Religion and the Making of Nigeria

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Olufemi Vaughan
Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Religion and the Making of Nigeria, Olufemi Vaughan examines the imbrication of religious movements, religious structures, and competing political interests in the formation of the modern Nigerian nation-state. Using what he calls an interdisciplinary Africanist perspective, Vaughan marshals archival and ethnographic data to support his thesis that “Christian, Muslim, and indigenous religious structures are integral to the formation of the modern Nigerian state and society” (1). Vaughan’s focus on how the interactions among various religious actors precipitated the formation of the modern state provides an important historical context for understanding religious-based conflicts in Nigeria. Vaughan’s thorough examination of the role of religion in Nigerian state formation is an important intervention in the existing scholarship because it challenges the tendency to see the religious as secondary or unimportant to the sociopolitical and economic aspects of the state. 

Vaughan’s discussion of the role of religion in Nigeria’s development as a nation can be analyzed from the perspective of geography (Northern and Southern Nigeria), global religious movements (Islam and Christianity), and political periods (Colonial and Postcolonial). Vaughn’s argument and his layout of the book follow this pattern of geography, global religious movement, and political period. Chapter 1 offers an introductory discussion of Islam and Christianity as the “two monumental world religious movements that transformed the Nigeria region starting in the nineteenth century” (13). Vaughan makes the case that the “convergence” of Christianity and Islam created the necessary social and political conditions for state formation in the 20th century. Yet the layout of the chapter, and that of the entire book, treats both Islam and Christianity in Nigeria based on their ethno-geographic focal points. For example, the discussion on Islam’s impact on Nigeria’s formation focuses almost exclusively on the rise and expansion of the Sokoto Caliphate in the North and the Church Missionary Society in the South (24-25). Vaughan’s geographic framing of the two major world religions in Nigeria creates the impression that rigid borders separated the two regions and religions. The upshot of this presentation is the maximization of religious conflict between Muslims and Christians.

The Islamic reformist movement in the northern Hausa region resulted in the formation of the Sokoto Caliphate, and the consolidation of cities in what would eventually become the Northern Protectorate. The Christian evangelical movement took root in the southwestern Yorubaland, bringing along Western education, and catalyzing a pan-Yoruba consciousness. The ethnic and regional differences in terms of the routinization of Islam and Christianity are consequential given that they represent the kind of religio-ethnic partitioning that is still visible in Nigeria. For Vaughan, however, the real impact of the specific geo-cultural emergence of these religious movements in the history of Nigeria is the structures that they provided for later state formation under colonial rule in the 20th century. For example, Vaughan argues that the British found the Hausa-Fulani Muslim system of taxation, their centralized administrative structure, and legal code amiable to the colonialist system of indirect rule. Although the British retained control over certain aspects of the judicial system in the North, their appropriation of Islamic administrative structure resulted in the emergence of a Hausa-Fulani Muslim hegemony (65-68).

A significant portion of Vaughan’s work focuses on religion and constitutionalism in Nigeria. Vaughan demonstrates that efforts at establishing a Nigerian constitution involved negotiating among the competing religious, ethnic, and regional demands. Vaughan carefully points out that religious difference between the Muslim North elites and the Christian-influenced Southern elites in the Eastern and Western regions resulted in different attitudes towards independence, and the nature of a Nigerian constitution. The Southern elites pushed for independence with a centralized government that would stem the influence of the Northern region. According to Vaughan, the Northern leadership drew from their religious legitimacy to reinforce the regional system of governance, and preserve their political power. Amendments to the Native Court Law highlighted the constant struggle over religion’s role in the formation of an independent Nigeria. The 1956 Native Court Amendment allowed for sharia courts alongside non-Islamic native courts.

The place of sharia in the “modern” state came into focus during the constitution conferences convened from 1946 to 1949, and continued into the post-independent period. The focal point of this religious tension was the drafting of the 1976 constitution. The drafters eventually proposed a framework that would allow the Northern states to have Sharia and Customary Courts of Appeal (122). Vaughan’s argument shows that religious influence and concessions would characterization the process of creating the Nigerian republic. This concession to religious influence would explode in the so-called sharia crisis in 1999, where anti-sharia advocates argued that a constitution should be secular in nature.

Vaughan’s text presents Nigeria as an interesting test case in examining the limits of the religion-secular divide that is fundamental to Western democracies. Vaughan’s attention to the rise of Pentecostalism in Nigeria, starting in the 1980s, underscores how religion can easily capture the public imagination and dominate the public square. Vaughan argues that considering the voids created by the Biafra war, the compatibility of Pentecostal theology to indigenous Igbo beliefs, the fervor of youth evangelists, and the increasing use of media, the Pentecostal churches managed to play an important role in Nigeria’s transnational experience. The numerous debates about the role of sharia in national life, if nothing else, point to the centrality of religion in Nigeria. Vaughan concludes that “[o]verall, in postcolonial Nigeria, Muslim and Christian movements, along with their various segmented identities—Sufi, neo- Salafi, Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, and African—initiated church movements—are integrated into the fabric of Nigerian society, exposing the fault lines of the country’s entrenched ethno-regional, ethno- religious, and neopatrimonial nation-state” (224-25).

Despite the well-researched and forcefully argued points presented by Vaughan, Religion and the Making of Nigeria seems to be a book about the impact of Christian-Muslim interactions in the making of the Nigerian State, as Vaughan gave little attention to indigenous religions. Perhaps indigenous religions played a minor role in shaping the modern state, and thus very little could be said of their impact? Vaughan should have said more about the role of foreign influence on the religious landscape, and the type of politics pushed by the religious leaders across Nigeria.

Overall, Religion and the Making of Nigeria is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the present religious and political landscape in Nigeria. Vaughan’s case for the role of religion in modern state formation is an excellent paradigm for studying the role of religion in the process of decolonization in other nations, especially in Africa and the Caribbean.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Randy Goldson is a doctoral candidate in the Religion Department at Temple University. 

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Olufemi Vaughan is Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College and the author and editor of many books, including Nigerian Chiefs: Traditional Power in Modern Politics, 1890s-1990s.


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