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A Dangerous Awakening

Iheanyi M. Enwerem


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False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
(Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii)

1In the heat of the 1978 presidential election campaign, the late Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) stormed the Muslim city of Sokoto. Everywhere he went, he raised his hand with his traditional ‘V’ (victory) sign to acknowledge the cheers of admirers. Given the huge and enthusiastic crowd that listened to him and the paralysis to which the city's streets and highways were subjected for the duration of his campaign, one could have easily concluded that the city, if not the entire state, would vote UPN. But this was not so, as the results of the presidential election later showed.

  • 1 . Awolowo's failure in that election could also be attributed to other variables such as ethnic pre (...)

2Following on the heels of the UPN campaign, Shehu Shagari and his party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), launched their own campaign in Sokoto. The crowd was not as large as the one that welcomed the UPN, even though Shagari is an indigene of the state. Determined to undermine whatever impact Awolowo may have made on the people, Shagari adopted a mode of greeting that was intended to reach the core of the people's most treasured experience, their religion. He acknowledged the cheers from his audience by simply raising a single finger. This simple gesture caught the imagination of the populace, which soon came to believe that Awolowo was offering two gods to the people — his ‘V’ sign being interpreted as two. Shagari's single finger signified his commitment to ‘One Nation, One Destiny, One God [Allah]’. That partly did the trick for the NPN; Awolowo lost the election to Shagari, especially in the Muslim North whose religious or cultural centre is Sokoto.1

3Two observations can be made about the events reported above. First, we see how the religious phenomenon had become a divisive force in political practice and a decisive source of political legitimacy. Next, we see also the potential which religion has as a tool for mass appeal and mobilization. In addition, we see how religion was manipulated by politicians to serve their political interests. Indeed, one could rightly argue that the struggle for political power at the centre had acquired a religious garb. On a more disturbing note, however, religion has become so politicized in Nigeria that the country's stability is threatened and, consequently, its search for economic development and the reduction of poverty is impeded. In the last twelve years, for instance, Nigeria has witnessed over twenty inter-religious riots, many of which have claimed the lives and property of Nigerians (see appendix 1). Herein lies the problem which this work intends to address.

4Religious problems are not recent phenomena in the country. On the contrary, they have been there, though perhaps dormant, for a long time. Recall, for instance, the advent of Islam and Christianity, each at different historical periods and with different world views borne out of their historical experience of antagonism and hatred towards each other. The problem became exacerbated by the intrusion of British colonialism. In the guise of protecting the people's culture, the colonial masters exploited the idioms of religion to advance British capitalist and imperialist interests. Recall also the religious undercurrent in the activities of the earliest Nigerian nationalists or in those of the three main political parties — the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in the East, the Action Group (AG) in the West, and the Northern People's Congress (NPC) in the North. As will be seen in chapter two, each of these parties, especially the NPC, made overtures to the adherents of the dominant religious group in their respective regions. These overtures were aimed at securing more votes and at forestalling the objections of opposition parties.

5The situation was such, that by the time of Nigeria's independence in 1960, partly as a result of colonial administration, the country was drawn more or less along religious zones of influence, namely, the largely Muslim North and the Christian South. The latter was subdivided into the predominantly Catholic East and the West, with an almost equal number of Muslims and Christians. Meanwhile the so-called ‘pagan’ populations in the country, especially in the part of the North known as the Middle Belt (see figure 2), became the recruiting grounds for new converts to both Islam and Christianity, with the latter achieving more success than the former in this regard — thanks to Western education which was controlled by Christians.

6This book is written with two objectives in mind, both of which are grounded within the Nigerian specificity. First, it is an attempt to explain a process of socio-political transformation. Second, it is an attempt to understand the relationship between religion and politics, especially with regard to the emancipatory potential of religion. In other words, the book is aimed at understanding the politicization of religion in modern Nigeria and the implications this may have for contemporary Nigerian politics, especially as the country searches for a better social order. In pursuit of this objective, the study will examine the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) which emerged in 1976 as the political voice of a diverse group of Christian denominations.

Figure 2. Northern Nigeria: The Middle Belt

  • 2 . This dilemma is part of a larger ‘crisis’ within the camp of the Nigerian Left; that is, how to m (...)

7The book is guided by some normative objectives. In this perspective, it explores why religion, hitherto a largely powerful but dormant phenomenon in Nigerian politics, has risen suddenly into the political limelight. It pays attention to the meaning and the historical specificity of events deriving from Nigeria's colonial legacy and the post-colonial state when it addresses the following questions: (1) how and why did CAN originate, and what is its role in contemporary politics? (2) What is its potential to facilitate or to impede the country's quest for a stable and a more egalitarian society? (3) What is the position of religion vis-a-vis other variables (such as ethnicity and class) in the struggle for political power in Nigeria? (4) What are the various forms in which CAN has perceived and expressed itself, and how are these related to the struggle for power by the various segments of Nigerian society; in short, how has CAN understood and come to terms with its historical context? (5) Can the ascendancy of religion in the body politic be engineered into serving the interests of the majority of the Nigerian populace, including the reduction of corruption, poverty and hunger? Underlying these objectives is our aim to examine the prevalent theorization of the phenomenon of religion in Nigeria, particularly in the light of the apparent dilemma which the ascendancy of religion in the country's political terrain poses to the analysts of modern Nigeria.2

8Hence the guiding thesis for this work our grasp of politics and social change, be it in Nigeria or in Africa as a whole, depends on our understanding of how religion and politics mutually impact upon one another. While it is true that religion has often been misdirected into a negative role, this is not enough justification to ignore its inherent potential for meaningful emancipatory projects. Thus, it is short-sighted for a student of the African political scene to ignore or dismiss the religious phenomenon, or for those involved in the struggle for an egalitarian society in Africa to fail to extend the struggle into the terrain of religion.

9Bearing these foregoing concerns in mind, especially as we intend to examine the politicization of religion in post-colonial Nigeria, the twofold question to ask at this point is: What do we mean by ‘politics’ and ‘politicization’? An answer to this question is very important because the application of the term ‘politicization’ to the analysis of the Christian religious factor in post-colonial Nigeria would be meaningless unless we had a clearer definition of the terms.

  • 3 . See Segun Cbadegesin, (ed.), The Polilicization of Society During Nigeria's Second Republic, 1979 (...)
  • 4 . G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History. Politics and Salvation, Sister Caridad Indad and (...)
  • 5 . P. Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1983), p (...)
  • 6 . G. Gutierrez, op. cit., p. 271.

10Social and political analysts like Segun Gbadegesin and his colleagues have pointed out the negative characterization to which the terms, politics and politicization have often been reduced — as in the case of contemporary Nigeria, for example.3 We do not, however, regard the terms as inherently pejorative. Politics, in its most basic sense, is understood more or less as the quest to acquire, retain, and distribute power; but power is tenuous if pursued with disregard for basic visions and values which are acceptable to the people as legitimate. In any given society, there are group differences of opinion, and of interests — be they economic, political, religious, social, or all of these — politics and/or politicization cannot but be partisan. Politicization is here defined as ‘conscientization’4 which according to P. Freire ‘represents the development of the awakening of critical awareness.’5 In this sense, politicization encompasses something more than just arousing the populace to political awareness or to civic duties; it involves, in words and in action, an effective and primary commitment to empowering the victims of oppression and exploitation to take their destiny into their own hands as the agents of their own liberation.6

  • 7 . Here, we take our cue from W.F. Stopler that plans for economic growth and political stability mu (...)

11This work is neither a study of Islam nor of Christianity, nor of any other major religion in Nigeria per se. Instead, it is a study of how politicized the Christian religion has become in the country's contemporary politics. In view of this, should the study by any chance ring a note of partisanship, it should be understood within the logic of our attempt to present CAN'S perception of the place, status, and role of its members within Nigeria's contemporary political terrain. The scope of the study is from 1960 to 1990, a period of three decades in the country's post-colonial history. Nevertheless, useful insights and historical explanations will be sought in the pre-colonial and colonial eras.7 The attempt is simply to evaluate how the colonial administration's policy on religion affected the pattern of relationships between the adherents of Islam and of Christianity, and how, in the long run, it became a negative colonial legacy in Nigeria.

12This study has been divided into seven chapters. Chapter one presents the historical and cultural anthropological setting of modern Nigeria. The emphasis here is on establishing the centrality of religion in traditional Nigerian life and, consequently, on countering the colonial perception of Nigerians as primitive and uncultured. The tie which the colonial administration forged between religion and politics during the colonial era is examined. Emphasis is laid on how and why this tie became institutionalized and consequently resulted in the deep-rooted mutual suspicion, and fear of domination of one group by another in the country's politics.

13Chapter two evaluates the role of religion in Nigeria in the First Republic (1960-1966), during the Civil War (1967-1970), and in the post-war era (1970-1990). Each of these periods is placed side by side with the changing political economy of the times and the corresponding struggle for central power among adherents of the two dominant religions (Islam and Christianity).

14Chapters three and four are largely descriptive. While the former focuses on the origins of CAN — a culmination of the events discussed in the preceding chapter — the latter closely examines the organizational structure of CAN, its short and long-term objectives, its strategy for securing those objectives, and the internal as well as external obstacles it has encountered in the course of its existence.

15Chapter five critically examines the politicization of Christianity with specific reference to CAN'S style of politics in view of the struggle for power among the different segments of the Nigerian polity.

16Chapter six is in two parts. The first is a critical analysis of the various forms of reaction to CAN by the following: (1) the Muslims, (2) other sectors of the Nigerian polity, including some Christians, and (3) the government. The second part attempts to ascertain the viability of CAN as an avenue for the construction of social change, especially in the light of its strengths and limitations.

17Chapter seven summarizes and draws together the major premises in a conclusion and simultaneously looks at the religious phenomenon in the light of its prevalent theorization by analysts of modern Nigeria. Suggestions are made for a vision of religiosity which would lead to a more egalitarian Nigerian society.


1 . Awolowo's failure in that election could also be attributed to other variables such as ethnic prejudices, which have been a bane to Nigerian politics; the people's remembrance of Awolowo's old antagonisms towards the late Sardauna of Sokoto — the doyen of Northern politics in the first Republic; and the'fact that Awolowo's ideology gravitated more to the under-class and therefore threatened the interests of the Islamic ruling class in the North.

2 . This dilemma is part of a larger ‘crisis’ within the camp of the Nigerian Left; that is, how to make sense of the relationship between economic activity and political, social, and spiritual concerns.

3 . See Segun Cbadegesin, (ed.), The Polilicization of Society During Nigeria's Second Republic, 1979-1983 (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991); Kola Adelaja, Nineteenth century social thought: Blyden's ideas on religion. In: Themes in African Social and Political Thought, Onigu Otite, (ed.), (Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishing Co. Ltd., 1978), pp. 182-183; Y.B. Usman, The Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria. 1977-1987 (Kaduna: Vanguard Printers and Publishers Ltd., 1987).

4 . G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History. Politics and Salvation, Sister Caridad Indad and John Eagleson, (trans, and ed.) (New York: Orbis Press, 1973), p. 270.

5 . P. Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1983), p. 19.

6 . G. Gutierrez, op. cit., p. 271.

7 . Here, we take our cue from W.F. Stopler that plans for economic growth and political stability must go together. See W.F. Stopler, Economic growth and political stability in Nigeria: On growing together again. In: Growth and Development of the Nigerian Economy, C.K. Eicherand C. Liedholm, (eds.), (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1970), pp. 328-329.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 2. Northern Nigeria: The Middle Belt
Fichier image/jpeg, 555k

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1995

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