When the drafters of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria enshrined in section 10 that “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion,” they envisaged the divisive and polarizing nature of mixing faith and politics. They knew that for a religiously pluralistic entity like Nigeria to survive and develop, thrive and flourish, the state must be neutral in religious matters.
Unfortunately, subsequent state actors in Nigeria have ignored this crucial constitutional principle to the detriment of the Nigerian nation. Segments of the Nigerian Federation or state have continued to mix religion and politics in ways that have undermined progress, unity, tolerance and development across the country.
In particular, political Islam rules in the Muslim majority states in the north. Contrary to the constitution, sharia is the state law, Islam is the state religion, and jihad is a way of retaining, restoring, or securing the Islamic political status quo.
Politics is driven not by attempts to grow the economy, alleviate poverty, or tackle unemployment but by the so-called struggle to establish an Islamic state. Politicians from these northern states regard political Islam as a necessary qualification for participating in the Nigerian state.
Any attempt to understand or address the menace of Boko Haram and the threat of Islamic extremism in contemporary Nigeria must consider seriously the phenomenon of political Islam and how it has undermined the development of northern Nigeria and the realization of a free, equal, peaceful, tolerant, and democratic society. It is important to acknowledge the other factors responsible for a lack of development in northern Nigeria, but for now let’s focus on political Islam.
Political Islam in northern Nigeria predates Nigeria’s independence. The quest for sharia, sometimes through violent means, is not new to the country, but rather has been going on for centuries. Traders and jihadists from North Africa introduced Islam to Hausa states in northern Nigeria around the ninth century. But in 1804 a Fulani preacher, Sheikh Usman dan Fodio, unsatisfied with the way Islam was practiced in Hausa kingdoms, launched a jihad. Dan Fodio’s jihad was not merely a non-violent struggle on the part of Allah, as many would have us believe. It was a military expedition that led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate—an Islamic theocratic state governed with a more strict interpretation of sharia and Islam. This was the political and religious climate in northern Nigeria when the country gained independence in 1960. So Nigeria inherited a jihadist Islam. The specter of political Islam has since ominously haunted the project of nation-building and development.
There are actually two versions of political Islam competing in post-independence northern Nigeria. We have the political Islam of the state establishment and the political Islam of non-state agents. The former is characterized by state enforcement of sharia law, as is currently the case in Zamfara, Kano, Sokoto, Yobe, Kebbi, Katsina, and Jigawa states. It uses the state machinery to legitimize itself and is funded with state money.
But there is also a non-state political Islam which is championed by Islamist groups like Boko Haram, Maitatsine, and other sects that exist in the region. Self-appointed preachers, scholars, or teachers lead their campaign to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. They mobilize and seek legitimacy by criticizing the political Islamic establishment, by pointing out the corrupt nature of sharia as implemented by this establishment, and by portraying themselves as reformers or Mahdis. They sometimes use violence to communicate their message and register their demands. Boko Haram is the latest face of non-state political Islam in Nigeria.
Both versions of political Islam are alienating and antagonizing, turning northern Nigeria into a religious battleground pitching Muslims against Muslims, and Muslims against Christians and other religious minorities. No society can achieve meaningful development under this climate of fear, hatred, and mistrust.
To develop and prosper in the contemporary world, northern Nigeria must dismantle the structure of political Islam and separate mosque and state. Politicians should de-establish Islam, stop state enforcement of sharia, and end the legalized discrimination against non-Muslims. The government of Katsina is using state money to build mosques and pay imams as part of its sharia implementation program. And the sharia police in Kano have destroyed goods belonging to Christians in the name of enforcing sharia law in the state. It is not the duty of the state to enforce Islamic laws, finance the building of mosques, or sponsor religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The state should instead focus on guaranteeing the equal rights of all citizens to profess their religion or belief and providing an enabling environment for local and foreign investments. The people in northern Nigeria should value a state that is religiously neutral; a state that can uphold the rule of law, of civilized, secular, human rights-compatible laws. People are likely to invest and contribute to the development of a state or country where they are treated with dignity and respect—where their full human rights are respected and where they can access justice.
There is also an urgent need to improve the quality of education in the region. According to Unesco, northern states have among the lowest literacy rates in the country. Development depends on information and learning, and any society that wants to develop must take education seriously. To combat underdevelopment in northern Nigeria, mixing education and Islamic indoctrination must stop. Schools should no longer be an extension of mosques and Quranic learning centers. The people of the North should ensure that ”Boko” (Western education) is no longer ”Haram” (sin) in Muslim majority states. The much talked about development in southern Nigeria is mainly due to the spread of ‘Western’ education which many people in the Muslim majority states have been brainwashed to regard as Haram. The disgusting paradox is that the Muslim elite in the north send their children to the best schools in Europe and America while at the same time promoting Boko Haram ideology and other anti-Western rhetoric in the region.
This hypocrisy must stop. The people of northern Nigeria must wake up now to the reality of political Islam and its discontents, borrowing a page from the playbook of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to transform northern Nigeria into a modern, secular, and democratic region.