About a century and a half ago, colonisers came to what would later become Nigeria
with the intention of staking economic and territorial claims. These people came from
thousands of miles away to claim our land on behalf of their queen, and they used religion to
De-legitimising traditional religions was a cornerstone of colonial policy. Colonial
administrators often used the term “pagan” to demonise early traditional Nigerian religions
while simultaneously exploiting their totems and symbols for material gain. Countless idols, totems, and physical manifestations of traditional Nigerian belief systems mysteriously disappeared from their shrines only to reappear in European museums years later.
Several Nigerian religions are polytheistic, so it must at first have been difficult for us
to conceive that there was only one God. The theology of most Nigerian religions was largely
incompatible with the strict and stark categories and concepts of Western religions. At some point, however, we took the bait.
According to the 1931 census in early Nigeria, about 50% of those counted self-identified as “pagans”. This figure declined to 34% in the 1952 census and then 18.2% in 1963. It is likely no coincidence that the number of registered Muslims and Christians during the same period increased from 44 to 47% and 6 to 35% respectively.
The first Europeans who came to colonise the lower Niger region were missionaries,
claiming to bring with them the word of God in order to save our souls from eternal
damnation. The work of missionaries was initially well-intentioned and altruistic. In the 1940s, 97% of the student population in Ghana and Nigeria were from missionary schools. The goal of many missionaries, particularly Protestant missionaries, was to end slavery.
Furthermore, the colonial administration and missionaries were often at odds with
each other. The colonial government often attempted to undermine the work of missionaries
in Northern Nigeria. However, the social advantages associated with being Christian at the time meant that many Nigerians embraced Christianity in order to adjust to colonial rule. Christians could live easier lives under colonial rule because they could avoid being subjected to mandatory
colonial government work or punishment under traditional chiefs and justice systems. This is Because these Christians had better life opportunities than traditionalist Nigerians, they were less likely to rebel against the colonial polity. Therefore, Christianity was used by colonial administrators to coerce the masses into submission.
All of this is not to say that Islam or Christianity are solely responsible for creating
the institutional weaknesses that plague our country to this date, but it is important to remember that these belief systems were instrumental in the decline of pre-independence Nigeria. For this reason, we all must seek an end to the demonization of Nigerian traditional religions.
Funmilayo Adetokunbo A-A, a political and International Affairs Analyst, writes from Somerset, England, United Kingdom.