Does Nigeria have a religious problem? In his epic book, The Trouble with Nigeria, the legendary Chinua Achebe wrote that Nigeria had an “Igbo problem.” The Igbo problem was that the Igbos were unhindered by culture unlike the Yorubas and were unhindered by religion unlike the Hausa-Fulanis. This creature that “feared neither man nor God” unleashed himself on the nation, thriving in unchartered terrains and achieving enviable feats in all fields of endeavour. This upward motion of the Igbos was seen as a threat by other ethnic groups in the country especially in Northern Nigeria where the Igbo’s were filling up vacancies in the civil service that Northern indigenes could not fill because they did not have the qualifications. This Igbo problem, in Achebe’s view, is part of why the Igbos are alienated from core Nigerian politics. Those who oppose the Igbos think Igbos will take over everywhere if given even just a little chance.
By Achebe’s analysis, when the white man came to Nigeria with western education, the Yoruba race was hindered by its cultural hierarchy. It was a culture whose people operated a well-structured system of kingship and headship which had control over the ordinary people’s exposure to external values and pursuits. In Northern Nigeria, the people were hindered by religion. Western education was held with scepticism with Quranic education preferred. The imams, mallams and emirs were the custodians of the people’s values and thoroughly censored their exposure to the outside world. On the contrary, Igbo communities operated in autonomous units with each household head having his own personal god or Ikenga. This lack of central religious or cultural headship freed each Igbo individual to choose his opportunities and values by himself. Hence they prospered rather easily.
The situation as Achebe saw it nearly 40 year ago has changed considerably. The Yorubas have risen to become, perhaps, the most educated ethnic group in Nigeria. Also, concerted efforts have been made to increase the penetration of western education in Northern Nigeria. Although the literacy rate is probably still the least in the country, it is better than what it was when Achebe wrote his book. What seems to have changed, though, is the penetration of religion into the central artery of Nigerian life. If Achebe were to write today, he would probably say Nigeria has a religious problem.
Although there is no problem with religion itself, a society can have a religious problem with the way it handles its practice of religion. In Nigeria, religion has gone beyond the place of personal conviction in an individual’s worship of God to become a geo-politico-ethnic identity. Nigerians generally think people in the North are Muslims and those in the South are Christians. This generalization neglects the fact that there is a significant population of Christians in the North and Muslims in the South. More problematic is that this classification aligns well with the ethno-political faultlines of the Nigerian federation. Religion, like ethnicity, has become a basis for grouping and separating the citizens. It’s the basis for sharing political offices, employment opportunities, government projects, school admissions and so on. Belonging to one religion can spell immediate access to opportunities while belonging to another can mean immediate denial in the same part of the country.
This is simply an abuse of religion. With religion now being a key determinant in the distribution of scarce resources and opportunities, members of the different religions compete fiercely with one another. Many Nigerians can no longer think in objective terms. Equity for many is merely a question of how Christians or Muslims are treated. Merit has taken the back seat and religion has taken the front row in the scheme of things. National policy has been taken hostage in this unending see-saw of religious balancing. Unscrupulous politicians have found it easier to appear as Christian or Muslim candidates than to stand out on the merit of their manifestoes. Voters are easily swayed by the fear of being dominated or outsmarted by the other religious group. News headlines and social media posts are seen from the lens of religion. It seems the average Nigerian opens a news source with this question at the back of his mind – what have they done to my religion this time?
The apparent rivalry between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria does not have much to do with moral convictions and which God to serve. Instead, it is built on the use of religion for political and economic purposes. This seems to be what the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, alluded to in his broadcast on the Sharia crisis in the year 2000. “I believe that if genuine Islamic Sharia is coming, it will come from religious leaders, but when Sharia is coming from politicians, you wonder what this is,” Obasanjo said. In that single quote, Obasanjo exposed the nakedness of Nigeria’s religious problem – a curious situation where politicians are at the forefront of religious activism.
Many times when a crisis was tagged “religious,” it was often sparked off by a political concern. The religious manifestation only happened because the main political players aligned themselves with the main religious groups in the country. This alignment of theirs was not out of the fear of God but the love of numbers with which to win elections. In no place is this more clearly proven than in the fact that though Northern politicians insist on the Sharia legal system for their people, they and their families prefer to be tried under the penal code which is a secular law. Their goal doesn’t seem to be to draw close to Allah personally, but to use Allah to draw Muslims close to themselves and their political organizations. Similarly, many of those politicians championing the Christian cause find it convenient to live lifestyles that are in direct violation of the teachings of God. They are more interested in the religious practices that have political implications than those that have spiritual significance.
In the final analysis, Nigeria’s religious problem is mainly political rather than spiritual. It is a scam arrangement in which Nigerians put on the jersey of religion while playing economic and political games. In the end, there is plenty of religion in the public space but very little of God, and religion is held culprit for atrocities committed by disguised economists and politicians. If there was nothing to gain economically or politically by being a Muslim or Christian “leader,” many who make the most religious noise today would find no reason to belong to a religion. This is why if religious war were to break out, it will most likely be fought by those whom we would not have permitted to lead prayers in our churches or mosques. In other words, these are people whose spiritual credentials are in doubt even in the religions they claim to belong to and fight so hard to defend.