People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!
Religion plays a huge role in many societies around the world and this is especially true in Nigeria. The country is home to the largest number of Anglicans in the world, has the fourth largest population of Roman Catholics and the fifth largest population of Muslims.
Nigeria arguably has the largest number of evangelical churches in the world and has been described as the most religious country in the world. Many Nigerian citizens, including its current president, proudly espouse their religiosity and bask in the glow of the international attention that the country has received because of it. Pastor Enoch Adeboye’s recent recognition by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world is often proudly cited by the faithful of his Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Men of God like Pastor Adeboye are typically revered by Nigerian Christians and very often attain rock star status. They travel in private jets, are driven around in convoys of several sleek cars and are accompanied by private security and sometimes security provided by the state. Top government officials kneel before them and, since they are widely believed to be kingmakers, several politicians desperately try to receive their blessings and divine counsel.
In many states in northern Nigeria, Sharia Law now supersedes the colonial government-influenced Common Law, with Sharia courts extending beyond their traditional role of settling civil disputes to admitting criminal cases and passing sentences that include corporal punishment, amputations and even death sentences. The militant Boko Haram movement, currently waging a violent insurgency against the Nigerian state, has as its primary goal the establishment of Islamic knowledge in place of formal education.
What is the impact of all this religiosity on the wellbeing of Nigerians? The author Robert Wright in his book, The Evolution of God, identifies two schools of thought regarding the impact of religion on humanity. On one hand are the functionalists, those who believe that religion serves an important social purpose. On the other hand are Marxists, those who hold that social structures such as shared belief are designed principally for the benefit of those who accept them.
From a functionalist perspective, one might argue that religion provides many Nigerians with an identity and a sense of purpose. They also provide a safety net for their followers in the form of food and shelter. Religious organisations have run missionary schools and hospitals since colonial days. Indeed, some religious organisations are partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the fight against HIV/AIDS and many other societal challenges. One can therefore say that, to a degree, religion fills a void in the lives of Nigerians. Religious organisations step in and take responsibility where weak government institutions are unable to make much of an impact.
However, when viewed from a Marxist viewpoint, religion is very often used as a vehicle to garner political and social power, and this has sometimes led to despicable acts of physical and mental torture and even murder. This was the case with the child witchcraft saga in south-eastern Nigeria, which was perpetuated by pastors of some evangelical churches as a means of securing control over ignorant people and their resources. The mass killings witnessed in the city of Jos in north central Nigeria over the last ten years are partly the result of religious differences between Christians and Muslims, even though it is widely acknowledged by many, including the Human Rights Watch group, that the fight is also over land as well as political and economic privileges. What was originally perceived as a battle between ethnic groups has morphed into a religious conflict, with each side in the conflict using religion as a tool to mobilise large-scale support from fellow adherents.
The Anglican Church in Nigeria, under its former primate Archbishop Peter Akinola, had sought to expand its influence in the country’s political and legislative process by actively supporting the promulgation of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill. By pushing for the passage of this odious law, Peter Akinola was willingly undermining the fundamental human rights of lesbian and gay Nigerians and subjecting them to more cruel levels of persecution. And all of this because he was strongly convinced that his own version of biblical understanding could not rightly support the existence of non-heterosexual relationships.
Enlightenment played a significant role in whittling down the negative influence of religion in Europe and the American colonies in the 18th century. However, this was only achieved due to the existence of the right social and economic conditions at the time. If enlightenment is to have any impact in Nigeria, some necessary groundwork must first be done. Before we can even begin to think of enlightening Nigerians, they must be able to read and write. When 66 percent of the population of Borno State (according to the 2006 Nigerian census) cannot read or write their name, it is impossible for them to understand what it means to think critically, and it becomes clearer why Boko Haram has such a huge following in that state. When the vast majority of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day and are unable to eat properly, it is likely that they would be more preoccupied with finding sustenance than debating the existence of witches and other supernatural belief systems. If someone is sick in some remote village without access to modern medicine, asking him not to visit the local shaman or spiritual healer will be tantamount to depriving him of the opportunity for healing.
Thus, the surest way to liberate the minds of Nigerians and Africans from self-seeking, exploitative religious practices is to put food in their stomachs, provide medicine to treat their ailments, give them clean potable water, engage them in practical education and learning, provide them with opportunities to make a living and free the womenfolk from the bondage of perpetual childbearing and domestic servitude. It really is that simple. Unless the basic conditions of Nigerians are improved and the problem of poverty tackled, it is debatable that any attempt to enlighten Nigerians would bare any significant fruit.
To illustrate the reasons that religious dogmas are so strongly instituted in some parts of Nigeria, one only needs to read the United Nations Human Development report on Nigeria (2008-2009). The report notes that the states with the highest incidence of poverty and the lowest scoring on the Human Development Index (HDI) are the northern states in Nigeria, with Borno State, the birth place of the Boko Haram movement, having the third lowest HDI and the second highest incidence of poverty. In a survey of 110 countries carried out by Gallup in 2007, it was observed that levels of religiosity increased with levels of poverty. Numerous other studies have also drawn the link between poverty and religiosity, so perhaps the situation in Borno State can provide additional credence to this assertion. The growth in the influence of such sects as the Boko Haram has been largely a result of the failure of modern institutions to provide better living conditions for the people of northern Nigeria.
While Nigeria as a whole struggles with the legacy of long military rule and the corrosive effect of its dependence on oil revenue, northern Nigeria has to contend with its geographic weaknesses and a century old, self-imposed isolation from modern education and values. It is against this backdrop that one must observe the spectre of religion and its odious consequences. The harmful effects of religious dogmas and creeds can also be observed in other parts of Nigeria such as Akwa Ibom and Cross River States, where there has been an alarming upsurge in child witch-hunting by evangelical churches, taking advantage of high levels of impoverishment and ignorance.
At the risk of belabouring the point, the ill effects of religious dogmas can only be lessened with a concurrent improvement in the quality of life for the people. The high level of religiosity in Nigeria is nothing more than one of many symptoms of poverty and lack of wellbeing for the vast majority of Nigerians, as it is for other poor countries in the world. Numerous studies have traced the link between high levels of religious dogmas and poverty, so Nigeria’s case is therefore not entirely unique. If history is anything to go by, however, its future could be a lot different.
Ikechukwu Okechukwu is a member of the Nigerian Humanist Movement