Religiosity is part and parcel of Nigeria's identity.
It is a thread that runs through the social fabric of our nation. But religiosity is not to be confused with spirituality – a more personal and elusive concept. Religiosity is the extent to which one can be said to practice or be seen practicing a religion. It is the degree to which religious activities, language, undertakings, and devotion are part of one’s private and, importantly, one’s public life. By that definition, Nigeria is a deeply religious country. Mixed with our social norms and traditions, it is a recipe that suggests religion isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
The Ruler and The Priest
Pre-colonial Nigeria exhibited differences between political and religious authority. In some areas, political hierarchies were seamlessly fused with traditional, animist religious authorities – the priest was the ruler, and the ruler was the priest. In others, there were clear boundaries. In some Northern parts of what was later to become national territory, the Islamic caliphatorial system of governance was the status quo and this continued even with the onset of colonial rule. Simultaneously, secularism was maintained throughout the Southern region during the colonial era. It was systemic confusion.
The wave of nationalism that swept the country from the 1920s onwards may have united the nation in their deafening calls for independence, but it did not downplay or blur ethnic and religious lines. When it came down to what the modern Nigerian state would look like, what it would constitute and what laws it would be guided by, the result was a Constitution that declared freedom of religion and secularism on the one hand but conversely, established executive, judicial and educational systems based on both secular and religious systems. Fast-forward some 50 years later, and this balancing game is still a factor in governance, national security and human development.
Church and State
Therefore, the question worth asking is where this leaves the old adage of a separation of church and state. Nowhere, it seems. It is hard to imagine a Nigeria free from religion: a Nigeria where religion does not dominate or play a significant role in public institutions. Can the principle of secularism, where there is a respectful but clear separation between religious beliefs and state affairs, be fully implemented in Nigeria? This is not a question of the overall religiosity of our country, but of the relationship between religious and political institutions, irrespective of personal beliefs.
Technically, this question shouldn’t be asked. The Constitution states that "Government of the Federation or a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion." It further elaborates by supporting fundamental rights including the entitlement of every person to the:
“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance.”
The thread of freedom and tolerance is woven through the rest of the Constitution, which goes on to enshrine the protection of religious freedom in education, the formation of political parties, and the institutionalisation of faith-based law in parts of the country. These provisions ought to make Nigeria a secular democracy, at least on paper. But Nigeria is many things on paper. Yet, far from being a weakness, this is a recognition of the fact that the Constitution is an aspirational document. Nations are works of progress, often projecting a picture of what they are to the world in the hopes of one day, somehow, fulfilling this national ambition.
Pilgrimages and Powerplay
It is clear that religious and secular authority have a strangely complex relationship in Nigeria. Often, they can be found colluding in one area of political life, and simultaneously, conflicting in another. One such example is the argument surrounding Federal and State-sponsored Pilgrimages. At the state level, government-funded Pilgrim Welfare Boards are established to facilitate the movement of Christians and Muslims to Holy Lands, and to provide accommodation, food, and other services related to the performance of the Hajj, Umra and Christian Pilgrimages. At the Federal level, the Nigerian Christians Pilgrims Commission (NCPC) and the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) self-organise in a similar way and are endowed with similar powers. But these bodies have been known to come under the spotlight. States like Kaduna, Niger, and Lagos have reeled in the powers of their Pilgrimage Boards. In 2015, President Buhari announced that there would be no Federal Government delegation to Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
What is interesting about these new developments is the discourse politicians use. Most, if not all, cite a need to reduce the cost of governance and block revenue leakages – meaning that they approach the sensitive subject in a seemingly objective way. Few dare to take on the subject from a secular or religious perspective, either by reaffirming the need for the State to protect the Pilgrimage tradition or by speaking for a greater delineation between religion and the state. Instead, politicians gracefully tread this grey area, using economics as their crutch.
This example illustrates the enmeshment of religion and politics. The problem is not that religion influences social organisation, for there are contemporary cases around the world that show that secular and religious authorities an be agreeable. In fact, secularism in itself is a contested concept with no strict definition, and many secular states are not ideal models of democracy. More importantly, there is the argument that man should be able to choose to be free from religion as much as he can choose to be a part of it.
The real problem is when religion is used as political ammunition to legitimise or delegitimise power in a self-interested manner. It has the power to be politicised and co-opted to support many political agendas, to perpetuate inequalities, and to legitimise political action and non-action. It is a problem when religiosity holds democracy hostage.
Arguably, some of Nigeria’s problems would not exist if it were truly a secular nation. Separation of church and state, neutrality in religious matters, and most importantly, a fair imposition of equality for all would remove many areas of contestation.
But it could also destroy the social fabric of our diverse nation. In a nation where religion is so poignant for the majority, it is hard to imagine the possibility of a minority that needs, so desperately, to benefit from the dividends of religious freedom that secularism can bring. The question of whether Nigerians will ever experience freedom from religion is a question of whether the Nigerian project will one day be able to create a religious environment which respects diversity, equality, and total freedom of the individual.
In short, it is a question for another day.