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A Dangerous Awakening

Iheanyi M. Enwerem

Chapter Two

The Centrality of Religion in Modern Nigerian Politics

Texte intégral

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more;
Macbeth does murder sleep' — the innocent sleep,
(Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii)

The Post-Colonial Period, an Overview1

  • 1 . Analysis of the post-colonial era will be largely biased towards the relationship between religio (...)

1One basic point which clearly emerges from the literature on the post-colonial society is the centrality of the State and its managers in the society's political economy. Post-colonial society, from an orthodox Marxist perspective, defines the post-colonial state and its managers simply as instruments and members of a single ruling class. The neo-colonial state and its administrators are particular historical agencies of the capitalist state. That is, they are agencies for the enlargement and grounding of the neo-colonial capitalist mode of production, bequeathed to the post-colonial society by the colonial state.

  • 2 . See H. Alavi, The state in post-colonial societies, Pakistan and Bangladesh, New Left Review, 197 (...)
  • 3 . ibid., pp. 351-352.

2Alavi and Saul2 offer a deeper analytical insight into the neo-colonial state. According to Saul, post-colonial society differs from its colonial counterpart insofar as the post-colonial state and its managers are relatively autonomous as regards their colonial masters. The relative autonomy stems from the fact that the post-colonial state is a structural creation of the metropolitan elite. At independence, it allowed the indigenous elite (the managers) to administer the post-colonial state, but within the dictates of the institutionalized practices which were rooted, not only in the colonial legacy but also in the capitalist production process initially implanted in the post-colonial societies by the metropole.3 Thus, the state in its post-colonial form, among other things, mediates between the various contending segments and interests of the indigenous elite of the post-colonial social formation.

3The historical forces that have shaped colonial Nigeria and continue to shape the politics of contemporary Nigeria, especially its religious formation and religious struggles, are grounded in colonial structures. It is useful to recall the disturbing socio-political situation that emerged at the time of Nigeria's independence in 1960.

4First, Nigeria found itself in the capitalist world economy, which simultaneously generated a corresponding cadre of Muslim as well as Christian office-holders-cum-bureaucrats. Second, the more widely educated Christian southerners dominated the civil service and the economic arm of the State. It was only logical that this would be the case, given the fact that they were mostly the ones with the necessary kind of literacy — meaning Western education — to vie successfully for such positions. The select class of Western-educated Islamized northern elite dominated the political arm of the state — thanks to the legacy of the colonial state, especially its uneven demarcation of the country's regional boundaries, which largely ensured the successful capture of power at the centre by the leading northern-based political party, the NPC. Many of the elite in the Western-educated South felt humiliated to be under the neo-colonial oriented leadership of the North. The northern elite, for their part, felt it unfair that the South should hold dominance over the civil service. Hence, each part of the country — the North and the South — entered the independence era with suspicion and mistrust of one another. While each side was bent on retaining and enlarging whatever gains it had made, each also nursed the ambition to correct what it perceived to be against its interests in the country's socio-political scheme. Thirdly, and this was perhaps a more disturbing phenomenon at the beginning of independence, Nigeria was divided by, and under the domination of, two major religions — Islam and Christianity — each in constant struggle for power with the other. Lurking behind this struggle were regional and ethnic interests.

  • 4 . J.N. Paden, Abmadu Bella, Sardauna of Sokoto: Values and leadership in Nigeria (Zaria: Hudahuda P (...)

5All this set the stage for the kind of politics discernible in contemporary post-colonial Nigeria. The issue of religion took a political dimension because each religion liked to have its members in positions of power, even if they were only nominal adherents of that religion. Through their adherents, each religion — Islam and Christianity — wanted to have its world view occupying the commanding position in the economic and sociopolitical scheme. Hence, the winning of converts became crucial; or, to put it in Marxist parlance, the class struggle acquired a religious garb. To understand' this struggle vis-a-vis the politicization of religion, especially in the light of the formation of a national association of Christians, we turn to an empirical examination of post-colonial Nigeria. It is this writer's premise that a richer understanding of modern Nigeria hinges on a close study of the politics of the North, which are basically those of Ahmadu Bello. Thus, an understanding of Ahmadu Bello is so 'crucial to an understanding of Nigerian political history' that ‘not to understand (him] is not to understand Nigeria, whether one agrees with him or not.’4

The 196O-1966 era

6The event of Nigeria's independence gave an appearance of the dawn of a united and indivisible nation. But in fact it was more of a carry-over from the colonial period of the divisions, fears, and animosities among the various segments of the national polity. At best, independence was a nationalization of factional groups, each of which saw itself first and foremost as defined through its respective ethno-religious basis, prior to other considerations.

  • 5 . Colonial Office, Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the fears of the minorities a (...)
  • 6 . cf. Independence Constitution (1960), Chap. III; Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, (...)

7At the end of colonialism, a commission was set up to look into, and recommend ways to allay the fears of the minorities throughout the country.5 With specific reference to religion, the Commission acknowledged the existence of religious persecution and intolerance of, and discrimination against, religious minorities throughout the country, especially in the Northern and Western Regions. To allay the grave fears that arose from these experiences, the Commission accepted the minorities' demand for a constitutional provision of the Bill of Rights in Nigerian Law. Thus, the Bill of Rights became part and parcel of Nigeria's Independence Constitution as well as subsequent Constitutions.6

  • 7 . Commission on Minorities Report, p. 97.

8The provision of the Bill of Rights in the Independence Constitution did not prevent religious intolerance or discrimination in the post-colonial polity. As a matter of fact the Bill was an attempt to stop the ‘steady deterioration in standards of freedom and the unobtrusive encroachment of a government on individuals’ rights' more than anything else.7 The Bill of Rights, at best, implied an active recognition of the significance of religion in the life of the community. What the politicians did is a different matter. Whether they were Muslims, Christians, or adherents of traditional religion, the politicians conducted politics in accordance with the interests of whichever was the dominant religion in their respective zones of operation. In this situation, the rights and interests of the minority not only continued to be trampled upon by the majority, but also were masked under or subsumed into those of the majority.

  • 8 . ibid., p. 38.

9In the south-eastern part of the country, for example, Islam had been almost non-existent and we were told that there were no religious fears amongst any minorities.8 Yet the dominant Roman Catholic faith had effectively used its more pragmatic experience in education and social service as a strategy to outwit its Protestant rivals. Meanwhile, the Protestants complained of being looked down upon by Catholics, who insinuated that they were inferior even when it came to benefiting from the services provided at the facilities owned communally by adherents of both faiths but managed by Catholic agencies. The complaint of the Anglican community of Ozubulu is a case in point:

  • 9 . As cited in B.C. Amucheazi, Church and Politics in Eastern Nigeria, p. 26.

The Anglicans have been treated with numerous insults and discriminations in (the Community Maternity Home run by the Catholics], as regards medical attention. Both the Rev. Sisters and the nurses hiss and frown at the non-Catholic patients and expectant mothers; forced baptisms are conducted right in the Maternity Home. And forced conversion has occasioned several Anglican mothers going home with babies having medals swung round their necks.9

  • 10 . The import of the point made here is better realized when one recalls that all

10Given this dominance of Roman Catholicism in the East, it was not surprising that the regional party (the NCNC), whose leadership was once dominated by Protestants, dared not act against the interests of its dominant Catholic populace.10 So the region's appearance in ‘Christian garb’, at the national level, might very well be that of the dominant Roman Catholicism and not necessarily representative of the entire Christian population in the area.

  • 11 . Thomas Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspective: An historical antbology (London: 1975), pp. 59-61.

11In the south-west, one could still hear the quiet grumbling of the Muslims against what they perceived to be a Christian-oriented educational system in the Western Region, if not in the entire country. The region has a record of a more amicable relationship between Muslims and Christians than other parts of the country, because of the large number of adherents of the two major religions. However, besides the strong political and religious influence which the legendary personality of Oduduwa has among the populace,11 membership of the region's political elite remained more disproportionately tilted towards Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, than towards Islam. For instance, out of the regional party's (the Action Group's) inaugural and executive membership of 59, only two were Muslims — and this was in a Region known to have almost an equal population of Christians and Muslims.

  • 12 . Interview with Fr. I. Burke, Kaduna, February 25, 1991.

12In the North, there has been an antagonistic relationship between increasingly highly politicized non-Muslim minorities and the dominant Muslim majority. This is principally because of the government's hypocrisy with regard to its declared policy of religious freedom. For, in reality, this so-called religious freedom is more of a mirage than anything else. To confirm this assertion, we read that ‘missionaries entering Northern Nigeria are granted a visa on condition that they do not evangelize in Muslim areas — meaning that they are not to convert Muslims.’12 Besides this relationship between Christians and Muslims, there is the long-standing division even within Muslim ranks. Here one recalls the largely Kano-based and urban-spread Reformed Tijaniyya group of Muslims which has traditionally opposed, and continues to oppose, the Sokoto-based Qadiriyya Muslims. Nowhere is the hatred between these two Muslim groups more intensely expressed than in the following anti-Sultan prayer:

  • 13 . As cited in M.H. Kukah, Religion and politics in northern Nigeria since independence, Ph.D. thesi (...)

1. O Lord, O Lord, O Lord Almighty,
O God, O God, O God the Subduer,
2. O Lord, destroy the Amir of Hausa,
Interdict the Sultan of Sokoto.
3. Shake his affairs and frustrate his views,
Destroy his house and hasten the one who will announce his death.
4. O Lord, O Lord, O Lord the powerful,
[Destroy] him, O Lord who [destroys] the powerful.
5. By the power of Surat Al-Rad (Sura 13), send thunder
To his house so that he will not live forever.13

13Nowhere in the country was religion more the major deciding factor in socio-political relationships among the people than in the North. One is of course aware of the inseparable relationship between religion and politics in a predominantly Islamic polity. It would have been surprising if this were not the same in the North. The exception, however, is the magnitude, the style it took, and the objective behind it. All of this happened principally because of the family background and religious disposition of the Region's Premier, Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto.

  • 14 . A good example here is Obafemi Awolowo, the doyen of Yoruba politics, whose profession of the Met (...)
  • 15 . J.N. Paden, op. cit., p. 570.

14It is true that the majority of the southern political elites were converts to, and beneficiaries from, Christianity. However, given their anti-colonial nationalistic sentiments, they were generally lukewarm to Christianity on account of its connection with colonialism. Even when the southern politicians expressed interest in religion, they generally did so more for their political survival than for the interests of the faith or out of an unequivocal commitment to their faith.14 This equivocation about one's faith is not the case with most of the political elite from the North. For them, as Shehu Shagari was reported to have revealed years later, one is ‘finished’ if, in politics, one appears to be anti-Islamic.15 Ahmadu Bello epitomized this awareness. His politics emanated from, revolved around, and rebounded from his sincere religious conviction and commitment. Long before independence, he had emerged as the unquestionable political leader and spokesman of the Hausa-Fulani Islamic ruling class.

  • 16 . The term, ‘class’, is a key concept that requires definition. We have chosen to define it in the (...)

15Thus, while the southern politicians saw independence as an opportunity to have a Nigeria ruled by Nigerians, the members of the Hausa-Fulani Islamic ruling class16 saw it in the same way but with a fundamental exception. That is, they wanted a Nigeria ruled, not just by Nigerians, but by those belonging to, or approved by, the Hausa-Fulani Islamic ruling class. The ultimate interest of this class was clearly stated by its leader, Ahmadu Bello. For instance, while stating his view of self-government, he saw it as:

  • 17 . As cited in M. Chukwuma, Nigerian Politics and the Role of Religion, Bonn: Rheinischer Friedrich- (...)

… the restoration of the pre-1900 era, modernized, polished, democratized, refined but not out of recognition, reconstructed, but still within the same framework and on the same foundations, comprehensive by all and appreciated by all. The train, the car, the lorry, the aeroplane, the telephone, the dispensary, the school, the college, the fertilizer, the hypodermic syringes, have transformed Uthman dan Fodio's world but the basis is still there.17

  • 18 . Ahmadu Bello, The Sardauna of Sokoto: My life, p. 223.
  • 19 . ibid.

16The pre-1900 era, it must be recalled, was the period before British colonial intrusion into Nigerian space. The era was epitomized by the activities of Uthman dan Fodio. It was a theocratic world in which the entire societal structure was patterned and run in accordance with the imperative of Islam and where the Sultan of Sokoto was the embodiment of a joint religious and political leadership with autocratic power over everything and everyone within the Sokoto Caliphate. As regards non-Muslims in such an Islamic theocratic world, they would be tolerated only as long as they paid their taxes, maintained unequivocal loyalty to the Islamic leadership, and accepted their inferior status vis-a-vis their Muslim counterparts in the Caliphate. Under this structure, no socio-political, economic, or religious decisions had legitimacy without the Sultan's approval, which explains why the ceremony inaugurating the Northern Region's self-rule on the 15th of March, 1958, was held, not in Kaduna, the Regional capital, but in Sokoto, the traditional capital of the Islamic North.18 Even the date chosen for the start of self-rule was deliberate: it was the anniversary of the fall of Dan Fodio's Hausa-Fulani Islamic State to the British.19 It is as if to say that the new order, the independent State and its leadership, had received the blessings of the Caliphate and its traditional political and spiritual leader, the Sultan.

  • 20 . ibid., p. 86.

17Uthman dan Fodio's world was also marked by the desire to bring the entire country under Islamic vision and leadership — a task interrupted by British colonialism. The task now before the new dispensation, under Ahmadu Bello, was not only to put into place the old, but also to continue the jihad from where its march was interrupted. After all, independence, as Ahmadu Bello revealed elsewhere, was the eventual fulfilment of Britain's frequent promises to restore the Hausa-Fulani Islamic ruling class to power.20 He reiterated this perception when he said:

  • 21 . See the Preface, ibid., pp. viii-ix.

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 modem 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].21

  • 22 . For details about Ahmadu Bello's politics vis-a-vis his religious commitment, see J.N. Paden, op. (...)

18Within the context of the foregoing remarks one can have a richer understanding of Ahmadu Bello's politics22 — a commitment which he carried out at the regional, national, and international levels until his death in the unsuccessful military coup d'etat of 1966.

  • 23 . This was an administrative arrangement whereby a locality or area was under the authority of a lo (...)

19At the regional level, Ahmadu Bello's primary interest was to unify the North under Islamic religious leadership. Prior to the Region's self-rule in 1959, he had effectively employed his ‘consensus approach’ to leadership to bring Christians into his party and Government. He believed he had pacified the Christians enough or had at least neutralized whatever potential threat they may have posed. As for the various factions within his own religion, these were family affairs that, with time, would be resolved. In any case, Ahmadu Bello's official opposition, NEPTJ, drew its main strength from the major faction within Islam in Northern Nigeria, and was really more interested in reforming the Native Authority system23 than in the abolition of the entire system on which Bello's political base hinged.

20In the light of the preceding development, Bello's specific target for the final unification of the North was to convert the ‘pagan’ enclaves in the region to Islam. He was determined to sway them away from the Christian missionaries. This move was understandable, principally because the enclaves were not only the major sources of Christian growth in the North, but could also become the seedbed of a political threat to the Islamic interest in the region if the trend were allowed to continue. Besides, Christian missionaries had erroneously resigned themselves to the belief that these ‘pagan’ enclaves were the reserved domain for their missionary enterprise. Undoubtedly, the Christian missions were having some remarkable successes in terms of growth — a point which was soon clearly demonstrated by the outcome of the 1962/63 census figure. As Crampton's comparative analysis of the 1952 and 1963 official census figures puts it:

  • 24 . For both the analysis of the census figures as well as the actual statistical data of the census (...)

According to the 1952 and 1963 Nigerian Census figures, the numbers of Muslims, Christians, and ‘Others’ [that is, ‘pagans’] in the North grew absolutely, but both the Muslims and the ‘Others’ showed a relative decline whilst the Christians grew from 2.7 to 9-7 per cent of the population.24

  • 25 . JN. Paden, Abmadu Bella, p. 557.

21It is in this context that Ahmadu Bello embarked on his massive ‘conversion campaigns’ to win over souls for Islam. To realize this immediate objective, which, if successful, would become the groundswell for his national agenda, Ahmadu Bello founded a number of Islamic organizations. Notably are the Jamaatu Nasril Islam (JNI) — the Society for the Victory of Islam — and the Council of Mallams, both of which were supposed ‘to bring together various elements of religious leadership in the North for the purpose of discussion and general enlightenment.’25 Needless to say, membership in these organizations, the discussion within them, and the general enlightenment they were expected to generate, were exclusively for Muslims and for Islamic interests. Yet these societies were presented as speaking for all the people in the North!

  • 26 . See the Editorial column, Nigerian Citizen, Saturday, 3rd June, 1961.
  • 27 . J.N. Paden, op. cit., p. 548.

22Ahmadu Bello's politics at the international level involved the forging of politico-religious links with Islamic countries across the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia. In particular were the Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, whose generosity to Nigerian Muslims was so great that, by 1961, the Saudi Arabian monarch was asked to visit Nigeria to strengthen the already strong relationship between the two countries.26 Bello's ‘primary interest’ in international politics, Paden tells us, ‘becomes the international Muslim community (the ultima)’, while he was mindful ‘of the need for peaceful and co-operative mutual interdependence within larger political contexts’ like his ‘continentally-based Pan-Africanism rather than one racially-based.’27 Behind Bello's interest in the establishment of a global Islamic umma was his desire to lead the largest Islamic state in Black Africa.

  • 28 . In his 16th May 1962 letter to the Secretary of the World Islamic Congress — a letter which was r (...)

23His international politics were premised on its dialectical linkage with his national agenda. This is to say that he needed the gains from his international politics to achieve his national objective, which in turn would place him in a good position in international politics. In concrete terms, Ahmadu Bello needed to position Nigeria as an Islamic world power or, at least, Black Africa's Islamic power, with himself as its unquestionable leader. He, as we have earlier observed, saw himself and his destiny in the mould of his great-great-grandfather, Uthman dan Fodio, the founder of the largest Islamic empire in the Black world.28 With independence and political power in his hands, but short of adequate financial strength and qualified personnel to build up the kind of formidable home-base he needed to launch his overall objective, Ahmadu Bello had to exploit, among other things, the Islamic imperative of umma at the international level.

  • 29 . For the full speech see, ibid., pp. 539-542.
  • 30 . ibid., p. 541.
  • 31 . ibid.

24These assertions were clearly confirmed by Ahmadu Bello himself. In his speech at the 1964 World Islamic League29 he pointed out to his audience that the success of Christian missionaries was a direct result of their international solidarity and mutual assistance — a good example he found lacking among Muslims.30 In this connection he regretted that, two years after his government had turned down a sizeable Israeli loan to Nigeria, even though all the governments of the Federation had accepted the loan, he was yet to get any assistance ‘from any of our sister Muslim countries’.31 Hence he pleaded:

  • 32 . ibid, (author's emphasis).

I have only given these examples to show how genuinely we in Northern Nigeria have been at times suffering and how single-handed we have been working for the cause of Islam, and which we shall continue so long as our lives last. I have earlier spoken of conversions of non-Muslims to Islam. I would like to say that this is only the beginning as there are other areas we have not yet tapped. I hope when we clean Nigeria we will go further afield in Africa.32

  • 33 . ibid., p. 546.
  • 34 . ibid., p. 543.
  • 35 . ibid., pp. 544-545.
  • 36 . ibid., p. 543.

25Undoubtedly, Ahmadu Bello's objectives appeared realizable. By 1964 he had succeeded in elevating Nigeria's stature to such a height in the Islamic world that she was identified as the ‘center of radiation for Islamic culture in the Black continent.’33 His own international reputation had soared high ‘as the “peacemaker” in the Islamic world’.34 He was elected Vice-President of the World Islamic League, and his advice was sought by world leaders who saw him as an authority on Pan-African unity as well as unity and solidarity among Muslim nations.35 Financially, Ahmadu Bello's objective was also realized, as many Islamic countries heeded his plea for assistance. In 1964 alone, Saudi Arabia donated one hundred thousand pounds, while donations from Kuwait and other unofficial sources probably amounted to millions of pounds.36

  • 37 . ibid., pp. 569-578.
  • 38 . ibid., p. 576.

26By 1965, some commentators tell us, the Sardauna had lost interest in politics, seeing himself more as a religious leader than as a political leader.37 But did he really lose interest in politics or was his apparent change a strategic repositioning of himself to unleash his next political move? Some analysts probably mistook his apparent distance from politics for what it really was: ‘mental fatigue’38 resulting from his exacting political office and the zeal he was known to put into it. What these analysts interpreted as Bello's ‘change’ of interest from politics to religion could very well be his perception of politics from a different angle. For instance, after shouts of 'Power!', to greet his September 1964 visit to Lagos by his loyal supporters, he issued a press statement in which he chided his supporters from greeting him with the slogan, Power, urging them to greet him instead with the slogan, Peace (salama), based on the argument that:

  • 39 . ibid., p. 425.

[t]here is no power besides Allah. Allah is power. Man has no right to arrogate such (an] attribute to himself. We are Allah's servants and at all times must humbly submit ourselves to his will.... The NPC leader is only a servant of God.39

27Contrary to what some commentators on Bello's politics tell us, he remained an active political practitioner, making sure he remained, perhaps, the doyen of early post-colonial Nigerian politics. It is worth noting that he never resigned from politics, which he would have done if he was really no longer interested in politics. In any case, that Islam, by 1965, became the centre of his political life was not surprising, given the Sardauna's background. If anything, he demonstrated successfully the emancipatory potential of religion for social transformation. This is to say that, for him, 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. This is especially true among those in the South, who, in over-reacting to Christianity's colonial heritage, failed to explore the possibility of effectively transforming religion into an emancipatory agent rather than paying lip-service to it or using it to stir up anti-colonial sympathies.

28It is in this connection that Ahmadu Bello's establishment of the JNI is primarily understood. While it may have had all the trappings of a religious organization, JNI was, for all practical purposes, a political organ wearing a religious garb to serve a political purpose. For, we are told:

  • 40 . ibid., pp. 563-564.

The Sardauna was very sincere and determined ... to use this method and mould the North together. Within the JNI forum, the Sardauna hoped to bring together traditional rulers, ulama, modem civil servants, businessmen,… politicians,… plus the masses. Most ministers were interested in this forum; all recognized the key role of the mallams.40

  • 41 . ibid., p. 555.
  • 42 . Note how the Sardauna used the JNI — a supposedly religious organization — to mobilize the people (...)
  • 43 . ibid., p. 553.

29By 1965, the JNI had been nurtured enough for it to become an effective organizational tool for the realization of his next objective, the acquisition of religious power at the national level. Thus, the JNI had more or less departed from its humble beginnings to become ‘a major coordinator of private funding’ for all forms of Islamic education — or, better, Islamic propagation — ‘not only in the North, where it has its organizational base, but throughout Nigeria.’41 In effect, by 1964-1965 the JNI had matured to embody the Sardauna's strategy, which had always been constructed around a dialectical interaction between religion and politics. Just as his intensely religious family background catapulted him into political power, by 1964 and 1965 he had succeeded in using this power to capture religious power beyond his regional boundary.42 Indeed, by this time he came ‘to be regarded as a “leader of patron” of Islam throughout Nigeria, and not just in the North.’43

30The crucial 1964 federal election gave Ahmadu Bello the opportunity to test, at the national level, the strength of his acquired religious power. Already he had acquired political power at the national level and his party was in firm control of the centre (the Federal Government). But his political power had to be consolidated, especially in the light of the formidable threat from his political opponents. This threat was part of the more serious fear of Southern domination of the Islamic North, due to the former's edge over the latter in the acquisition of Western education and, consequently, the advantages that were expected to accrue from such. As far as Ahmadu Bello and the members of his party were concerned, the threat would be worse if the Christian South were also to dominate and then dictate the primary role of the centre. Hence to counter, and possibly eliminate this threat, there was need to forge Northern hegemony. His message in the North during the 1964 federal election campaign spoke for itself:

  • 44 . ibid., p. 431 (author's emphasis).

The Prime Minister and the Sardauna need to go back to Lagos to deal with Zik and Awo. The Sardauna and Prime Minister are our people. The Sardauna is a very good Muslim, the descendant of the Shehu. We want your support. ... If you don't give it, there will be trouble.44

31That Bello's Party won a landslide victory, even though, unlike his Southern opponents, he never bothered to campaign outside the Northern Region, spoke highly of his strategy. More importantly, the victory was a confirmation of the Sardauna's dual power (religious and political) at the national level.

  • 45 . ibid., p. 570.

32Ahmadu Bello's strategic shift from being less of a political to more of a religious leader was bound to send shivers across a religiously pluralistic country like Nigeria. It was especially serious, in view of the political stature, the background, and the religious commitment of the man involved. Shehu Shagari, a product of Ahmadu Bello's kind of politics and later the first civilian Executive President of Nigeria, expressed people's misgivings about his mentor's change. According to Shagari: ‘Many of us didn't want him to go that far… [but] nobody had the guts to tell him the truth about the Nigerian situation. Only [the late] Ribadu could tell him.’45

  • 46 . ibid.

33Armed with a feeling of remarkable success and self-confidence, Ahmadu Bello was said to have asked, ‘What next?’46 He was yet to provide us with an answer when he met his death in the 15th January 1966 military coup.

The 1966-1970 era

34The actual event of the coup of 1966, its participants, casualties, and immediate military beneficiaries or losers are common knowledge and need no repetition. Reactions to the event, however, deserve some examination. These can be viewed from six perspectives.

  • 47 . See this as cited in M.H. Kukah, op. cit., p. 49.
  • 48 . Burke interview, February 25, 1991.

35First, there were those whose reaction to the coup derived more from a dislike of Ahmadu Bello, on account of his method of Islamization, than anything else. Members of the Kano People's Party, and the local Tijaniyya mallams who were seen to have celebrated the Sardauna's death,47 represent this position. Abubakar Gumi most probably shared this position to some extent, as can be discerned from the account of his friend, Rev. Fr. L. Burke, who visited him after the Sardauna's death. According to Fr. Burke, he noticed that the Sardauna's big framed photo was no longer hung where it used to be. On being asked whether it was removed for political reasons, Gumi said it fell down. However, Gumi opined that the Sardauna did a lot of damage to Islam insofar as his methods made it impossible to identify good Muslims — damage, according to Gumi, which would take years to correct.48

  • 49 . M.H. Kukah, op. tit., p. 49.
  • 50 . See ibid., p. 72.

36Second, there was the reaction derived from hatred of the Sardauna, more on account of his religious repression, than anything else. This was expressed by the indigenous non-Muslim Northerners, especially the Christians of the Middle Belt. These were known to have hailed the coup.49 For them the coup was a liberation from an Islamic threat to their own religious world view. Stories abound of how people who had been tacitly or overtly Islamized during the campaign of Ahmadu Bello returned to their former religion after the coup. Rev. Fr. Joseph Mamman, a Catholic priest from Kaduna Archdiocese, has a story which is worth recounting here. He recalls how he saw his uncle, hitherto a ‘Sardauna Muslim’, bury his Islamic rosary and, in the process, thank God that it was now all over — meaning the Sardauna's conversion campaign.50 It is important to note, however, that those in this group, as well as in the first group, were not prepared to be liberated from one kind of threat (religious domination) only to find themselves with another (ethnic domination).

  • 51 . Taken from J.P. Paden, op. cit., p. 687, citing Idapo Coz, ‘Sir Ahmadu rose in his shrouds and sp (...)

37A third reaction to the coup was represented by Christians from the South. This group welcomed the death of Ahmadu Bello in the expectation of a reversal of whatever political gains the Islamic North had made on the Christian South. This reaction was clearly epitomized in feature stories by southern-based publications. For instance, the Daily Times — then the country's national newspaper — in its subsidiary publication, Drum, showed a picture of Ahmadu Bello floating in limbo and confessing his sins of ‘mixing politics with religion and playing the role of Prophet-cum-Caesar.’51

  • 52 . See the front page commentary of Daily Times, January 18, 1966.

38Fourth were those who saw the coup from a nationalistic stance. Given the failure of the politicians to live up to the people's post-colonial expectations, the nationalists reasoned that the coup was necessary to salvage the country from further decay and aimlessness. This school of thought appears to be similar to that of the key organizers of the coup,52 and can be summarized as follows:

  • 53 . See A. Ademoyega, Why We Struck: The story of the first Nigerian coup (Ibadan: Evans, 1981), pp. (...)

For some time now — almost right from the day we came into our own, the country has been, as it were, at the sick bay. We have been groping along— rudderless, hesitant, unsure which foot to put forward first. For some time now — almost right from that day in October 1960 when we put out flags and buntings in celebration of the dawn of a new era — our experiment in parliamentary democracy, Westminster fashion, which we watched our old masters practise, may have flourished, but it certainly did not appear to flourish. Opposition was virtually reduced to a position of nullity.
For a long time, instead of settling down to minister unto the people's needs, the politicians were busy performing a series of seven days' wonders as if the art of government was some circus show. John Citizen was not amazed, but he was powerless, he was helpless…. Today, there is a new regime in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a new military regime. About time too!53

  • 54 . Interview with Balarabe Musa, Kaduna, January 29, 1991.

39Fifth, there were those who viewed the coup as revolutionary in intent although they recognized that its execution was riddled with political naivety on the part of its plotters. The Marxist activist, and first civilian Governor of Kaduna State, Balarabe Musa, would belong to this group. According to him, Nzeogwu's coup ‘was legitimate’, notwithstanding his ‘error of judgement’ — but ‘a forgivable one’, given that it was ‘the first time’ such an act had taken place in the country's history.54 The plotters' error of judgement, according to Musa, was at three levels, all of which together had far reaching consequences for the country's future.

  • 55 . Of note here are people, like Ali Akilu, who was Ahmadu Bello's private secretary, and Ibrahim Da (...)

40The first error was tactical. This stemmed from Nzeogwu's failure either to order the arrest of those responsible for the failure of the operation in the South or to link his success in the North with the progressives he certainly knew to have been fighting against the Muslim feudal system in the North at least since the 1950s. This move would have won him the confidence of some Northerners whose feelings had been injured. It would also have removed credibility from the allegation of Southern bias, and lessened the shock of losing the Northern leaders, however reactionary they were. But instead, Nzeogwu appointed a government of senior civil servants, most if not all of whom earned their position through unquestionable loyalty to the late Premier, and either belonged, or were sympathetic, to the JNI.55 Later, Nzeogwu. himself submitted to his fellow Igbo, Ironsi, and to the members of the feudal ruling class in the North, such as Major Hassan Katsina — a prince from the Katsina royal family — who became the military governor of the region.

41The second error of judgement was, on one hand, the killing of military officers, especially people like Adjutant-General James Pam, from the Middle Belt, and, on the other hand, from the plotters' failure to take into account the fears of the Northerners. Thus, Nzeogwu and his colleagues failed to denounce and prevent the demonstrations by Southern elements in support of the coup.

  • 56 . See B. Gbulie, Nigeria's Five Majors: Coup d'etat of 15th January 1966. First inside account (Oni (...)

42Key planners of the coup came from the South, mostly Igbo;56 and more victims were from the North than from the South. In fact, none of the Igbo political leaders was killed, and, what is more, Ahmadu Bello's major national rivals, Awolowo and Azikiwe, from the South, were left alive (Awolowo was in jail at the time of the coup). In addition, both the acting president of the country, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, who formally handed over the government to the military, and Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, the Commander of the Armed Forces, to whom the government was handed over, were Igbo. In addition, the leader of the coup, Major Nzeogwu, was also Igbo and had actually assumed power in Ahmadu Bello's Islamic North. Under these circumstances, and in light of the ethnic politics that characterized the period, it was almost impossible for the Islamic North to perceive the coup in a positive light.

  • 57 . Musa interview, January 29, 1991.
  • 58 . See J.N. Paden, op. cit., pp. 674-675-

43The coup can be seen also from a cultural point of view, especially in connection with Muslim respect for the dead. According to Balarabe Musa, ‘Muslims traditionally do not say anything bad about a dead man unless he is proved to be an evil person; and a politician, however reactionary, cannot be easily proved to be an evil person.’57 Aminu Kano's exemplary response to Ahmadu Bello's death — their political differences notwithstanding — confirms Musa's observation.58 But this observation was lost on those who welcomed the coup. We noted earlier the glee with which Southerners greeted the coup and caricatured its victims from the North, Ahmadu Bello and the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, in particular.

  • 59 . ibid., p. 697.

44The third error of judgment by the plotters can be seen from a religious point of view. This was in their mistaken assumption that Christians were united in their attitude towards the Islamic North. Consequently, the plotters assumed that wherever the coup appeared to be a struggle between the North and the South, the whole Christian South, including indeed Christians all over the country, would be united. The plotters forgot two crucial facts. First, the Yoruba, and the Middle Belt Christians from the North, felt that the Igbo had dominated the economy, particularly petty trading and the civil service. As a matter of fact, many of the largely Christian Middle Belters felt ‘very strongly about Eastern Region migrant pressure on jobs, land, and markets, and some of the most violent anti-Igbo riots throughout the North involved indigenes from Benue (especially in Kano).59 Second, the coup plotters also forgot the Awolowo-Azikiwe factor. Here we recall the political hostility between the Yoruba and the Igbo as represented by the conflict between the Action Group and the NCNC respectively. The ultimate political result of this hostility was the split of the NCNC into Yoruba and Igbo factions and the defection of the Yoruba faction into the Action Group, which denied Azikiwe (and the NCNC) the premiership of the Western Region in the 1950s.

  • 60 . ibid., pp. 570-71.

45The sixth and final perspective regarding the response to the coup was held by members of the core Islamic ruling class. It must not be forgotten that, for Muslims, especially those at the grassroots, Ahmadu Bello was recognized ‘as a religious leader and even a saint’; his promotion of Islam, in the eyes of Muslims, was ‘a good cause.’60 Thus, for the Islamic ruling class, the coup was a Christian threat to Islam, mainly because it aborted the spread of Islam in the country — an event reminiscent of British colonial intervention, and consequently a disruption of the expansionist interests of Uthman dan Fodio's Sokpto Caliphate. Specifically, the coup was seen as an attempt by the Christian South to dominate the Islamic North. Adamu Dan Maraya Jos, a poet from the North, captures this perception and the anger behind it. In a tribute to Ahmadu Bello, following the coup, Adamu sang:

  • 61 . Cited from ibid., p. 669.

Since the death of Sir Ahmadu Bello,/ whomever you see, both young and old,/ none is in his normal sense./ But there's no other God but God./ What is hurting you/ is also hurting me./ What pains you/ is also paining me./ What cheated you,/ I swear, also cheated me./ May Sir Ahmadu Bello's soul rest in peace./ May [the] Prime Minister's soul rest in peace.... Sir Ahmadu Bello, God's servant,/ who would cheat [abuse] God's servant;/ who would cheat God's servant, whoever cheats God's servant,/ may cold hold on his leg joint./ May he have abdominal trouble/ so that, when he bends down, he can't rise again….61

  • 62 . Here we call to mind Ironsi's ‘Unification Decree’ which, among other things, set out to unify th (...)
  • 63 . Interview with CO. Ojukwu, Toronto, June 24, 1991.

46Given the observations above and the political naïvety which characterized Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi's military government, which immediately followed the unsuccessful coup,62 it was not surprising that the Northerners began a massacre of the Southerners, especially the Igbos, who, by this time, had come to be perceived by the Islamic North as epitomizing Christianity. Besides, Igbos were also perceived by the rest of the country, especially the Northerners, as evidence of a Southern domination of the North, if not the entire country. Six months later, a Northern-based counter-coup was successfully carried out. The Federal Military Government that emerged from this coup was led by a Northern Christian, Yalcubu Gowon. His government abolished the Regional Governments and replaced them with a twelve-state structure on 27 May 1967. This exercise may have gone a long way to allay the fears of the minorities across the country; but the decision-making process which brought about the exercise, and the socio-political context of the time made the Igbos feel alienated. They saw 'the creation of States as a punitive measure' against them.63 It is common knowledge that this, among other things, contributed greatly to the largely Igbo-speaking Eastern Region declaring itself the sovereign Nation of Biafra on 30th May 1967, which subsequently led to the 1967-1970 civil war. What is not common knowledge, however, is the extent to which the religious factor underlay most of the politics of the period under discussion.

  • 64 . J. Trimingham, Islam in West Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 28.

47To address more adequately the assertion just made, it is necessary to look at the activities of the ruling class from the North, premised on the belief that while its activities may externally appear to be focused on political issues, they are, nonetheless, deeply embedded in the mould of religious faith. For, as Trimingham rightly observed: ‘Islam in power is a secularized theocracy and this always leads to forms of religious imperialism.’64

  • 65 . Dasuki became the Sultan of Sokoto in 1989.
  • 66 . Cf. the listing of political parties and tribal and cultural unions banned in the 24th May 1966 d (...)

48Two institutions which were more or less open to members of the Islamic ruling class for carrying out its post-Sardauna hegemonic task were the traditional leadership system (emirs) and the JNI. The JNI, however, was not suitable for three reasons. First, with the exit of the Sardauna, the JNI lost its political clout and financial support. Second, its uniting all Muslims as a body was a religious camouflage that sought to pursue the interests and privileges of those sympathetic to the NPC — a characterization which the South and many in the North, especially the Middle-Belters, had from experience come to realize. Third, the post-Sardauna JNI experienced an intense power struggle among its membership who obviously saw its potential for future political mobilization. In the end, the JNI came under the direction of staunch NPC politicians like Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki,65 a bureaucrat from the Sokoto ruling house. Whatever political agenda he had for the JNI was drastically limited by the new developments that banned active political activities. Thus, the JNI remained moribund during this period. However, its existence had to be maintained, and was maintained, if for no other reason than to serve as a political tool, in reserve, for the ruling class. Meanwhile, having escaped the ban which all other political and cultural groups suffered at the time,66 the JNI was able, even if discreetly, to keep in touch with the grassroots whose religious beliefs could be exploited for future political activity.

  • 67 . The Hausa-Fulani ruling class was quick enough to realize that military power lay in the hands of (...)

49Given these limitations, members of the Islamic ruling class had to rely on the traditional leadership system to carry out their hegemonic task. Thus the emirs openly demanded and received the commitment of the new military rulers to recognize and respect the office of traditional rulers. This was not surprising as the military leaders, including even the revolutionary Nzeogwu, wanted to appease the emirs. Realizing that it was impossible to create on their own the kind of regional and national hegemony favourable to their interests, more so as the odds were militarily against them,67 the members of the northern leadership class decided to co-opt others. To achieve this objective, they realized they had to make some concessions, but without jeopardizing their core interest — the unity of the North — for the purpose of controlling politics at the centre.

  • 68 . This is a policy whose aim and objective is largely to ensure that indigenes of the Northern Regi (...)

50The first move by the northern leaders was. at the regional level. This was targeted at the largely Christian Middle-Belters. The circumstantial factors of the coup, as stated earlier, especially the death of some Middle Belt officers, and the opportunities for well educated Middle-Belters to fill the positions left by the departure of the Igbos, made it expedient for the Middle-Belters to cooperate with the northern leaders. After all, the Middle-Belters' hatred was for the Sardauna's repressive measures and not for his ‘Northernization Policy’,68 from which they now stood to gain. Joseph Tarka, the major political leader of the Middle Belt, met with Makaman Bida (leader of the defunct NPC) and Aminu Kano (the leader of NEPU) and reached an agreement to work for a united North, and northern interests. It is in this context that one can understand the elevation of Yakubu Gowon, a Christian Middle-Belter, as the country's Head of State, as well as Northern acceptance of Gowon's creation of states.

51The next move by members of the ruling class in the North was at the national level. Here the target was the Southerners, but mainly the Yoruba. These were won over mainly because they had had similar experiences as the Middle-Belters and accepted the same rationale that brought about the support of the Middle-Belters. In the case of the Yoruba, the concession was to welcome the release of Awolowo and his colleagues from prison and, later, to appoint Awolowo more or less as the country's deputy Head of State — concessions which pleased the Yoruba. Like the Middle-Belters, Awolowo saw the departure of the Igbos and of his chief political rivals (Zik and Sardauna) as an opportunity to make some gains for his people. Furthermore, he had been a chief advocate for the creation of states out of the geographically dominant North. These factors made it possible for the Yoruba to identify with the North.

52The final result of the activities of the northern ruling class was the emergence of a coalition of the North, the West, and indeed all the various minority ethnic groups in the country, under a Head of State and his Deputy, both of whom were Christians. This was seen as ‘fair play’, and also allowed the Islamic ruling class to reorganize its political machinery and activities with a view to attaining future political leadership. As the need to mobilize all elements in the nation took on a new urgency during the civil war, Muslim religious leaders were able to carry out their religious objective for the entire country, using the political propaganda of the Federal government.

53Not even the Biafran leadership was able to discern the religious background of the civil war, the Biafran religious propaganda notwithstanding. General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, analyzed the Igbo position as one of ethnic survival.

  • 69 . Ojukwu interview, June 24, 1991.

Seen in the light of the conflicts that led to the civil war, it was certainly a political war. We did not go to war because the Sardauna came down to Tiv land and converted fifty thousand. We went to war because ndi Igbo (the Igbo race] was slaughtered so much in the North that ndi Igbo [the Igbo race) became fearful about their own survival in a polity headed by the North.69

54It is easy to see then that the Biafran leadership simply latched onto the religious propaganda because it needed an easily available and meaningful tool to mobilize the people and to win international support for the Biafran cause. Hence, Ojukwu would say:

  • 70 . ibid.

Let us see it this way: Within Biafra, it was used to inculcate a feeling of identity as a people, separate and distinct from the Nigerian side. But outside, in making others hear of and understand our case, the religious aspect played a major part in restoring the survival of our people. This was because it was easy for the various Christian Churches to rally round with the people with whom they have the same belief. That I used religion, yes... I needed to use it to make every Biafran clearly understand the dangers and reasons why he is fighting and I also went out to seek solidarity of like thinkers all over the world.70

  • 71 . Cf. J.J. Stremlau, The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970 (Princeton: Un (...)

55So far we have attempted to highlight the religious element which embedded the more visible political rationale behind the civil war and indeed the entire post-colonial period. Analysts of post-colonial Nigeria, especially of its 1966-1970 period,71 generally dismiss the religious in preference to the political basis as being behind the events of the period. Any attention to the religious element is usually limited either to an analysis of the propaganda aspect of the Biafran war machine or to the charitable relief operations carried out by church groups on both sides of the war, but in the Biafran sector in particular.

56A more meaningful analysis of the civil war period and indeed post-colonial Nigeria must be based on the struggle for dominance between Islam and Christianity. The genius of the members of the Hausa-Fulani Islamic ruling class, especially since independence a credit to Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto — was their ability to forge coalitions and to persuade Christians and animists across the country that in fact their real self-interest lay in an alliance with the Hausa-Fulani Islamic group against any opposite group interest in the country. Hausa-Fulani Islamic strategists have cynically and brilliantly exploited the bitter resentment of Nigerian non-Muslims, especially those in the South, for whom the realization of a dream of a better Nigeria has become difficult. In a strategy based on and crafted with religious (Islamic) objectives, systematically and periodically refined and articulated under the political rhetoric of national unity and interests, members of the ruling class in the North have been able to maintain power at the centre and use it to enhance their power-base, the Islamic religion. This should be borne in mind when reviewing the next period of post-colonial Nigeria, which emerged with the crushing of the Biafran secession in 1970.

The 1970-1976 era

  • 72 . This was essentially as a result of the successful attempt by the Biafran propaganda machine to p (...)
  • 73 . See M.H. Kukah, op. cit., p. 68.

57On a preliminary note, two points need to be made. First, in terms of its standing before the Federal Government as a result of its support for the federal cause, Christianity, unlike Islam, came out of the war bruised. For, while Christian support for the Federal cause was weak or at best hesitant, that of the Islamic religious leaders was unqualified.72 Here we take note of Muslim religious leaders who, through their prayers, were said to have capably turned the political tide of the war in favour of the federal cause, and people like Shaikh Ibrahim Niass, whose mediatory role among the Muslim factions in the North during the war was a major positive contribution towards the war effort.73 It was only to be expected that Islam, rather than Christianity, stood to receive favours from an appreciative and victorious Federal Government.

  • 74 . ibid.

58It is true that the country was still under General Yakubu Gowon, a Christian; but it must not be forgotten that he, all along, had been a compromise candidate. Coming from the Middle Belt himself, and being the most senior surviving military officer from the North at the time of the January 1966 military coup, the members of the ruling class in the North saw him as a good choice to gain the support of the largely Christian Middle Belt. Besides, he was known to have maintained the friendship of ‘many scions of the ruling class’, many of whom were his schoolmates, and had managed to distance himself well enough from an anti-ruling class mentality to ‘to facilitate his admission into the elite and the traditional ruling class in Northern Nigeria.’74 Thus, the Islamic ruling class saw Gowon as a pliable person — one they could do business with — more so after they had given him the support he needed not only to win the civil war but also to catapult him into the international limelight as a great leader. Members of the Islamic ruling class expected that he would reciprocate by being favourably disposed towards rectifying their perceived grievances, given Gowon's post-war policy of the three Rs (reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation). It is in this context that Muslims were able to ensure the Federal Government's takeover of Christian mission schools and hospitals, Nigeria's entry into the OIC (howbeit as an observer), the introduction of a federal character in the civil service, and the setting up of Pilgrims' Boards exclusively for Muslims. These would soon be some of the issues upon which the churches would base their charge of undue favouritism towards Islam.

  • 75 . See K. Panter-Brick (ed.), Soldiers and Oil: The political transformation of Nigeria (London: Fra (...)

59The second preliminary note touches on the economic and socio-political context of 1970-1980. The period is popularly referred to as the ‘petro-naira’ or ‘oil boom’ years. This was mainly because it was marked by mass production of, and export revenue from mineral oil, and the government's massive undertaking of prestigious projects. The negative and positive effects of the oil boom are well documented elsewhere.75 What is of particular interest is to see to what extent the oil-boom factor heightened the already existing religious factor which was lying beneath the surface of national politics.

  • 76 . See T. Turner, Commercial capitalism and the 1975 coup, In: K. Panter-Brick (ed.), op. cit., pp. (...)

60To begin with, the logic of the civil war — the demands of solidarity and of unity of command — created a favourable environment for Gowon, through a series of decrees, to effect the centralization of power at the expense of the states. By the end of the war, the centralization of Nigeria had not only become a foregone conclusion but was actually extended to every stratum of the polity; administration, education, politics, economics, and even religion. The country was placed more squarely on the path of a capitalist political economy.76 Furthermore, the end of the war saw the need for some quick cash to settle the expenses incurred during its prosecution and those resulting from the government's policy of rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation. The government chose to embark on oil export, therefore, beginning the oil boom. Given the prevailing centralized political economy, the money accruing from the various sources of income, including oil, went into the coffers of the federal government whose leadership dispensed it according to its priorities.

61With these developments, there emerged in the country, ‘overnight millionaires’ from among those in power or within the corridors of power. It was not long, therefore, before the average Nigerian suddenly came to see the federal government, more than ever before, as the source, controller, and dispenser of economic and, invariably, political power. Thereafter, the struggle for power at the centre became intensified. Since the tie between politics and religion is barely skin-deep, at least for those sharing the Islamic worldview, it was not surprising that the struggle for political power at the centre directly or indirectly took on a religious tone and character. Hence, it is valid to assert that what Gowon's centralization policy and oil-boom policies did was to water the growth of religious politicization, whose seed had been planted by the Sardauna in the fertile ground made possible by the colonial administration.

  • 77 . We do not intend to suggest here a mono-causal explanation of Gowon's removal from power. Undoubt (...)

62Irrespective of the promise made by the military to return power to civilians — Gowon, who dragged his feet and was removed in a bloodless coup in 1975,77 or Murtala and later Obasanjo, who replaced him — members of the Islamic ruling class were working towards a continuation of their control of politics in Nigeria. Their strategy was more or less a refined form of ethnic politics, based on the unity of the North as one people with a common destiny and interests. But the practical application of this strategy was difficult to maintain and thus, the interests of the Hausa-Fulani ruling elite were under threat. Two developments were responsible for this.

63One was the collapse, or at least the erosion, of northern solidarity. This began with the creation of states. Consequently, the leadership of some of the states carved out from the old North, Benue-Plateau State in particular, began to lay claim to newly acquired political independence from the age-long dominance of the Hausa-Fulani ruling class. Benue-Plateau's governor, Joseph Gomwalk, epitomized this new development. His decision to start the University of Jos and the Jos-based newspaper, the Nigerian Standard, against the expressed wishes of the authorities of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and the New Nigerian newspaper, convinced the ruling class of the danger ahead. That Gomwalk — by this time ‘the most prominent governor in the North’ — actually successfully carried out these projects, relying on assistance from the South, was an affront and a threat to the Islamic ruling class in the North.

  • 78 . Cf. the Memorandum submitted to the Assembly of the Constitution Drafting Committee by the Nigeri (...)

64The second development that threatened the northern Islamic ruling class was in fact a continuation of the first. This was the controversial 1977 Shari'a (Islamic law) debate. Not until then was the mirage of northern unity exposed and in fact given a most visible and devastating death-blow. Members of the Islamic ruling class from the North argued for a constitutional adoption of a theocratic legal system in Nigeria. They based their argument on the belief that ‘the application of the Shari'a in all its aspects’, in opposition to what they described as the man-made English law currently operating in Nigeria, ‘will go a long way in bringing discipline, morality and unity in [the] country.’78 If the experiences of the previous constitutional meetings were anything to go by, the Islamic ruling class probably expected the Southerners to offer some spirited opposition, but thought that this could be beaten as long as the North remained united. What the northern Islamic ruling class did not bargain for was that the opposition to, and the eventual abortion of, a supposedly northern interest was initiated, led, and championed by northerners from the Middle Belt. It was bad enough for the Middle Belt to break ranks with the North. It was worse for them to have clearly expressed the extent of their anti-North stance — meaning their vehement rejection of northern unity under the leadership of the Hausa-Fulani Islamic elite — and their effective coalition with the Christians from the South. This erosion, if not already a loss, of northern solidarity was a serious threat. To make matters worse, there was clear evidence by this time that, despite the government take-over of the churches' major tools for evangelism — schools and hospitals — in the early seventies, Christianity was enjoying a phenomenal rate of growth across the country, even among the indigenous populace of the North.

  • 79 . A. Doi, Islam in Nigeria (Zaria: Gaskiya Corporation, 1984), p. 349.
  • 80 . M.H. Kukah, op. cit., p. 61.

65To counter these setbacks, and given the fact that ethnicity had lost its currency as a viable avenue for political mobilization — thanks to the on-going creation of states — the members of the ruling class had to fall back on religion, their most time-tested means for political mobilization. Here the JNI — the political machine kept in reserve — was brought into play. Revived from its apparently comatose state and relieved of excess baggage, it initiated the move towards forging a unity of Muslims nationwide. Thus, by 1973, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) was set up ‘as an umbrella for the unity of all Muslim groups in Nigeria.’79 In this capacity the SCIA became the representative of Muslim interests and demands before the Nigerian polity and government. But curiously enough, the JNI retained its independent existence while still a member of the SCIA. Besides, the leadership of both JNI and SCIA remained under Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki. All this strengthened the view, rightly perceived by some analysts, that the Hausa-Fulani elite was unwilling to give up its fundamental objective of control of power at the centre.80

66Subsequent political practices by the military and civilian regimes have increasingly tried to extract political gains or assistance through the avenue of religion. For instance, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) effectively exploited a religious symbol to ascend to power at the centre in 1978/79. It is also in this context of wanting to extract political gains through the religious avenue that the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was accidentally born. The remote and proximate developments and steps that brought about this birth will be discussed in the next chapter.


1 . Analysis of the post-colonial era will be largely biased towards the relationship between religion and politics.

2 . See H. Alavi, The state in post-colonial societies, Pakistan and Bangladesh, New Left Review, 1972, pp. 59-82; John Saul, The state in post-colonial societies: Tanzania, The Socialist Register, 1974, pp. 349-372.

3 . ibid., pp. 351-352.

4 . J.N. Paden, Abmadu Bella, Sardauna of Sokoto: Values and leadership in Nigeria (Zaria: Hudahuda Publishing Co. Ltd., 1986), p. 6.

5 . Colonial Office, Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the fears of the minorities and the means of allaying them (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1958); cf. National Archives Kaduna, CE. 53 (hereafter cited as Commission on Minorities Report).

6 . cf. Independence Constitution (1960), Chap. III; Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, logos (1963), Chap. III; Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1979), Chap. IV; Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1989), Chap. IV.

7 . Commission on Minorities Report, p. 97.

8 . ibid., p. 38.

9 . As cited in B.C. Amucheazi, Church and Politics in Eastern Nigeria, p. 26.

10 . The import of the point made here is better realized when one recalls that all

through the pre-inde pendence era, the political leadership of the Eastern Region was in the hands of the Protestants (as was evidenced in the composition of the region's 1952 and 1956 Legislative Assembly and Cabinet membership). This dominance dramatically changed in favour of Roman Catholicism from the first post-colonial election in the region until the demise of regional politics in Nigeria. See ibid. pp. 35 & 103-143.

11 . Thomas Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspective: An historical antbology (London: 1975), pp. 59-61.

12 . Interview with Fr. I. Burke, Kaduna, February 25, 1991.

13 . As cited in M.H. Kukah, Religion and politics in northern Nigeria since independence, Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1989, p. 58.

14 . A good example here is Obafemi Awolowo, the doyen of Yoruba politics, whose profession of the Methodist Christian faith was acknowledged beyond doubt. Yet, not ‘until the Rosicrucian Order (Amorc) staged an unprecedented ceremonial at Awo's funeral [was it publicly known that he] was a Rosicrucian, who followed the mystical teachings with the zeal and enthusiasm peculiar to him’. See Justice Adewale Thompson, The influence of religion on Awolowo: An insider's view, In: Obafemi Awolowo: The end of an era? O.O. Oyelaran et al., (eds.), (Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press, 1988), pp. 915-916.

15 . J.N. Paden, op. cit., p. 570.

16 . The term, ‘class’, is a key concept that requires definition. We have chosen to define it in the concluding part of this work. Meanwhile ‘class’ is used here simply as a convenient ‘handle’ to describe the members of the Hausa-Fulani group — a group whose membership is neither monolithic nor determined on a socioeconomic basis. In fact, the membership of the group cuts across the various strata of the Northern polity. What determines who belongs to this group is, first and foremost, one's affinity to Fulani blood either by birth or marriage, and a close identification with and loyalty to the cultural world view and the socio-political aspirations of the Fulani ruling houses.

17 . As cited in M. Chukwuma, Nigerian Politics and the Role of Religion, Bonn: Rheinischer Friedrich-Wilhelm University, 1985, p. 208.

18 . Ahmadu Bello, The Sardauna of Sokoto: My life, p. 223.

19 . ibid.

20 . ibid., p. 86.

21 . See the Preface, ibid., pp. viii-ix.

22 . For details about Ahmadu Bello's politics vis-a-vis his religious commitment, see J.N. Paden, op. cit. especially pp. 529-569; J.N. Paden, Religion and Political Culture in Kano, J. Tseayo, Conflict and Incorporation in Nigeria: The integration of Tiv (Zaria: Narlhem Publishing Co., 1981); C. Whitaker, The Politics of Tradition: Continuity and change in northern Nigeria, 1946-66, (Princeton: University Press, 1987); P. Lubeck, Islam and Urban labour in Northern Nigeria: The making of a Muslim working class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

23 . This was an administrative arrangement whereby a locality or area was under the authority of a local chief who derived his authority, not from a democratic process, but from the colonial government who appointed and designated him as such. In the North, such authority was exercised in a more or less theocratic (Islamic) fashion by the Emir and his council who, prior to colonial intrusion in Nigeria, had exercised such authority absolutely.

24 . For both the analysis of the census figures as well as the actual statistical data of the census records, see E.P.T. Crampton, op. cit., p. 177.

25 . JN. Paden, Abmadu Bella, p. 557.

26 . See the Editorial column, Nigerian Citizen, Saturday, 3rd June, 1961.

27 . J.N. Paden, op. cit., p. 548.

28 . In his 16th May 1962 letter to the Secretary of the World Islamic Congress — a letter which was read to the conference — Ahmadu Bello, among other things, reminded his readers thus: ‘As you have known for two hundred years, my family have been associated with the spread of Islam and I only want to assure you [of] my fullest cooperation for continued effort to strengthen Islam day by day’; ibid., p. 537.

29 . For the full speech see, ibid., pp. 539-542.

30 . ibid., p. 541.

31 . ibid.

32 . ibid, (author's emphasis).

33 . ibid., p. 546.

34 . ibid., p. 543.

35 . ibid., pp. 544-545.

36 . ibid., p. 543.

37 . ibid., pp. 569-578.

38 . ibid., p. 576.

39 . ibid., p. 425.

40 . ibid., pp. 563-564.

41 . ibid., p. 555.

42 . Note how the Sardauna used the JNI — a supposedly religious organization — to mobilize the people for a political end. See ibid., pp. 548-566.

43 . ibid., p. 553.

44 . ibid., p. 431 (author's emphasis).

45 . ibid., p. 570.

46 . ibid.

47 . See this as cited in M.H. Kukah, op. cit., p. 49.

48 . Burke interview, February 25, 1991.

49 . M.H. Kukah, op. tit., p. 49.

50 . See ibid., p. 72.

51 . Taken from J.P. Paden, op. cit., p. 687, citing Idapo Coz, ‘Sir Ahmadu rose in his shrouds and spoke from the dead’, Drum, June 1966.

52 . See the front page commentary of Daily Times, January 18, 1966.

53 . See A. Ademoyega, Why We Struck: The story of the first Nigerian coup (Ibadan: Evans, 1981), pp. 23-70.

54 . Interview with Balarabe Musa, Kaduna, January 29, 1991.

55 . Of note here are people, like Ali Akilu, who was Ahmadu Bello's private secretary, and Ibrahim Dasuki, who, like the Sardauna, comes from the Sokoto ruling house and is a staunch member of the JNI.

56 . See B. Gbulie, Nigeria's Five Majors: Coup d'etat of 15th January 1966. First inside account (Onitsha: Africana Educational Publishers Nig. Ltd., 1981).

57 . Musa interview, January 29, 1991.

58 . See J.N. Paden, op. cit., pp. 674-675-

59 . ibid., p. 697.

60 . ibid., pp. 570-71.

61 . Cited from ibid., p. 669.

62 . Here we call to mind Ironsi's ‘Unification Decree’ which, among other things, set out to unify the civil service. See The Constitution (Suspension and Modification), Decree 34, (24th May, 1966), p. 155. As necessary as the objective for the decree may have been, Its timing was unwise. For, it was issued at a time when the bulk of the country's populace, especially in the North, was already highly apprehensive of Igbo domination of the civil service at the regional and federal level as well as fearful of an Igbo threat, given the fact that the coup hardly brought any loss to the Igbos in comparison with their ethnic counterparts, who suffered more grievous losses.

63 . Interview with CO. Ojukwu, Toronto, June 24, 1991.

64 . J. Trimingham, Islam in West Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 28.

65 . Dasuki became the Sultan of Sokoto in 1989.

66 . Cf. the listing of political parties and tribal and cultural unions banned in the 24th May 1966 decree, signed and Issued by Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi; ibid., p. 682.

67 . The Hausa-Fulani ruling class was quick enough to realize that military power lay in the hands of the soldiers from the Middle Belt, whose Tiv element atone comprised 20 per cent of the riflemen in the Army. Cf. M J. Dent, The military and the politicians, In: Nigerian Politics and Military Rub: Prelude to the Civil War, S.K. Panter-Brick, (London: The Athlone Press, 1970), p. 83. But to forestall any possible erosion of their political and religious power, the Northern leaders must have exploited to their advantage the divisions that seem to have existed for a long time in the Army. The ‘officers were enlisted on a quota basis’ and ‘their views on how to reorder the political future of Nigeria tended to reflect the opinion of those politicians and pressure groups from their areas, and, as later events in the country would show, their religious world view; see S.C. Ukpabi, Strands in Nigerian Military History (Zaria: Gaskiya Corporation, 1986), p. 123.

68 . This is a policy whose aim and objective is largely to ensure that indigenes of the Northern Region are appointed to all types of posts in the public service at the regional and federal levels.

69 . Ojukwu interview, June 24, 1991.

70 . ibid.

71 . Cf. J.J. Stremlau, The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970 (Princeton: University Press, 1977), esp. pp. 109-252; B. Wilson, Christian churches and the Nigerian civil war, Journal of African Studies (Los Angeles), Vol. П, no. 3, (Fall 1975), pp. 297-331; L.S. Wiseberg, The international politics of relief: A case study of the relief operation mounted during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1973).

72 . This was essentially as a result of the successful attempt by the Biafran propaganda machine to project the war as one between the Christians and Muslims. Thus, while Biafrans attracted considerable support from Christian countries, individuals, and agencies, especially the Catholic Relief Agency, Caritas, and the World Council of Churches (WCC), no Muslim country or agency was known to have given any support whatsoever to the Biafran cause. In the face of all this, support for the Federal cause by Christian churches on the Federal (Nigerian) side of the civil war was divided or weakened.

73 . See M.H. Kukah, op. cit., p. 68.

74 . ibid.

75 . See K. Panter-Brick (ed.), Soldiers and Oil: The political transformation of Nigeria (London: Frank Cass, 1978), esp. pp. 141-197; W.D. Graf, The Nigerian State: Political economy, state class and political system in the post-colonial era (London: James Curry, 1988), esp. pp. 41-76; O. Oyediran (ed.), Nigerian Government and Politics under Military Rule, 1966-1979 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979).

76 . See T. Turner, Commercial capitalism and the 1975 coup, In: K. Panter-Brick (ed.), op. cit., pp. 166-197; T. Falola & J. Ihonvbere, The Rise and Fall of Nigeria's Second Republic, 1979-84 (London: Zed Books, 1985), esp. pp. 83-121.

77 . We do not intend to suggest here a mono-causal explanation of Gowon's removal from power. Undoubtedly there were other reasons, such as his apparent loss of disciplinary control over corrupt public officials, especially the state governors, and his indecision over issues regarding the creation of additional states and the re-siting of the federal capital, to name a few.

78 . Cf. the Memorandum submitted to the Assembly of the Constitution Drafting Committee by the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, p. 5.

79 . A. Doi, Islam in Nigeria (Zaria: Gaskiya Corporation, 1984), p. 349.

80 . M.H. Kukah, op. cit., p. 61.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1995

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