Nigerians like to say that they are the world's happiest people and the most religious. The basis of their happiness, they go on to say in the face of poor well-being statistics (such as one of the world's highest levels of maternal mortality), is the hope provided by their faith. Religion is central to the lives of most Nigerians, whether they self-identify as Christian or Muslim. In a recent poll of Nigerians, among the 28 percent of respondents that claimed to be immune to COVID-19, nearly half attributed such confidence to their faith in God.
Nigeria has never conducted a religious census, but the politically motivated, conventional wisdom is that Christians and Muslims are each about half of the population, and that, therefore, neither of the world faiths is a minority. Traditional religious faith and practice predating the arrival of Islam and Christianity are pervasive, though often beneath a veneer provided by the two world faiths. In part because religion is so central, disputes over water and land or ethnic rivalries often assume a religious coloration. The power of religious leaders over their flocks is particularly salient during periods—such as now—when popular distrust of the Nigerian government is endemic and national identity is weak.
Some African scholars have recently highlighted the role of Nigeria's religious leaders by providing specific instances of them exercising their power and influence. Particularly notable was that of imams in northern Nigeria and even the Sultan of Sokoto in promoting vaccination against polio in the face of fundamentalist claims that vaccines were part of a Christian plot to limit Muslim births. Religious leaders play a central role in determining whether an individual will accept contraceptives and family planning. Also important are their ability to deliver medical information and services, especially in rural areas. Many spiritual leaders, both Christian and Muslim, also play a vital part in conflict resolution and peace and reconciliation processes.
However, from an outside perspective, if religious leaders can be a force for good, they can also undermine public health and human rights initiatives. In the COVID-19 crisis, some religious leaders have opposed government measures designed to curb the spread of the disease; others have claimed they have special miracle cures. Religious leaders in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere have been at the forefront of agitation for punitive measures against gay people. The rhetoric employed by Christian and Muslim religious leaders against each other is often far from the milk of human kindness.
COVID-19 dominates the international discourse, hence a focus on religious leaders in the context of health and disease. But religious leaders in Nigeria and many other post-colonial states are a powerful influence on politics and a host of other social issues. With this in mind, Western diplomats, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and the business community have every reason to open and sustain dialogue with them. Faith leaders are crucial sources of information, especially where governments lack credibility, and they may have a powerful influence over the suppression—or aggravation—of violence. As I argue in Nigeria and the Nation-State, outreach to religious leaders should be an essential part of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Nigeria and other post-colonial states.