Nigeria: The politics of religion in a transitional society, By Rotimi Akeredolu – Premium Times

Religion is currently being deployed most shamelessly by the elites to gain unmerited advantage. The earlier we stop this dangerous and divisive campaign, the better it will be for everyone. Any war fought to establish the supremacy of a faith over others can only end in tears. The manipulative skills of politicians currently put to use will aggravate an already bad situation.
The solution to the challenges faced in the country will not be found in the faiths of individuals. A person’s religious persuasion is based on personal conviction. It is essentially private. The public space must remain secular. Consequently, the current agitations for a faith-based political representation are anchored on certain misapprehension of the requirements for leadership in a multi-ethnic state such as Nigeria. It borders on plain mischief to set the people on themselves to attain political power. Any so-called religious leader, who ignores knowledge and competence as necessary criteria to measure leadership capacity, is an apostate.
Nigeria: Redefinition for Greatness
Our country, Nigeria, is on the course for redefinition. The transition from the traditional societies, brought under a colonial administration to an independent state, has not been smooth. Amidst the fits and starts, which have characterized the journey towards nationhood, we make bold to assert that the country is not without hope. It does not really require incurable optimism to imagine that this potentially great country will actualize the dreams of the founding fathers, who labored to wrestle political power from the British, to forge a nation from the crucible of colonialism.
The geo-political space, known as Nigeria, did not just happen. The momentous events, which culminated in the amalgamation of the disparate, diverse and deeply heterogenous groups, communities and nations, should be a reason for continual interrogations until the amalgam of ethnic nationalities is set on path of socio-economic development. The usual facile recourse to cleavages, either of ethnicity or religion, signals the urgency in the necessity to address the socio-economic challenges facing the country while proffering pragmatic solutions. We must not be tired to contest ideas against all those whose activities attack freedom without which no society can aspire to greatness.
The cacophony of voices raised on mundane issues distract in the main. The manipulation of the mass of the people by the elites is not just starting. It has always been the case since the advent of the colonialists till date. The purpose is to grab political power for relevance and the attendant privileges. Beyond promises, freely given during campaigns, very few of the members of this exclusive class really spare any serious thoughts for the general well-being of the masses. Any little opportunity, offered by socio-economic crises, is appropriated to wreck maximum havoc.
The downtrodden are clothed with ethno-religious identities which suit the political whims of the manipulators. The point of difference is emphasized for maximum effect. The sentiment of religion is employed as a weapon of mass mobilization to confuse the easily impressionable. The real issues are relegated or taken down, completely, from political discourse and replaced with manipulative and emotive outbursts to achieve a desired end. The promptings and warnings of the few, who dare to think and act differently, are ignored or misrepresented. We must not be tired of joining issues with them at all times. We fail if the benefit of education does not reflect in our tactics to confront perfidy.
Religion In a Transitional Society
A transitional society is a geographical space whose social institutions are evolving. Changes in this clime are fundamental and progressive. The economy, politics, government and social institutions are evolving. The expectations of the people must also attune to the evolving realities. They must seek to understand why certain practices are no longer fashionable. They must appreciate why some tendencies are to be tolerated. Above all, there must be a remarkable shift from the level of abstraction to reality. A society in transition cannot embrace policies which promote stagnation or retrogression. Religious practice must reflect this character.
The challenges encountered by human societies in their bid to survive, since the commencement of a sedentary mode of existence, had compelled serious introspection at various stages in the course of development. The contemplation of natural phenomena and their effects on the psyche of the inhabitants of a community inspired rationality which, ultimately, birthed science. While not discounting the reality of the pervasive espousal of the unearthly, the progression of mankind has been remarkable in allowing experiences garnered from observable phenomena to guide their responses to events. Religion was central to their aspirations towards development at that time.
We have read of ancient civilizations and the roles of religion in shaping realities. We know how it played a central role in the development of ancient Egypt. The modern world still benefits from the legacies bequeathed by that civilization. Advancement in science, technology, medicine, pathology, dentistry, geometry, mathematics and architecture are traceable to the religion of the ancient Egyptians for which they considered nothing too great or insignificant for sacrifices. The quest for life after life was the consuming passion, the ultimate aim. Religious observances only lent credence to this belief.
The communal character of religion was easily seen in festivals, modes of worship and even the laws made particularly for the preservation of these communities. Individuals paid obeisance to certain deities of their preferences. There were no reported clashes among adherents of these religions as the communities claimed ownership of practices. The leaders of these traditional communities sought guidance from the adopted gods and goddesses before embarking on any serious venture. The economies of these ancient communities were developed around their beliefs.
The societies made significant progress because of the effective mobilization of the people. Labour was collectivized. No individual controlled the commanding heights of the economy as it was the case later. Communities were known for what they produced and people went to war to defend their areas of comparative advantage over others. Unemployment was almost non-existent because of the arrangement of the economy. Production was not reduced to an unprofitable exercise in bland theory. There was no division on account of religious beliefs strong enough to create disaffection among the people. Religion and communities were inseparable in a functional sense. Religion was not about personal preferences.
The transition from the traditional society to the so-called modern era engendered the introduction of new religious practices and beliefs. All the trappings of simplicity and focus disappeared with the emergence of mega societies, empires and civilisations. New religions and practices also emerged to suit the logic of expansion, adoption and adaptation. Politics is injected into religion for dominance. The history of the popular world religions, Christianity and Islam, is instructive here. There are other religions practised by a greater percentage of the world populace. The populations of the Chinese and the Indians constitute about a quarter of the world’s total demography. Majority of them are neither Christians nor Muslims. The Christians and Muslims are in the minority.
The introduction of politics into religion is not a new phenomenon. Contemporary ancient history records that it started, almost immediately after the death of Jesus Christ, when the believers increased in leaps and bounds because of the refreshing message of redemption. The Romans took advantage of the mass appeal which the new religion enjoyed among the poor people. the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire had little to do with piety.
Judaism had preceded Christianity as the indigenous religious practice of the Jewish people. The disciples, who survived Jesus Christ, and the converts, who were mostly the poor people in the Roman Empire, embraced the message of a better hereafter. The pervasive sentiment was appropriated by the Emperor of Constantine, AD 280-337. It was Emperor Theodosius the Great, 379-395 AD, who decreed Christianity to become the official religion of the Empire. The spread of the religion was largely because of the influence of the Roman Empire.

The religion of the Muslims, Islam, came around 622 AD through Prophet Muhammed, 570-632 AD, who claimed to have received a prophecy from Allah on the need to preach against idolatry. He was attacked in Mecca for his message and this made him to flee to Medina. He launched a counterattack on his traducers and defeated them. He was able to establish a new religion with a different set of liturgies. In virtually every country where Islam is practised today, the indigenous religious observances have been subsumed under the adopted or imposed religion.
Its spread in the Middle East and Asia was as a result of the fusion of politics into its practice. Many countries which had become theocracies rejected other forms of worship and imposed Islam as the only religion. Its incursion into Africa was not without grave consequences for the cultures and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Continent too. The seeming monolithic identity given to many erstwhile indigenous communities misrepresents the identities of the people.
The Politics of Religion In Nigeria
The contemporary history of Nigeria presents a typical template of the effects of the introduction of foreign religions into the socio-political landscape of the country. The various communities of the Southern part of the country were autonomous with distinct identities, economies and politics. These communities and settlements had their preferred modes of worship representing their worldviews. The means of production was controlled by the communities. The political leadership was not elected. It evolved through a traditional process of selection. Religion was never a factor responsible for the Kiriji War among the Yoruba towns and villages. Leadership did not emerge as a consequence of religious leanings or inclinations. Religion was communal in pre-colonial era.
There was a pan Yoruba socio-cultural affinity. The people were bound by a common ancestry, language, religion, among other traditional practices. There was evidence of cooperation among the towns and village but this co-existed with mutual suspicion, especially during the period of slave raids. The fall of the Oyo Empire led to the emergence of splinter groups whose main interest was domination or survival. The Ibadan warriors played a pivotal role in the defeat of the Fulani invaders at Osogbo. Their attempt to transmute to local colonisers after the defeat of the Fulani was resisted by the Ekiti Parapo.
This was the situation before the advent of Christianity. Islam had entered Yorubaland through old trans Sahara trade routes. There had been a considerable presence of practising Muslims in Yorubaland before Christianity came. This religion had been received through interactions with Northern traders as well as the Malians. “Esin Mali” was the name given to it. This religion existed with the traditional practices. There was no noticeable clash between the adherents of the two religions. There was hardly a house without the practitioners of the two religions.
The coming of Christianity and British rule changed the socio-political landscape in the region. The mode of production had been radically altered after the industrial revolution. The economy had assumed a new character and the peasants had lost their peasantry. Communal cooperation was yielding access to individualism. There was the rural-urban drift, a movement which created its problems. There were fundamental changes, not only in the politics of the new country, but also in the structure of governance. The clergy and the colonialists seemed to have formed an alliance to ensure control of the people.
The clash between the adherents of the indigenous religion and the new Christian converts, especially among the returnees from Sierra Leone and the educated Nigerians, who returned from Europe and the US to Abeokuta, was intense. Western education and Christianity offered certain advantages in a new socio-political order. Social mobility was assured once a person had evidence of some education. Being a Christian conferred some privileges. The new arrangement did not support the traditional mode of engagement.
The battle for supremacy in Egbaland took a dangerous dimension when some overzealous Christian converts denigrated traditional worshippers openly. This led to fatal clashes between the two groups. The intervention of the British Government did not solve the problem. Many Christians had to flee Abeokuta to settle in Ebute Meta, Lagos, where they founded Ago Egba. The mutual suspicion persists till date. The repudiation of traditional ways of life was considered expedient for those who craved accommodation by the colonial administration. The embrace of Christianity was, therefore, not evidence of piety or conviction. It was more a convenient platform for social climbing.
The Southeast and South regions had their indigenous religious practices before the coming of the British missionaries. The Nigerian classics, Things Fall Apart, written by the world acclaimed novelist, Professor Chinua Achebe, amply demonstrates what transpired in the traditional societies before and during the clash of two cultural observances. While the people lost their means for economic survival and had been reduced to a situation of pathetic subsistence, the elites, the deluded hybrids, who had been trained in the tradition of the western world, returned confused and disoriented.
No Longer At Ease describes the state of confusion among the educated elites in Igboland. The evident clash of cultures and the ascendancy of the foreign culture in the traditional society had its impact on the development of the region. The new elites lacked the capacity to mobilise the local leadership and the populace for serious productive activities. The inherited structure of alienation has been sustained. The entire region pretends to be Christian in all its dealings. Tradition is giving negligible preference. The people only respect certain aspects of their traditional practices such as marriage, naming ceremonies and burials.

The politics of religion in the Southeast has assumed a serious dimension. There is a very strong dichotomy between the Anglican and the Catholic adherents. Inter-marriage is almost forbidden such as it happened during the practice of the Osu caste system of segregation and discrimination. Important decisions are taken being conscious of this difference. Politicians also use this sentiment to achieve parochial objectives. The new wave of charismatic evangelism found in Pentecostal churches is just entering the Southeast with little success. Such is the deplorable extent which an alien religion has interfered in the affairs of the government and the people.
The Hausa communities possessed their distinctive identities and political systems before Islam was introduced through Jihad. The indigenous Hausa people and other tribes had these separate identities subsumed under the new religion, if not completely destroyed and erased, after the Uthman Dan Fodio Jihad of 1804. The establishment of a Caliphate, which, in turn, created emirates in all the conquered territories, ensured that mono-religious culture was imposed on these indigenous communities. These events were mainly political.
A few towns and villages which already knew about Islam resisted the incursion of the Jihadists. A new culture had emerged in all the conquered communities. Political patronage was dispensed to the servile and docile. The belligerent tasted the severity of deterrent sanctions. Political relevance was determined, largely, in accordance with the profession of the dominant religion in the region. The Middle Belt region has been predominantly Christian. Some states in the Northeast also had a large concentration of Christians. The activities of local organisations and groups show, clearly, that politics and religion are intertwined.
Religion and the Politics of Representation In Contemporary Nigeria
The pre-independence era witnessed intense competition and deep-seated rivalries among the politicians of the country. The role of religion was not really pronounced but it was clear that the structure inherited from the colonialists was skewed, heavily, in favour of the Muslim North. The Native Authority was enhanced and supported. The indirect rule system ensured that the local leadership wielded tremendous power over the people, notwithstanding the presence of colonial administration. There was no confusion as regards where the preference of the colonialists lay.
Despite this manifest schism, the First Republic politicians were largely men and women who provided purposeful leadership. The level of development in all the defunct regions lends credence to the general belief that capacity formed the basis of participation by many of those politicians. The achievements recorded were monumental, despite major failings. Though religion played an important role in the power equation at that time, it did not affect performance adversely. Real education ensured that the people concentrated more on existential issues than matters which were of little benefits to them.
The peoples of the three, later four regions, were mobilized by the political leadership for economic development. The farmers in the country were given real incentives which motivated them to cultivate the land. There was food security. The defunct regions were indeed nations in transition as there were fundamental changes in the means of production reflective of the status of the new country.
At independence, the Northern part of the country, predominantly Muslim, took over political power from the departing foreigners. The expansionist policy of its leadership was not hidden. Absolute dominance was the goal. The means to achieve this set objective soon created crises in the Middle Belt and the Southwest. The First republic collapsed, mainly as a result of the rapacious tendencies of the political class to cling to power with a view to dominating others. The internal contradictions made it inexorable for something to give.
The military struck, first, on the 15th January, 1966, and later, a counter coup occurred on the 29th July, 1966. The 1963 Republican Constitution was suspended. This was the only document qualified to be described as a people’s Constitution. All other Constitutions enacted from 1922 to 1999 were imposed. The real transition to nationhood had just begun before the coup. The military had subverted the democratic process on the excuse that the politicians were running the nascent country aground.
The new Government promulgated a Decree which abolished the regions and imposed a unitary system on the polity. The singular act started a long process of obliterating the landmark achievements recorded when each region was allowed to flourish. The people of the Northern region protested what they considered the unjust decapitation of their political leadership. The first coup was staged by military officers of southern extraction, mostly Igbo and Christian. This heightened the suspicion that the coup was about power shift and not good governance.
The success of the counter coup encouraged the leaders to hold on to power. The mode of production became centrally controlled as a strategy to remain in power in perpetuity. The counter coup was exclusively northern. The motive was clear. It was to avenge the killings of military officers and prominent politicians of Northern extraction by Igbo military officers. The initial agitation was the shout that the Northern part of the country was prepared to secede from the country. The successful counter coup provided the opportunity for them to consolidate their hold on power. The seeds of disunity were sown. This disagreement led to the Civil War fought for three years. Millions of lives were lost. The bitterness still persists till this moment.
The military interregnum lasted for 13 years. The Second Republic lasted for only four years before the military returned and they stayed till 1999. Nobody really cared about the religion of any military officer but there was the feeling that the June 12 Presidential election was annulled, not because Chief MKO Abiola was not a Muslim, but because the Northern oligarchy was not prepared to hand over political power to the South. This distrust was confirmed by the major actors who played prominent roles in the politics of annulment.
The military handed over power, eventually, in 1999 and there has been civil rule since that time. Nigerians celebrate the fact that the democratic experience remains unbroken ever since. There appears to be an understanding that power must rotate between the North and the South. This understanding witnessed the contest of two candidates from the Southwest for the Presidency. It was part of the unwritten agreement that the power equation must be balanced to allay the fear of domination harboured by the people of the South.
There is a conscious attempt not to disrupt the extant agreement. There has been a seamless transition from one civilian regime to another since 1999, the longest in the political history of the country. The current political permutations raise strong suspicions on an undeclared motive to thwart the arrangement that has been working for the country. The rotation of the office of the President is between the North and the South since the inception of the Fourth Republic. The attempt to disrupt the process of democratic transition using all manner of subterfuge heralds forebodings of unpleasant consequences.
But beyond the agitation for power shift is the quest for economic independence of the States under the current political arrangement. The clamour for the restructuring of the polity should gain currency more than the unprofitable noises made for representation based on religion. Those who overheat the polity for personal aggrandizement should lend their voices to the issue of resource generation and control by the Federating units.
As the country prepares for another transition in 2023, it is only reasonable to expect that the arrangement, which has engendered peace for almost two decades, subsists for the benefit of all. Any attempt to change this design to assuage personal ambition can only worsen the already bad situation. Our people must reject any overweening cravings which may impact negatively on the polity. The current noises made on the need to have people occupy offices on the basis of religion is not only dangerous, but, annoyingly, does not portray politicians as those who are interested in public good.
Religion has always been a weapon of manipulation in a transitional society. Religious leaders rely on the gullibility of their followers to participate, actively, in politics, while presenting a façade of spirituality. A country in the process of evolution cannot afford to be distracted by the business of religion. Granted that it is expected of political gladiators to magnify even the most irrelevant of issues to score cheap political points, it is profitable for the leaders of thought, especially religious leaders, to act decently. The contestation for a political office and fight for relevance must not be used as an excuse to mislead the people.
Most reasonable people will question the economic logic which propels a country, purportedly practicing Federalism, to run a monolithic economy. Let all those who agitate for representation do so on the basis of economic participation first. This should be the fundamental consideration. The warped mentality which predisposes the elites, both the clergy and political, to always indulge in permutation on the expectation of largesse sharing is deplorable.
The unnecessary lamentation by a section of the political class on the recent choice of the presidential candidate of the ruling party, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a Muslim, to pick Senator Kashim Ibrahim Shettima, another Muslim, as his Vice-Presidential candidate, is most regrettable. This choice has generated needless controversies. Those who spearhead this apparent mischief either ignore or are oblivious of the fact that the position of the Vice President, as provided in the 1999 Constitution, as amended, is innocuous. The occupier of that office can only act as directed by the President who wields the real executive power.
It appears that these protests are symptomatic of the level of distrust among the members of the political class who will do anything to grab power. The brazen incursion of religion into the political arena portends danger for the polity. Quality representation had absolutely nothing to do with the belief of a political office holder.
The leadership of the two popular religions, Christianity and Islam, must avoid making inflammatory statements capable of causing chaos in the polity. this is the time when all patriotic citizens must speak with one voice on the need for economic emancipation of the regions. We must begin to seek ways to remove the odious shackles of dependence which has almost run the whole country aground.
We should all condemn and seek to end a system which promotes indolence. We must encourage all parts of the country to contribute to the economic development. We should all tap into our respective areas of comparative advantage as it was in the First Republic. And, consequently, we cannot afford to make the mistake of electing our leaders on mendacious and sentimental premises. Just as no reasonable person will choose to be driven by a driver on account of ethnicity and religion, only the competent aspirants with manifest capacity should be considered. A heterogenous society must have its affairs controlled by knowledgeable leaders with proven records of public service. Motivational speeches and copious quotes from the Holy writs can only inspire. The job of the President of a country in distress requires capacity, forthrightness and courage.
Rotimi Akeredolu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), is governor of Ondo State.
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All content is Copyrighted © 2022 The Premium Times, Nigeria