Home / News / Local / Religious tolerance and the challenge of democratic governance in Nigeria By Gov. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal
Gov. Tambuwal delivering the lecture

Religious tolerance and the challenge of democratic governance in Nigeria By Gov. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal

Gov. Tambuwal (middle) with Sultan of Sokoto (left) at the program
Gov. Tambuwal (middle) with Sultan of Sokoto (left) at the program
Gov. Tambuwal delivering the lecture
Gov. Tambuwal delivering the lecture
Gov. Tambuwal
Gov. Tambuwal



It gives me great pleasure to have the privilege of addressing this distinguished audience. I am immensely grateful to the Governing Council, Management and staff of this highly esteemed university for giving me a worthy platform to share my thoughts with you on this auspicious moment of Fountain University’s 4th & 5th Convocation Ceremony.

When I was approached to deliver this Convocation Lecture, I readily agreed, for it is a great honour to be associated with educational endeavours. It is also an opportunity to interact with men and women of integrity and academic excellence. Undoubtedly, the whole of human civilisation was built by intellectuals and other exemplary men and women of wisdom and intellect. Their sustained efforts steer institutions that promote good governance and socio-economic development. In this respect, our highly placed Fountain University, Oshogbo, is certainly a shining example of a citadel of learning that is being driven by the lofty ideals of a reputable religious organisation – Nasrul-Lahi-L-Fatih Society of Nigeria (NASFAT).

In the letter appointing me to serve as the Guest Lecturer at this ceremony, the organisers so benevolently allowed me to choose a topic that touches on issues of interest to our national life. Accordingly, and taking into cognizance the background and foundation of the Fountain University, as well as the prevailing reality of our times, I decided to speak on the topic: “Religious Tolerance and the Challenges of Democratic Governance in Nigeria”.

My choice of this topic is anchored on the conviction that nations just don’t happen by historical accident. Rather, they are built by men and women with vision and high sense of resolute. Building a polity, therefore, entails avowed determination and sacrifice to address the incessant tensions and conflicts, which tend to mar our aspirations for building a united and prosperous nation.

I will initially discuss the challenges of nationhood with which Nigeria has been grappling. The second and third sections dwell on the causes of conflicts in the Nigerian polity, and the potentialities of democracy as a viable tool for good governance, the last section is a modest attempt to propose a way forward towards religious harmony and tolerance in the country. My humble experience as a legislator, a legal practitioner and a politician presiding over the executive affairs of the government of Sokoto State is likely to influence the direction of my lecture. So, bear with me!

The Nigeria Project

The project for the construction of Nigeria’s nationhood commenced with the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates of the Niger in 1914 and ended with Nigeria’s Independence in 1960. As in all cases of nations across the globe, the challenge has not been one of constituting the nation, but of preserving and sustaining what, in the case of Nigeria, could be said to have been established, fait accompli. Invariably, all nations possess unique challenges in sustaining their nationhood. Some survived, while others could not pass the litmus test. For instance, the United States had to go through a bloody civil war from 1861 – 1865. However, India broke away after its independence of 1947. The issue of Bangladesh is a case in history. The most recent example is what happened or is rather happening to Sudan. Certainly, “it is one thing to construct and secure a nation; it is another to sustain it”, as one scholar recently noted.

The historic amalgamation of Nigeria has often been attributed as the foundation of the rancorous relationship between the two regions of Nigeria. Northern Nigeria consisting of three geopolitical zones with largely Muslim population. It was the centre of a pre-colonial Islamic Empire – the Sokoto Caliphate and its vast Muslim population. Heirs to the Caliphate are inspired by the wider Muslim world, in terms of religious, socio-political and cultural values. The South, an ethnically diverse region, also having three geopolitical zones, is largely Christian. The major socio-political inclination is towards western culture and traditional African heritage. Each of the two Regions have ethnic and religious minority, harbouring their own grievances. These grievances are often expressed through bitter politicking, or sectarian crisis, more or less pauperized by political jobbers and negative media rhetoric.

History has also amply demonstrated that prior to independence, Nigerian nationalist leaders have fully discussed all issues relating to the transition to self-rule. Similarly, there were also interactions after independence on the effect of what is regarded as the arbitrary colonial unification and necessary strategies designed to reconcile differences in aspirations, priorities and vision. However, there were deep and, in some instances, subsisting sentiments because some people saw Nigeria as “the mistake of 1914”, whereas others considered it as “a mere geographic expression”. There were also fears, hopes and anxieties from a wide spectrum of groups in the two regions, even if exaggerated. For instance, Christians do express concerns that “politically dominant Muslims could Islamise national institutions and impose Shari’ah on non-Muslims. Muslims, on the other hand, have the fear of what they regarded as “unbridled westernisation that is antagonising the Islamic belief system”, according to one commentator. The issue, however, is whether the amalgamation was an act of colonial convenience; or even that it was a “mistake”. The reality on the ground is that, for better or for worse, Nigeria is a political entity bounded by a common destiny. So, we need to focus on the fundamental task of nation building.

Nation building is, in itself, a complex task that requires the fixing of so many inter-woven issues. With the attainment of independence, more than five decades ago, the expectation was that Nigeria would emerge as a strong nation, commanding respect among the comity of nations. However, the soaring rise of poverty, unemployment, ethno-religious crisis, poor infrastructure, environmental hazards, insecurity, as well as leadership deficit have conspired to deny the country the advantage to reach the benchmark of development in the 21st century. The phenomena of ethno-religious conflict has plagued and threatened the very existence of the nation owing to the aforementioned factors.

Mismanagement of our resources and misrule by the elites from all corners of the country have been the other major factors, which impoverished and denied opportunities for growth to many Nigerians. Indeed, religious rhetoric blaming members of other religious groups has been appealing among the masses owing largely to their relatively low level of education and awareness. The quest for a religious utopia has given some opportunistic political gladiators the excuse to seek legitimacy by hoodwinking the citizenry via false religious pretentions. Since independence, religious and ethnic rhetoric has leveraged claims to political representation and opportunities. On the other hand, corruption and incompetent leadership have added another dimension to the ugly phenomena in not only preventing equitable distribution of resources and opportunities but also in making the politics of religious and ethnic exclusivity more appealing. The nation, therefore, needs to evolve a system of leadership selection and accountability, which produces the sort of leaders that can confront the challenges associated with our history, socioeconomic inequality, and the establishment of strong institutions for democracy and good governance.

The pertinent questions to ask at this point are: Why is the task of nation building so difficult in Nigeria despite our enormous human and natural resources? What are the challenges and threats associated with nation building? To what extent has leadership confronted these challenges? How do we identify weak political and development institutions with a view to strengthening them?

I share the view of some scholars that the negative effect of colonialism on the development of a nation has been exaggerated. The success of many Asian countries supports this viewpoint. In fact, many of these countries had industrialised and attained enviable levels of development, despite colonial experiences. What Nigerian need is the willpower and determination to succeed in addressing the challenges of the day. In this way, we can aspire to build an illustrious future. Imagine, Malaysia is a major exporter of oil palm and it is from Nigeria that it imports its palm kernels! Haba!!


With over 400 ethnic groups belonging to several religious sects, Nigeria since independence has remained a multi-ethnic nation State, grappling with the problems of ethno-religious conflicts. Ethnicity and religious intolerance have led to the recurrence of ethno-religious conflicts. Major motivations behind most religious conflicts are economic and political, for, as one scholar puts it: “in the struggle for political power to retain the monopoly of economic control… the political class instigates the ordinary citizen into mutual suspicions resulting in conflicts”.

This is not to underplay other factors, such as ways of propagating religions, mistrust and suspicion between followers of various religions and ethnic groups, selfishness and illiteracy. Religion can indeed serve as an instrument of social cohesion, but it can also spur adherents towards violent acts. Hence, its description as a “double-edged sword” by some public policy analysts.

The fact is that colonialism did not cause the primordial conditions that generated conflicts between Christians and Muslims, but it made them worse. Indeed, colonialism established the basis for using identity politics as a means of accessing political and economic resources. Consequently, religious differences come to worsen political crisis. From the early 1980s, religion has been making increasing in-road into the political development of Nigeria, in spite of the official legal status of the country as a secular state. This is a status accepted by the majority of Nigerians, and it is clearly laid down in the constitution.

Nigeria is at the moment experiencing major challenges. It is one of the fastest growing nations with a population that doubles every two and a half decades. Access to higher education and healthcare is limited. Poor infrastructure and weak leadership deficit have also conspired to impede the development of the country.

Notwithstanding this perception, it is important to attempt an objective assessment of the role of religion in the task of nation building in such a way that it will be a unifying factor rather than a divisive one. The spate and magnitude of the crises caused by religious disharmony has been captured by NEMA in its 2015 Annual Report, thus:

In 2014, insurgency, communal clashes, floods, windstorms and fire were primarily the main causes of people’s displacement, physical damages and loss of lives in the country. The Northeast and North Central parts of the country had more human induced emergency situations than any other part. The others experienced more of natural causes. Insurgency caused more havoc that affected more population and obstructed the normal functioning of local economic activities in the affected areas.

Obviously, religious intolerance in itself is the outcome of the way and manner that religious education is taught in various religious groups. This is especially glaring in terms of insurgency, which is, for the most part, caused by poor education or the lack of it and religious bigotry. However, all factors as mentioned have been amplified by Nation’s conspicuous challenges to do with unemployment, poverty, and leadership deficit.

It is pertinent to state that the Nigerian Constitution has evidently created a balance of power between all religions, so as to make it difficult for any religion to realise the dream of becoming dominant. There is, therefore, the need to cultivate tolerance and co-operation that will promote peaceful co-existence. However, the balance tends to provoke tendencies for confrontation leading to religious conflicts capable of derailing our democratic culture and unity of the country. Causes of disharmony or conflicts amongst religious groups in the country, as variously propounded include:

i. Conflicts or misunderstanding fuelled by socio-political, economic and governance factors

ii. Disharmony facilitated by Government’s neglect, oppression, domination, and related discriminatory processes

iii. Conflicts and disharmony aggravated by the weak nature of State institutions.

iv. Conflicts and disharmony provoked by, for example, disparaging publications,

vilification of other people’s views, values, wrong perception of other people’s faith.

v. Conflicts essentially triggered by religious intolerance, fundamentalism and extremism, which are mostly caused by poor education or lack of it.

Seen in this context, there is a need to put religion in its proper perspective in the nation’s building process. Indeed, religion has been made to be both an emotional and explosive issue in Nigeria. The scenario could create problems too serious to solve. The civil war of 1967-1970 was largely fought for political, economic and ethnic reasons. The nation survived it mainly because it was hardly a religious war. However, religious grip is growing firmer and increasingly determining the politics and culture of Nigerians in all walks of life.

Some writers are of the view that “nothing has threatened Nigeria’s nationhood more than religion”, I would, however, argue that it is the narrow interpretation or misinterpretation of religion that has been the problem. This narrow interpretation in the context of Nigeria’s politics has created the basis of tension in the struggle by religious groups to assert superiority and dominance in the socio-economic and political spheres. While the Nigerian constitution has taken steps to moderate the excesses, the gap as to whether Nigeria is a secular state or a pluralist one has to be resolved. I, for one, do not go along with the contestation as to the possibility of the State being neutral in the religiosity of its people. In my view, the illiteracy factor is the most potent variable, which should be controlled. This is obvious, as we are quite aware of the enormous contributions being rendered by religious organisations, such as NASFAT, in the educational development of this country.

Records abound on the considerable role of Muslim Organisations to the development of education, peace and unity of this country. Some of these include Ansaruddeen Society (established in Lagos in 1923), Anwaruddeen Society established in Abeokuta in 1939, the Ansarul-Islam Society of Nigeria established in Ilorin in 1943, the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria established in Lagos in 1954 and indeed, the Jama’atul Nasril Islam, with its Headquarters in Kaduna, and established in 1962. Through the activities of these organisations, Muslims were given basic training, which empower them to contribute to the manpower development of Nigeria. In fact, it has been contended by scholars, such as Prof Balogun, that “the problem of imbalance between the quantity and the quality of personnel in the public sector would have been more acute” if not for the opportunities provided by these organisations for the acquisition of western education within a congenial Islamic atmosphere. The glaring contribution of NASFAT in this regard, hardly needs to be mentioned. NASFAT’s presence and conspicuous contributions in the dissemination of orthodox religious values amongst all Muslims in all parts of the country is so obvious to require explanation. There are also other Islamic organisations in the modern times such as the Qadiriyya and Tijjaniya Sufi orders; Jama’atul Izalatul Bidi’a Wa’ikamatus Sunnah, National Council of Muslims Youth Organisation, Muslim Students Society of Nigeria, Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria, that are working concertedly to prove that Islamic civilisation is not a perversion of its distortion designed by unfortunate forces causing conflicts, violence or insurgency of any type. The organisations are also working round the clock to orient the Muslim Ummah to embrace the true tenets of Islam within the context of prevailing ethno-religious reality of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The formation of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in 1974 and its various programmes and activities thereafter abundantly proved that Muslims could effectively discharge their religious duties within the context of a multi-religious nation.

On the other hand, the role of the early Christian missionaries in fostering Nigerian nationalism is very clear. Certainly, the colonial era in Nigeria was one that witnessed a significant and extensive growth in Christian evangelism. Over the years, organisations that helped in bringing all Christians together to promote unity such as CCN, was founded. In August 1976, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was formed under the auspices of both Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches, with the “aim of promoting understanding among the various people and strata of the Nigerian Society, and above all, to propagate the Gospel”. Many scholars have written extensively on the contribution of Christianity to nation building, especially in the areas of education and healthcare delivery.

Forces of non-integration of the Nigerian people may have had roots in colonialism, but it is important to understand that societies cannot be parochial localities – autonomous unto themselves. Inevitably, they have to interact with others, to exchange ideas, goods and services. Religious organisations of all divides must be conscious of this fact, and must endeavour to educate adherents, especially those vying for political power to imbibe the virtue and sanctity of human dignity, freedom of will and tolerance. The phrase “supposing we are all created equal like office pins”, as once thoughtfully raised by Ahmad Deedat, is full of wisdom. God has given the human race the liberty to choose, and as such, it will be sheer naivety for anybody to imagine that he can compel people to follow his own chosen faith. Indeed, what is required is concerted effort to rise against moral decadence, illiteracy and spiritual bankruptcy, which are fanning the embers of religious intolerance and conflicts.


It is a popular consensus in modern times that democracy has the highest capacity and potential for propelling good governance. In fact, the task of evolving an enduring and all-inclusive sustainable political culture that will guarantee freedom and opportunities to all is the cornerstone of democratic governance. The majority of Nigerians have confidence that the myriad of problems and challenges facing the nation are surmountable if only a truly democratic government is operated in the country. Central to democratic governance, as it is well known, is the respect for rule of law, fundamental human rights, freedom of expression, separation of powers, fairness and equity, as well as the strengthening of institutions for effective service delivery.

The problems of ethnicity and diversity can actually be blended to be a source of strength under democratic governance. Undoubtedly, citizens of this country, belonging to different races, tribes and religions are united together by common history, nay destiny. Democracy, on the other hand, has the capacity of effecting the desired integration. In this regard, we can craft an enduring political system that effectively counters disharmony and intolerance under the democratic culture. The essential ingredients, to my mind, are as follows:

i. Prevalence of peace and security

ii. A leadership that is genuine in its intention and nationalistic in outlook

iii. Provision of an enabling environment for wealth creation

iv. Provision of equal opportunity to all ethnic and religious groups, which will enable them to participate actively in the governance of their country

Let me stress, at the risk of sounding obscure, that beyond the question of amalgamation lies the survival of the Nigerian State, because this is the reality on the ground. We need to fully understand the forces working to derail all efforts aimed at nation building. Knowledge of the historical links and appreciation of socio-political values within the democratic system of government must, therefore, be clearly delineated. For instance, prior to British colonial rule, Islam had already become well established in Nigeria, with the exception of Igboland and Niger Delta, manifesting itself as a religious creed, a political force, a legal system, as well as an intellectual and cultural tradition. In fact, Islam has enjoyed the status of a state religion in all parts of northern Nigeria in the 19th Century. It is, therefore, necessary to understand that there is varying conceptual understanding of the role of religion in different parts of the Nigerian polity.

It is the duty of politicians and leaders to establish standards of governance, by using different tactics or strategies. Unity of purpose, patriotism and selflessness are, in this regard, most crucial for building a dynamic democratic culture that will ensure the integration of all ethnic and religious groups on the basis of fairness and justice. Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardaunan Sokoto, and indeed other founding fathers worked assiduously to ensure that ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry found no place in the political process. In fact, the depth of integration amongst ethnic and religious groups in northern Nigeria in the 1960s has continued to resonate until today.

The consensus, then, is that the nation’s route to sustainable development is democracy. Building a democratic culture that is capable of achieving the objective of national integration, in my view, is contingent on the following hard truths:

i. The executive arm of government should not encroach on the duties and responsibilities of the legislature and judiciary.

ii. The legislature must endeavour, at all times, to undertake its oversight functions, selflessly and patriotically.

iii. The judiciary must show probity and be assertive in jealously guarding its integrity, by ensuring that justice is done to all without fear or favour.

iv. Public and political office holders, at all levels, must adhere to constitutional stipulations, and ensure responsible and accountable governance.

v. The Public Service is in need of restructuring and reform, guided by integrity and merit, thereby engendering global best practice in everyday operation of all ministries, departments and agencies of government.

No doubt, challenges of democratic governance do manifest themselves in different outfits. The most critical of these challenges, however, is in the context where misguided criticisms, negative politicking, eccentric or bigoted preaching are used as instruments of destabilisation. Certainly, our experience with democracy in Nigeria has amply demonstrated that true democrats can effectively address issues of socio-economic inequality, promote access to basic education, health and housing. It can also help us to find ways of curbing ethnocentric exuberance and religious bigotry.


It is obvious, that religious and ethnic rhetoric have been used as a cover to claim political representation and opportunities. Invariably, most politicians could hold at anything in the struggle for power, damning the consequences. In this regard, political differences have ignited many sectarian crises. It is therefore essential to free religion from the grief of dark forces – either as charlatans, religious bigots or unfortunate political jobbers. Controlling religious intolerance in this country has to ensure that causes of disharmony are squarely addressed. In my view, the democratic system of government could undertake this exercise. However, in this undertaking, the capacity of democratic institutions must be strengthened to ensure that unpatriotic and mediocre politicians are cleared out.

The task primarily involves the laying of a solid foundation for a democratic culture, whose operators are fair to all irrespective of their circumstances. In essence, politicians, public officials and political office holders must be those who are not necessarily detached from religion, but who have the understanding that religion is in itself a tool for peace, progress and sustainable development. Such leaders would work to address the challenges of our history, the challenges of socio-economic inequalities, and indeed, the challenges of building vibrant and strong institutions for democracy and sustainable development.

To ensure that religion plays its vital role as a source of harmony, truth and hope for the nation within the prevailing democratic culture, I proffer the following suggestions:

i. Exposing and penalising all divisive agents of violence and lawlessness, within the purview of existing laws. Leaders, law enforcement agents and traditional rulers have a concerted role to play in this regard.

ii. Sincere and open discussions and dialogue amongst religious groups and organisations. JNI, NSCIA, CAN, leaders, security agencies and traditional rulers at all tiers of government will need to constantly discuss areas of interests, agreements and disagreement with a view to promoting unity and understanding.

iii. Mounting robust enlightenment programmes that would foster inter-faith understanding. The tremendous achievements recorded by Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) need to be consolidated by finding more strategies that would promote its envisaged objectives.

iv. The need to control the many factors that are impacting directly or indirectly bearing on religious disharmony such as unemployment, poverty, inadequate security, depletion of cultural values, unhindered movement of persons along the frontiers and more conspicuously – bad politicking.

v. The need to discouraged disparaging publications and negative utterances by scholars and unpatriotic media practitioners.

vi. The recurring need for religious organisations to embark on rigorous educational training and the enlightenment of adherents as exemplified by JNI, NASFAT and other orthodox religious groups.

vii. The enlightenment of the general populace to differentiate between true democrats who are in politics for the development of fatherland and those who are in politics for their selfish aggrandisement.

viii. The need for the citizenry to be proactive in promoting good governance and fighting corruption and bad leadership within the limits of the law.


Distinguished audience, let me, in conclusion reiterate the point that ethnic and religious harmony has been exemplary in the history of Nigerian polity. Disputes and conflicts witnessed over the years in Nigeria have been more or less caused by poor education or lack of it among our people, who are mostly hoodwinked by unpatriotic persons seeking to advance their self-interest. These unpatriotic citizens are to be found mostly in the corridors of political and economic power. Democracy, being a system, which gives freedom to people more than any other system of government, is open to abuse by unpatriotic citizens for their own narrow interests. However, I have argued throughout this lecture that democratic governance could effectively solve the problems of religious intolerance through the election of politicians of high calibre, who are patriotic, selfless and people-oriented. A people-oriented system of government will, then, have the capacity of understanding our differences and inspiring all groups to contribute to nation building, without losing their identity. It is my ardent hope that my lecture will elicit further discussions on the subject.

Thank you.

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