Kwara State is in the news for rather unfortunate reasons. The state is boiling with rising religious crisis between Christians and Moslems over the state government’s decision to authorise the use of hijab by Moslem students in Christian missionary schools. The Christians in the state are opposed to this decision and have refused to let the affected schools reopen. On the other hand, Moslems in the state have tried to force such schools open and to make their hijab-wearing students gain entrance.
Some observers wonder why Moslems would insist on wearing hijab in Christian schools when they can conveniently do so in Moslem schools. Others blame the Christians for making a big deal out of mere dressing. A third group dives into history and tries to prove that the hijab is neither indigenous to Moslems nor even a core pillar of the Islamic religion, hence should not be the subject of religious crisis. Another group wonders what will become of public schools if all the religious groups insist on turning up in their religious garments. They further worry that such tendencies can encroach into other uniform-wearing bodies like the security agencies and other professions. A fifth group is altogether fed up with the whole situation and wonders why the two foreign religions should even be allowed to continue in the country.
The trouble with religion in Nigeria is not derived from Islam or Christianity per se. It is derived from the flawed nature of the Nigerian federation which chooses to share access to scarce economic and political opportunities on the basis of religion rather than merit and equal citizenship, and which reduces the goal of politics to a mere tool for personal or group access to economic opportunities rather than service. Under the current arrangement, adherents of the religion that is tagged the majority in a locality automatically have more political and economic opportunities to the exclusion of adherents of other religions. Therefore, the unending quest to be in the majority – or at least, be perceived as the majority – is merely the quest to acquire political and economic advantages over others.
This hypothesis is backed by self-evident observations. First, it is why the so-called religious crisis is rather minimal at the level of inter-personal relationship. For example, majority of the Christians who are fighting to prevent hijab in Kwara schools will not hesitate to welcome – and extend sterling hospitality to – a hijab-wearing visitor in their houses. In this setting, the ownership of the house is not in dispute and the possibility of the visitor taking it over is almost non-existent. Consequently, the religion of the visitor is inconsequential. Therefore, the problem is not with the hijab – or the religion it represents – but the dynamics of numbers and the advantages they confer on some citizens in the competition for access to opportunity.
Second, it is also why adherents of religion who demonstrate unprecedented passion in preserving the public symbols of their religion may simultaneously exhibit freezing apathy towards the high moral requirements for personal spiritual prosperity. Since religion claims to focus on uniting man with God, should its greatest emphasis not be strict personal conduct that pleases God rather mere public symbolisms? What emerges from this contradiction is that the Nigerian religious crisis is driven by something other than genuine spirituality.
While those at the forefront of the crisis bicker about numbers, do they not realize that mere numbers do not equate to spiritual prosperity? Even where the numbers are accurate, is it all the individuals involved that practice the teachings of the Holy Book? For example, the fact that people are more concerned about whether Kwara is a Christian or Moslem state – rather than whether Christians or Moslems in Kwara consistently comply with the teachings of their Holy Books – shows that the overriding concern is something other than spiritual. That concern is the economy and the political numerics of controlling it.
Third, it is also why although there is plenty of religion on public display in Nigeria, there is no commensurate public morality. This is because, in the dynamics of the Nigerian society, religion is used more often as a ladder to economic prosperity than a tool for spiritual revival. This is why prior vocal religious people fall silent the moment they successfully climb to economic or political prosperity and only remember religion when these positions are threatened. It is also why some fervent religious people may get into positions of public trust and end up escalating the scandals whose existence they may have been appointed in the first place to curtail. In essence, their practice of religion is merely external and circumstantial. It does not benefit their character.
This approach to religion that benefits neither God nor our nation, is rather rampant in the Nigerian public space. Some Christians are worried that it seems to be a growing tendency in the faith. Certain Christian ministries are emerging not because of the need to advance the work of God, but in response to biting economic realities. In the midst of growing unemployment, their founders consider that building a large ministry – with huge offerings in view – is a surer way out. Once more, religion is merely used for economic progress.
Fourth, it is why economically prosperous and politically stable countries also seem to enjoy religious harmony. Since economic opportunities are relatively accessible to all citizens in adequate amounts, there is no need to micro-manage the criteria for accessing opportunity. This is the case with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), China, the United States, and many others. It is enough to be a citizen. In Nigeria, the scarcity of economic opportunities necessitates the question of a sharing formula, which sadly, is often hinged on ethnic and religious wings, thereby blurring the line between spirituality and economics and granting religion undue prominence in public policy. The Nigerian religious crisis – like almost all other national problems – is, therefore, a question of sharing formula.
One may argue that the religious harmony experienced in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is merely because they are Islamic countries, hence religion cannot be used to classify access to opportunities. However, this argument cannot stand close examination. These countries are not the only Islamic or mono-religious countries in the world. The question is, why are other mono-religious countries not necessarily stable? The answer is, they are not as prosperous as the others. Once there is scarcity of economic opportunities, a sharing formula will emerge as the basis for including some and excluding others from accessing limited opportunities. In these other Islamic countries, conflict of inestimable proportions still exists on the basis of sects – Shiite versus Sunni Islam – with underlying economic tones.
One may also argue that these countries are stable because they run monarchies rather than democracy, thereby eliminating the possibility of politically motivated religious crisis. This, however, is not the complete truth. The truth is that their political stability is related to their economic stability. Generally, people tend to bother less about access to political power if they can access economic prosperity without it. However, the moment the economy collapses – or access to economic opportunity is tied to political power – they increasingly begin to challenge the existing political arrangement irrespective of its configuration. The experience of the Arab Spring proves this point. The victim-countries were stable monarchies or dictatorships until economic dissatisfaction consumed them.
Sadly, Africa’s instability is derived from a combination of the two. There are not enough economic opportunities for the citizens and the few available opportunities are concentrated in the hands of the politicians. Since politics deals with numbers, those who ab initio set out in mere pursuit of scarce economic opportunities need numbers in order to get the enabling political power. In their quest for numbers, they latch onto any existing social configurations such as religion, sectarianism or ethnicity, thereby making them political rather than neutral facts of life. This is also why population figures are such a big issue in Nigeria and censuses are as hotly contested as elections. It is why a conversation about which ethnic group or religion is the majority in a locality can escalate into a religious crisis with loss of human life. Consequently, an approach that merely focuses on religion or ethnicity – which may be the apparent causes – but neglects the underlying economic cause will not solve the problem.
This is the frustration of those who only see the crisis from the ethic and religious dimensions. They wonder why education which should enlighten the mind and liberate it from such primitive sentiments seems to fail in the Nigeria context. They are amazed that Nigerians who possess impeccable academic records also concurrently churn out the most acerbic ethno-religious propaganda. Some are compelled to think the problem must be with the kind of education available in Nigeria. Sadly, this premise collapses when they discover that some of those in the frontline of the religious crisis are otherwise reputable scholars of renown at the world’s leading universities. The problem is not with education after all.
They must realize that the Nigerian religious crisis cannot be detached from economics. The economy is at the centre of survival of an individual or group of persons. All species – regardless of their levels of education – have inbuilt instinctive responses when their survival is threatened. These behaviours may not necessarily be the shiny morals routinely held up in times of peace for others to emulate, but in the face of imminent extinction, they become the norm. The solution is not to take away their ability to respond the way they do – to eliminate religion and ethnicity, for example – but to address the underlying economic threat to their existence.
In the Nigerian context, the underlying economic threat should be addressed in two ways. The first is to create more opportunities for the economic prosperity of the citizens, and the second is to ensure – in the interim – that the existing economic opportunities are shared on an equitable, transparent basis.
To be continued. The concluding part will focus on the solution.