Religions in Nigeria: a Test Case for the World

Religions in Nigeria: a Test Case for the World

A speech by John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria), delivered at the Opening Plenary Session of the 10th Anniversary Rhodes Forum on October 4, 2012

Click here to read the Speech in Italian


It is a great honour to be invited to be part of this conference of Dialogue of Civilizations. The world in which we live today provides a special opportunity for bringing about for the first time in human history a truly global community.  It is however at the same time fraught with dangers of global disorder or even global conflict that may signal the destruction of our human family.  It is in this regard therefore that every effort to undertake dialogue leading to cooperation must be pursued with sincerity by all men and women of good will.  Our human family is complex.  There are diversities in all aspects of our human experience, both as individuals and as communities.  The concept of “dialogue of civilizations” is also a complex one, especially if we understand civilization in an all embracing sense that will include not only thought patterns, languages, arts but also religion and philosophy.

My contribution to our discussion is centred around the issue of religion.  I know that there are other issues which create conflict and which need to be addressed but there is no doubt that in today’s world, religion – or rather what some people do in the name of religion - has become a matter of major attention if not perhaps even of grave concern. Not too long ago, many people thought that religion was irrelevant to world affairs. They thought that the days when religion takes a front burner in world discourse are over. They should now realize how wrong they are.  In any case, those who held such views of the irrelevance of religion have always been in a minority, albeit rather vocal minority. Even those in this vocal minority have been forced now to review their position.  It is therefore not surprising that efforts are being made to try to understand the phenomenon of religion in its positive dimension and not simply as one more reason for world conflict and disorder.

In my country Nigeria, we take religion very seriously.  Nobody ever pretends that it does not matter.  On the basis of this, we have been forging a relationship on the basis of a nation built “under God”. Ours is a nation in which there is a pluralism of religious systems and convictions, but with freedom for each person to follow his or her conscience.  The project for a religiously pluralistic society where there is justice and equality of rights is a daunting task that is constantly ongoing.  In this paper, I will start by describing briefly the Nigerian experience in this regard, the efforts that we have been making and the measure of success that we have achieved. We will however not overlook the challenges and even the failures that we have had to contend with. In a second section of the paper, I hope to draw a few observations on areas where I believe the Nigerian experience can give useful proposals to the rest of the world as we seek to build a modern human society where diversities of cultures and faith are accommodated in a positive and cooperative fashion.  In all my discussion, I have an abiding faith and conviction in the future of our humanity. I trust in the ability of the human community to work in dialogue for the common good built upon the wide margin of common grounds that we all share as human beings.  As a Christian, I also believe that this is completely in line with the eschatological thrust of the Christian message, which looks forward to a new heaven and a new earth, a Kingdom of God, where justice, peace and love reign.

Part II: Religion in Nigeria

1. Nigeria in the News:

Nigeria has been very much in the international news media in the last year, and this unfortunately for reasons that are far from being positive. The news has been centered around the violent activities of an Islamic terrorist group popularly called the Boko Haram, (BH) a nick name which loosely translates as “Western education is an abomination.” I say “nick name” because the group has a different name for themselves, in Arabic, namely: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah lil Dawa’ati wal Jihad.This long name loosely translates as “The Association of Suni Muslims for the Propagation of the faith (da’awah) and for the Struggle for Islam, (Jihad). Whatever their name, what has hit the headlines is their series of violent activities, mainly in the Northern parts of Nigeria.

We live in a violent world, and our country Nigeria has had more than her fair share of such violence. For quite sometime, we have had the challenge of rampant armed robbery and kidnappings, ethnic clashes, socio-political militancy in the Niger Delta and other forms of social unrest. But the BH has brought something new and sinister into our experience of violence at least in two ways: 

a) it is unusually virulent in its attacks, including the use of suicide terrorist tactics, and b) it makes claims of acting in the name of God, deliberately targeting Christians and their institutions presumably for the promotion of Islam.

Although the members are few and constitute a small minority within the Nigerian Muslim community, they are a real danger to the entire Nigerian community because they are fanatics, with warped logic and twisted minds. They have almost succeeded in polarizing our nation along religious lines, hitting at our fragile harmony built over many years of patient efforts and trying to make us enemies of one another. They have definitely succeeded in giving us the bad name of a nation that is unstable and unsafe, where Christians are being persecuted and indiscriminately killed with impunity by freely rampaging Muslim terrorists.

2. Religious Freedom in Nigeria   Despite all we have said above, especially about the activities of BH, it has always been, and still is, my conviction that there is a basic atmosphere of religious freedom in Nigeria. The very constitution of Nigeria makes two important points. The first is that religion is recognised as an important element in our nation, as it states that we are committed to build a united and prosperous nation “under God”. The other point is that neither the Federal government nor the government of any state shall adopt any religion as state religion. Furthermore, the general principles of fundamental freedoms clearly spell out the freedom of every Nigerian, according to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations to freedom of belief and thought. Our constitution provides for not only the freedom to adhere to any religion of ones choice, but to also change ones faith if one so desires.

This prohibition of state religion has been interpreted in some quarters to mean that Nigeria is a “secular state”, a terminology that has generated a lot of controversy in terms of what exactly it means. From the debate at the constituent assembly, that expression was dropped from the draft in deference to those who rejected it on the ground that it could be construed to mean that Nigeria is a “godless” nation. That Nigeria is NOT a “godless nation” is a point on which Christians and Muslims would generally agree. The clause on prohibition of state religion came as a compromise formulation to satisfy both sides.

However, disagreements, sometimes serious, have arisen as regards what constitutes making a religion a “state religion”. How far can the government go in sponsoring the religious concerns and agenda of any particular religion? An important case in point is the place of the Islamic Shari’ah in our legal system. This has generated a lot of debate that is still to be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.   3. The Reality of Religions in Nigeria

The reality is that the about 170 million inhabitants of Nigeria are fairly equally divided into Muslims and Christians. This has made our nation the “greatest Islamo-Christian nation in the world”. By this, I mean that there is no other nation with so many Christians living with so many Muslims in the same nation, in mutual equality and respect. One or the other of the two religions may be dominant in some places, but both are present everywhere, to some extent. To continue to speak of “the Muslim North and the Christian South” is grossly misleading to the point of inaccuracy, convenient though it may be for the journalist. If the far North and the South East are respectively predominantly Muslim and Christian, the Middle Belt and the South West are quite mixed. That is why any talk of dividing Nigeria into a Muslim North and a Christian South not only makes little or no sense, but is also a veritable recipe for chaos.

Because of our occasional and sporadic outburst of ethno-religious violent clashes, there is the unfortunate tendency to overlook the very important fact that in the normal lives of our people, there is a commendable measure of peaceful and harmonious living together across religious lines. Apart from Fridays and Sundays, when we go our different ways for weekly worship, we live most of our lives as citizens of the same nation, living and struggling to live under the same socio-economic conditions and sometimes members of the same family. One only needs to visit any government office, market or business premises to appreciate this fact.

4. Interfaith Contacts

Because the BH has a clearly religious dimension, it was expected that the religious leaders would play a key role in bringing about peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The apex Christian/Muslim contact group, the Nigerian Interreligious Council, (NIREC) was gravely handicapped, perhaps mainly because of the charged atmosphere of religious tension. Until now it has not been able to convene, let alone issue any common statement or carry out any joint action for peace.

But this does not mean that religious leaders and groups have been doing nothing. At different levels and in various parts of the country a spate of interfaith actions and initiatives has been sprouting up. Individual religious leaders, women, and youth groups have been reaching out to one another to say “no” to religious polarization. For example, with a group of Muslim and Christian leaders in Abuja, we have set up an “Abuja Interfaith Peacebuilding Forum”. Women, under the leadership of a Catholic nun, Rev. Sr. Agatha Chikelue, DMMM, and a Muslim woman leader, Hajia Myriam Dada Ibrahim, have organised themselves into the “Abuja Women of Faith Network”, affiliated with an international women group of the same name under the auspices of the New York based Religions for Peace International. The youth too have done something similar. Through such new structures, we have been carrying out symbolic gestures to project the message of peace and cooperation across religious lines. Examples of such gestures include “Peace Tree” planting by the youth, mobilising women at the grass roots level to spread peaceful attitudes, Radio and Television programmes and Christians attending Ramadam “breakfast” events in the mosque.  Nigerians believe a lot in prayers, and lots of prayers have been rising to Heaven in churches and mosques, as well as from individual groups. We are moving in the right direction. A Muslim friend, the Executive Secretary of the Abuja National Mosque, Alh. Ibrahim Jega, told me recently that our present crisis will be used by God to bring about a better Nigeria where religion will be able to play its proper positive role in our national life. I believe that this will happen, if we follow up on some positive developments that are now starting.

5. More Rivers to Cross

Our present crisis has exposed a few issues that we need to pursue in more positive directions if we are to consolidate the foundation of our nation as a multi-religious, peaceful and stable country. Here are some of them:

- Dialogue: The tentative proposals by government for dialogue with BH have to be pursued with more vigour and transparency. Those whom government has always described as “faceless people” need to be unmasked. If this dialogue is on behalf of all of us, we need to be adequately informed at some point – and the point has come. In the same vein, government needs to bring other stakeholders into the discussion, especially the religious, political, economic and socio-ethnic forces. Such a forum would facilitate a more comprehensive approach to finding a lasting solution.

- Constitutional Clarity: There is almost a unanimous view in Nigeria that our constitution contains some lacunae and inconsistencies. There is therefore much talk these days about the need to review, amend or even totally re-write our constitution. Whatever we decide to do, we shall need to clarify better the role of religion in our national life. On the one hand, the constitution prohibits any state religion. On the other hand, in the light of our past experience, it does not seem to have adequately sealed the government from dabbling into many religious issues and agenda. The most clamorous case is the Sharia, which is explicitly mentioned in the constitution. This is the time to tidy up the document and purge it of its many inconsistencies and thus ensure freedom of religion for all, autonomy of religion within the law, and even handedness in the treatment of all faiths, especially between Christians and Muslims.

- Restraining the Mad Dogs: As we talk about the BH, we should know that they are not the first group of Muslim fanatics that has perturbed the religious peace of our land. There have been many such cases in the past. We recall here the Maitatsine gang which terrorized much of the North in the late 1970s and the rearly 1980s. This may not be unconnected with the legacy of the violence that has historically been associated with the spread and establishment of Islam in much of the North. It has been suggested that this is the reason for the difference between Islam in the North and in the rest of the country, e.g. in Yoruba land. We know that the reigning Sultan of Sokoto, and other Muslim rulers of the North have long given up the idea of spreading and maintaining Islam by conquest and force of arms. But some belligerent attitudes continue to linger on in some circles, and these need to be put under effective control.

It is not only Islam which has to deal with its mad dogs. There are fanatics also within the Christian fold, whose utterances and attitudes are far from peaceful. The Yoruba translate religious fanatics as “Agbaweremesin”, which literally means “those who have adopted madness with their faith.” Religious bodies have the duty to purge any madness from their followers, through a system of auto-regulation of their preachers. But since many of such “mad” preachers are often not under anyone’s control, it will fall to the state to monitor the use of freedom of speech and insist that public utterances must be within reasonable limits of civility, under the sanctions of the law. This is an area where interfaith structures and action can be most effective, in collaboration with the state.

- Good governance: Our BH experience has shown the importance of a good government when it comes to dealing with the type of crisis we have had. Politics is not only for capturing power to be used in the interest of the rulers. It is above all a mechanism for installing a just society that ensures the common good of citizens in freedom and solidarity. Government should therefore wage unrelenting war against poverty, sickness and corruption at all levels. It has been said in some quarters that the young men carrying bombs to blow themselves up have been pushed to desperation by poverty and hopelessness. This is obviously no justification whatsoever for massacring innocent men, women and children. But an atmosphere of poor governance, debilitated by corruption and lack of concern for the common good, is a fertile ground for numerous acts of lawlessness. An army of unemployed and unemployable youths is a time bomb only waiting to explode in more sense than figurative. In this regard, the Nigerian nation has a great challenge before it.

- Localized Instances of Oppression. There are places in Nigeria where the Christian faith is still under great pressure and where Christians suffer a lot of discrimination for many reasons which often include their religion. We must insist that such instances are crying for urgent attention.  In many parts of the North where Muslims predominate, there is still some of the pre-colonial feeling that one is in an Islamic community where Christians are at best tolerated aliens. This feeling is out-dated for two reasons.  First, the Nigerian constitution forbids State religion in the entire nation and any part thereof.  Thus, even if a State is 98% Muslim, that State cannot operate as a Muslim State enclave within Nigeria. Secondly, not only are there many Christians in the areas dominated by Muslims, there are also significant indigenous Christian communities in these States, who are often ignored, marginalized and treated as second class citizens of their own States.  Official State and Local Government policies and actions often discriminate against Christians, to the extent of real persecution and denial of genuine religious freedom.  Examples are in areas like the availability of land for churches, access to the public media, provision for Christian Religious Knowledge in public schools; equal opportunity for employment and promotions in public institutions, to mention only a few. The climax of all this is the recent declaration of Sharia Legislation as law of some States in the North.  Even though such laws were passed by an overwhelming majority of the Muslim dominated State Legislatures, the move is still against the spirit and letter of our constitution.  We shall need to admit that such attitudes and actions create an environment of Islamic “intransigence” - which encourages and facilitates the wild agenda of fanatics.  I am not aware of anything similar in the Christian dominated States of the South.  We cannot continue to delay or abbreviate full equality and freedom of religion in our land.

Against the background of the situation that we have just described above, I will now venture to offer a few reflections about how I see the role of religion in building a better humanity in these our turbulent but exciting days. From our experience as Nigerians, we believe we are in a position to show the world an example of how Christians and Muslims can live together in a nation, in mutual respect and equality. Despite our widely publicized incidents of inter-religious conflicts, we have managed to keep together, as we forge ahead for ever greater national integration and unity.

Part II. The Role of Religion in Building a Better Humanity

1. The fact of Religion:

The vast majority of humanity believes in one creed or the other.  The more we get to know each other, the more we begin to realize that important though our differences may be, there is a common element of belief in a primary principle of life which guides humanity. We call him “God” in different languages and expressions.  Those who believe that we should simply restrict and relegate religion to the realm of our private lives or even totally ignore it are not being realistic.  Indeed, the more people try to ignore religion, the more it burst out sometimes even in the most abnormal and bizzare expressions. It seems therefore that it would be most advisable and wise if the phenomenon of religion is taken seriously. Along with other elements that define our human identity, we should seek common grounds for a peaceful and harmonious human community.  This enterprise cannot be left largely to politicians and rulers.  It must be a major role of those who claim to be religious leaders under whatever names.  This therefore highlights importance of institutions and initiatives which bring religious leaders together in order to consciously map out a common agenda.  We now know that almost every religion subscribes to the idea of one Supreme Being, even though some of them may approach this Supreme Being in difference ways and sometimes under the multiplicity of expressions.  The unity of God is therefore a strong basis for the unity of humanity.  In fact, for those of us who explicitly believe in one God, we do not see any other firm basis for the unity of humanity than the fact that we all proceed from the hands of the same “one God creator of heaven and earth”.  We need to stress this fact first among ourselves and then also to make it clear to those who do not normally take such things seriously. 

2. The Two Great World Religions

There are many world religions. But two of them deserve our special attention as regards religious peace in the world, namely; Christianity and Islam.  These two religions have one thing in common, namely that each claims in principle to be meant for the whole of humanity and each of them claims to have a divine mission to embrace the whole of humanity.  This is the source of the enthusiasm of Christianity and Islam to spread their faith to all lands, all cultures and to every nation.  Both Christianity and Islam insist that this is their God-given mission. 

For as long as these two religions were practically limited to different portions of the world, it was possible to continue to nurse our respective ambitions in our different corners of the globe.  But with the irreversible process of globalization, there is no more any part of the world where these two religions do not exist.  The great challenge then is how to reconcile our respective universal claims with the need to live in peace with one another and respect one another. 

This has been a major project that my country Nigeria has been facing. The vast majority of Nigerians agree that the two faiths have come to stay.  We cannot in any realistic sense think that one of the two religions can eliminate the other.  If that is so, we need to find a way of accepting and respecting one another in every aspect of our national life.  This is the project that we have been engaged in.  It is important to note that accommodating and accepting the reality of the presence and actions of people of other faith does not in any way make us compromise our God-given sense of mission.  What it does entail however is that we find ways of interpreting our sense of mission in a way that respect also our God-given duty to live in peace with all our fellow human beings.  This I believe is also the task of our modern world. 

3. Seeking Common Grounds:

Unfortunately, we often tend to define our identities in relation to what we are not rather than in relation to what we are.  Too often we emphasize so much where we differ from others and tend to overlook or take for granted the things that we have in common with everybody around us.  I believe that in our modern world, where technology has practically turned the whole of humanity into one global family, it is very important that we pursue as much as we can those things which we have in common.  In the area of religion, the exercise is not only NOT futile but indeed very rewarding. Despite their obvious differences, Christianity and Islam have a wide margin of common elements, starting from the major primary assertion that there is only one God.  As we seek to identify more of such common elements, we are pleasantly surprised to discover how much we share in the area of our beliefs and moral principles.  No wonder it is possible for Christians and Muslims to live together guided by the same range of basic moral principles.  And when we take the trouble to look even into our scriptures, the common elements are all too obvious both in terms of personalities and content.  It means therefore, that we need not be afraid to admit that we are not the only ones who possess our set of religious values.

The Catholic Church, in the Vatican Council II, clearly spells out these basic truths.  And this is why the church is able to reach out in dialogue with all people of living faiths.  This is the principle behind the establishment and the operations of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, and its counterparts at the local levels of nations and dioceses.  Every religion ought to make the same efforts so that despite our differences, we will see one another progressively as people of faith, faith not just in anything but in a substantive and personal God.   4. Celebrating our Differences:

That there are differences in the various faiths is quite obvious.  What is not so quite obvious is that we need to celebrate these differences.  Unfortunately, there is a tendency to think that what is different is wrong or even bad.  With a more creative mind, we would be able to discover that the diversities of religious expressions and ideas can become like different colours of a rainbow, which brings about a beauty calling for celebration.  Again, we cannot discover the beauty of others if we are not open to listen to them and share their experience.  This is where every effort and every institution aimed at seeking mutual religious understanding is a step in the right direction.

As far as interfaith mutual understanding is concerned, there is a fact on the ground that is most encouraging, namely that the majority of simple believers have no difficulty relating with people of other faiths. This is our experience in my country where Christians and Muslims live their daily lives in the different aspects of our national life without any difficulties, respecting one another and cooperating in the struggle for life.   5. The dangerous Minority of Fanatics

The segment of the faith communities which ideologically refuses to acknowledge any good in others is indeed a small minority. These are those we normally call “fanatics”. They exist all over the world as a small but dangerous group.  The sad fact is that very often the negative utterances and activities of such fanatics take over the discourse about interfaith relationship.  Thus for example, a probably crazy man who produces a stupid video about Mohammed has succeeded in capturing the attention of the world media, while a thousand and one wonderful things that Christians and Muslims are doing together all over the world do not catch any media attention.  It means that the vast majority of those who believe in harmonious living together must abandon its silence and find ways and means of making itself heard even on the level of the media.  For as long as only the fanatics do all the talking, they tend to dictate the agenda of our relationship and in fact may succeed in changing our positive attitudes to the contrary.  Here, the responsibility of the press cannot be over emphasized.  Fanatics whose stock in trade is to generate conflict and promote violence ought to be disowned by the mainstream of the religious communities to which they belong. They should be denounced for what they really are namely criminal elements rather than allowing them to present themselves as heroes defending their faiths.  We have often heard people saying that ‘these guys do not represent us’. We need to go beyond just speaking, and also clearly condemn them and isolate them so that the rest of us can live in peace.

6. Religion and our Multiple Agenda and Concerns.

Finally, as we already mentioned in our introduction, our human affairs, are characterized by the multiple agenda that we are forced to pursue: cultural language, politics, economics and of course also religious.  Unfortunately, in many instances, different battles are fought under the name of religion.  This is mainly because religion can be easily used to generate enthusiasm for any cause, noble or wicked.  Furthermore, in many instances, religion impacts on every aspect of life and it is often therefore difficult to separate the religious from the non-religious.  Nevertheless, these efforts must be made so as to liberate religion from the problems of other agenda that are perhaps legitimate but certainly not religious.  Even our different histories and historical baggage of our interfaith relationship often have a strong impact on how we live our relationship today.  In every case, it is important to go back to the nature of faith and how we practice it.  Whenever there is violence and conflict under the name of religion, it is a good rule to question the authenticity of the religious claims.  Invariably, you would find that someone somewhere is drafting religion into battles of other concerns.


Those of us who have strong faith in religion have the duty to continue to insist that our faith is a force for good in the world of our days.  This will be credible and meaningful only if we do take concrete steps to make sure that what we say and how we practice our religion do actually lead to harmonious living among God’s children.  There is also a greater need today than ever for the religions to come together. But religions will not just come together by chance. There is need for the leaders of the different religions who speak on behalf of their congregations to be seen to be working together and especially tackling the common challenges of our modern world.  Those common challenges are staring us in the face: good governance in many countries, ethical handling of international economic relations, judicious and sustainable exploitation of non-renewable earth’s resources, the pursuit of peace and resolutions of conflicts, the integration of national interests into a world community in which all have a sense of belonging. These are only a few of such challenges.  I fear that there is no option but to work seriously in this direction.  If people of faith cannot live in peace in the world of our days, then there is hardly any hope for peace in our world in general. Since hope is an essential value of religion, we cannot but look to a better future for our human family.