Referring to the demands associated with the struggle over sharia in the past, the
constitution also acknowledged the rights of Nigerians to sharia justice by stating in section
275 (1) that “There shall be for any State that requires it a Sharia Court of Appeal for that
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
Yusufu Turaki, The Institutionalization of the Inferior Status and Socio-Political Role of the Non-Muslim
Groups in the Colonial Hierarchical Structure of the Northern Region of Nigeria: A Social-Ethical Analysis of
the Colonial Legacy (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston: Boston University, 1982).
S. Lamido Sanusi, “The Shari’a Debate and the Construction of a “Muslim” Identity in Northern Nigeria: A
Critical Perspective” Paper delivered at a seminar on The Sharia debate and the construction of Muslim and
Christian identities in Northern Nigeria University of Bayreuth, Germany, 2003.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
State.” Section 260 (1) adds that “And there shall be a Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal
Capital Territory, Abuja.”
After the implementation of sharia in twelve northern Nigerian States between 1999
and 2000, the debates about sharia led to religious polarization as well as to intensive debates
about the nature of the Nigerian state. Many Muslims interpret the constitutional provisions by
focusing on the provision for freedom of religion. If Muslims are free to practice Islam, which
includes the practice of sharia, then the introduction of sharia at the state level is, in their view,
an expression of their constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom.
Many Christians, in contrast, focus on the provision that no state religion shall be
adopted and feel that the introduction of sharia is unconstitutional because it affects their
religious freedom to live without sharia. Thus, the institution of sharia is viewed by many
Muslims as an act of religious freedom, while a significant number of Christians and other non-
Muslims interpret it as a challenge to the constitution, which is meant to guarantee their
Despite heated debates about sharia at the time of its introduction, the boundaries in
the struggles by religious groups and organizations over public space and recognition are fluid.
Some Christian groups have ‘translated’ the current Muslim debate into the realm of
Christianity and demanded the introduction of (Christian) canon law in predominantly
Others have argued that sharia constitutes a threat to the secular state model.
For the Muslims, the introduction and implementation of sharia has been within the scope of
the constitution and for the Christians, it is a violation of the state secularism and freedom of
Nigeria to feel safe in the practice of their religious rites without any interference. The fact that
inter-religious conflict has claimed thousands of lives and properties most dominantly in the
northern states of Nigeria, summaries the contemporary saga.
Religion in the Theatre of Nigerian Identity Politics
With religion generating so much passion, the polarization of the nation has found full
expression as the country is finally pitched as a battleground between Christians and Muslims.
The involvement of the political class therefore makes the situation even more worrisome. The
influence of religion on the Nigeria state and the politicization of religion by the state have
created an identity for Nigeria politics today. This influence has made religion lose it spiritual
authority in the society and become a tool in the hands of unscrupulous individuals to further
their interests. Religion has assumed the role of creating an identity for Nigerian politics which
facilitates conflict to militate against the corporate existence and stability of the state.
Today, religion has been transformed into a new fundamental political factor. Religious
competition between Christians and Muslims is without doubt the single most significant
political issue in the country. Religion has influenced the “federal character principle” and
dominated the political debates of various ethnic groups. The “federal character principle” was
originally devised to guarantee the equal representation of Nigerians from all states of the
federation in political and bureaucratic government offices. This principle has assuaged both
northern Nigerian fears of a preponderance of the better educated southerners in government
and administration, and southern Nigerian fears of northern domination, based on the fact that
most governments since independence have been headed by Muslims from northern Nigeria.
Cyril Imo, “Evangelicals Muslims and Democracy with Particular Reference to the Declaration of Sharia in
northern Nigeria” pp. 37-66 in Terence O. Ranger (Edt.), Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
The identity politics played by various groupings is not only to fill political positions with
members of their state, but rather with either champions for the cause of Islam or Christianity.
These ideas have been further deepened by the pairing a Muslim and a Christian in political
positions at federal and state levels, a quota of individuals holding political office has always
been allocated along religion lines. The effect of this can be seen in the 2019 Kaduna State
governorship primary when an aspirant choice of a Muslim-Muslim ticket triggered a reaction
of the Christian Association of Nigeria in what was perceived as a sensitive issue in Kaduna
local politics due to the intractability of religious violence in Kaduna.
Recently the conduct of the election and voting system in Nigeria has been overlaid
with religion leading to sectarian vote which has further deepened the impossibility of national
cohesion. Election is an important parameter for Nigerian democracy and the desire for
sustainable democracy. The north-south dichotomy in elections has resulted in Christian–
Muslim controversy. This tension intensified when politicians exploit religion to garner support
for their cause and for their personal interests. The politicization of religion has a recurring
manifestation in Nigeria elections, and this has hindered the conduct of free, fair, and credible
elections. The election of credible and competent leaders based on meritocracy has been
hampered using religion. Political parties have been rooted along ethnic and religious lines as
well as political office appointment and contestants have been the issue of religious affiliation
Jibrin and Kazah-Toure state that religious brinkmanship has seriously damaged
Nigerian politics and today it seems to be more dangerous than previous regional political
conflict in Nigeria history.
From this submission, one can infer that the relationship between
individual identity, groups and civil societies has been dangerously politicized. The most
dominant influence of religious identity politics is in the northern part of Nigeria. It is widely
believed that religion has had more political bearing on the political attitude of northern
Muslims than the rest of the federation. Christianity as well is enshrining itself in the politics
and hence the problem of domination and identity politics overlaid with religion and ethnicity
ensued with an intolerance suspicion.
Some democratic utilities of religion include the integration of human societies
composed of individuals and social groups with diverse interests and aspirations. Religious
bonds may transcend these personal and divisive forces and religion may legitimize the existing
social order. According to Suberu, Mala & Aiyegboyin, religion performs six interrelated
functions, namely, restraining or criticizing the conduct of government, encouraging political
participation, promoting democratic values and norms, articulating and aggregating distinctive
societal interests, generating cross-cutting identities and providing avenues for the
development of leadership skills.
Inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria form part of the dynamics of identity politics.
Political elites in Nigeria have always sought to reap advantages from the multidimensional
identities, more so during election periods, and this has resulted in conflicts and instability.
This politicization of religious identities during contests for political office often lacks any
sustaining unifying ideology. Somehow, politics in Nigeria are fashioned on the appeasement
Ibrahim Jibrin and T. Kazah-Toure, Ethno-religious Identities in Northern Nigeria (Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic
Africa Institute, 2003), 131.
Rotimi T Suberu, Sam B. Mala and Deji I. Aiyegboyin, pp.33-41, “Religious Organisations” in Oyeleye
Oyediran and Adigun A. B. Agbaje (Edt.) Nigeria: Politics of Transition and Government 1986-1996. (Dakar,
Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 1999).
of religious motives. As a consequence, religion attains the level of deification that is difficult
to challenge or overpower. In their quest to assume power and state resources, the elites
constantly modify patterns of political domination. In this perpetually changing pattern of
domination, fears and anxieties are bred that motivate an upsurge in struggle and intolerance.
Religious Civil Societies and Politics in Nigeria
The religious civil society has emerged out of the circumstances viewed as tantamount
to the interest of their religious identities.
As discussed earlier about the federal character
system, system of voting, appointment of bureaucratic officials, religious civil societies have
become a tool to proselyte religion in Nigerian politics, hereby creating an identity not only for
the religion and politics but also for ethnic divisions. Religious associations in Nigeria have
frequently and raucously denounced bad governmental policies or actions that contradicted the
interests of their religious community, and the welfare of their religious adherents. Needless to
argue, Nigerians have demonstrated stronger links or allegiances to their religious
organizations than to the politicians. The fact remains that this propensity, rather than
stabilizing the politics, reinforces ethnic differences. The ferocious turn of Nigerians about
religious matters which will not be replicated when it comes to national interest has weakened
the Nigerian state.
Religious associations have endorsed political contestants for political offices to protect
their interest. Thus, religious associations have joined independence groups in civil society in
criticizing, influencing the identity of politics in Nigeria. Nigeria’s religious organizations have
played an important role in encouraging and mobilizing their members towards active
participation in, and identification with, public affairs and politics. This is done by stimulating
a sense of civic identification and participation in their members by urging members to
participate in politics, make sure they are affiliated to a political party, and re-orients them,
especially Christians, that politics is not a worldly affair as well as dirty game. Politics is now
advocated on the basis of one’s civil and political right, of the right to vote and be voted for.
Today, the North-South dichotomy is not discussed along ethnic lines but religious
lines. However, religious bodies, such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and
Jammatu Nasir Islam (JNI) are tools used by their religious leaders to defend their position in
the social political order. These religious civil societies directly or indirectly influence politics,
direct their followers to vote for whom and what. To a very reasonable extent, these
associations have over the years wielded powers to protect and defend their members and
reduce divisions within various groups but, while trying to solve centrifugal problems by
uniting various ethnic groups under their religion, they created another national problem of
religious division which is more sensitive than ethnicity.
The instrumentality of JNI has been used to negotiate its way to retain political power
and to propagate Islam. In 1964, the Northern Christian Association had to strengthen its
position by changing its name to Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), to include all
Jibrin and Kazah-Toure, 18.
Thomas O. Ebhomienlen and Emmanuel I. Ukpebor, “Religion and Politics in Nigeria: A Comparative Study
of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and the Christian Association of Nigeria”, International
Journal of Science and Research, Vol 2/9, (September 2013), pp.166-170; Hakeem Onapajo, “Politics for God:
Religion, Politics and Conflict in Democratic Nigeria”, Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol 4/9, pp.42-66 (January
Roseline Morenike Oshewolo and Barok Andrew Maren, “Religion and Politics in Nigeria”, International
Journal of Politics and Good Governance, Volume VI/6.3, pp.1-12 (Quarter III, 2015), 7.
Christians in Nigeria as a way of providing a platform to advocate common interest, and wield
strong bargaining power in influencing national decisions, politics, and power structures. The
impact of religion in a secular state seems to have played out negatively in Nigeria, as politics
and religion are mixed in the attempt to gain political hold on the population. For a very long
time, religion has been used by the Nigerian oligarchy as its main weapon to hold on to power.
Religious organizations articulate, aggregate, and represent distinctive societal interests. The
Christian representation and mobilization against Nigeria’s membership in the OIC represented
only one of the many instances of interest representation by the Christian community since
1986. Nigerian political leaders, on both Muslim and Christian sides have invoked the name of
God in politics and sought to use religion freely in influencing the policy decisions and swaying
national political and economic policies and to that end governance.
Dancing on the Brink of Religion Divides
Religion in itself is neither good nor bad, it is a reality whether one likes it or not,
religion is a social fact that rather than being lamented, dismissed, or ignored should be turned
to human advantage by considering constructive means for the purposes such as national
integration. Religion when well examined can be used as the basis of integrating the country
with a genuine national cohesion.
Religion is meant to be the basis of brotherhood and integration among its adherents,
but it has become a manipulating tool in the hands of political elite, who occasionally deploy
it to undermine what the gospels of Jesus Christ and Mohammed stand for. Boer argues that
the fundamental thrust of the sharia centers on inbuilt distrust and lack of confidence between
Muslims and Christians that have been manifested over the years.
He noted that the result of
this lack of genuine trust is the inter-religious relationship that have generated into religious
conflict since the 1980s. Dogara argues from the perspective of non-Muslims living under the
rule of a sharia state and proposes that a long term resolution to sharia crisis is to gain an in
depth understanding of the Muslim concept of Islamic state and secular state. He raised the
question of second-class citizenship status, the rights and privileges of people, the implication
of sharia in state administrative procedures. A clear example of what religion can cause in such
case is the Kaduna crisis, Zamfara state, Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi state and Kebbi state. The
religious sphere has become an avenue for seeking political cover and even political networks
are determined to some extent by religious affiliation.
This form of religious manipulation
and politicization motivated by personal interest or the interest of few elite has been
endangering the Nigerian quest for a genuine national integration. Jibrin Ibrahim attributes this
scenario to elite manipulation while dealing with the sharia in Nigeria.
He however argued
that; There is no doubt that the difficulties experiences trying to resolve the Sharia issue
amicably has been compounded by the way in which politician has (sic)
exaggerated genuine religious concerns and fears in order to create their
Jan Boer, “The Nigerian Christian-Muslim Stand-Off: Some Underlying Issues, Parameters for a Solution”
TCNN Research Bulletin, No 33, pp.4-23, (2000), 5.
Gwamna, Religion and Politics in Nigeria.
Jibrin Ibrahim, “Religion and Political Turbulence in Nigeria”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol
29/1, pp.115-136 (1991), 116.
Ibrahim, “Religion and Political Turbulence in Nigeria”, 116.
Today, in many part of northern Nigeria, religious polarization has replaced national
unity. The Muslim population is mainly the Hausa-Fulani that inhabits the core north while
Christians and a significant Muslim population inhabit the North-Central otherwise known as
the middle belt. With this great influence of religion, it will be very difficult for national
integration to be achieved if appropriate matters are not handled with appropriate mechanisms.
Ekwunife pointed out;
In Nigeria, the government and her citizens are yet to accept fully both in theory
and practice the stark realities of pluralism of religious beliefs and practices. The
waves of religious crises and violence in recent years seem to confirm this
Religion may promote democratic values and norms. This is done through the
promotion and propagation of such democratic norms and values as tolerance, moderation,
willingness to compromise, and respect for truth, justice, and freedom. Religious leaders in
Nigeria have at different times demonstrated this commitment to democracy by urging
Nigerians not to waver in their support for democratic institutions.
Identity politics can be a
stabilizing force in a plural society by creating the much-needed awareness and objective
conditions necessary for national integration. National integration presupposes a condition
whereby different ethnic groups understand the strength and weakness of other groups and are
prepared to tolerate one another in an atmosphere of “mutual benefits”. Therefore, national
integration is the ability of all social groups to remain committed to the ideals of unity by
guaranteeing equal opportunities and expression of the identities of the various groups.
Religion plays a key role in Nigerian politics. Today, it can be argued that ethnic
identity is becoming less prominent while religious identity plays a more active role in
influencing national policies. Recent events attest that religious identity politics is becoming
more sensitive as every discussion revolves around religion. In fact, religious identity is more
pronounced than ethnic identity and only serves to stimulate ethnicity. The politicization of
religion has been examined in the sphere of secularism and sharia debates. Religion has
assumed the center stage and serves as a basis for identity, mobilization, and legitimization in
the state. Religious civil society and associations started springing up from Islam and
Christianity in Nigeria to further strengthen the unity of faith and to protect the interest of
members in the face of imagined or real marginalization. These religious civil societies should
advance the principles on which each of the religions is based by constructively condemning
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