Since its independence in 1960, Nigeria has struggled unsuccessfully to clearly articulate the relationship between religion and the state. Whereas the British colonialists seemingly bequeathed to the new nation-state a secular regime at independence, the internal contradictions, which, paradoxically were propagated by the colonial authority, incubated to pose a challenge to the new state soon thereafter. On the one hand, there was the Muslim north, groomed under the English indirect rule, which accommodated the sharia legal order; on the other hand, there was the Christian/Animist south, mentored under the British-secular regime. Thus the post-independence secular state, which seemed acceptable to the Christian/animist south, was abhorred by the Muslim north. This paradox has remained the Achilles’ heel of Nigeria’s corporate existence, as northern Islamists have consistently sought the establishment of an Islamic state to replace the extant secular regime. This article therefore seeks to situate the legal and constitutional frontiers of state–religion relations in Nigeria. It is intent on delineating the conceptual boundary between religion and politics, while evaluating the impact of the current relationship on national security. The article advocates for a moderate secular regime—by whatever name—that is constitutionally defined and institutionalized.The major religious groups in this country of more than 160 million inhabitants are Christianity and Islam. There is a scientific representation of neither the numerical strength of these religious groups nor their geographical distribution.1 The Islamic faith preponderates in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the country [which is composed of Sokoto, Zamfara, Borno, Yobe, Katsina, Kano, Kebbi, Jigawa, Bauchi, Taraba (although Taraba State has an almost equal distribution of Christians and Muslims), Gombe, and Adamawa states]. On the other hand, Christianity is more prominent in the southeastern and south-south geographical zones (composed of Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi, Delta, Edo, Bayelsa, Rivers, Cross-Rivers, and Akwa Ibom states—with Edo State arguably comprising an equal distribution of Muslims and Christians.
The southwest and north-central zones (composed of Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun, Kaduna, Niger, Plateau, Nassarawa, Benue, and Kogi states) and the north-central zone (the Federal Capital Territory) have reasonably balanced numbers of Muslims and Christians; except for Benue State, which is entirely composed of Christians and followers of Traditional Religion (TR). Although often marginalized, TR has a fair amount of followers and, therefore has a significant degree of influence in the determination of state–religion relations. In spite of the apparent dominance of Islam and Christianity in public relations, the syncretic nature of religion among Nigerian tribes has paradoxically made TR a sort of melting pot, as those who profess both Islamic and Christian faiths frequently patronize traditional religious priests for spiritual rituals. Thus, in spite of the apparent scorn of TR by Nigerian elites as a result of the modernizing influences of the colonizing religions, TR continues to be furtively patronized by a great many adherents of both Islam and Christianity and has therefore maintained its relevance.
Pre-colonial state–religion relations among the disparate ethnic nationalities that now form the geographical entity called Nigeria took various forms. Whereas the traditional institutions of governance of some ethnic nationalities were an amalgam of political and religious authority, religion and its institutions were independent of political authority in some communities. Also, the incongruous system of colonial administration in the different regions allowed the Islamic caliphatorial system of governance in northern Nigeria to continue uninterrupted, while imposing a Western secular system in the southern part of the country. This administrative contrast reinforced the pre-existing incompatibility in state–religion relations among the ethnic nationalities that were now integrated as one nation state. Ultimately, the cultural divergence among the ethnic nationalities, which was reinforced by the colonial policy of governance, bred a culture of sustained conflict and struggle for superiority between religious and state institutions on one hand, and between the various religious groups inter se.
Contemporary state–religion relations in Nigeria are characterized by ill-defined boundaries. Whereas the Nigerian Constitution has declared freedom of religion and apparently seeks to separate state affairs from the doctrinal leanings of religion, the same constitution creates and recognizes executive and judicial institutions with religious biases. Thus the existence of multiple judicial systems based on secular, religious, and traditional jurisprudence, as well as multiple educational systems based on secular and religious principles, only serve the purpose of obfuscating the real character of the Nigerian state, whether secular or religious. The security ramifications of this conceptual uncertainty mean that religion is often instrumentalized for political and hubristic ends, thereby creating strong animosity among religious groups. This is particularly so as the politicization of religion inevitably breeds premeditated inequities in terms of resource allocation and other ramifications of patronage by the dominant religious group(s).
The consequence of this dysfunctional configuration of state–religion relations is the persistence of religiously induced conflicts in the country since the early 1980s. The persistent struggle by Islamists in northern Nigeria to establish sharia law and governance has been a consistent source of conflict; hence radical and violent groups often take advantage of the predominant deference to sharia law and governance among northern Muslims to orchestrate their clandestine motives. The Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in northern Nigeria, which is ostensibly founded on an Islamization agenda, demonstrates the ramifications of this challenge, as this group’s violent activities have stretched the elasticity of national security and unity, thereby calling into question the viability of the Nigerian state. This scenario necessitates an enquiry into the real nature and character of the Nigerian state in terms of its relationship with religion. In this regard, this article argues that the contradictions propagated by the colonial administration in the northern and southern regions before their eventual amalgamation in 1914 are deeply implicated in the post-colonial character of state–religion relations. In view of the destructive character of this current situation, the article advocates the separation of state from religious affairs, without necessarily detracting from the spiritual essence of religion in private life.