In Search of Civility on Matters Religious, By Jibrin Ibrahim

Jibrin Ibrahim

Nigeria is widely acknowledged to be one of the most religious countries in the world. We spend an enormous amount of time engaged in religious rituals such as prayers and the study of religious texts. We commit an incredible amount of our time and money to religious purposes and we have made many of our religious leaders some of the richest people in the continent.

As our religions, Christianity and Islam are about love, peace, morality, forgiveness and fraternity of human kind. We should be a society characterised by love for our neighbours, absence of violence and immorality and civility. The fact of the matter however is that that is not what we are, we are busy killing each other.

Since independence, we have devoted a lot of our energy as a nation to practice true federalism and consolidate our democracy. We all know however that we have not done that. The development of federal and democratic culture has eluded us and there is a good reason to explain this failure.

Federalism and democracy require the existence of a modern state that can protect the rights of its citizens and extract duties from them. The state must be characterised by the practice of equity, the rule of law and the search for legitimacy. The legitimacy of the state is linked to its capacity to present itself to citizens as a provider of necessary public goods and more important, a neutral arbiter that guarantees the security of all sections of society.

When the state is generally perceived as serving the particularistic interests of one group, it starts losing its legitimacy, and indeed, its authority. As state capacity declines, fear of “the other” rises and inhabitants of the state resort to other levels of solidarity such as the religious, ethnic and regional forms in search of security. Religious insecurity is particularly insidious and dangerous because it makes people feel threatened not just in their present lives but also in the hereafter. The more our state fails in its obligations, the more we turn to religion.

Nigeria is defined today by a multiplication of religious movements and an intensification of their fervour. This has occurred in a prevailing context of serious economic and social crisis. The environment is also one in which there has been a collapse of an alternative ideological framework that provide hope and meaning to citizens. Nothing seems to work anymore. Religion has expanded its role in society to produce alternative autonomous spheres of meaning and action. Central to the importance of the religious sphere in contemporary Nigeria is the fact that it is an arena open to a wide range of actors and a broad spectrum of social projects. It is difficult for the access of actors to be blocked because as more established doors are closed, even more doors can be opened elsewhere. The religious arena is very dynamic and belief, adherence and commitment of large groups of people shift continuously, with the general direction of movement being from established traditional religious organisations to new and more populist versions and sects.

These organisations then become the key agents of socialisation, often replacing the family, school and the workplace. As traditional agents of socialisation such as the family and established or orthodox religious organisations are decomposing, new agencies such as the new religious movements, the mass media and computer technologies have taken the centre stage in defining civil society and what it does.

In contemporary Nigeria, the bulk of “really existing” civil society is religious society and not NGOs. I make this assertion on the basis that civil society is usually defined as an alternative social sphere which is relatively autonomous from the state and the family and organises social interaction. The evidence is extensive that most of civil society in our country is located within the religious sphere. Traditionally, it is assumed that the expansion of civil society leads to increased civility in society. Polished and refined manners are expressions of respect for other members of society. It is a pre-condition for democratic practice as citizenship cannot be effective if the rights and the dignity of the person are not respected. Part of the Nigerian tragedy is that refined and civil manners, which were essential elements of socialisation in most traditional societies, have been eroded by the state which works for only those in power, by joblessness of our youth and the parochial politics of our corrupt, bigoted and authoritarian leaders, which have pushed people into losing respect for their neighbours. It is in this context that rising religiosity has engaged civil society as an arena to promote intolerance, an ideology of contempt and exclusion and indeed, incitement to annihilate the other.

Nigeria is not acting in isolation as religious life is characterised by two basic tendencies. The first one is globalisation. Religious life and activities are experienced and propagated in universal ways and traditional as well as the most modern means of communication and networking are used to ensure that the religious community is not bound by the pedestrian borders of nation-states. The second important tendency is informalisation. Orthodox and traditional religious orders and structures are being challenged by new religious leaders from more varied backgrounds. While many of the new religious leadership set out to re-impose a new religious orthodoxy, their number, variety and the struggles they generate are creating a climate of informalisation of the religious terrain.

Globalisation is today the key word in explaining the contemporary international conjecture. It refers to the universalisation of certain practices, identities and structures and more significantly, to the expression of the current global restructuring of modern economic relations. We sometimes forget that globalization as an ideology was invented by religious movements. Historically, it was Sufi orders, Catholic missionaries and Buddhist monks that spread belief systems and rites over large portions of the globe before the current nation-states even emerged. Emile Durkheim, who studied these processes, assumed that with modernity, the control of civil society by these global religious will fade away and secularism will be the defining feature of modern life. Religion has however not faded away with the triumph of science and rationalism. On the contrary, the religious sphere has expanded, fuelled largely by global secular processes such as urbanisation, migration, economic relations and the mass media.

We are living in a world in which urbanisation is growing at an incredible rate. Cities are the focal points for the globalisation of the economy and for the production of goods and services. Nigeria has witnessed a massive growth of its urbanization and a majority of the 160 million Nigerian in the country today live in cities and towns. The defining element of urban growth has been the increase of the relative area occupied by the shanty towns. Our towns and cities are centres for the aggravation of poverty and over 100 million Nigerians are poor according to a study by the National Bureau of Statistics. According to UNESCO, we have ten million children in our cities that are not going to school and we also have the highest number of children infected by HIV in the world. Even more important, we are the only country with a large population that is not creating wealth for a significant proportion of the population. Meanwhile, our growth rate continues to accelerate and by 2059, we are estimated to have 440 million Nigerians living in the country.

The major characteristic of the urban crisis in the country is the precariousness of life. Daily subsistence needs of life such as food, housing, healthcare and education cannot be met by a large proportion of the population. There is serious pressure on modes of livelihood, both formal and informal. More and more people are being pushed into the informal sector. The breakdown of the social fabric and family bonds is producing a lumpen culture characterised by delinquency, violence, prostitution and other vices of a similar type that only religion seems to have an effective cure for. While we see the religion, we don’t really see the cure. May God save us and our children.

Dr. Ibrahim, a noted public intellectual writes from Abuja where he is Executive Director at the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD.


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