S. 'Jide Komolafe, Ph.D.Thursday, January 19, 2012
[email protected]



(Continued from last week)

The Political Dimension of Christian Ecumenism:
The Christian Association of Nigeria Since 1976

ounded in 1976, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is an involuntary ecumenical child. It emerged out of the then military government's request for a single Christian group to relate with in connection to the latter's proposed "National Pledge" in schools. 30 As an ecumenical grouping, the constituency of CAN is broad and much better defined than those of its closest precursor, the NCA, which fruitlessly fought to resist the overwhelming influence of Ahmadu Bello during Nigeria's First Republic. It comprises the Catholics, Protestants, and the African Instituted Churches. 31 From its inception, the organization has portrayed itself as the leading voice of Christians in Nigeria and is today reputed to be an anti-Islamic Christian pressure group.


Although the military government may have orchestrated the founding of CAN, its life and activities have been a double irony. This is because CAN gradually became estranged from the founding motive in the government's invitation to participate in the discussions on "National Pledge." Instead, it launched itself fully into a confrontation with what was perceived as a systematic Islamization of Nigeria through the Muslims' constant efforts to implement Sharia law as the system of governance for all of Nigeria. It is fair to say, then, that the Muslim agenda, more than any other single factor, has provided legitimacy for the continued existence of CAN and explains its orientation to political activism and religious ecumenism.

Before this "awakening," one of the features of Nigerian Christianity, at least until the early 1980s, had been the lack of interest in politics. This is not because Nigerian Christians are necessarily apolitical or overtly indifferent to politics. Rather, most conspicuous among the defining elements of authentic Christian spirituality was their assumption that the realm of Caesar was of little importance, if not antithetical, to the ultimate journey to heaven (Mt. 22:21; Mk. 12:17; Heb. 12:1-2). But palpable political pessimism and accompanying saturnine premonitions required a new response and a further reshaping of the religio-political landscape. This paradigm shift found articulate expression in the words of Wilson Badejo, the immediate past General Overseer of the Foursquare Gospel Church of Nigeria: "The Church must not just sit and watch. We must nurture the conscience of the nation, invest in the preparation of promising godly character to man the affairs of our nation." 32

One effect of the Islamic cycle of influence, therefore, has been to provoke the Christians into a form of religious ecumenism which, ironically, turned out to be a de facto triumph for a church that now wanted to free itself from political non-involvement. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the dominant ideology and goals of CAN have been political in appearance and inspiration. Putting all these together, we realize, then, that the entrance and recessional hymns at the inauguration of CAN-"Stand up, Stand up, for Jesus" and "Onward Christian Soldiers"-clearly demonstrate this new Christian awakening.

It must be emphasized, however, that the political agenda of Christians is articulated through a platform that Muslims have constructed for their own purpose. This applies especially to three areas: CAN's objection to a progressive Islamization of Nigeria through Islamic Sharia, its relentless demands to the government to take the country out of OIC, and its insistence that the state upholds the constitutional secular principle of neutrality in religion. The obvious political consequence is that an agenda such as this confirms the perceived anti-Islamic posture of CAN, thereby setting the Christians on the Muslim side of the fault line. 33

It is also worth noting that CAN adopted a number of methodological approaches in order to achieve its political objectives. Enwerem has summarized them as falling under two broad categories: "politics of quiet diplomacy" or the "politics of persuasion" and "militant politics." 34 As its name implies, the first approach utilizes a variety of diplomatic means. These include the sending of delegations, the writing of letters or memoranda, and the lobbying of influential Christians in the army to seek government's concession on issues that affect Christians.

The characteristics of the second approach are, in every sense of the word, "militant." This approach became dominant especially from 1987 during the presidency of Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, the fiery head of the Catholic archdiocese of Lagos. In his words, the first method "has been tried and we saw that it did not work; probably we got about, say, between 20-30 percent success." 35 This method adopts mass mobilization campaigns that range from pulpit preaching, effective use of the media, and civil litigations in court. The goal is to generate visible and constant publicity for the concerns of CAN and its members.

Perhaps the most drastic demonstration of militancy is CAN's goal of wrestling the control of the state from the hands of the Muslims through direct political involvement. This method was adopted in 1988 through a new understanding that the supposedly worldly realm of politics may overrun and marginalize the Christian church itself:

If Christians distance themselves from politics that lead to leadership, then demons will have a field day as had been the case with Nigeria up till today. If demons govern and rule us and burn our churches and marginalize us and treat us like second class citizens in our country of posting, then why should the Christian complain? 36

But the modus operandi of CAN, especially its politically charged statements, have been criticized by many modern commentators who believe that CAN is reflecting "a rather poor reading of the dynamics of political engineering." Notable among this group is Matthew Hassan Kukah, a Christian northerner. 37 Kukah faults as illusory CAN's protestations of Sharia and Nigeria's membership in OIC on a wrong assumption that "the constitution of Nigeria was as potent a weapon as it seemed on paper." 38 And to demonize Islam because of a perceived threat of Islamization is, in his own estimate, "to overdramatise its [CAN] case." 39 Therefore, the many pronouncements of CAN are illegitimate and at best, given to "emotional relief." 40

Kukah's observation is accurate to the degree that in both purpose and form, the model of Christian politics bears the deep imprint of the threat of Islamization. His case is even more compelling in light of the fact that CAN wanted the government to offset any concessions to Islam with similar concessions to Christianity. The most obvious being CAN's request for ecclesiastical courts for Christians, restoration of full diplomatic relations with Israel, and the setting up of pilgrim welfare boards for Christians. 41 He is equally accurate in his observation that the military rule is an illegitimate form of government and "an obstacle in itself to the realization of the goals and ideals of democracy." Consequently, CAN should not expect to make much gain if its only weapon was the suspended federal constitution.

This, precisely, means that criticisms of CAN's political agenda or its methodology must be tempered by the realities of the political engineering of military regimes. And compared to all before or after it, the repressive regime of Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (1985-1993) stands out. For it was during his time that the crisis of religious politics and violence were most pronounced. It was also during this time that CAN was most vocal and militant. This is the missing aspect of Kukah's criticisms of CAN. At the risk of being mistaken for an advocate, a few observations, and perhaps responses to Kukah are imperative.

In the first place, CAN did not have the means, although it had the desire, to reconstitute the pre-military politics in its integrity. Lacking no other resources to negotiate a fair treatment of the Christians as was most evident with the government's deference to their Muslim counterparts, CAN appealed rather unfortunately, to an abused and suspended federal constitution.

Kukah himself highlights an imbalance in government's dealing with Islam, "[t]here was evidence of . . . government funding of Islamic ventures (mosques, pilgrimages) from taxpayers' money. Also Muslims involved in riots had seemingly been treated with kid gloves." 42 This is where I locate the second point in assessing CAN's political agenda. That is to say, no amount of quarantine could have immunized CAN against such a flagrant disregard for the concerns of Christians. Perhaps, it is right to say that CAN became a victim of the scale of political balance it hoped to tilt and stabilize.

Lamin Sanneh captures this well when he declares that "[a]ll religious systems are equally vulnerable to the relentless incursions of temporal compromise and to the vagaries of human instrumentality even, or especially, where human stewardship is claimed in the service of revealed truth." 43 The ultimate challenge for CAN, as well as the other political players, is how to broaden their notion of fairness so that the rule of safeguarding and promoting one's own welfare does not become less valid when transferred to another's. In other words, conflicting demands must be dealt with without compromising the basic political principles of continued common existence. 44

It is one thing to accuse CAN of political naďveté. It is totally a different thing to fault it for addressing its partisan concerns, especially when it sees itself as victim of the religio-political structures. CAN epitomizes a moral ground and catch-all repository of hopes and platform for fighting what it perceived as an old nemesis, Islam. It seems, however, that the struggle has just begun. The two constitutional debates of 1978 and 1988 respectively, would influence further, in very specific and conspicuous ways, the politicization of religion in Nigeria.

Toward a Religio-Political Synthesis: The
Constitutional Debates of 1978 and 1988

The discussion so far has demonstrated that the whole political apparatus of Nigeria's First Republic was the use of religion as a free-floating phenomenon. To this extent, the history of the use of religion as an instrument of political mobilization is a single story. The civil war of 1967 - 1970 complicates this story, but it does not determine it.

This distinction has implications for understanding the interrelated aspects of religion and politics in Nigeria and the bitter contention by the country's main religious rivals (Christianity and Islam) to increase the realms of their involvement. In no other area was this more apparent than in the process of re-democratization that was set in motion in the constitutional debates of 1978 and 1988 respectively. Both debates were efforts initiated by military governments to formulate federal constitutions that will guide the country in the Second and Third Republics. It is needless to say that the likelihood of taking up religious issues, including moral and philosophical concerns, provoked further the crisis of ideologies.

The Christians, through CAN, wanted a secularized polity so that the role of religion in the new Republics is depoliticized. To them, the bitter religiously motivated conflicts of the First Republic (1960-1966) and the civil war (1967-1970), constituted enough reasons. This attitude, which is doubtlessly integral to modern Western political theory, was not the theocracy of which the Muslims were most cognizant. Instead, the Muslims found the Christians' notion deficient on the ground that it had a clear affinity with European colonial policy which they also understood to be clearly Christian.

The state, however, found a remedy in the constituent assemblies composed of people from all walks of life. This way, the state attempted to show its neutrality but insofar as the constituent assemblies conducted themselves strictly on impartial grounds. This was not meant to be. When it came to acts and deeds, disputes and irreconcilable ideological differences between the religious agencies, notably Christians and Muslims, led to a clash of religio-political synthesis and secularized polities.

Toward the Second Republic: The First
Constitutional Crisis of 1978-1979

At this point in our historical survey of the politicization of religion in Nigeria, the assumption that "religious resurgence is a cyclical phenomenon" would not be a mere rhetoric. 45 In no other aspects of the constitutional debates was this more apparent than in the fragile sections 23, 26, and 27. These sections, falling under the provisions of "Fundamental Human Rights," attempted to clarify three issues: define the status of religion, clarify the posture of the state in religious matters, and expose freedom issues and the status of Sharia. 46 The first issue was not so much of a contention as was the cynicism that attended the last two.

"The State in Religious Matters": Defining a Secular State

The Constitutional Conference of 1978-1979 was essentially a construct, attempting to oversee the drafting of a new federal constitution in anticipation of return to the civilian rule of the Second Republic. Colonial imposition of the constitution of the First Republic had specified that Nigeria was to remain a secular state. The substance of the provision was a split-level structure between the sacred and the secular. While the constitution did not imply indifference on the part of the state, it did prescribe that the state remains neutral in all matters of religion. In order to protect human rights and foster pluralism, the constitution further declared several freedoms. That is, freedom to practice, propagate, and change one's religion without coercion.

The interesting feature of this secularist ideology is the disjunction between the sacred and secular, and with neutrality which does not prescribe indifference. In other words, just precisely how the state would enforce this clause of the constitution while remaining neutral has always been a considerable dilemma. To Muslims, colonial laws were synonymous with Christianity by virtue of their shared "Christian-ness" and bolstered by their shared "European-ness." Because of this affinity, Nigeria, in the Muslims' perception and interpretation, can neither be called secular nor Islamic.

They pointed to many spheres of the nation's public life to illustrate what they perceived as the state's adoption of Christian values and symbols. These included, among others, the observance of Saturdays and Sundays as free working days, the use of the cross as symbol for the nation's health institutions, and the use of Christian calendar to name school holidays such as Christmas and Easter breaks. 47

As was to be expected, the Christian members of the Constituent Assembly responded with a vigorous rebuttal. To them, the outcry of their Muslim counterparts was a disguise to concretely rework an Islamic agenda into the very fabric of the nation. Although the constitution of the First Republic prescribed a secularist ideology, the state, according to the Christians, had been undeniably Islamic in outlook and practice. To justify their claims, the Christians pointed to what may be regarded as an extensive overlap of state policies with the Islamic agenda to create a theocratic center for religion.

They did not make mere speculative allegations. They pointed to concrete instances of the use of state apparatus to further the cause of Islam. These included the use of state funds to build mosques and to finance other Muslim projects such as the trip to Mecca, the hajj. They also implicated the state in its establishments of the Pilgrims' Welfare Board and the Nigerian Pilgrims Board in 1958 and 1975 respectively. Both were ostensibly meant to facilitate government's subsidies of the pilgrimage and to coordinate logistical problems associated with the journey. The Christians also pointed to the pressure for Islamization as has been demonstrated in the limited practice of Sharia. Perhaps the strongest claim by the Christians was how Islam impinges on the imperatives of the state itself by holding the people captive to the political whims of the Muslim north.

To this crisis of disillusionment on what constitutes a "secular" state was added the crisis of rising expectations of how precisely this would play out in the Second Republic. The Muslims' position was that banishing religion from the public sphere is a negation of Sharia and by implication, inimical to the development and aspiration of dár al-Islam (the nation of Islam). A secular state, in their opinion, is nothing but an atheistic state.

Thus, the Christians' insistence on ideological secularism inspired widespread Muslim disenchantment as a disguise to "perpetuate Euro-Christian culture and neocolonialism." 48 To the Muslims, the political standard lá hukm illá bi-illáhi (no government except under Allah, God) is the reference point for an ideal state. To accept a secularist ideology for Nigeria, therefore, was a dangerous religious compromise capable of stripping its public square of the transcendent moral values of Allah through the Qur'an.

The Muslims' interpretation and popular disenchantment did not resonate with rank-and-file Christians. To the Christians, secularism is not synonymous with atheism. Rather, it denotes recognition of "separate and equally valid spheres of God and Caesar." 49 While a secular state was the political structure inherited from the British, the Christians argued, it does not have to take the form of religious compromise as the West has modelled. To the Christians, the logic of secularism, of state neutrality in all matters of religion, is a lesser evil in comparison to Muslim theocratic demands.

Needless to say, neither side buckled under the intense pressure of argumentation. As a temporary measure for peaceful coexistence, therefore, the government adopted a compromising position that called Nigeria a religious country without an official religion. Even then, the issue of definition has still not been resolved. Instead, it has produced another ideological crisis, much more intense in nature, in the Muslims' demand for Sharia.

"Sharia in Toto": The Political Challenge of Islam

The failure to determine and clarify the official status of religion has not been the sole agency of Muslim-Christian opposition; but it formed the detonator of the vast explosion of religious violence of the 1980s. This has made an official position even more frustratingly problematic. Just precisely how the draft constitution of the Second Republic would fit Nigeria's unique ethnic and religious heritage without falling victim to the structural problems that defeated the First Republic became one of the main contentions of the Constituent Assembly.

Still more problematic was "the extent to which concessions, if any, should be given to Muslims in the country's judicial system, and the extent to which Muslims could demand "balance" and "fairness" for perceived state concessions to Christians' without threatening public peace. 50 The Muslims have always held that a full implementation of Sharia (Sharia in Toto) is their inalienable religious and constitutional rights. To them, "[t]he Sharia is God's revealed law; it is therefore a collective duty of Muslims to obey it, just as it is the duty of the jurisprudents to determine what the Sharia is." 51

This theological position was and continues to be the instrument and the touchstone that prescribe for Muslims an uncompromising stand against an alien English law which they perceived to be based on pagan Roman law. 52 The demand for an official recognition of the Sharia in the nation's judicial system, as a Muslim scholar has observed, remains "the most important and complex political issue dividing Muslims and Christians in Nigeria." 53

Birai's observation is an accurate one. For no other religious issue has had as much religious and political ramifications as the issue of Sharia. Historically, Sharia courts, following the M?lik? School, had existed in pre-colonial northern Nigeria. Even the British recognized the importance of Sharia to northern Muslims and conceded that it was equivalent to the customary courts.

This concession was embodied in the Native Courts Proclamation of 1900 as the British stated that "these courts are to administer native law and custom prevailing in the area of jurisdiction and might award any type of punishment recognized thereby except mutilation, torture, or any other which is repugnant to natural justice and humanity." 54 However, it was not until 1956 that Sharia was formally written into the northern regional constitution of the First Republic. Even then, it was confined to the private and personal domains and had remained a non-issue until the constitutional debate of 1978-1979.

There was an important dimension to the constitutional crisis of 1978-1979. Whereas Sharia had been acceptable and appropriately confined to the Islamic north, the Muslims' desire for its legal and geographical extension to all of Nigeria quenched even the slightest flicker of any possible compromise between the Christian and Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly. The Muslims argued from two standpoints, namely, the religious integrity of Sharia and the moral implications of a religion-free state. In the first place, the Muslims pointed to the nature of Sharia as a sacred law embracing the whole range of a Muslim's religious duties. Consequently, it is mandatory for them to obey the divine injunction since it constitutes "the totality of Allah's commands that regulate the life of every Muslim in all its aspects." 55

The second unmistakable argument of the Muslims was the reality of a morally bankrupt Nigeria. To them, the religious minimalism of the so-called secular state has been detrimental just like the Western political ideologies on which it was modelled. The Muslims believed that by banishing religion from the public sphere, especially the criminal jurisdiction of Sharia, Nigeria has become a breeding place for iniquity. And in order to flourish on ill-gotten political and economic status quo, "[e]very politician tells lies, all army officers are rogues, people cannot train their mouths and minds, [and] women have no self control." 56 A foundational attachment in the Sharia, the Muslims concluded, would correct these moral lapses and promote social justice.

But the Muslims' determination to solely occupy the religious center by "reject[ing] any new political order that does not recognize the uninhibited application of Sharia law in Nigeria" 57 met with a parallel determination to suppress the contradictions of Muslim religious demands. The Christians refused to be marginalized on an important issue that would gravely affect their way of practicing their faith. Consequently, their objections to Sharia were based on two grounds-political and jurisprudential. 58

First, the Christians invoked the secularist ideology of institutional separation and state neutrality to counter the Muslims' demand to make Sharia a political prerogative. To them, the inclusion of "religious laws or principles of any particular religion" in the constitution was tantamount to a new ideological and institutional establishment of religion. 59 Such an action, the Christians believed, was a decisive step oriented toward a theocratic state under the religio-political jurisdiction of Islam. Equally important was the political implication of giving public witness to "a religious system espoused by only the adherents of one particular religion." 60 Not only would this breach the constitutional "equality" of all citizens; to the Christians, it was also capable of making non-Muslims second-class citizens.

The second reason for Christian objections centered on the unusual legal procedures of Sharia. Although the Muslims claimed "the Shar??a law is based on a set of particularized rules of the Islamic tradition," 61 the Christians' perception of it was one of "backward legal system unfit for the modern age." 62 Its provisions (huddi) were seen to be riddled with draconian punishments. For example, the penal code on theft and adultery (zina) prescribed severance of limbs and death by stoning respectively (rajmi). 63 To this end, the Christians' task had two complementary sides: to show that Sharia showed no potential for reworking into the constitution of the Second Republic and to find ways to represent secularism as the realization of Nigeria's political destiny.

Overall, the ideological opposition during this period (1978-1979) without any doubt, had important political implications. Simply put, for Muslims it was a "hegemonial contention" for what was perceived as the best path toward Nigeria's political future. Islam, for the Muslim north, represents a better democratic polity since its codes of personal conduct, unlike the "bankrupt" Western values and ideologies, are fair and just. To the Christian south, however, imposing Islamic ideology was to set Nigeria on a deficient path, contoured with anti-modern, anti-progress, and anti-democracy culture that has come to be associated with the Islamic Arab world. 64

These religious controversies have remained Nigeria's greatest perennial problem. The same agitation for a strict implementation of Sharia across the country continues to inspire the troubling bombings by the Islamic sect, Boko Haram, including those of December 25, 2011. To recognize the continuity in Nigeria's history, we only have to take a cursory look at the reign of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the self-styled "evil genius," whose venal regime threw the country more into the very abyss of religious politics.

To be continued next week



  1. For lack of space, I will not preoccupy myself with a review of the different theories that have been posited for the founding of CAN. A good resource, perhaps the most authoritative to date, is Iheanyi Enwerem's A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicization of Religion in Nigeria (1995).
  2. Together they comprise the five blocs that make up CAN: Christian Council of Nigeria, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Organisation of African Instituted Churches, and Evangelical Fellowship of West Africa.
  3. See his statement, "Sustaining Nigeria's Nationhood," This Day, June 8, (2002:5).
  4. OIC is an abbreviation for "Organization of Islamic Conference." Formed in 1965 through the initiatives of the Muslim communities around the world, the purpose for the founding of the organization was to propagate Islam and acquaint the rest of the world with Islam, its issues and aspirations.
  5. Iheanyi Enwerem, A Dangerous Awakening (1995:119-120).
  6. Enwerem (1995:119).
  7. Christian Association of Nigeria, Leadership in Nigeria (To Date): An Analysis (1987:viii). See also A. Edema, "Christians and Politics" (1989:12-18).
  8. For Kukah's argument see, "Christians and Nigeria's Aborted Transition" (1995:225-238).
  9. Kukah (1995:226).
  10. Kukah (1995:226).
  11. Kukah (1995:227).
  12. For details, see Joseph Kenny, "Sharia and Christianity in Nigeria: Islam and a 'Secular' State" (1996:338-364).
  13. Matthew Hassan Kukah, "Christians and Nigeria's Aborted Transition" (1995:227).
  14. Lamin Sanneh, Piety and Power (1996:128).
  15. Simeon Ilesanmi, Religious Pluralism and the Nigerian State (1997:192).
  16. Donald Smith, "The Limits of Religious Resurgence" (1990:34).
  17. For details, see Ogbu Kalu, Power, Poverty and Prayer: The Challenges of Poverty and Pluralism in African Christianity, 1960-1996 (2000).
  18. Joint Muslim Advisory Council of Oyo State, "An Appeal to the Christian Association of Nigeria" (1989:2).
  19. For details, see Umar Birai, "Islamic Tajdid and the Political Process in Nigeria" (1993:184-203).
  20. Lamin Sanneh, Piety and Power (1996:112).
  21. Adigun Agbaje, "Travails of the Secular State: Religion, Politics, and the Outlook on Nigeria's Third Republic" (1990:292).
  22. R.S. O'Fahey, "The Past in the Present? The Issue of the Sharia in Sudan" (1995:32).
  23. For detailed discussions on the Shar?a debates, see Matthew Hassan Kukah, Religion, Politics, and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993); W.I. Ofonagoro, The Great Debate: Nigerians' Viewpoints on the Draft Constitution, 1976-77 (1978); David Latin, "The Sharia Debate and the Origins of Nigeria's Second Republic" (1982); and Joseph Kenny, "Sharia and Christianity in Nigeria: Islam and a 'Secular' State" (1996).
  24. Umar Birai, "Islamic Tajdid and the Political Process in Nigeria" (1993:191).
  25. E. Keay and S. Richardson, The Native Customary Courts of Nigeria (1966:22). See also Matthew Hassan Kukah, Religion, Politics, and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993:116).
  26. Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Mohammedan Jurisprudence (1959:1). See also S.K. Rashid, Islamic Law in Nigeria: Application and Teaching (1988).
  27. Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies (1998:79).
  28. New Nigerian, "Sharia Law in Nigeria," September 29, 1986.
  29. Much of the perspective and direction adopted here have been largely influenced by Simeon Ilesanmi. See his work, Religious Pluralism and the Nigerian State (1997:188-197).
  30. Catholic Bishops of Nigeria, Christian/Muslim Relations in Nigeria: The Stand of the Catholic Bishops (n.d.). Also cited in Simeon Ilesanmi, Religious Pluralism and the State (1997:191).
  31. Ilesanmi (1997:191).
  32. David Latin, "The Sharia Debate and the Origins of Nigeria's Second Republic" (1982:413-414).
  33. Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria (1998:78).
  34. For a good analysis of the new phase of Sharia controversy in contemporary Nigeria, see Ogbu Kalu, "Safiyya and Adamah: Punishing Adultery with Sharia Stones in 21st Century Nigeria" (2003:389-408).
  35. Jeff Haynes, Religion in Third World Politics (1994:67-68). Haynes' work is an excellent analysis of the role and influence of religion in the politics of countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle-East.

S. 'Jide Komolafe, Ph.D., is Professor of Intercultural Studies. He has taught African Languages and Cultures at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is Adjunct Professor of World Religious Traditions at The University of Phoenix, Southern California Campus. He is Executive Director, Christian Research Institute, Lagos - Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected]