Nigeria and its interaction with religious forces

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David C. Emelifeonwu

To suggest that Nigeria’s overall post-colonial performance has been less than stellar is stating the obvious. Sure in early 2014, Nigeria surpassed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy and has others things going for it such as the world’s second largest film industry, Nollywood, as well as diverse cultural communities.

These achievements however must be juxtaposed against the cumulative socio-political issues and problems facing the country. These include perennial gross mismanagement of the economy, the scourge of Boko Haram in the North-East, the enduring crisis in the Niger Delta over crude petroleum extraction, and more recently the agitation among elements in the Igbo community seeking to revive or enable the revival of Biafra.

It would appear that cultural groups want out of Nigeria, which is concerning. In its post-colonial period, Nigeria has often been on the verge of disintegration yet somehow it has managed to limp on. Consigned or living in a permanent crisis mode however is not sustainable.

The foregoing observations beg questions and understandings about some of the sources of Nigeria’s intractable problems and challenges? Fifty-seven years on and a civil war thrown in between, the Nigerian state and its societies have simply failed to forge an enduring sense of unity and national purpose. In fact, there has been a worsening vice improving quality to relations between the Nigeria state and its societies, which, by any measure, does not bode well for the country’s ability to live up to its vaunted potential. For the country to assume its much expected global position it is imperative that its leaders and societies gain not only a deeper understanding of the myriad path-dependencies that conspire against its progress but more significantly critically interrogate its past for relevant insights.

Prof Olufemi Vaughan’s Religion and the Making of Nigeria (Chapter 1) provides a refreshing examination into one of those critical path-dependencies, notably religion, that have adversely, depending on one’s perspective, affected state-societies relations in the country. Drawing extensively on primary sources, this book does an excellent job of reminding the reader that some of Nigeria’s pathologies precede colonial rule, and on a certain level colonial rule was grafted onto and may have reinforced them. Take for example, Islam, in what later became Britain’s Northern Nigerian Protectorate. It is a historical fact that the Sokoto Jihad spearheaded by Usman Dan Fodio from 1804-08 marked the beginning of the formal implantation of Islamic law and statecraft in the northern region. What is less widely known but excellently captured in Chapter 1 of Religion and the Making of Nigeria is the observation that Islam has had a longer presence in Northern Nigeria.

As early as the 14th century, Islam had begun to make inroads into the area. The significance of this observation is at least two-fold: first, parts of Northern Nigeria were already connected to the global Islamic network. Second, when Christian Nigerians encounter Islam and war with it as they are often want to do, they ought to recognise that they are in fact interfacing with a faith that has been dominant and present in the northern half of the country for over five centuries. Put in terms of Religion and the Making of Nigeria, the main point of emphasis is that Islam as a way of life and practice in the Northern region is not coincident with colonial rule but, channelling the French Annales School, a social development that merits the longue durée approach to its interpretation and understanding.

But much as it was a struggle for Nigeria’s colonial authorities to strike an effective balance between modernity and Islam in the North, the same challenge remains true in the post-colonial period. Regretfully, Nigeria’s post-colonial leaders have shown themselves not equal to the task of striking an effective balance between modernity and Islam, and deftly managing other religion-inspired sources of division. However, to their credit, the colonial authorities had only to contend with managing these tensions in just the northern half of the country. Discussions of some of the challenges between modernity and Islam during the colonial period, on one hand, and the broader management of both global faiths in the post-colonial period, on the other hand, are effectively addressed in Chapters 3 and 5 of the book.

Chapter 3 successfully examines the introduction of Christianity into the coastal regions of Nigeria, more specifically into the South-West region, and from the coastal regions onward to the borderlands of the Sokoto Caliphate. Two significant observations with implications for the country’s political and economic future emerge from the examination of Christianity in Northern Nigeria.

The first was the implicit decision by British colonial authorities to halt the advance of Christianity into the core territories of the Sokoto Caliphate such that the modernisation of the region was delayed. Fifty-seven years later the unintended consequences of this decision has continued to bedevil the country. The second observation was the strategic reception of Christianity by non-Hausa-Fulani communities in the Middle-Belt region of the country. The conversion to Christianity among Middle-Belters was a form of resistance to their Hausa-Fulani overlords and perceived as a lesser of two evils.

Observers of Nigeria’s post-colonial politics can glean from the discussions in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 some of the roots of the Middle-Belt region’s opposition to political parties perceived as belonging or dominated by Hausa-Fulani elites. Interestingly, the notion of division and opposition was not limited to the Middle-Belt region. This phenomenon also played itself out in the supposedly monolithic North between the Sarautaelites and the mass of commoners known as the talakawa. The remarkable thing about both of these observations is their continued resonance into the post-colonial era; talk about the past is prologue.

Despite its many merits, I struggle to understand why the south-east region was left out of the book. It certainly was not because we can assume or infer that it shared similar patterns as the south-west region. Given the underlying focus of Religion and the Making of Nigeria, two questions ensue about the south-east region: first, why did Islam fail to make significant inroads into region? Second, relative to other Nigerian cultural communities, what explains the slight preponderance of Catholics in the south-east region?

In closing, Religion and the Making of Nigeria is a refreshing and seminal piece of work and achievement. Its implications extend beyond Nigeria, and enjoin us as scholars of sub-Sahara African states and societies to critically examine and interrogate the dialectical processes and relations between pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial states and societies in the continent. Among the noteworthy things to take away from this is perhaps greater empathy for Nigeria’s post-colonial rulers. Several of the country’s myriad pathologies are not necessarily of their making and choosing.

Though this may be true, they are culpable in so far as they have under-estimated or elected to ignore entirely the path-dependent nature of these problems. Prof Vaughan does an excellent job of drawing attention to just how Nigeria’s past has continued to shape its present in non-positive ways. Nigeria’s current and future leaders and its societies owe it to themselves to read back into the myriad path-dependencies that have continued to shape the country in order to find ways to reconcile them to an envisioned future.
––Dr Emelifeonwu is an Associate Professor with the Royal Military College of Canada.