Obasanjo turns to religion to help stabilize Nigeria

Category: Life & Society Views: 1303

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has established a forum for the resolution of religious conflicts in the country. Obasanjo used the September 29 creation of the Nigeria Inter Religious Council to call for greater adherence to religious beliefs in promoting national cohesion and stability. The council represents a noble, and perhaps necessary, attempt to stress the important role of religion in solving national disputes, but its creation also serves an important function in legitimizing the floundering Nigerian government.

Religion in Nigeria has often been the grounds for serious and sometimes bloody disagreements. To make matters worse, religion often falls along ethnic lines and geographical location. While the lines have blurred somewhat in recent years, the Hausa peoples of the North are Muslim, the Igbo of the Southeast are Christian while the Yoruba of the Southwest are animist, Christian and Muslim. Given the strong religious identity of many of these groups, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a conflict is ethnic in nature or religious. Recent riots between Hausa Muslims and members of the Yoruban Oru cult certainly took on religious undertones even if the original Yoruban killing of a Hausa woman perhaps had more to do with ethnic hatred. In this case, as in many others, religious divides, instead of allowing communities to rise above petty ethnic hatred, have served to exacerbate existing tensions.

But this is not to say that religion does not have the potential to provide an essential means to rise above emotional ethnic differences. In his speech inaugurating the council, Obasanjo charged that violent outbreaks in Nigeria's past and present were a result, not of a lack of religion, but because "many Nigerians are unfaithful to the demands of their religions," as quoted by the Lagos-based Vanguard. He called on religious leaders to "provide positive leadership to the adherents of your respective religious faiths, a leadership which will enhance societal harmony and promote high standards of behaviour and civil responsibility among our people."

By alluding to the apparent religiosity of Nigerians, Obasanjo has recognized the high regard with which religion seems to be held in Nigeria. A major debate around election time earlier this year was whether the Northern Muslims should be granted the right to practice Islamic Shari'a law. A September 29 feature in Nigeria's Guardian said the Katsina State House Assembly is currently moving toward the legalization of Shari'a law among the northern state's 99 percent Muslim population. Given the strong attachment to religious tradition, Obasanjo's recognition of the role of religion and his attempts to formally involve it in the national dialogue represent a noble effort on the part of Nigerian secular government.

But there is perhaps another reason for Obasanjo's creation of the religious council. The large number of ongoing ethnic disputes in Nigeria, some of them violent, reveal that allegiance to Nigerian nationhood is not enough to overcome the variety of conflicts. Obasanjo is in desperate need of religion in order to help him negotiate societal divides. Obasanjo told religious leaders at Wednesday's inauguration that the "government will be counting at all times on your wisdom and rich experience," according to the Vanguard. No doubt knowledgeable of the great societal influence of local religious leaders, perhaps over that of the state, Obasanjo's patronage of religious leaders is thus a source of legitimization for the state. With the new civil government threatened by a wave of ethnic violence, Obasanjo cannot do without religion if his government is to survive.

But it remains to be seen whether Obasanjo's patronage of religion is due to a genuine respect for religion's role or whether it comes out of sheer necessity. The President of Nigeria's Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs, Alhaji Muhammadu Maccido, told the inaugural gathering that the government should do more to promote the role of religion by establishing a special department for religious matters, the Vanguard reported. It seems evident that if Obasanjo is to mobilize religious leaders behind the state government, the recently created religious council must be followed up by more concrete measures to empower religious leaders and focus attention on the role of religion in solving Nigeria's problems.

Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com

  Category: Life & Society
Views: 1303
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