Religion and politics in Nigeria

January 29, 2015
Religion and politics in Nigeria

General elections are fast approaching in Nigeria, where incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan is running for a second and final term in office against Muhammadu Buhari, who lost to Jonathan in 2011. Will Ross at the BBC writes from the plateau city of Jos, which, sandwiched between north and south, has seen communal tensions erupt into violence over the past few years. While the causes for violence are rarely strictly religious--they have more to do with unequal access to land and resources--conflict between Muslim and Christian ethnic groups often makes it appear that way. However, Nigerian politicians frequently use religious affinity as a way to garner votes.

Jonathan is a Pentecostal Christian of the southern Ijaw tribe, and Buhari a Sunni Muslim and northern Fulani. Violence broke out after the 2011 race, leading to 800 deaths and 65,000 displacements in the north, where many felt that Jonathan had betrayed an unspoken rule that the presidency should alternate between a Christian and a Muslim. Although voters in Jos worry about ongoing violence, Will Ross writes of a growing awareness of the ways that religion is used to mask conversations about real issues challenging Nigeria, and that religious issues allow politicians to "divide and conquer" by pitting groups against one another. These tactics only encourage more violence, commentators argue.

"Religion by its very nature and content appeals not so much to reason. It's a heart matter and carries with it huge emotions," says Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi, who has played a key role diffusing religious tension in Jos.

"When religions like Christianity and Islam have a huge following of hungry not very educated people on both sides then politicians will explore the areas of religion to get them on their sides. That's a very dangerous and bad thing to do. It's not fair and it's not right," the Anglican archbishop of Jos says.

Harvard Divinity School Professor Jacob Olupona comments in The Huffington Post:

That religion has entered into politics and governance is not new; it is as old as the history of the nation itself. What is new in the current dispensation is the extent to which religion dominates national life. The myth of the secular Nigerian state that purports to separate the institutions of religion from those of the government has failed to translate into reality. Indeed, there is evidence to show that Nigeria's troublesome religious conflict, especially in the northeastern and Middle Belt states, will negatively affect the election next month.

For more information about Nigeria, check out the Nigeria Country Profile.