Must Reads on Religious Conflict in Nigeria


Must Reads on Religious Conflict in Nigeria

Emily Mellgard

14 Aug 2014

Emily Mellgard provides an overview of the background reading essential to an understanding of religious conflict in Nigeria.

Nigeria's literary tradition is longstanding, and a point of national pride. Indeed, the annual Nigeria International Book Fair is the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world. In many ways, the best place to begin to understand the dynamic complexities of this "Giant of Africa" is with Nigerian literature and what others have written about the country. Many of these books provide unique perspectives into the country's religious environment and illuminate points of intersection and tension that can lead to violence.

Things Fall Apart is often considered the archetypal African novel. It is an indispensable novel on Nigerian culture and the initial clash of colonial Christianity and African religions. In this and its sequel, Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe revels in confronting simplicity in accounts of cultural and religious tension – he presents the experience of colonialism in as complex a manner as possible. Often used on university courses, these books are intellectually stimulating and enjoyable to read.

A haunting narrative of political and religious tyranny.

A more recent, non-fiction, addition to Nigerian literature is Noo Saro-Wiwa's free-flowing travel memoir Looking for Transwonderland. Saro-Wiwa travels throughout Nigeria with a curious perspective both as an insider and a stranger. She vividly records a lust for life against the odds and weaves together encounters with deeply ingrained corruption, wild Pentecostalism, invasive evangelism, and increasingly institutionalised Islam. By comparison, Purple Hibiscus is more reserved and sits between Achebe and Saro-Wiwa on the historical timeline – taking place during the period of military dictatorships. The first novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it is a haunting narrative of political and religious tyranny, violence, and the subversive manipulation of love for the sake of power, yet extremely readable.

The more academic literature is also important in understanding the religious tensions at play in Nigeria. Philip Jenkins, a professor of religion, discusses the growing influence of Christianity in the "global south" in The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity. Nigeria is a leading Christian nation, and already boasts the largest Anglican seminary in the world. While this is an academic text, it is not so dense as to be a difficult read. An ideal companion to Jenkins' book is Ruth Marshall's Political Spiritualties: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria, concentrating specifically on Pentecostal revivalism in Nigeria. Its interdisciplinary approach weaves different perspectives, making it an approachable academic study. She explores the context surrounding the eruption of "born-again" experiences, and the churches, cultures, and influences that grew up around them.

Inextricably intertwined identities of religion, politics, and society.

In that vein, John Campbell's Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, is a crucial layman's introduction to Nigeria as a whole, and to its inextricably intertwined identities of religion, politics, and society. One chapter is dedicated to the exploration of the unique Nigeria Christian and Muslim faiths, their engagement with each other and the federal state. Another is given over to the rise and consequences of Boko Haram, the violent Islamist insurrection in the North.

In Muslim Civic Cultures and Conflict Resolution: the Challenge of Democratic Federalism in Nigeria John Paden – perhaps the seminal western expert on Nigerian Islam – explores the historical, predominantly Sufi and periodically imperial Muslim communities in Nigeria. Paden's analysis is in a more classically academic style, and examines the tensions across generations and hierarchies. These have been manipulated, in many ways, into the anger that drives the current Islamist inspired rejection of the secular state and violent insurrections across the North and Middle Belt, most horrifically displayed in Boko Haram.

Part history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Religion in Politics: Secularism and National Integration in Modern Nigeria, edited by Julius Adekunle, explores the interwoven relationship between religion and politics in Nigeria. These essays are an intricate and detailed – and, on the whole, very readable – commentary on the complexity of Nigeria's interconnecting religious and political spheres.

The intersection of politics and religion can be violently combustible. Nigerian historian Toyin Falola explores this phenomenon in the Nigerian context in Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. Falola, and his collaborator Matthew Heaton, approach the topic with an impressive array of disciplines and sources, ensuring that the final product is engaging and flows well. They begin in the prehistoric roots of what is today Nigeria, and discuss political and religious cooperation, competition, subversion, and outright conflict in a broad context of history, culture, and society.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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