African human rights law journal

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(2014) 14 AHRLJ 178-202

Theologising the mundane, politicising the divine: The cross- currents of law, religion and politics in Nigeria

Is-haq Olanrewaju Oloyede*

National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN)/University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria


From the embers of several ethnic groups colonially conjoined and subsequently amalgamated for sheer administrative convenience, modern Nigeria has emerged with internal contradictions. Unlike what happens in other climes, where many years of living together promote social harmony and mutual co-existence, Nigeria appears to be perpetually a tinderbox. Nationhood is threatened and politics defined along religious lines and religion itself highly politicised. This article highlights the critical factors responsible for the complexity of the Nigerian situation. These include socio-economics, religion, law, politics and education, among others, the interplay of which defines contemporary Nigeria, where insecurity is a national menace. In addition to offering a holistic analysis of general Nigerian and Nigerian Islamic perspectives on a number of issues that account for the near absence of positive and negative peace in the country, the article emphasises the imperative of a peaceful world, based on principles of justice and fair play in the distribution of resources, the promulgation of law, religious practice, media reporting and social commentary.

* NIGERIABA (Hons), PhD (Ilorin);

1 Introduction: Nigeria, a diverse and religious country

On his seventieth visit to Nigeria on 22 November 2012,1 the then Archbishop-designate of Canterbury, Justin Welby, remarked that, no matter how conversant with or knowledgeable about the socio- religious situation in Nigeria one is, one cannot gain an accurate impression of the country without a caveat: The issues are not as straight-forward or simple as they appear. Welby’s informed impression or submission is predicated on the fact that there are other underlying factors. This observation aptly underscores the complexity of the Nigerian situation.

This article is intended to highlight a number of silent and salient factors behind the socio-economic problems in Nigeria, particularly as they relate to law, religion and politics, the cross-currents of which define her contemporary socio-political experience. Any analysis of inter-religious conflicts, political instability and apparent constant and unnecessary conflict of law in Nigeria is superficial unless the underlying factors are objectively studied and addressed. These factors include:

(a) the socio-ethnic and religious configuration of Nigeria; (b) the nature of the federal in Nigeria;

(c) the effect of the religio-legal political compromise of 1960 and its abrogation on Northern Nigeria;

(d) the religious influence on public policy in Nigeria;
(e) whether Nigeria considers itself a secular or multi-religious nation;
(f) the abuse of education and educational institutions for the promotion of religious oppression, bigotry and hate in Nigeria;
(g) the socio-economic status of religion and religious leaders, especially independent clerics, in Nigeria;
(h) the relationship between religious politics and violence in Nigeria;

(i) the entanglement of law and religion in Nigeria.
Nigeria, the most populous African country, is composed of a diverse ethnic and cultural mix of approximately 160 million people with some 250 ethnic groups and about 500 languages. The ethnic configuration of the country includes Yoruba (21 per cent); Hausa (21 per cent); Igbo (18 per cent); Fulani (11 per cent); Ibiobio (5,6 per

1 The incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury at Abuja in the company of Tony Blair on the occasion of the launching of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The author was present at the event. See ‘Tony Blair, Bishop Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and HRH Prince Ghazi of Jordan announce action for reconciliation in Nigeria’ Tony Blair Faith Foundation Blog, 22 November 2012, (accessed 31 January 2014).

cent); Kanuri (4 per cent); Edo (3 per cent); Tiv (2 per cent); Bura (2 per cent); Nupe (1 per cent); and others (9 per cent). The major languages are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo with English, the colonial heritage, serving as the official language, and lingua franca. Adegbija, in his ‘tentative’ register of some 499 languages spoken in Nigeria, identifies the ‘major’ languages as including Annang, Badakare, Baruba, Bekawara, Berom, Bokyi, Bolewa, Buduna, Chamba, Ebira, Fulfude, Gwari, Ibiobio, Idoma, Igala, Ijo, Ikwere, Itsekiri, Jarawa, Jukun, Kaje, Kalabari, Kana, Kanuri, Kilba, Kutep, Margi, Mumuye,

Nupe, Shuowa Arabic, Tangale, Tere, Tiv and Urhobo.2

Nigeria is also regarded as a highly-religious country. A BBC report some years ago find Nigerians to be the most religious people in the world.3 An October 2009 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and

Public Life confirmed earlier surveys that Muslims make up about 50 per cent of the population in Nigeria, with Christians making up another 40 per cent, and African traditional religionists constituting 10

per cent.4 The American cable television network CNN, in a published

report, found that Nigeria is the sixth largest Muslim country in the world.5 This religious canopy embraces many social and ethnic groups.

2 Socio-ethnic and religious configuration of Nigeria
In the past, Nigeria was believed to be made up of the Hausas in the north, the Igbos in the east and the Yorubas in the west, although further studies have rendered the classification a fallacy and an over- simplification. The north and east have paid dearly for this popular but incorrect assumption. The large number of minority ethnic groups in the north have relentlessly challenged their domination by the Hausas, while diverse ethnic groups in the east and part of the west ensured the creation of the mid-west region shortly after the dawn of independence. It can also, arguably, be said that one of the underlying motivations for the birth of the defunct Republic of Biafra was the control of the minority groups in what was then known as Eastern Nigeria.

Before the advent of the British, there were hundreds of distinct ethnic and linguistic groups in the vast area now known as Nigeria. Each group, particularly in the south, had its own unique culture and

2 EA Adegbija Multilingualism: A Nigerian case study (2004).

3 ‘BBC votes Nigerians world most religious people’ Daily Independent (Lagos)

27 February 2004 A16.

4 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Tolerance and tension: Islam and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa (2010).

5 RA Greene ‘Nearly 1 in 4 people worldwide is Muslim, report says’ CNN

12 October 2009. See also Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Mapping the

global Muslim population (2009). For even more recent statistics, see also Pew

Forum on Religion and Public Life The future of the global Muslim population


system of governance. The Northern part of what is now referred to as Nigeria was more politically and administratively centralised than the independent kingdoms and autonomous communities in the south. The definition of either north or south is also contentious since some northerners, such as the Yorubas of the north, only grudgingly accept being tagged northerners.

The north, though made up of many ethnic groups, has Hausa as its lingua franca, since almost all the groups (with the exception of the Yorubas) have adopted it as the official medium of communication. The north was also unified and administered by an Islamic movement led by Usmanu Dan Fodiyo in 1804. The official religion in the north was indisputably Islam, though other religions were allowed and tolerated. Arabic was said to be the official language, but this was also a fallacy. The official language was Hausa, though the leadership of the movement was Fulani, a Fulfude-speaking ethnic group. Arabic script was used to transcribe the Hausa language. For example, up until the early part of this century, any Nigerian currency had a Hausa transcription of its value, but was written in Arabic script. The deletion of this feature from the currency during the civilian regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007), based on the incorrect premise that it was Arabic or Islamic, is an instance of theologising the mundane.

In its political structure, the north was essentially feudalistic. The east was essentially republican with autonomous communities, while the west was also feudalistic but with some modern refinement due to the influence of Western civilisation. The British colonialists adopted direct rule in Lagos and the southern protectorate, while the Northern protectorate had indirect rule through the established kings (emirs) who wielded both religious and political power, in what was essential Islamic rule. The rulers in South Western Nigeria also held both political and religious power. The religious power of the southern kings, however, concerned traditional religious rites which did not in the main cover either Islam or Christianity. With political authorities exerting control on religions, the politicisation of the divine became a natural corollary. Christians and adherents of African traditional religion in the north were essentially regarded as second-class citizens, much as Muslims were regarded in the south. The British encouraged the Christianisation of the south while being cautious in the dissemination of Christianity in the north. The protests of the Muslims

in the south were largely ignored.6

The Nigerian law, it is worth noting, has three major sources. They are Euro-Christian British law, referred to as common law, Islamic law and customary law.7 The law traditionally applicable in Nigeria was

customary law. In the north, before the advent of British rule, the

6 Lagos Weekly Record 28 July 1894; Political Memorandum, London, 1970 265; JND Anderson Islamic law in Africa [1954] (2008) 222-223.

7 AG Karibi-Whyte History and sources of Nigerian criminal law (1993) 58.

applicable law in most of Northern Nigeria was Islamic law, which was regarded as customary law.8 The British introduced common law, with some modifications, to accommodate prevalent Islamic law in

the north. In the south, the British common law, with a large dose of Christian ethics and practice, was made to co-exist with or even subvert customary law. With the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria in 1914, the British classified Islamic law as the customary law of Northern Nigeria. The implication of that was not immediately obvious to the peoples of Northern Nigeria. The subsequent invocation of the repugnancy doctrine to nullify some

Islamic court judgments attracted some protests from the north.9

Muslims in the south, especially in the south west where they are in the majority, looked to Northern Muslims for religious relief, which was not as forthcoming as expected. This explains, to a large extent, the uneasy relationship between the two Muslim groups in Nigeria up to the present day.

3 Nature of the federal system in Nigeria
In many federal systems around the world, the constituent units are blocks which come together to submit their overall sovereignty to a central authority, while retaining control over certain specific features of government. In the case of Nigeria, the constituent units are not only the creation of the central authority, but each is also as internally heterogeneous as the overall federation. The composition of many of the constituent units is not based on any historical, cultural or linguistic affinity. They are merely a proclamation of the central authorities. Consequently, the agitation for more states is still as intense as ever.

The north, generally speaking, had been under a central Islamic government in the early part of the nineteenth century. The British created what is known as Southern Nigeria from a large number of diverse ethnic groups. The British then split the southern areas into the western and eastern regions, based only on geographical proximity. Consequently, at independence, Nigeria had three constituent units – North, West and East. In 1964, the mid-west was carved out of the west and some parts of the east. In 1967, the federal military government decreed 12 states out of these regions. The number rose to 19 in 1976; 21 in 1987; 30 in 1997; and 36 in 1995. The military therefore balkanised Nigeria into 36 states, at the whims and caprices of the ruling junta who, at times, sponsored civilian agitators to demand was originally intended. The 36 states are today regarded as the constituents of the ‘federation’, which is more unitary

8 JM Abun-Nasr ‘The recognition of Islamic law in Nigeria as customary law’ in

JM Abun-Nasr et al (eds) Law, society and national identity in Africa (1990).

9 IO Oloyede Repugnancy doctrine and the practice of Islamic law in Nigeria (1993).

than federal. The military later informally introduced a supra-state structure called ‘the Six Geo-Political Zones’, which again have neither the mandate of the citizens, nor internal coherence or cultural identity. Table 1 shows some of the demographic features of the six zones.
Table 1: Geo-political zones and their populations10




No of states


Dominant religion

Percentage of the total population


North west







North east



Predominantly Muslim but with two Christian- dominated




North central



Muslim majority but with substantial Christian community



South west



Mixed in almost equal proportion of Muslim and Christian communities



South east










Predominantly Christian but with pockets of Islamic communities






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