Revisiting ethnicity and religion question

By Adewale Kupoluyi
One thing that is clear is that Nigeria is a country that is blessed with abundant human and material resources. However, despite the enormous potentials and endowments, the nation has been pulled down by myriads of problems. Issues of ethnicity and religion have remained big matters that continue to shape the turn of events in the country. It is the effect of this two-headed dragon of ethnicity and religion as an impediment to progress in Nigeria that this discourse seeks to examine, within the context of the 272-page book titled, “The effect of religion on the political process”; authored by Femi Ajayi, a publication of iUniverse Incorporated, United States of America that touches several national issues in our dear country.

The publication explains the strong unfluence of religion on the political process of Nigeria by taking a cursory look at major developments between years 1975 and 1990. Professor Ajayi is a Professor of Policy, Conflict Resolution and Management.

According to the author, the search for national unity and development has been a major concern for many African countries including Nigeria, but the reverse seems to be the case as religion and ethnicity continue to rear their ugly heads in the political process by causing chaos, friction and stagnation. The book’s theoretical and conceptual framework was hinged on the premise of discussing the political process in a heterogeneous country like ours and how religion has affected the country’s unity, as captured in a well-researched piece and in an analytical manner.

The author notes that ethnicity had been used as a theoretical concept by many contemporary political analysts to mean ‘tribalism’ because tribalism has the semblance of backwardness, savagery and it also conveys a false impression of the existence of a political unity under an organised leadership. He added that ethnicity can be referred to as a “subjective recognition and acknowledgement of a set of interconnected social markets such as language, religion, historical experience, or shared institutions that are intertwined with common cultural foundation” with Nigeria having over 500 ethnic groups and inhabited by several peoples of diverse ethnicity and cultures while ethnic groups are usually homogenous in nature and having their own religious, cultural and linguistic peculiarities.

Ajayi explains that religion, on the other hand, is the relationship that exists between man and the Supreme Being even though, Marxism believes that religion is the ‘opium of the people’, some kind of experience that induces a flight to fantasy in human kind’s seemingly endless quest for God or some superior entity. The author states further that the relationship between religion and politics are as complex and interwoven as both attempt to serve power, although, they differ in real terms by aiming and setting values on power. Ajayi, an Adjunct Professor, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America, cited other scholars by providing rich insights that religion and politics are two dimensions of human experience.

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The above definitions suggest that even though religion and politics are separate, legitimate spheres of human endeavours, just as the case of Nigeria appear complex. This peculiarity made him to wonder; “how should Nigerian government handle the issue of the Federal Sharia Court of Appeal. Ironically, religion continues to play a large part in many of the most important conflicts taking place in the world today. In Nigeria, for instance, religious riots have escalated to the point where both Christians and Muslims take up arms against each other in the name of God or Allah”.

The book appreciates that Islam and Christianity are generally the dominant religions in Nigeria while traditional religion is next. When the British conquered Northern Nigeria, they found it more realistic to retain the Fulani governance structure by giving rise to the emergence the policy of indirect rule, while created some disparity among the people. Yorubas, on the other hand, appear to be more cohesive in terms of common language, culture and dialectic variation, even though, they are linked to the Sudanic people. Despite all odds, Yorubas remain united as much as possible and adhering to what they believe in. The resistances by some Yorubas to ‘sell’ their inheritance to other tribes or ethnic groups have brought about negative consequences for such astute disposition and principle. He disclosed that ‘notable among the Yoruba subgroups those resisted Fulani conquests are the Ekitis. Part of the Ekitis that later came under the Ilorin Province (now Kwara State) paid, and are still paying the high price (page 37).

According to Ajayi, “the 1989 Nigerian Constitution, which was based on the 1979 Constitution, spelt out the place of religion in the political process. Various sections of the 1989 Nigerian constitution are full of grand pronouncements about national unity, national interests”, but despite these constitutional provisions, religion, just as ethnicity, has been blamed for the disunity plaguing Nigeria as a nation. He gave some of the major examples of how the Nigerian state had interfered and shown bias on religious matters include the alleged institution of lopsided government legislation, decrees and edicts on religion; use of public media sources for religious activities, skewed annual legal year ceremony, lopsided federal government’s appointments; sponsorship of religious pilgrimages; and declaration of public holidays, among others.

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He recalls that ethnicity and religion have become a big set-back to the progress of Nigeria in the following ways: Firstly, ethnicity and religion breed discontent among the people. It makes the people to be loyal to their ethnic and religious affiliations as against nationalism and patriotism. Secondly, ethnicity and religious have been a source of mistrust among the citizens. Those that share the same ethnic and religious affiliations tend to show solidarity while they segregate against others.  This disposition is antithetical to the spirit of nation building, national integration and nationalism. Thirdly, ethnicity and religious have brought about fanaticism, killing of many people and destruction of colossal amount of properties.

Fourthly, the way ethnic and religious matters are handled indicate that they are interwoven, linked and interrelated, insisting that the government seems to have been unable to abide by the provisions of the constitution that recommends that the Nigerian state should remain secular. Lastly, it had shown that Nigerian government is biased and disposed to aligning with one religion over the others, saying this is unfair, unconstitutional, wrong and had portrayed government as favouring certain religion over others.

The study reveals that there was a deliberate effort by the government to impose religion on the country.  The research also revealed how religion became highly politicised, as a result of government’s intervention patronage and disposition to religious affairs.  It added that the ruling elite had used religious sentiments to divide the people and cause unnecessary disharmony. Therefore, for Nigeria to grow socially, politically and economically, the politicisation of religion should stop while the secularity of Nigeria should be upheld, as clearly provided for in the constitution.

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However, the following recommendations were made in the book: Government should ensure that the constitution is upheld by avoiding the promotion of certain religion and ethnicity over the others; mutual trust between the leaders and the led should be built in the overall interest of the nation; Nigerians should resist the undue influence by external forces that tend to impose certain religious preference over domestic considerations; the Nigerian armed forces should be well professionalised such that they would strictly face their basic and core mandates of protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country; and that Nigerians should be good followers in order to have good leadership.

Professor Ajayi, a former Executive Director, Office of Secretary of State, Professional Licensing Board Division, Examinations Development and Testing Unit, State of Georgia, Atlanta, USA, calls for constant public enlightenment that should be carried out to enable the people to understand the roles they are expected to play in promoting tolerance, harmony and peaceful coexistence; that national languages should be well-developed in a bid to bring about national unity and togetherness through the adoption of one unified language, while the major languages of Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa should be taught in all schools; while traditional rulers should be prevented from dabbling into partisan politics.

No doubt, Professor Ajayi’s research has revealed a lot on the subject-matter, what would be of paramount importance is the possibility of looking into the various suggestions in driving our nation forward. We continue to have series of ethno-religious conflicts and violence taking place in the northern parts of the country. Discussing issues is not usually the problem, but the main challenge had been the poor or non-implementation of such findings. It is hoped that we would truly get it right.

When we get it right, the economy would be better off, security would be strengthened, the image of the country would be improved while the youths would be gainfully employed. More importantly, Nigeria would be a better place for everyone to live in as progressive nation that can rise above ethnicity and religion in it’s existence and statehood. That’s indeed our prayer for our dear country.

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