A Brief On Religion In Nigeria

By Nurudeen Adeyinka Oyewole
The name, Nigeria is a merger of two letter words: “Niger Area” as given in 1897 by a British journalist, Lady Flora Shaw who later became Mrs Flora Luggard after she got married to the then Governor-General, Sir Fredrick Luggard.  Sir Luggard later amalgamated both northern and southern protectorates in 1914 to give birth to the country now known as Nigeria.
Before the British colonization and subsequent amalgamation, various ethnicities and tribes organized and governed themselves under dynasties and empires with each having its distinct values, cultures, languages and religions. At the time, Traditional religion was predominant across all of these entities that made up Nigeria, as it was with other Africans. However, historians asserted that the contacts with the Arabs slave traders in 11th century gave birth to the practice of Islam as another widely accepted religion. The Arabs contacted through the Sahel which extends to the present day Borno in northern Nigeria.
The arrival of Christian Missionary through the coast of Badagry, Lagos in the mid-19th century gave birth to the practice of Christianity. It is therefore not by accident that since Islam came through the northern protectorate and Christianity came through the southern protectorate, there are more Muslims in the north than the south, just as there are more Christians in the south than in the north.
Nigeria’s religious composition
The three predominant religions in Nigeria ahead of 1914 amalgamation and subsequent political independence from Britain in 1960 were: Islam, Christianity and Traditional religion. And like it is stated above, the northern Nigeria has more Muslims than Christians and traditionalists while southern Nigeria has more Christians than Muslims and traditionalists. Suffice to note that today; the two regions of Nigeria are divided into 36 states and Federal Capital Territory as well as six geopolitical zones.  The 36 states can further be divided into 19 in the north, 17 in the south. Proper understanding of the complexity and composition of religious spread in Nigeria goes hand-in-hand with the understanding of the states and regional structures.
Pathetically, there are little or no reliable data as to the exact population figure of Nigerians based on their religions. In the last nationwide census, held in 2006, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to allow enumerators to add religion and ethnicity as part of citizens’ bio-data. His argument was that the country is too fragile to allow ethno-religious crisis that may spill from the contention of which religious denomination has the largest population.
To a certain extent, Obasanjo was right because outcomes of previous census have been contested from the prism of ethnicities and religious considerations.  Except for the 1963 Census that put the Christian population in Nigeria at 38 percent, the Muslims at 48 percent and others at 16 percent, every other census had carefully avoided this contentious issue. Regrettably, such disputation is rubbing the country of scientifically-proven population data on citizens’ religious denominations. Today, we can only rely on surveys or projections carried out by individuals, groups, institutions and research centres on what the actual population of certain religious adherents is within their respective states, zones, regions and the country at large. Even, the reports of such surveys and projections are contentious.
For instance, the Pew Research Center’s Religious Composition by Country; 2010-2050 projection population report released in 2015 projects that by year 2050, Nigeria’s projected population of 394,150,000 will be dominated by 230,700,000 Muslims, 154,840,000 Christians, 1,290,000 of Unaffiliated persons, < 10,000 Hindus, 30,000 Buddhists, 7,120,000 Folk religion, < 10,000 Jews and 170,000 others.  On the other hand, the 2008 Afrobarometer survey found 56 percent of Nigerian populace to be Christians while 43 percent are Muslims. The remaining one percent was classified as “others”.
But according to Çanci and Odukoya (2016) whatever the exact percentages are, it is clear that Nigeria is a country with very large Christian and Muslim populations.
How constitutional rights and legislation in Nigeria protect and/or limit religious freedoms
Section 38 of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria as amended states:
38. (1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
(2) No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.
(3) No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.
(4) Nothing in this section shall entitle any person to form, take part in the activity or be a member of a secret society.
Despite the explicitness of the above constitutional provisions, elites and religious leaders from both Christianity and Islam have had to criticize what they considered as the “imperfection of the constitution” which ironically, both have had to explore at their conveniences. The argument has always centered on non-proper definition of the “freedom of practice” handed down by the constitution to adherents of all faiths, without injecting the clause of limitation as to when such freedom infringes on the rights of others.
Indeed, many Christian leaders are complaining that the laxity in the constitution has been favourable to Muslims, hence the audacity to introduce Shari’ah legal system of adjudication in some northern states and the introduction of Islamic Banking system, among others. At the 2014 national confab organized by former President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian delegate by the name, Pastor Emmanuel Bosun argued in one of the sessions thus:
“In the 1999 Constitution, Shariah was mentioned 73 times, Grand Khadi 54 times, Islam 28 times, Muslims 10 times and there is no single mention of Christ, Christian, Christianity or church. Some mischievous elements are taking these lapses in the constitution to come to the ungodly decision that probably that the state is an Islamic state.”
In response, Muslim leaders insisted that such complaints are ill-informed because the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and there has not been compulsion on non Muslims to abide by any of the Islamic penal code.
Muslim elites have similarly complained about Christian leaders who have at one time or the other led the country, of using their positions to implement what they termed: “Christian agenda”. There have been complaints such as: non permission of Muslim girls to wear hijab in public schools and Nigerians observance of more Christian than they do Islamic public holidays. Prof. Ishaq Akintola, the Director, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) was emphatic on this in a statement issued ahead of the national confab in 2014. It states:
Saturday was a half day during the colonial era and Sunday was the only full day at the weekend. However, Saturday was made a full day during the regime of General Yakubu Gowon, a Christian military ruler. It is also pertinent to say that Sunday is the Christian day of worship generally while Saturday is the day recognized as the day of worship by the Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination. It is very clear, therefore, that the two weekend days recognized in Nigeria belong to Christians while Muslims have none since Friday, the Muslim day of worship, remains a working day. The British colonialists, being Christians, designed the weekend days to suit their religion at the expense of Islam.”
Of course, the responses of the Christian leaders to such complaints have been that, the constitution recognizes the rights of individuals to worship.
How religion impacts domestic politics and policymaking in Nigeria
That religion has had significant impact on Nigerian’s domestic politics and policymaking is to be repeating the obvious. This may not be unconnected with the near-equal population both Islam and Christianity posses in the country. Every government recognizes this and that is why when decisions are being taken or committees are being set up for boards of Ministries, Agencies and Parastatals (MDAs) or even when developmental projects are being implemented, whichever government is in power often considers ethnic and religious balance.
Similarly, political permutations in Nigeria do take cognizance of religious representation. When a Muslim President emerges, his Vice must be a Christian and when a Christian emerges, a Muslim must be his Vice. Since independence, there were only two instances where this “golden rule” was flouted. The first was when General Muhammadu Buhari became the Head of State after a military coup on December 31, 1983. Just like Buhari, his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon was also a northern Muslim but of Yoruba origin from Kwara State.
The second time it happened was when Moshood Kahimawo Abiola, a southern Muslim won the 1993 presidential election. Abiola’s Vice was Babagana Kingibe, a northern Muslim. However, the result of the election was annulled by the military junta and Abiola and Kingibe were never sworn into offices.
The cited instances could be taken as positive religious impacts on representative politics. The negative usage of religion for politics by the elites is perhaps the biggest threat to nationhood in Nigeria. Some scholars captured it thus:
Inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria form part of the dynamics of identity politics. Political elites in Nigeria have always sought to reap advantages from the multidimensional identities, more so during electioneering periods, and this has resulted in conflicts and instability. This politicisation of religious identities during contests for political office often lacks any sustaining unifying ideology. Somehow, politics in Nigeria are fashioned on the appeasement of religious motives. As a consequence, religion attains the level of deification that is difficult to challenge or overpower. In their quest to assume power and state resources, the elites constantly modify patterns of political domination. In this perpetually changing pattern of domination, fears and anxieties are bred that motivate an upsurge in struggle and intolerance (Ibrahim and Kazah-Toure 2003:18; Okpanachi 2010; Çanci and Odukoya, 2016).
Minority religions’ inclusion in Nigerian politics, economics and culture
The dominance of both Islam and Christianity had relegated to the background, the existence and practices of other religions including the traditional religion which was the first known faith of many Africans. Today, adherents of minority religions who find themselves in higher positions in politics and economics are there out of personal struggles and not because there was direct policy of government or constitutional provisions that aided their paths. It is only in the area of culture that adherents of traditional and other minority religions appear to have enjoyed little limelight and these are occasions when individuals, groups or state-sponsored festivities hold.
How religion plays a role in Nigerian foreign policymaking
While there are hard-to-come-by instances to cite on how religion influences Nigerian foreign relationship with the United States, this writer is quite aware of the partnership between the US Government and leaders of the two major religions: Islam and Christianity. Such partnership had given birth to the formation of a body known as Religious Leaders Anti- Corruption (RLAC).  By engaging religious leaders on how to combat the menace of corruption in Nigeria, the US has thus demonstrated its understanding of the critical role religion play in the contemporary Nigerian society.
At the recent meeting between RLAC members and the visiting US Acting Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Amy Lilli, which I attended and reported for my news medium at the US Consulate in Lagos, a major breakthrough alluded to by the participants, was how the US government had assisted RLAC to set up a website with direct advocacy to Nigerian citizens to “see and say something” against corruption.
This paper cannot be said to have exhaustively treated issues relating to religion in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. It only offers an insight to stimulate discussion for all.
Akintola, I (2014). MURIC’s Memorandum to the National Conference: Retrieved on August 11, 2017: muslimrightsmuric.blogspot.com/…/murics-memorandum-to-national-conference.html
Çanci, H. and Odukoya, O (2016). Ethnic and religious crises in Nigeria: A specific analysis upon identities (1999-2013). Retrieved on August 10, 2017 http://www.accord.org.za/ajcr-issues/ethnic-religious-crises-nigeria/
Joseph, K (1996). Sharia and Christianity in Nigeria: Islam and a ‘Secular’ State”. In Journal of Religion in Africa. Pp. 338-364: BRILL. doi:10.2307/1581837.
Oyewole, N (2017). Religious leaders to FG: Use recovered loots on evidenced-based projects. Retrieved on August 11, 2017:
Pew Research Center (2015) Religious Composition by Country, 2010-2050, Religion and Public Life. Retrieved on August 10, 2017: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projection-table/2050/number/Sub-Saharan_Africa/
Section 38 of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria as amended: Retrieved on August 11, 2017: http://www.nigeria-law.org/ConstitutionOfTheFederalRepublicOfNigeria.htm
The Punch, Confab: Delegates Clash over religion, Wednesday 2nd April, 2014.

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