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Religion And Political Reforms In Nigeria

June 6, 2010
Image removed.(Being the text of the public lecture delivered at the 51st birthday anniversary of Rt. Rev Alfred Adewale Martins, Catholic Bishop of Abeokuta, Ogun State on Saturday June 5, 2010)
INTRODUCTION: There is an incontrovertible connection between religion and politics. While the actual role that religion plays in politics has remained debatable, the nexus between the two concepts has long been established. Being part of the daily life of people, religion affects other aspects of people’s life including cultural, economic and social affairs.

But there are different ways in which religion impacts on the governance system and administration of state in each context. In the United States where even though a sizable number of people adhere to certain religious beliefs the impact of religion on the development and democracy is rather minimal. The same is not the case in Nigeria where religion has remained a strong influencing factor on the country’s political process.

While religion has contributed in some ways to the process of nation building, the positive impact of religion on Nigeria’s democracy has remained negligible. The manipulation of religion by some powerful individuals who hide under the guise of religion to pursue selfish interests remains one of the negative effects of religion on the polity. In addition, greed has crept into the religious terrain to the extent that some religious leaders now patronize corrupt rulers to meet their lust for money and other material gains.

Currently, there is a call for reform in the political system in Nigeria which has continued to breed corrupt leaders, even as the dividends of democracy have eluded the people. The call for reform is therefore a welcome development. Considering the critical role of religion in Nigeria’s politics, a reform of the religion space is also crucial. The paper maintains that religion cannot have a positive impact on politics as long as it is manipulated by the political class.


Defining religion has remained a Herculean enterprise. However, a number of religious practitioners and scholars have attempted different definitions of what religion is. Ananaba cited Bohannan who, in his definition, describes religion as the “belief in Spiritual Beings”  Emil Durkheim defined religion as a “unified set of belief practices relative to sacred things, i.e. to sayings set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community….all those who adhere to them” . In his own attempt to define religion, Gordon W. Allport opined that “religion encompasses a value that every democrat must hold, the right of each individual to work to work out his own philosophy of life, to find his personal niche in creation as best as he can” .
According to Akin Ibidapo Obe, “religion connotes a belief in Supreme bring and his worship through a specified ritual. Religion is based on moralistic outlook or way of life. In its doctrinal perspective it may be defined as a system of general truth which has the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended” .

A legalistic point of view of the definition of religion has been recorded in the case of NILNIKOFF v ARCHBISHOP ETC. OF RUSSIA ORTHODOX GREEK CHURCH, where religion was defined as:
“Man’s relation to divinity, to reverence, worship, obedience, and submission to mandates and precepts of super natural or superior beings. In its broadest sense, it includes all forms of belief in the existence of superior beings exercising power over human beings by volition, imposing rules of conduct, with future rewards and punishment. Bond uniting man to God and virtue whose purpose is to render God worship due to him as a source of all beings and Principles of government of things”.

Many other definitions of religion abound that highlight what religion is. However, what comes to mind when talking  about religion is the general agreement about the presence of a Supreme Being and laid down principles such as unity of purpose, harmony, love for others, etc, which have formed the foundations that should bind people together.


Throughout, the connection between religion and politics has remained contestable. While many societies have attempted to separate religion from politics as a form of conscious effort not to undermine the process of allocating values, the dissection has become difficult in some societies. The complex interaction between religion and politics is most visible in heterogeneous societies like Nigeria, with the characteristic divisions in terms of ethnicity and religion inclinations. Although Nigeria is considered constitutionally a secular state, the impact of religion in the country’s polity has remained incontestable.

It is of course appreciated that religion and politics interact. The truth that is preached in religion is beneficial to the process of governance. Religion could also serve as an effective tool for propelling social mobilization and societal transformation. But this is only possible where religion has not deviated from its original role. Religion could be volatile and vicious where it is expressed with so much passion and allowed to dominate the thinking of the populace. It is in that context that Karl Marx referred to it as the opium of the people. . This is not to say that one should not hold a particular religion view. Perhaps, there have been Constitutional provisions in most nations that provide for the people to hold their accepted religion view.

Section 10 of the Constitution provides that “the Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion”. The fundamental right of every person to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is guaranteed by Section 38 thereof. But contrary to the secular nature of the State, Christianity and Islam have been adopted as State Religions. Year in year out, thousands of persons are sponsored with hundreds of millions of naira to perform the holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Jerusalem or Rome. Before 1999, the President and State Governors usually worshipped with other people in Churches and Mosques located in the Federal and State capitals where they listened to uncensored sermons from priests. But since President Olusegun Obasanjo built a Church in the Presidential villa, Churches and Mosques have ardorned  government houses where the rulers worship with their family members, top public officers and government contractors.  The rulers appoint their own chaplains and imams who sing their praises on a daily basis.

Just recently, some highly placed religious leaders visited the Late President Umaru Y’ardua at Aso Rock, Abuja. They were reported to have prayed for the speedy recovery of the President.  Surprisingly, the eminent priests were manipulated to deceive Nigerians with respect to the actual state of health of the President. One of them predicted, with mathematical precision, that the President was going to resume his presidential duties in a matter of days. A few weeks later, the President passed on. Such fake prophesies from highly respected religious leaders have continued to expose religion to ridicule.

History is replete with religious zealots. The Christians have their Crusaders and the Muslims their Jihadists. Vestiges of both and recidivists can be found in every modern nation state where these religions co-exist and are practiced. Nigeria, therefore, is not an exception .

In a peculiarly volatile nation as Nigeria, the mixing of religion with politics has done the country more harm than good. For instance, the record of violence in the country and the linkage of religion and politics to many of the riots shows how dangerous a mix of politics and religion could be. While religion may not necessarily impact negatively on politics if properly observed, the manipulation of religion as a political weapon could set a nation on fire. Nigeria has experienced its fair share of the terrible implications of religion and politics. From the era of Maitatsine riots of 1980 which started in Kano, the bloody upheavals in Bauchi in 1991, and the Jos riots which have remained potent since 2001, among other series of violent conflicts, religion and political undertones have been read into their emergence.

The indictment of political leaders in cases of violence in the country demonstrates a particular dangerous feature of the connection between religion and politics in the Nigerian contextual environment. For instance, in its report regarding the Maitatsine, riots “the Justice Aniagolu Tribunal found that “there are various levels of involvement, ranging from Maitatsine himself and his followers, to the state government and its agencies, individuals, organizations, the police and the National Security Organisation” .

A leader of the Boko Haram sect was a commissioner in the Borno State government. Before the 2009 riots he had resigned his appointment on account of official corruption in the government. He was arrested but extra-judicially murdered by the police to cover up official involvement in funding the sect. Recent cases of violence in the country involving differences in religion and political views have taken the same dangerous dimension. In Jos, particularly, parties to the conflict have blamed the violence on the activities of religious and political leaders.

Despite universalistic teaching of all religions and elevation of their true followers to the highest spiritual level, man has suffered because of the dysfunctionality of religion, arising from its archaic institutionalization, corporate character and indoctrination of fanatic and obsolete beliefs and practices

The religious leaders in Nigeria and their political allies seem to have abandoned their responsibilities in the process of nation building. While religious leaders and the political rulers should be more occupied with the question of how to ensure the common good, there is unification between religious practitioners and political leaders that is detrimental to the process of social change. At both the religious and political arenas in Nigeria in recent times, the pursuance of group interest has given way to self-serving enterprise where common goal is no longer valuable and unity unnecessary.

Religion has become so much the opiate of our politicians that we now tend to ignore warnings about the inherent dangers of mixing religion and politics. In examining the global implications of such a disposition, Anthony Lewis warned that, “religion and extreme nationalism have formed deadly combinations in these decades, impervious to reason" .

Writing on the Politics of the Second Republic (1979-1983) and the success of the NPN in the elections that took place, Rev. Fr. Kukah, citing Louis Cantori’s work, noted that apart from having the great advantage of old politicians, or because of it, the NPN displayed a great sense of political ecumenism. The NPC had perfected this trick of pragmatic politics during the first republic, when, in some constituencies where it knew its chances were slim, it backed Christian candidates rather than Muslims. The NPN managed to expand this strategy so perfectly in 1979, that at that election, it succeeded in moving through the Middle Belt and other non-Muslim minority states with ease of a combined harvester, picking up the ripe votes on its way to victory . While many watchers or participants in those elections could have disagreed with this argument, it nevertheless helps to explain the connection between religion and politics in a particular context- Nigeria’s complex political terrain.

In 1993, Chief MKO Abiola and Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe, the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) were both Moslems. But Nigerians, regardless of their religious inclinations voted for the joint Moslem ticket. In fact, most Christians did not support the Moslem/Christian ticket of Alhaji Bashir Tofa and Dr. Sylvester Ugoh. But following the nationwide resistance against the annulment of the June 12 Presidential election, religion was exploited to keep the people divided by General Ibrahim Babangida, himself a Muslim. Since then, religion and ethnicity have been manipulated by a visionless ruling elite to confuse the masses and divert their attention from the crisis of underdevelopment in the land.


In recent times Nigeria has emerged one of the most religious countries in the world. As the number of churches/mosques in the country continues to increase and the population of worshipers doubling, so also is the number of mosques and Islamic faithful enlarging. It has been argued that Nigeria has become the number one country globally in terms of the population of religion worshipers and adherents, notably of the two major religions Christianity and Islam. Apart from the regular worshipping in conventional locations such as churches and mosques, a new dimension has been introduced to the mode of worship by major religion groups in the country. For instance, we now witness religious worships in places as unconventional as government establishments, company premises and highways. Also, it has now become a common occurrence to witness rulers organise religion sessions in collaboration with religious groups with the intention of seeking of God’s support in the act of governance.

However, while there continues to be transformation in the face of religion in Nigeria, particularly in regards to the continuing increase in the number of places of worship and the population of adherents, the same cannot be said regarding the changes religion has brought in regards to its impact on social transformational role including helping to champion the cause of the people. The present role of religion in Nigeria’s democracy has thrown up many debates. But there is a dominant view that despite the visible religiousness being exhibited by many Nigerians, including the country’s political leaders, the failure of the people to live by the core tenets of their professed religions has made it impossible for religion to serve the functions it ought to serve in the process of social transformation and the building of democracy.

As Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) noted in the forward to the book The Fundamental Right to Religion, “in the midst of the search for democratic norms to stabilize the new democracy, religion ferment is brewing” . Essentially, the core principles that formed the underlining foundation on which most religions are based include truth, moral uprightness, love and the unity of all humankind, among others. Some contributors to the debate on the role of religion in the building of Nigeria’s democracy have feared that the prevailing conscious deviation from these principles by religious leaders and adherents might soon lead to the extinction of religion as an agent for propelling social change. Even among religious leaders themselves concerns have been expressed that the replacement of love, truth, oneness and unity, which had been the roots on which all faith had been based, with vices such as self-centredness, lies and falsehood, greed, and hatred bred by fanaticism, had eroded the respect that was once accorded religion and religious leaders.

In his speech at the second biennial conference of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria held in Lagos from February 11 to 13, 1997, Late Archbishop Benson Idahosa, quoted by Ananaba, stated that through the conference the Pentecostals in the country should be able to identify the genuine ones from the non genuine ones and to say to the government “these are whom we are and these are not ours…false prophets, money extractors, gamblers, money doublers that are wearing cassocks are suckers of the public and are not priests”. Noting that such imitating shepherds are everywhere, the PFN President urged the government to “help locate these men that are using tricks to suck people and get money from …those who are selling prayers, government should get them arrested. Those who are doubling money in the church, government should get them arrested .

While Archbishop Idahosa’s statement above was made prior to the return to democratic rule in 1999, the advent of democracy has worsened the situation which elicited the concern expressed by him. The situation today is such that some religious leaders directly engage in large scale corrupt practices through various subtle means or encourage the governing class in the act of looting public funds.

In order to justify misgovernance and abuse of office by the political leaders, some Christian leaders are fond of referring the faithful to Romans 13 verse 1 where it is written: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by Go”. That portion is often quoted out of context because it is predicated on the belief that the Ruler is “God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain, for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Roman’s 13 verse 4).

Christians are further enjoined to render taxes to whom taxes are due. Now if a ruler engages in stealing the taxes through corruption he cannot be said to be a minister of God. He can therefore be resisted and challenged for breaching the seventh commitment that “Thou shall not steal”. Or didn’t God smite Ananias and Saphira when they stole from the common pool?

Since 1999 when Nigeria began another democratic journey, while religious leaders have contributed in some ways to the democratic process, the record has remained unimpressive in terms of overall usefulness of religion to the current democratic attempt. A number of elections have been held in Nigeria since the advent of this current dispensation, the first being in 1999. The second and the third elections were held in 2003 and 2007 respectively.  This is not to talk of the re-run elections that have accompanied some of these cases of fraudulent elections which were later upturned in Election Tribunals or Appeal Courts. While the holding of elections marks a good feature of democracy, the quality of such elections determines whether they conform to acceptable standard in terms of meeting the democratic aspirations and the needs of the people. Unfortunately, most of the elections that have been held in Nigeria since 1999 have received knocks locally and internationally for the level of fraud that was perpetrated.

Just as the political leaders in the country have failed to imbibe democratic principles which preach fairness and equity, they have found allies among the country’s religious leaders who assist politicians that have stolen the people’s mandates to conduct thanksgiving service in their worship places as a way of ‘thanking’ God for making it possible for them to rig elections. Why should respected men of God join in celebrating, and even lead, a ceremony to mark the robbery that has been perpetrated in the polling stations and other places connected with the process of electioneering? Under normal circumstances religious leaders should only adhere to the truth and follow the path of honour and righteousness, but, with due respect, there is a common deviation from this virtue among most of our religious leaders. Quite a large section of the populace have lost confidence in leaders who represent various faiths in the country for the failure of the religious leaders to support what is right at crucial times rather than lining behind corrupt politicians who deny the people the benefits that are associated with democratic governance. 

In expressing displeasure at the negative impact of religion on Nigeria’s democracy, G.A. Akinola of the Department of History, University of Ibadan highlighted that “the neo-Christian unabashed identification of God with mammon has reduced the teaching of Jesus to a hankering after material success, including the acquisition of power and influence, often at the expense of the lives and happiness of others. Since a quasi-blind faith in the new doctrines is guaranteed to produce a solution to all problems, many evangelicals cultivate or affect a bland optimism, whose effect is comparable to that of a narcotic. Merely “believing” and declaring that all is well, without a reinforcing and pragmatic ethic, is yet to produce lasting results, especially in the mess that pervades the country today

While tolerance of divergent opinions and accommodation of different views has remained one of the core principles of democracy and participatory governance, the intolerance that has taken over the religious space in Nigeria has at one point or the other threatened the country’s democracy.

As far back as 1982 during a Constituent Assembly debate over the Sharia Court of Appeal issues, the Federal Government had to quickly send the then Chief of General Staff to remove the issue from the jurisdiction of the Constituent Assembly in view of the tense agitations generated by the debate . This kind of incident, if it repeats itself, portends danger to the country’s attempt at reforming its already endangered political space.
As Akinola observed, “the wider significance of punctilious religious observance, devoid of basic humanity, is constantly manifested in recurrent sectarian riots and upheavals, particularly in Northern Nigeria. For the rest, the people simply ape their rulers and their “pastors” in hypocrisy. Even the most highly educated of the latter are starkly ignorant and lacking in creativity with respect to bringing the teaching of Jesus to bear on societal problems. This is surprising since they are ill-informed about, or prejudiced against their own culture. Their imported doctrines, which promise a panacea to all mundane problems, serve only to keep a lid on popular discontent, to the advantage of reprobate rulers. The latter, perhaps in appreciation, neither tax the churches, nor inquire into the fortunes they make in the enterprise of commercialized evangelization .
Akinola’s observation as highlighted above here points to the current alliance among corrupt politicians in the country and religious leaders who support them with prayers during special sessions and deliberately organized events in State Houses. Some of the politicians even steal money and part of the loot is donated as gifts to religious leaders and religious groups “on behalf of the political leader and his family”. Then the politicians get prayers in return. Sometime the rulers get conferred with titles making them leaders in the religious associations. Such is the current irony in the political space in the country.
But this is highly detrimental to the change that Nigeria currently yearns for. Religion is highly needed at this time to assist in reforming the attitude of the political class and the entire citizenry to appreciate the values of democracy. The imperative of harnessing the power of religion for the betterment of the people has become more urgent than ever, considering the new call for a change in the ways things are done in Nigeria.

The Justice and Peace Development Commission (JPDC) in the Catholic Church has joined the human rights community to demand for justice and development for the Nigerian people. On many occasions it has set at liberty those who are in physical chains as a result of an unjust legal system. The JPDC has demanded for genuine electoral reforms. Happily, the Latter Rain Assembly, led by Pastor Tunde Bakare, and a few other Churches are rightly taking up the struggle for a society where poverty will be eradicated.

As Nigeria prepares for the 2011 elections religious institutions should sensitize and mobilize their members to join the campaign for genuine electoral reforms. No doubt, President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly assured Nigerians and the international community that his Administration will conduct credible elections next year. But so far, there is no enabling environment for the conduct of credible elections. Instead of appointing the Chairman and members of the INEC through a transparent process as recommended by the Uwaise – led Electoral Reform Committee, President Jonathan said last week that he had neither met nor spoken to the in-coming INEC Chairman! Instead of concluding election petitions before the inauguration of elected officials, the National Assembly has insisted that the status quo be retained in a way that those whose legitimacy is being challenged are to remain in office for 180 days. But in reality, they are going to remain in office for upwards of four years as it is the case now.

The key constitutional amendments proposed by the PDP-led National Assembly include the endorsement of political prostitution through cross carpeting, setting down minimum qualifications of OND in a country where illiteracy rate is over 50%, increment in the age of members of the House of Representatives from 30-35 and unrestricted permission to run for elected offices for those who have been convicted of fraud and other criminal offences. In order to continue to cover up electoral malpractice in the country the National Assembly has turned down the recommendation that an electoral offences tribunal be established.

It is common knowledge that a credible election cannot be conducted without a valid and current voters’ registration. In the governorship election conducted in Anambra State in February 2010 the names of the Late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Chief Gani Fawehinmi were on display in the voters’ register! Apart from multiple registration of voters including dead the names of under-aged children are on the voters’ register. Notwithstanding section 10 of the Electoral Act 2006 which provides for a continuous registration of voters the INEC has continued to engage in periodic registration. In March 2009 the INEC allocated N6 billion for the review of the voters’ register compiled in 2006. Even though the money has disappeared no review of voters’ register has been carried out in any part of the federation.

Another problem which has been associated with electoral malpractice in Nigeria is material poverty on the part of voters. In a country where the average citizens live on $1 a day members of the National Assembly have demanded for increase in their allowances from N27 million to N42 million quarterly for a member of the House of Representatives. Of course, senators are expected to earn higher than that. In the 2010 budget refreshment will gulp as much as  N57.7 billion which translates to N120 million per member since there 469 of the National Assembly.

The profligacy exhibited by the government cannot be justified in a country where poverty is on the increase. Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, a respected columnist in This Day Newspaper recently noted “At the time of his leaving office in May 2007, Obasanjo, based on prudent advise of his Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo- Iwaela, and members of his economic management team left over $20 billion in the (excess crude) account”. But due to pressure from governor’s forum the Account has been depleted without any visible development on ground.

The demand for electoral reform therefore, should include a critical review of the political economy of Nigeria. A situation where 80% of the recurring budget is channeled towards the maintenance of an unproductive bureaucracy to the detriment of the generality of Nigerians has to stop. Religious institutions should therefore take advantage of electioneering campaigns to challenge politicians for allocating a lion share of the budget to themselves and their contractor friends while the oil sector – the commanding height of the economy has been cornered by multi-national oil companies and their local lackeys.

Since most politicians in Nigeria subscribe to the Islamic or Christian religion, it should be possible for the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to draw up ethical guidelines for Christian and Muslim politicians. Those who invoke the name of God while taking their oath of office ought to be sanctioned when they engage in corruption, electoral malpractice, human rights violations and other devilish ways. For instance, the Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the large scale fraud that marred the 2007 general elections.  But one of the Bishops later turned round to conduct a pontifical high mass in honour of Prof Maurice Iwu where God was glorified for the ‘success’ of the former INEC Chairman in office.

In recent time, influential members of the political class have taken the manipulation of religion to a ridiculous extent. This has just been manifested by Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima who married a 13-year old child in a grand ceremony conducted at Abuja. As soon as it was pointed out by the human rights community that the marriage contravenes Section 18 of the Child’s Rights Act 2003 which has prohibited child marriage in Nigeria, the senator justified his action under the Islamic religion. A few days ago, the Deji of Akure, Oba Adesina engaged in a street fight with his estranged wife, Bolanle. With the aid of armed thugs, the Oba poured acid on her. She is currently receiving treatment at the Federal Medical Centre, Owo, Ondo State. The Oba has since justified his barbaric action under the customs of the Akure people. According to the Oba, he invaded his father in-law’s house to perform some traditional rites on Bolanle in order to strip her of any claim to the ‘queenship’. It is hoped that both senator Yerima and Oba Adesina will soon be charged to court to defend their criminal conduct.

According to Bala Usman, “the real basis of the manipulation of religion in Nigeria today is the need to obscure from the people of Nigeria a fundamental aspect of our reality: that is the domination of our political economy by a class of intermediaries who are being increasingly exposed. And this is to enable this class to cover themselves with religious and ethnic disguises in order to further entrench division among our people, slow down their awakening, at any cost; even the unity of our country, for which so much has been sacrificed” .


Being a very powerful tool of social mobilization and cohesion, religion, irrespective of which creed, should be made to impact positively in the country’s democracy and help in the process of change. Our religious leaders need to retrace the steps already being followed and cultivate the ‘we’ habit rather than the pursuit of personal interest. Religion has long been used in the country to pursue selfish ambitions.

As we currently embark on a new step to rebuild this fragile nation, it would serve the interests of all of us better if our religious leaders appreciate the position God has put them and use this position to change society for the better. This is perhaps what has been preached in the holy books including the Quoran and the Bible. For, what is not in our holy books where we were informed of the vanity of this world? Then those who should spread this message to those looters in government should themselves be prepared to first appreciate the value in this instruction.

The event of today should therefore serve as an opportunity for us to see how we could all contribute to the process of rebuilding this nation through the emergence of a political process that creates the atmosphere for an enduring democracy, where openness, transparency and accountability become the common creeds.

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