Can Nigeria Be Saved From Religion?

By Adebayo Raphael 
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Gradually, the whirlwind of religion is pushing Nigeria towards the point of no return. When the incumbent president, General Buhari, said in early 2015 that “if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria,” he left out an avalanche that is just as likely – perhaps more likely and swifter in rage to kill Nigeria – Religion. Hence the new pith should be: if we don’t check religion, religion will kill Nigeria.

Religion has invariably been a critical centrepiece in Nigeria’s politics, and this is historically understandable because Africans have always been religiously impassioned. The introduction of non-native, belligerent religions, particularly Islam and Christianity to Africa, which accelerated the decline of Africa's animism-era, continues to condense our capacity for mutual tolerance in the same way that these religions continue to provoke grisly conflicts in Asia and Europe. Many generations have passed but the inherent aggression of these religions have lingered in Nigeria, constituting a bane to the tenuous peace in our society.

The maniacal extremist religious aspiration of Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, as recently brought to light, vouchsafes the depth of fundamentalist rot in Nigeria’s socio-political fabric. Between the ninety-eighties Maitatsine Riots, the violent clashes between religious groups in the nineties, the Sharia Riots and the other religious conflicts in between up until Boko Haram, the Hijab crisis in Kwara and the lingering Southern Kaduna crisis, Nigeria have witnessed no less than forty religious violence that has led to the deaths of thousands and displacement of tens of thousands of Nigerians.

It’s been a century and seventy-eight years, but one can still say without scruples that Karl Marx was right when he said “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Often, the import of Marx’s polysemous metaphor in this expression is lost in what is sometimes a deliberate waterlogging of what ought to be genuine dialectical interpretations.

Context matters, just as signification does. The struggle for Nigeria today is the struggle against religion. And, as Marx describes it in his Introduction in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from which the expression above is culled, “the struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.” People like Pantami – as much a religious extremist as Nigeria’s incumbent president, Buhari – are the worst of a society like Nigeria’s where socio-economic conditions and the acute desire for transcendental interventions exacerbates credulity, repels logic and gives undue advantage to extremist religious fundamentalists.

Marx’s argument (ibid.) that religion is both a state of suffering and of illusion which has been commodified and for which a solution may only be found within the problem itself, holds true for religious fanatics in Nigeria. And for Pantami and his likes, the credulity of these fanatics remains his best form of defence against the overbrimming calls for his resignation and investigation.

This is significant to Nigeria’s immediate future in two ways: Pantami’s protection by the government would be interpreted, rightly so, as full government backing of a salafization agenda which, in turn, will lead to the reification of religious extremism; and two, the other religious (and indeed ethnic) groups will have a reason to not only grow in disaffection but to also accentuate their disaffection in especial ways that may spell doom for Nigeria. Neither is good for Nigeria.

So, how can Nigeria avoid the portent religious disaster?

I know very well from experience that there are Muslims, respected Imams and ordinary followers alike, who do not share the extremist worldview of Pantami and his likes. Their belief is undiluted and they are temperate in practice. These are the ones who must rise to the occasion and save Nigeria from the portent religious disaster. It would simply be unfortunate if non-extremist Muslims embrace a quietist disposition in this trying time. Also, if there weren’t so many ethnoreligious bigots in the National Assembly, starting with the Senate President and his Fulani-lackey counterpart in the other chamber, the institution would be better positioned to confront the portent religious disaster with a sound public policy.

Nigeria’s ultimate goal, as an irreducible policy focus on religion, must be clear and emphatic secularism. Religion must be checked, and fast. It is simply a disaster that is ready to engulf Nigeria. Unlike the current ineffectual fight against corruption, Nigeria must take the business of checking religion seriously. Until such a time when the minds of people are not enchained by the opiate called religion; when their socio-economic conditions do not make them credulous to believe every Pantami and Buhari on the streets; when their sense of fulfilment does not come from engaging in religious warfare on behalf of a Supreme Being from whom they have no mandate of warfare, Religion must be checked.

Then, as Marx argues, the capitalist-induced conditions that make opium necessary in the first place must be confronted and obliterated.

Adebayo Raphael is a Writer and Human Rights Activist. He can be reached via [email protected] .

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