Nigeria: Between Formal and Informal Religious Regulation

In Nigeria, religion plays a powerful role in public life. Religiosity is highly visible in political campaigns, the media, the education sector, and in everyday life. Although much of this public piety appears genuine, the Nigerian Marxist scholar Yusufu Bala Usman’s warnings in the 1980s about the “manipulation of religion” in Nigeria remain relevant today. For both politicians seeking mass support and religious leaders seeking political influence, religion is a powerful tool. Because of the political opportunities it presents, whether in terms of winning elections, constraining rivals, or playing to populist agendas, religious regulation in Nigeria is deeply uneven and partly dependent on individual politicians’ and policymakers’ interests.
This chapter argues that religious regulation in Nigeria largely relies upon the relatively informal relationships between politicians and elite religious leaders. The chapter further contends that this model allows significant gaps in regulation and creates substantial vulnerabilities. Three major vulnerabilities include the following: (1) dynamics where state support for hereditary religious leaders can inadvertently undercut those leaders’ credibility; (2) patterns where new kinds of religious elites, particularly Pentecostal Christian megapastors, accrue power that impedes the state’s ability to regulate religion; and (3) difficulties that authorities encounter in regulating religious currents at the grassroots level, which can mean that authorities respond slowly to dangers and do so in a highly coercive and often counterproductive manner. In other words, the unevenness of regulation has consequences for religious institutions, intercommunal relations, and security conditions.

This chapter is part of Faith in the Balance: Regulating Religious Affairs in Africa.

Alex Thurston