S. 'Jide Komolafe, Ph.D.Thursday, January 12, 2012



Religion and politics have been bedfellows throughout Nigeria's history.1 The paradox, however, is that this symbiotic relationship has equally been the ground for conflicting ideological currents and the central factor that is shaping alignments and antagonisms. The most pervasive are those along the fault lines between Islam and Christianity, Nigeria's two major religions. Consequently, political arrangements are shaped in such a way that religion serves as the ideological preference for national identity much more than any configuration along cultural or historical lines. This article is a 3-part series that attempts to examine the seeds of today's religious ferment. It shows contemporary agitation for Islamization to be a deep-seated religious agenda that predates Boko Haram and highlights this as perhaps the most important factor accounting for national disunity, stagnation and corruption of the Nigerian state. Its overall premise is that Nigeria stands at the fulcrum of a major religious subversion and of urgent and realistic institutional structures that must remain firm against insurgent challenges.


continuous history of the socio-political position of religion in Nigeria stretches back to pre-colonial times. In primordial, homogenous Nigerian societies, for example, religion was indissolubly linked to the political system. In the general African view, this has not changed. Religion and society are connected, even if not synonymous. Africans expect both to serve the people in mutually benefiting ways without harmful side effects. In a very significant way, this has no analogue in the radically different conditions in the West with its distinction between religion as private belief and as public practice.2 The manipulation of religion for wresting political control was, in a sense, an alien structure.

What may be construed as the beginning of the use of religion as an instrument of political mobilization and legitimacy can be traced to an incursion of alien religions, starting with the jihadist Islam of the Muslim Fulani scholar, Usman dan Fodio (1804-1810), and then to the trailing civilizing humanism of the Protestant missions (ca. 1841). Given the timeline of both foreign intrusions, we can fully comprehend the extent and consequences of religious politics by beginning our investigation with the former. 3

Fulani Hegemony and Ethnic Politicking:
The Legacy of Usman Dan Fodio

Although Islam arrived in Nigeria sometime between 1000 AD and 1100 AD, progress was largely sporadic and slow.4 What constituted the height of Muslim influence was the nineteenth century jihad of Usman dan Fodio.5 There was a case to be made in theory. The ostensible religious objectives of the jihad were to bring Islamic reforms to the state and its populace and to oppose the oppression, corruption, self-indulgence, and technical offences against the Islamic code by the ruling Hausa-Habe families of the time. 6

Many of the Islamic reforms that dan Fodio set out to accomplish were achieved. He successfully conquered Hausaland, except for the Maguzawa, a large Hausa community which resisted the jihadist in faithful deference to its traditional religion. Other remarkable results of his campaign were the geographic expansion of Islam and the widespread adoption of its legal code, Shari'a.

However, it is a misnomer to interpret dan Fodio's jihad purely on religious grounds. This, without doubt, obscures the equally important political reasons behind his Islamization campaigns. Although the Fulani scholar ostensibly wanted to create a 'home for Islam,' at issue was the dismantling of indigenous Hausa-Habe polities. Historically, the Fulani were not passive settlers. Johnston refers to them as "shepherd-kings," who upon settling in a community, soon afterwards seized power.7

Usman dan Fodio's jihad was a classic case of "shepherd-king." As a nomadic race, his progenitors had migrated from Senegambia to settle in Hausaland around 1450 AD.8 An important aspect of his allegation of anti-Islamic practices against the ruling Hausa was what he saw as greed arising from heavy taxation, especially the age-long jangali, the cattle tax. As a pastoral Fulani, dan Fodio vehemently questioned the legality of this tax, arguing instead that it was not one of the seven taxes recognized by the Islamic law.9

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that an important feature of his jihad was the overthrowing of Hausa-Habe leadership. In its place, dan Fodio imposed a Fulani administration in consonance with his vision of Islam. That is, a constituent of emirates that would recognize the religious and political leadership of the Caliph or Sultan of Sokoto. Under dan Fodio's theocratic structure, no socio-political, economic, or religious decisions had legitimacy without the Sultan's approval.10

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Hausa rule in Northern Nigeria had been subjugated. Except for the mountainous districts of today's Plateau state, the Tiv in Benue state, and a few ethnic groups in southern Kaduna, much of the North passed under Fulani hegemony, or at least political dominance by Islamic structures. Dan Fodio's vision to bring the entire country under Islamic rule and leadership was only interrupted by British colonialism. Even then, his socio-political structure was what the British colonial administration inherited and upon which they founded their policy of "Indirect Rule."

The Colonial Factor in the Hausa-Fulani/Northern Hegemony

The goal of the British was to set up their colonial administration to preserve as much as possible of the existing system. In fact, the British colonial administrators saw themselves as incorporating a system that was already in motion, not as initiating that process.11 The leading elements in the system, without question, were the Fulani. The colonial system of "Indirect Rule" was predicated on the assumption that the Fulani were the country's natural rulers, and that it was through the Fulani that Nigeria could be governed "indirectly" and moved to the highest level of civilization. According to Frederick Luggard, the colonial Governor of Nigeria, "Indirect Rule" means, among other things:

To rule indirectly through the Native Chiefs, and in the North to maintain, strengthen, and educate the Fulani and Kanembu ruling races, so that regeneration of Nigeria may be through its own governing class and its own indigenous institutions.12

In deference to Fulani conquest and rulership, therefore, colonial policy was not only unfairly skewed towards Islam, it also showed to be tender of Islamic sensibilities. Two discrete factors, among others, are worthy of mention. The first was the setting up of a Native Administration in which the traditional and political power coalesced in the hands of the Muslim Emirs. The result was the installation of Fulani hegemonic political control. This leads naturally to the second factor, the "Pax Islamica," which promised the Emirs there would be no colonial interference with Islam.

The intellectual position of "Pax Islamica" was more than a mere promise. The axiomatic character of its benefits to Islam enabled the Emirs to monopolize the civil sphere and religious territoriality. While the Emirs could operate freely in non-Muslim areas, they could deny such access to Christian missionaries from operating within their Emirates. In the race for the souls of Nigerians, therefore, the colonial administration encouraged and promoted the territorial interests of Islam by effectively blocking Christianization. In the words of Lamin Sanneh, "colonialism became the Muslim shield and the guarantor of Islam as the public alternative to Christianity for Africans."13 Andrew Walls also puts it well when he declares:

In Nigeria, the British maintained the emirates as the structures through which to rule, even though so much of the population was not Muslim. As a result, Islam spread far more effectively under colonial rule than it had ever done under the jihads. In general, the colonial powers were careful about Islamic sensibilities and did their best to avoid provocation, not least by damping down Christian missionary activity.14

The divide-and-rule policies of the colonial period help us to see the underlying structure that conditioned the religious and political behavior of postcolonial Nigeria. In fact, it is a form of historical amnesia to attempt to close off the legacy of the colonialists and lay the blame of the institutionalization of religious politics solely on Nigerians themselves. This note of embattlement is obvious in the colonial establishment of three unequal regions, the favored Islamic North over and against their Western and Eastern counterparts in the Christian South. The irony of this biased Nigerianization process was that it led to the rise of the politics of regional interests, the North versus the South.

Similarly, the colonial creation of two religious communities, namely, the Christian world and the Muslim world, has had unmistakable consequences. Primarily, it has trapped the nation in the labyrinthine religious politics of the North and the Hausa-Fulani resolve to maintain an Islamic identity for modern Nigeria. The snowball effect of this, of course, is the institutionalization of interreligious competitions and nationalist aspirations that continue to poison the everyday existence of Nigeria even to the present. Perhaps a test case is to examine, however cursory, the political climate of postcolonial Nigeria.

Self-Government and Political Imagination:
The Appeal of Religion

The discussion so far has theorized that Nigeria's postcolonial, sociopolitical, and religious behavior corresponds to the internal contradictions of the colonization process. The result, as I have also noted, was the emergence of a set of polarities: between North and South, between Christians and Muslims, and between collective and individual goods. It is implicit to say, therefore, that the somewhat grudging acceptance of social difference and pluralism that Nigeria experiences until now corresponds, in part, to what Mikael Karlström refers to as "the minimal civility of mutual tolerance."15 It is not the highest virtue in the hierarchy of sociopolitical order or peaceful coexistence.

There is legitimacy to this view. The era leading to an independent Nigeria, for example, was full of aspiring politicians who were concerned with symbols and ideologies that could sway public support and sympathy. Again, each party derived political support from one of the three regions on which the colonial government of Nigeria was organized: Obafemi Awolowo's Action Group (AG) received support from the Yoruba in the west, Nnamdi Azikiwe's National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC)16 received backing from the Igbo in the east, and the Northern region was geographically, religiously and politically divided between the dominant Ahmadu Bello's Northern Peoples' Congress (NPC), Aminu Kano's Nigerian Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), and the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC).

Most of the political parties constructed their manifestos around issues of rapid development and distribution of power. For example, the AG put forward a welfarist program and the NCNC a socialist ideology, both attempting to appeal to all the strata of society, especially the lower and middle classes. The NPC had a totally different agenda. In the first place and true to its motto of "one north, one people," it maintained its northern Islamic parochialism and prejudice by limiting membership only to Northerners. And unlike the AG and the NCNC, the party made no pretense to socialism but conceived its program in such a way as to benefit the North.17 There is no better starting point than the uses of religion in the high politics of the First Republic (1960-1966); looking particularly at the religious politics of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and the first premier of the Northern Region.

The First Republic: The Religious Politics of Sir Ahmadu Bello, 1960-1966

The place of Sir Ahmadu Bello in the history of the politicization of religion in Nigeria is so well documented as to require no more than a brief sketch here.18 However, one thing that must be emphasized is that an important determinant of his political life was his self-consciousness of being a descendant of Usman dan Fodio's caliphate. This awareness doubly reinforced what he perceived as a mandate to broaden the territorial boundaries of the Hausa-Fulani/North and Islam. He declares in no ambiguous way:

I have never sought the political limelight or a leading position in [Nigeria]. But I could not avoid the obligation of my birth and destiny. My great-great-grandfather built an Empire in the Western Sudan. It has fallen to my lot to play a not inconsiderable part in building a new nation. My ancestor was chosen to lead the Holy War which set up his Empire. I have been chosen by a free electorate to help build a modern state. . . . This, then, is the story of my life. The attempt of a Northern Nigerian to do his duty by his people and the principles of his religion [that is, Islam].19

Ahmadu Bello's remarks were not mere rhetoric. He developed instruments for carrying out his mission at the regional, national and international levels. He was only cut short of fully realizing his vision by the military coup d'état of 1966 in which he was assassinated. At the regional level, he adopted a form of "political ecumenism" which "sought to bring northerners together under an Islamic political ideology."20 There are, at least, two important political implications of this. On one hand, it fostered an unbroken continuity and a unifying Islamic identity for the north. On the other, it won his party, the NPC, political influence and consolidated its hold on power.

The move to capture the political center at the national level reflected Ahmadu Bello's very subtle calculations. An interesting feature of his scheme was the exaltation of the religious influence which was already at work or at hand. Perhaps it is fair to say that Ahmadu Bello's theology and outlook on the supremacy of Islam and the Hausa-Fulani/North were not different from those of Usman dan Fodio who combined conversion and conquest. The difference, ingenious when we consider the most restrained political climate of Ahmadu Bello's time, was the methodical way by which he embarked on his massive "conversion campaigns" to win over souls for Islam and the Northern hegemony.

Ahmadu Bello understood that the extent to which his campaigns succeeded would become the groundswell of his capacity to combine both religious and political powers at the national level. Consequently, he instigated the founding of Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI, the Society for the Victory of Islam), and the Council of Mallams. Both organizations were supposed "to bring together various elements of religious leadership in the North for the purpose of discussion and general enlightenment."21 Ahmadu Bello's greatest miscalculations, however, was that he did not understand or appreciate the aspects of Christianity that had already taken root among the minority tribes in Central Nigeria.

It is perhaps not without significance that modern commentators interpret Ahmadu Bello's initiatives, especially his 1961 founding of JNI, in purely political terms.22 Although JNI had all the trappings of a religious organization, it was practically "a political organ wearing a religious garb to serve a political purpose."23 The constituency of JNI, for one thing, included the cadres of very influential people who were the doyen of early post-colonial Nigerian politics: traditional rulers, emirs, mallams (religious leaders), top civil servants, prominent businessmen and powerful northerners in the NPC.

Similarly, Ahmadu Bello was not naïve as to assume that achieving his political ambition was self-fulfilling. He understood the dialectical interaction between religion and politics much more than that and he utilized it quite effectively. Rather than allowing the JNI to simply forge a strong Islamic identity in the north, he also found an important avenue in carving a political role for it. For example, a characteristic feature of the conversion campaigns of the JNI throughout northern and central Nigeria forced an acceptance of Ahmadu Bello's Islamic political ideology. In this way, the JNI became a de facto moral agent for an ideology that aimed inexhaustibly at the creation of a political community that upheld Islam as its constitutive value.

The political gains were enormous for NPC. On one hand, JNI succeeded in expanding Ahmadu Bello's religious views, using that at the same time to qualify his political manifesto. By so doing, it (JNI) orchestrated a political center for NPC while pushing other rival parties and religions to the sidelines. On the other hand, and perhaps the more extreme gain for NPC, was that an extensive overlap that associated the state with Islam fulfilled Ahmadu Bello's strategy of setting the Muslims against the Christians and by implication, too, the north against the south.

In the attempt to voice a collective Christian outrage against the Sardauna's policies in 1964, the northern Christians inaugurated the Northern Christian Association (NCA). Unfortunately, the NCA was not able to swing back the pendulum of socio-political and religious ethos. Its position was weakened by the political dependence of its Christian politicians on the wide-ranging influence of the Sardauna himself. 24

The exception to all the wrangling in the north, of course, was the Christian south. Even then, Ahmadu Bello did not simply throw up his arms in defeat. Instead, the JNI became his weapon of dramatic opposition. By the time the crucial federal election of 1964 was to be held, Ahmadu Bello had succeeded in capturing religious power beyond the northern region. The extent of his dual power (religious and political) was obvious. His party, the NPC, won a landslide victory in the election without his campaigning beyond the northern region. Enwerem says it well:

For him [Ahmadu Bello], religion was a free-floating phenomenon which any class could effectively use to advance its interests. . . . On this score and in the context of the Nigerian world, Ahmadu Bello remained the master politician, far ahead of his Western-educated political peers. 25

But the uneven quality of Ahmadu Bello's wide religio-political influences led to a polarization of relations, provoking the crisis that led to the Igbo-dominated military coup of January 1966. It was more of a political reappraisal and Ahmadu Bello and many other prominent northern leaders were indivisibly caught up in the assassinations that followed. The whole political apparatus of the First Republic ended with these assassinations and heralded Nigeria's first military government. It also gave birth to regional suspicion and the ethnic animosity that led to the massacres of the Igbos living in the north and the subsequent outbreak of civil war in 1967.

The civil war compromised Nigeria's unity even further as bellicose propaganda, on both warring sides, "portrayed the conflict as a holy war between the forces of Christians and Islam."26 The Igbo especially saw the war "as a genocidal one waged by the Muslims of Northern Nigeria who had declared jihad to exterminate Igbos from the face of the earth."27 In a protest letter to the Pope and the Prime Minister of Italy, Col. Odumegu Ojukwu, an Igbo and Commander-In-Chief of the secessionist Biafran army, challenged "the sale of arms by 'Catholic' Italy to Muslim Northern Nigeria to be used in killing the 'Catholic' Igbos of Eastern Nigeria."28 Ojukwu so welded religion and the war together that he won external support and sympathy, thereby stretching the war for as long as three years.

On the whole, it is important to note that the death of Ahmadu Bello did not weaken his religio-political organization, JNI, as much as it did its Christian rival, NCA. In a practical sense, the death of the Sardauna was for the NCA synonymous with idleness, irrelevance and perhaps impotence. In the words of Aledeino, one of the founding members of NCA, "Sardauna was the reason why we founded the NCA. Since he was now dead, we saw no more reason to carry on the association."29

To this day, the JNI remains a formidable Muslim pressure group that continues to promote the interests of a unified north and the Islamic cause. Its activities, however, were to later collide with the equally powerful force of a new Christian organization, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which came into being in the wake of the Second Republic. Part two of this article will begin precisely at this point. That is, to examine the political dimension of Christian ecumenism and the rhetorical statements that have become synonymous with Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria.

To be continued next week



  1. Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria (1998:1).
  2. Lamin Sanneh, Piety and Power: Muslims and Christians in West Africa (1996:87).
  3. For a full historical account of Islam and its initial contact with African religion and tradition, see Dean Gilliland, African Religion Meets Islam (1986).
  4. See J. Spencer Trimingham, The Christian Church and Islam in West Africa (1956:9).
  5. For a most detailed historical analysis, see Matthew Hassan Kukah, Religion, Politics, and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993).
  6. See Hughes Johnston, The Fulani Empire of Sokoto (1967); and Yusufu Abba, "The 1804 Jihad in Hausaland as a Revolution" (1979).
  7. Hughes Johnston, The Fulani Empire of Sokoto (1967:26).
  8. James Kantiok, "Muslims and Christians in Northern Nigeria: Political and Cultural Implications for Evangelism" (2000:68).
  9. Kantiok (2000:70).
  10. Iheanyi Enwerem, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicization of Religion in Nigeria (1995:50-51).
  11. For a more insightful and succinct account, see Bulus Y. Galadima and Yusufu Turaki, "The Church in the African State Towards the 21st Century: The Experience of Northern Nigeria" (1998:43-51).
  12. Frederick Lugard, Political Memoranda: Revision of Instructions to Political Officers on Subjects Chiefly Political and Administrative (1970:317). For Lugard's leading opinion on the policy of "Indirect Rule," see his earlier work, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (1922; reprint 1965).
  13. Lamin Sanneh, Piety and Power: Muslims and Christians in West Africa (1996:135).
  14. Andrew Walls, Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (2002:102).
  15. Mikael Karlström, "Civil Society and Its Presuppositions: Lessons from Uganda" (1999:116).
  16. Although clinging to the same acronym (NCNC), the party had changed its name twice before finally adopting this one. It was first called "National Church of Nigeria and Cameroon", so-called in order to mobilize Christians against colonial administration. See T. Hodgkin, Nationalism in Colonial Africa (1956). Again, the party changed its name to "National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon."
  17. Toyin Falola, The History of Nigeria (1999:100-101).
  18. See J.N. Paden, Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto: Values and Leadership in Nigeria (1986).
  19. Paden (1986:viii-ix).
  20. Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria (1998:30). The concept of "Political Ecumenism" was Matthew Hassan Kukah's construction. For details see his Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993).
  21. J.N. Paden, Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto: Values and Leadership in Nigeria (1986:557).
  22. For example, see Matthew Hassan Kukah's works, Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993); and "Christians and Nigeria's Aborted Transition" (1995:225-238). See also Iheanyi Enwerem, A Dangerous Awakening (1995); and Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria (1998).
  23. Iheanyi Enwerem, A Dangerous Awakening (1995:55).
  24. For details, see Matthew Hassan Kukah, Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993:54).
  25. Iheanyi Enwerem, A Dangerous Awakening (1995:56).
  26. Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed, The History of the Church in Africa (2000:948).
  27. Eghosa Osaghae, Crippled Giant: Nigeria since Independence (1998:66).
  28. Leader, "Nigeria's Coming Civil War," June 3, 1967. See also http://odili.net/news/source/2003/may/31/65.html).
  29. Matthew Hassan Kukah, Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993:54).

S. 'Jide Komolafe, Ph.D., is Professor of Intercultural Studies. He has taught African Languages and Cultures at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is Adjunct Professor of World Religious Traditions at The University of Phoenix, Southern California Campus. He is Executive Director, Christian Research Institute, Lagos - Nigeria. He can be reached at skomolafe@gmail.com