The Perils of U.S. Support for Religion Regulation in Nigeria

This commentary is part of a year-long study examining how states in Africa seek to manage religious affairs. The project is made possible with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.

In Nigeria, religion has a powerful role in politics and public life. Its positive contributions to the country’s diversity are often offset by persistent public suspicion that some Christian and Muslim leaders are amassing undue influence, promoting intolerance, and driving intercommunal violence. Whether it is Muslim hardliners denouncing polio vaccination campaigns as anti-Muslim plots or Christian hardliners accusing Muslim politicians of scheming to Islamize Nigeria by force and trickery, the country’s religiosity often combines explosively with socioeconomic and political factors that underpin Nigeria’s volatility. However, any recommendation to increase religious regulation by the Nigerian state, especially if under pressure from Washington, would risk doing harm.

Nigerians, members of one of the most diverse societies in the world, are highly alert to any perceived ethnic, regional, or religious favoritism by the federal or the state governments; it was not long ago that President Muhammadu Buhari, as a candidate in 2014-2015, was routinely accused of harboring a secret agenda to Islamize the country. Even well-intentioned efforts to control preaching or to take further regulatory control over education (including Quran schools) could easily be misread as a form of harassment. One can argue that the Nigerian government should have regulated Boko Haram out of existence during its early years, but one can equally argue that by acting in an inconsistent and confrontational manner, authorities squandered opportunities to deescalate the situation before it exploded. Meanwhile, the evident reluctance of Nigerian lawmakers to challenge Pentecostal Christian megapastors on issues ranging from taxing churches to enforcing building safety codes show that the dilemmas of regulation are not limited to Islam or to the north.

Here, then, are four guides for U.S. policymakers thinking about religious regulation in Nigeria:

  1. Be humble. The U.S. government should treat Nigeria not just as a “partner” but as an equal. Nigerian officials are increasingly unwilling to accept any perceived paternalism or interference from the United States and Europe. During the 2019 election campaign one prominent member of the ruling party, Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai, said on national television, “We are waiting for the person who will come and intervene. They will go back in body bags because nobody will come to Nigeria and tell us how to run our country.” For years, Nigerian presidential administrations and senior military commanders have listened politely to U.S. policymakers’ advice about how to handle Boko Haram—and then have followed their own course. Some Nigerian policymakers and military officers are openly hostile to human rights organizations or other foreign bodies perceived as meddlesome. In short, U.S. policymakers will achieve little by pressuring Nigerian peers on any issue, much less the ultrasensitive question of religious regulation. Additionally, the United States may be more effective as a facilitator of conversations between Nigeria and other governments about religious regulation rather than the United States directly attempting to shape Nigerian policy choices.

  2. Don’t securitize Islam. As the International Crisis Group has warned, “Casting ‘violent extremism,’ a term often ill-defined and open to misuse, as a main threat to stability risks downplaying other sources of fragility, delegitimising political grievances and stigmatising communities as potential extremists.” U.S. policymakers should approach this topic skeptically, asking themselves why certain Nigerian authorities are arguing that specific religious groups require regulation. For example, there has been too much ill-informed speculation about the role of Quran schools in supposed radicalization connected to Boko Haram—even as experts point out that there is little evidence to support the idea of a pipeline from those schools to jihadism. Nigeria’s security challenges, including Boko Haram, have multifaceted roots that extend beyond just religiously-tinged extremism. Some evidence suggests that recruitment to violent groups has more to do with security force abuses against civilians than with preaching or religious education. Moreover, by treating Muslims as an inherent security threat or by conflating the issue of violent extremism with the project of spreading liberal values (for example, on girls’ education or LGBT rights), the U.S. government risks reinforcing some Muslims’ perception that the “War on Terror” or the “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) agendas are, at their core, anti-Islam crusades. Peace can be achieved in northeastern Nigeria without attempting to make the region's Muslims dramatically change their understanding of what Islam says about law, politics, gender, education, and interfaith relations and without promoting one particular form of Sunni Islam over others.

  3. Engage the critics. Under the Obama and Trump administrations, the State Department has conducted substantial outreach to Nigerian religious leaders. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the United States Institute of Peace also prioritize Nigeria. These channels enable a robust policy of outreach. But to be even more effective, U.S. policymakers should broaden their strategies for engagement, including with Muslim clerics (such as Salafis and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria) and Christian leaders who are critical of U.S. foreign policy. Nigerian Christians who are stridently anti-LGBT, who accuse the U.S. government of coddling northern Nigeria, and who use incendiary and exclusivist rhetoric when reacting to farmer-herder violence or Boko Haram attacks, would be extremely challenging but also vitally important to engage. If the people in the room are saying what U.S. diplomats want to hear, then the outreach is too narrow.

  4. Talk to youth and women. In Nigeria and around the world, U.S. policymakers and diplomats talk a good game about empowering youth and women. But in practice, religious outreach often means one “big man” talking to another. Both U.S. diplomatic engagement with Nigerian religious leaders and U.S. CVE programming have reflected implicit reliance on hierarchy and gerontocratic models of religious authority. Yet Nigeria’s religious landscape is increasingly fragmented; hereditary leaders’ authority is increasingly challenged and undermined, and when it comes to ultra-sensitive issues involving religion—for example, the question of whether and how it might be possible to successfully dialogue with Boko Haram—some of the key actors are often women and youth. U.S. policymakers and programmatic staff should redouble their efforts to reach some of the less-heard voices in the religious sphere and move beyond top-down religious engagement.

Alexander Thurston is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Alexander Thurston