In discussing the politics of life across Africa, we cannot ignore religion. As Africans, our unique history of belief has made religion such an integrated part of our lives.
The colonization of Africa was a multifaceted subjugation of political and economic independence, language, religion and culture. In both the Arab and European colonization of Africa, religion was a central tenet, and the theology of each form of colonization has contributed immeasurably to the state of Africa today. Therefore, in discussing the politics of life across the continent, even currently, we cannot ignore religion. As Africans, our unique history of belief has made religion such an integrated part of our lives. And for us to even begin to consider the ways in which we can decolonize ourselves, we must call into question our very own history.
In pre-colonial African societies, religion and art were inextricably linked. The terracotta of West Africa, and the sculptures of Ancient Egypt are evidence of this. If religion provided a world of meanings, then art, in its various guises, served to reflect the state of human consciousness. If we think of art as a mediator of truth, an idealized form of true beauty and freedom, then art serves the role of exposing something true of ourselves. Art as a form of individual expression is often thought of as a mirror or reflection of human experience. Art is, of course, the most visible aspect of a culture but it can also be an expression of rebellion, a form of protest against culture. What art does, essentially, is illuminate the human condition. If culture plays a role in shaping the type of art produced, then art, which often reflects the undulations of culture, can serve to inform and to replenish culture. It stands to reason then, that one of Nigeria’s greatest artists, Fela Kuti, was an ardent anti-colonialist.
Art and religion are not so different in that they both express deeply, a way of seeing and experiencing the world. More so, religion provides a sense of identity, and is a social adhesive that holds society and peoples together. Of course, one can identify with a work of art; however, a work of art, one could argue, does not necessarily exude an ideological narrative that draws people together, providing an institutional sense of identity in the way that religion does.
If we look at the divisions in Nigeria, we find that the deepest fault line that runs through society is religious. Nigeria was, once, a colonial fiction of two halves and we are still struggling to reinvent ourselves despite the reality of intermarriage, migration and mixing of other sorts initially imposed through colonial rule. The northern half still represents the first wave of colonization (the Arab Islamic colonization), and the southern half of Nigeria still represents the European wave of colonization. This religious division is interwoven into the deep ethnic diversity of the country, and, as a result of political machinations, has long been a significant driver of conflict.
If art serves to reflect culture and the human experience, then religion is an expression of those cultural and experiential values. And we can see that in the way various religions express our relation to the world. The Abrahamic religions express a fundamental opposition between chaos and order. Nature represents chaos, and it is we the humans, directed by God, who have to impose order. This fundamental opposition between chaos and order is expressed by many other doctrines: Daoism, for example, eloquently expresses these forces as Yin and Yang. However, for the Daoists, the existence of this duality, order and chaos, simply points to the necessity of finding “The Way”, finding a balance between the two states of being. This is expressed slightly differently in Christianity. The Christian story of creation of man in a garden is symbolic of our divine orderly nature—a garden is a centre of imposed control and design within a chaotic wilderness. However, the breach of this tender balance in the garden by a snake shows the ease with which the balance can be destroyed.
In one sense, it is remarkable the extent to which Africans, have adopted both Christianity and Islam. Every religion has at its core, a set of myths that define what it is to believe in that religion. Thus, the success of colonization rests on being able to convince indigenous populations that their myths are barbaric, and that in order to rise above that barbarism, indigenous populations must not only be colonized but also have to take on the mythology of their colonizer. And it is precisely this—the spiritual facet to colonization that is often unquestioned.
Both Fela and the Martinician philosopher, Frantz Fanon, lamented the extent to which the African mind had been colonized. However, Fela, especially, believed that the African who took on board the religion of their colonizer could never hope to decolonize themselves. His cousin and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, was not too different: Soyinka’s avowed commitment to his patron god, Ogun—the Yoruba god of iron and creativity—was his way of re-capturing an African identity, one, especially, that was not dictated by colonizers.
Nigeria remains an interesting country to investigate the process of colonization and decolonization. Nigeria is also ideal for understanding both processes through the prism of religion, precisely because the country represents the Arab Islamic and European Christian histories of religious colonization in Africa.
History is often presented as an objective account of events. However, a more nuanced description of history might be to see it as a subjective process of constant retelling. And this process is carried out by each generation according to their needs. The renowned historian, Cheikh Anta Diop, in the acclaimed work, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, went to great lengths to reclaim the African stories that had been lost through the ruptures of colonialism. We know that relations of power within society colour that society. For instance, many societies in West Africa today are deeply patriarchal but has it always been that way or is patriarchy something that was introduced? Diop argues the latter, that the patriarchal structures seen in African societies today, have not always existed as an essential attribute; that the groups that make up what is known as Nigeria today, along with other West African groups, did not always have the exclusively patriarchal structures that currently dominate their societies.
Rather, according to Diop, women were essential parts of the social structures that organized society. From the empire of Mali to Ashanti people of Ghana, and the Bantu people of Central Africa, these societies were to great extents matrilineal—kinship and royal inheritance being passed through the female line. We also see this in the writings of the medieval scholar and historian, Ibn Battuta. During his travels, Battuta noted that while the ancient Mali Empire had men in positions of power, this power was received through matrilineal lines. Battuta’s writings also revealed the existence of liberal attitudes with regard to the sexual and social lives of women in the Mali Empire. This, perhaps, is not a view that is associated with Africa today.
On the Christian Colonization of Nigeria
The triumph of colonization is the erasure of indigenous history. The power of a monotheistic religion is clear here—on the back of the justification of the one true God, nothing else matters. Colonial literature is often focused on the effects of colonialism on the material world of things and people, with the assault on the world of meaning and memory often left out, and it is this that often plays the most important role in transforming people’s subjective realities. Colonization’s dual process of erasing history and introducing a new mythology, has had profound, long-lasting effects on the African continent. To understand this requires, first, looking at Christianity’s inherent metaphysical structures.
In Christianity, God is the father—this is accepted without question, and is ironic, considering that, on Earth, the creative force of life is feminine. Man was made whole, and woman from part of man. Recall the primary opposition in the Garden of Eden between order and chaos. Humanity takes on that binary as an opposition between purity and corruption. The snake is replaced by Eve. And with man’s primary corrupting influence now woman, woman is the force that must be resisted, lest she corrupt the purity of man. From this backdrop, the Christian colonization of West Africa can be seen as a force that cemented patriarchal metaphysics onto the continent.
In Genesis, man is given dominion over all the animals and the seas and the earth. Contrast this with the totemism found in Bantu philosophy where humans and animals find identification in each other. This expresses a profound ontological difference between the two religions, for in totemism the essence of things, their ontology, is the vital force and the exterior form of beings is merely secondary. The totemism practiced by many in Black Africa expresses a vitalism that is at the core of their conception of the universe.
In the 2015 essay, “Stages of Colonialism in Africa”, Bulhan writes that,
“[A] broad consideration of colonialism suggests that this system of domination entails a contest of reality in three worlds: the world of things, of people, and of meaning. Driven firstly by economic motives, colonizers attacked the world of things to obtain raw materials and markets for manufactured goods. To obtain cheap or free labor, they not only occupied the land but also assaulted the world of people to force submission. Once they conquered the people and occupied the land, they assaulted the world of meaning because no system of oppression lasts without occupation of the mind and ontology of the oppressed”.
The crucial point Bulhan makes is that the replacement of a previously existing metaphysics with a Christian metaphysics, the replacement of meaning, is the most decisive act of colonization, where the colonized mind undergoes an ontological shift and re-imagines the world through new lenses of structure and meaning.
On the Islamic Colonization of Africa and its Effects on Nigeria
One of the reasons the effects of Islam in Africa are pervasive is due to the length of time Islam has been on the continent. Islam has existed in Africa since the 7th century, when it arrived through a series of invasions and conquests of Egypt. Diop writes that Ancient Egypt and other cultures in the Nile basin and across the African interior were essentially matrilineal. In fact, the first queen in recorded history was queen Hatshepsout of Egypt. Diop argues that the evolution of the African family towards patriarchy was heavily influenced by both the religions of Islam and Christianity, and the presence of Europe in Africa. In the realm of inheritance, for example, the African convert to Islam was governed by a patriarchal structure.
Islam shares many narratives with Christianity, however, Islam’s story of creation differs from Christianity’s in that, in Islam, the creation of woman is not described in detail. Man is made whole and his mate, woman, is made from the same nature and soul. She is not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but from Islamic tradition is known as Hawwa (Eve). Crucially, as in Christianity, the story of creation is of patrilineal framing—Allah is referred to as He. But Islam, in general, depends less on mythological narratives than Christianity, and is more concerned with social order, law and the state. This is one of the reasons why Animist religions in the Sahel have been able to blend into the structure of Islam, far more than has been the case with Christianity further down south.
By the 13th century, Islam had made its way to West Africa. According to Margari Hill, in the 2009 essay “The Spread of Islam in West Africa”:
“The history of Islam in West Africa can be explained in three stages: containment, mixing, and reform. In the first stage, African kings contained Muslim influence by segregating Muslim communities. In the second stage, African rulers blended Islam with local traditions as the population selectively appropriated Islamic practices. Finally, in the third stage, African Muslims pressed for reforms in an effort to rid their societies of mixed practices and implement Shariah”.
The Sokoto Caliphate in Hausaland, which represents this third stage, was only established as late as the 19th century. Currently, at around 45 million, Nigeria has the highest population of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the only other country that shared Nigeria’s unique religious split was Sudan before its division into two separate countries. Until then Sudan’s north was majority Muslim, and its south anything but.
The formation of the Sokoto Caliphate by Uthman Dan Fodio happened only a hundred years before the arrival of British colonial administrator, Frederick Lugard. Uthman Dan Fodio’s conquest was a jihad in the classic sense whereby the administration of law and justice was to be consolidated under the jurisdiction of Islam. This is important to note because it had serious implications for the events to follow—when Lugard conquered the very same area, the British opted to practice indirect rule; that is, they left in place the administrative structure that already existed.
On the part of the Muslim leadership, they practiced what is known as taqiyya, which represents an outward presentation of submission to a superior force, but all the while maintaining inner fealty to Islam. Therefore, while colonialism weakened the south with the introduction of a new religion, one can argue that it helped to preserve the pre-existing role of religion in the north. However, this preservation of certain elements such as the emirate structure did not exempt the North from experiencing the profound rupture that was colonial rule. The result is a country with profoundly different regional histories and formative influences.
Writing New Narratives
Nigeria is yet to have a unifying narrative—not a homogenous narrative, but one that gives a sense of what it is to be Nigerian. Because of this deficit, we fall back on our ethnic and religious narratives and use these as the bases for our identities. Calls for secession from the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and calls for Sharia law from Boko Haram, are all examples of the deep ruptures in Nigerian society that stem from the failure of the Nigerian political elite to build a Nigerian story.
The political elite may have tried—“Not In Our Character” under Abacha, “Rebranding” under Obasanjo—but these schemes were simply not credible because the people leading them did not manifest the ‘character’ being extolled or lacked the material conditions necessary for ‘rebranding’. These narratives were superficial and had no resonance with the lived experience of Nigerians. The only Nigerian story that endures has been one of pathological corruption and to live pathologically is to pathologize your society.
So long as ethnic conflicts are blanketed under religion, Nigerians will continue to be blinded. Soyinka sought relief in the gods of Yoruba mythology as a remedy to the divide between humanity and the original Oneness. Soyinka’s formulation of Yoruba dramatic theory is an investigation of tragedy from a thoroughly African perspective. The social evolution of ancient societies has shown that mythology always arises out of the encounter with the natural world. Myth plays the explanatory role of justifying existence. The intimate relationship between nature and society was especially important for Soyinka, in whose view societies are governed by a “metaphysics of the irreducible: knowledge of birth and death as the human cycle; the wind as a moving, felling, cleansing, destroying, winnowing force; the duality of the knife as blood-letter and creative implement”.
The strength of Yoruba mythology is evident, and has survived as far as Cuba, Haiti and Brazil. However, for most people, indigenous religions, knowledge and identities have all been lost or subsumed. For example, many do not know of the ancient Bori religion of the Hausa, which chronicle great cosmogenetic events—accounts of the origin of the universe. Unlike many other religions in the Sahel, the Bori did not resist Islam, and so has not been completely eradicated.
For some, these old religions still provide a framework of meaning for being in the world. However, it is largely impossible to reconnect with these religions. One possibility is to leave beliefs as they are; and perhaps by recognizing that conflict in the name of religion is a repetition of colonial trauma, and more pertinently, in the post-colonial era, a tool used by the political elite to manipulate and create fear of the Other, we can allow new stories can emerge. This requires agency, a will to move beyond the era of post-colonialism, but this can only happen through an active reflection of our history. And this becomes increasingly important because in contemporary Nigeria we are witnessing the rise of evangelical Christianity and Salafi Islam, which have emerged in the wake of worsening economic crises and the non-existence or dismantlement of state-run institutions. In that context, religion has provided relief and spaces in which people can exercise agency through prayer and communal organization but it has also provided vehicles for discontent, violence and extremism⎈
 Ibn Battouta’s writings are one of very few historical written records of West African societies in the 14th century. Other than their historical value, the writings of Ibn Battouta are valuable because he was brought up in the conservative Islamic tradition (recall Islam spread from the north of Africa southwards, and Battouta was Moroccan). Reading his account closely, one can see that he is not merely describing the sexual liberty of women with surprise, but also with disapproval. In fact, in one of his anecdotes, he remarks how disgusted he was when he encountered a married women bedding another man. Bear in mind such arrangements between women and men were not taboo, and the husband, in this case, was witness to the act. Crucially, this provides some insight into possible ways in which views on sexual conduct and sexual policing would have changed in West Africa with the spread of Islam.