IN NIGERIA, 1970-1990

The challenge of traditional religion

The spiritual world of Africans is densely populated with spiritual beings: spirits and the living-dead. The spiritual universe is a unit with the physical, and the two intermingle and diffuse into each other.

For Africans, nothing happens by accident or chance; everything must be caused by some agent. Evils such as suffering, misfortune, diseases, calamity, accidents and various forms of pain are caused by an evil spirits acting through human agents who employ incantations, mystical power, medicine and other secret methods. Other spirits, especially the living dead are benevolent.

One of the most disturbing elements in African life is the fear of witchcraft and sorcery. Belief in the function and dangers of witchcraft and sorcery is deeply rooted in African life and, in spite of modern education and religions like Christianity and Islam, it is very difficult to eradicate. In fact, it seems to be gaining further momentum in the society, with the recent emergence of secret cults in Nigerian universities.

Belief in Mammy Water is so widely spread in Nigeria that it becomes difficult to convince people that she does not exist. "She commands fear in people and has numerous agents identified with white and red dresses. She is a force to be reckoned with; she is popular even when we deny her existence." (1) The world of devils is a world of power, an organised force against humanity, a kingdom much unknown to men, a mysterious kingdom under Satan and its first victory is when we deny its existence.

Early attempts to deal with traditional religion

The extensive mission work in Africa in the pre-colonial period (2) was characterized by its having to deal with independent African societies. It was limited severely by health problems of the missionaries, political frustration in the Portuguese government's insistence on its exclusive right of padroado, so that missionary work was very discontinuous.

Then as ever, the Africans' acceptance of missionaries was mixed with expectations of trade and other benefits. Nevertheless, on the whole the missionaries found a ready welcome in Africa, and in some places succeeded in bringing people to a genuine conversion to Christianity. Notable examples in the 16th and 17th centuries of thriving churches with native clergy and books in the native languages were Mozambique, Congo and, in Nigeria, Warri. Benin, after a promising beginning, resisted further moves towards Christianity for reasons too complicated to be analysed here.

During this period there were no strong social forces disposing the people towards Christianity. Numbers were limited, and conversion was not always exempt from compromise with traditional religion, even though the Church had its own spiritual medicine (sacraments, rituals) and condemned syncretism. Missionaries could attack traditional religion, but they did not bring it down.

The colonial period, however, brought sweeping social changes and vast new economic opportunities. Africans rushed to take advantage of education, jobs in the city and a whole new life style. The authority, values and sanctions of village life were shaken. The traditional religion, which was part and parcel of village society, could not stand intact in the new order, and was inadequate to the complexities of cosmopolitan society. In this period the missionaries did not have to attack anything, but simply present their own religion which embraces all nations under one divinity (3) and can address the problems of modern society.

Providing the best schools, hospitals and general moral training, Christianity became synonymous with progress, and thereby gained millions of adherents. The success of Christianity, however, made the Church somewhat oblivious of the enduring force of African traditional beliefs and the symbolic rallying point they could provide for nationalist movements.

The ideologues of independence and nationalism needed to wave the flag of authenticity and tradition, even if these were not high on the scale of real values for most people. Missionary attitudes and practices were convenient targets for the nationalists to denounce, lumping them together with colonial exploitation. In addition, Muslims had every interest to present Christianity as alien and harmful to Africa.

The attack on Christianity as an enemy of African culture did not go very far in public opinion, since progress was uppermost in most people's minds. But the Church's failure to give sufficient attention to the enduring traditional attitudes of people, especially the way they interpreted sickness and problems and how to deal with them, led many baptised men and women to return to African Traditional Religion or join African spiritual Churches.

A fundamental fact which perhaps is not easily evident in Nigeria is that Christianity has not penetrated deeply enough into African religiosity. We have earlier seen that in the traditional life of Africa, people do not know how to exist without religion, in the world co-inhabited with spirits and gods. For this reason:

Christianity has come to mean for many Africans simply a set of rules to be observed, promises to be expected in the next world, rhythmless hymns to be sung, rituals to be followed and a few other outward things. It is a religion which is locked up six days a week, meeting only few hours on Sundays... Africans who traditionally do not know religious vacuum, feel that they don't get enough religion from this type of Christianity, since it does not fill up their whole life and their understanding of the universe. (4)

Africans do not really feel at home with the foreign religions because some are based on books with the hymns translated from Latin or English and sung to foreign tunes which have little rhythm and no bodily movements like clapping hands, twisting the loins or dancing. Worship under this type of dull condition for an African would be the height of hypocrisy. Thus Independent Churches are an attempt to find a solution, to feel at home not only in worship but in the whole profession and expression of Christian faith. In these African Churches, "people can freely voice their sorrow, present their spiritual and physical needs, respond to the world in which they live and empty themselves before God." (5)

Christianity seems very futuristic and other-worldly. "Thus for many, Christianity is quite superficial and so has no real answers to life's personal difficulties, or any real influence on the people's social problems." (6) Mbiti says that Christians were manufactured but life takes them away; in other words the cultural substratum was not converted. Christianity is still estranged from the cultural substratum of African societies.

As a counterpoise to this view, we must also point out the attitude of some Nigerians who feel completely at home with foreign things. So many Catholics still prefer the Latin Mass to the local language. There are many hymns which have been translated from the Latin and English versions and sung to foreign tunes and they are very much appreciated by people. It has also noteworthy that leaders of African Churches, such as the Christ Apostolic Church and the Cherubim and Seraphim, complain that their youth run off to sectarian Churches with American connections, such as the Scripture Pasture, the Church of God Mission (Idahosa). This complaint echoes every increasing complaints in the papers about the popularity and cultural domination of CNN television, and the general infatuation of Nigerians for foreign styles.

The issue of Christianity in Nigeria is a complex one. While Nigerians rush towards everything western, one is taken aback by frequent ritual murder in our streets. The continued involvement of university students in secret cult activities is a big monster that sends fear down our hearts. Dr. Godwin Ndene rightly points out that secret cult activities are inimical to the growth of the Nigerian society and Christian religion, to the extent that if allowed to continue "the country may be thrown into darkness in the nearest future." (7) Chief Benedict Umeh, added that secret cults "can never be stopped or wiped out, the only way out is to legalise it." (8) To legalise secret cults in our universities might sound funny, but what about legalising the Ogboni and other cults in the Church? We have so many Christians in different cults or fraternities of various types. The issue thus remains, to what extent can we really say that Christianity has taken roots in the hearts of Nigerians?

The challenge of Islam

Islam reached West Africa from the 8th century through Arabs in search of gold. Because of their control of trade, credit and communications, and the attraction of their rites and religious medicine, they gained an ever stronger influence in the Sudanic states.

A major change came with the introduction of military Islam by the Almoravids in the mid 11th century. Although based in the desert, they took over much of the Maghrib and had a powerful influence on the Sudanic states. As a result, all the important Sudanic states: Takrûr, Silā, Malal, Gao, Kanem etc. had Muslim heads of state from that time. Secondly, trade in slaves (captured by jihad) developed to be just as important as the gold trade.

For a long time, however, submission to Islam was superficial and temporary. State Islam died out with the fall of Songhay in 1592, but small groups of committed and learned Muslims kept the religion alive until it burst into flames again in the jihad movement. This reached its height with the jihad of Uthman dan Fodio in 1804 and the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate.

The jihad states, particularly Sokoto, did not succeed in islamizing the majority of the rural people, and there was never any Islamic attempt to adapt to African culture or world-view. It was a rival system that commanded respect because of its political and military ascendancy. The power of traditional religion, however, could not simply be swept away by ignoring it. Muslims continued to be influenced by it, and this situation had to be tolerated.

Ever since the late 19th century, when Edward W. Blyden raised the issue, (9) there has been vivid discussion and alarm over the thesis that Islam is more adapted to African culture and mentality and therefore is spreading faster than Christianity. Let us present the main points of this "common wisdom" before examining the other side.

1) The fact that Islam is spreading faster than Christianity. The advance of Islam has been one of the major cries of alarm in Christian mission circles over this period. Muslim statistics bear out Christian alarm, since they delight in presenting Islam as victoriously marching forward to claim the whole continent of Africa.

2) Acceptance of local culture and syncretism. The ability of the Islamic religion to gain more converts is ascribed to the fact that it has appeared to be more akin to traditional African society than Christianity. Islam not only permits limited polygamy etc., but also tolerates some deviation from strict Islamic law. The word that best explains this is syncretism. By syncretism we mean the fusion of different religious doctrines or a reconciliation of conflicting religious beliefs.

This syncretic attitude adopted by Muslims in coping with their traditional world view has made their religion more acceptable to the ordinary African. Likewise, African traditional religion influences Islam mainly because of the latter's permissiveness.

A Nigeria Muslim, for instance, still has his feet firmly grounded in his traditional society. He is free either to wear the turban or his own traditional dress. He normally chooses the later. The Muslim is with a diviner as well as a medicine man to satisfy his spiritual and metaphysical needs, reminiscent of the traditional herbalist and astrologer. In some families marriages between Muslim girls and non-Muslim men are accepted with little or no difficulty, even though this type of marriage is forbidden by the Sharî`a. In a village market, buying and selling of charms is common.

Without doubt, much conversion to Islam is superficial. Nigerian Muslims adhere to the prescribed tenets of fasting, observing the five daily rites, giving alms and making pilgrimage. But Muslims still retain many concepts and practices from the traditional African background. For example divination combines both traditional and Islamic methods. (10)

3) Providing religious medicine. Muslims believe that every word of the Qur'ān is not only inspired but it constitutes a "word of God". It is firmly believed also that each word of the sacred text is profoundly embedded with power. That is why some recopy a Qur'ānic verse on a paper, glue it down and cover it with leather sewn around. These are sold in the market for protection. Those who buy these amulets believe that the power of God is enclosed in it and that it protects from sickness, sterility, fire and from any evil. The same power in the word of God explains why slates of Qur'ānic verses are washed and the water taken. However, it is worth mentioning that some Muslims condemn the use of these amulets, since one cannot enclose the power of Allah and make use of it as one pleases. Allah protects whoever He wishes and saves as it pleases Him.

Most frequently the charms Muslims carry around contain a paper on which a religious teacher has written a passage from the Qur'ān, or a diagram from a book of Arabic mysticism, which is enveloped in a paper, glued down and covered with leather, but sometimes they enclose a piece of bone or wood; powder and parts of animal. (11) These are typically African practises rather than Islamic traits. Islam accommodates traditional practices. Islam in Nigeria takes over the central features of traditional religion through syncretism. The traditional customs are retained while the spirit of the custom is lost. People greatly fear witchcraft. Their belief in the existence and working of the spirits and the living-dead is strong, incorporating from Islam the devil who makes people mad and who may steal a child and substitute a deformed or abnormal infant. (12) The overall situation of Islam in Nigeria could be summed up by Gamble's statement that in spite of the impact of Islam, there is still a much deeper layer of traditional belief and observances. Men and women are loaded with amulets, round the waist, neck, arms and legs both for protection against all sorts of possible evils and to help them achieve certain desires.

Concerning purely religious belief and rituals, there are elements of both contact and divergence between Islam and traditional religion, some of which we have seen; in the matters of divination and magic. Islam practices, encourages divination and the use of good magic; it also recognises the efficacy of sorcery and witchcraft but condemns them. Islam approves and sanctions magical procedures which are directed towards such legitimate ends as the cure of disease, the prevention and curtailment of misfortune and the assurance of prosperity and success. (13)

4) Islam is socially more cohesive and satisfying. In Islam emphasis is placed more on the family and on the community than on the individual. The Muslim way of life appears closer to the traditional African one. In certain places, it has been taken for granted that to be a Muslim is to be a true patriotic nationalist. And to the extent to which those in authority are Muslims, a Muslim adherent finds his advantage there. He will benefit from the solidarity which unites all the members of the Islamic community.

5) Islam makes simpler demands on its members. For a traditional African to become a Muslim is sometimes considered as a form of social ascension which will not make so much extra demands. He is not obliged to send his wives packing as will be the case if he was convert to Catholicism. The convert to Islam needs no period of catechumenate to learn doctrines as is required in certain Christian churches. Islam as a religion is very simple, for one early and quickly knows what is permitted and what is forbidden.


From what has been said about the influence of African Traditional Religion on Islam, one can confidently say that Islam appears to be a compromising religion in the name of inculturation. While a religion has to be inserted into the local culture and custom, there is need for the purification of what can jeopardise the authenticity of a new religion. One can also say, in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters that the individual and existential needs of a people cannot be neglected or waved aside for a long period of time.

Such then is the picture of Islam in traditional Nigerian society. On the purely religious front, it has done little to add to or alter radically African religiosity, except in the external rituals. Deeper issues of great value remain basically traditional, only in very few exceptions does Islam bring about change. (14) Conversion to Islam might continue from followers of both traditional religions and Christianity. But a deep religious elements of Islam which as we have seen have hardly been embraced and unlikely to find root in African societies that embrace Islam.

Another view:

1) That Islam is spreading faster. Islam has no doubt made tremendous strides in West Africa in the 20th century. But there is another side to the "war of statistics". To restrict ourselves to Nigeria, since the death in 1966 of Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Islam has been at a virtual stand-still among the masses. Conversions are mainly of individuals for social or business reasons.

On the other hand, in the race for the millions of "pagans" in the Middle Belt since Independence in 1960, the Christian Churches have been the winners. And, where people have already opted for Islam or Christianity, there is a constant stream of individual converts from Islam to Christianity, so much that one Muslim religious columnist had to devote a whole article to make the point that conversion is not just one-way, since in Europe there are cases of Christians who become Muslims. (15)

2) Acceptance of local culture. In comparatively assessing the relationship of Christianity and Islam to local culture, our approach is not simply to list and balance various concrete features of each religion. This would not get us far; for instance, Christian permissiveness of alcohol is as important for some people as Muslim permissiveness of polygamy.

Rather, we try to balance principles. In this area recent thinkers, such as Lamin Sanneh, (16) have pointed out that Islam is a religion of the Arabic Qur'ān which cannot be translated. It is a message that claims to be totally divine with no human input. It can be accepted or imposed, in its Arab dress, but never wedded to local culture, except by way of a temporary modus vivendi. Christianity, on the other hand, is intrinsically incarnational. For the Bible the important thing is not the language but the message, and just as it required the input of human thought and imagination in its composition, so it requires translation and adaptation to the thought patterns of every people.

Arab Islamic culture certainly is akin to African traditional culture in many ways. Christianity may have first come in a more foreign, European dress, but the very inner incarnational principle which made it adapt to Europe is what can make it African, and this is a stronger advantage than superficial African-Arab resemblances.

3) Religious medicine. The point is not that Islam has compromised its purity, but that it reaches the needs of people far more effectively than Christianity.

When Church institutions were taken over in Nigeria in the early 1970s, it is co-incidental that at the same time the charismatic movement began in the Catholic Church and a host of similar movements in all Churches, not just the independent or spiritual Churches. The ministry of healing and delivering has become so prominent that, apart from threatening the purity of Christianity, it has become a menace to Islam.

The rush of Muslims to Christian healing rallies has even prompted Muslim imitations. There are now Muslim "evangelists" who advertise "Come and get your miracle!" Such movements, however, which are very alien to Islam, ring hollow and are no match for Christian preaching. Muslims rely more on legal measures to restrict such Christian activity under the guide of preserving religious peace, such as by denying visas to foreign religious visitors.

4) Islam is socially stronger. The fusion of religion and society in Islam no doubt gives it a strong advantage. To be a Muslim is to be a member of a super-tribe or of a mutual aid society, where one is at home and secure. That, and not conviction of the truth of the religion, is the main consideration.

On the other hand, we have to be aware of the trend in Islam to renounce all local loyalties in favour of a pan-Islamic umma. A Maguzawa man who becomes a Muslim moves out of the communal compound and sets up a nuclear household with his wife and children. The Muslim owes nothing to the extended family; that is why there are Muslim beggars. Likewise, Nigeria is secondary to O.I.C. interests.

5) Islam makes simpler demands. The Christian law of love is more demanding than Sharî`a, although there is the power of the Spirit to carry it out. Islam is more legalistic and rigid than Christianity, which is characterized by the law of freedom. Sometimes, however, the Church can lose members because it has no honourable status for catechumens waiting long for baptism, or for those not married properly in the Church.

The way forward

It is a mistake to suppose that the aim of Christianity must be to destroy everything indigenous and to remake African religion in precisely the same mould as that in which the European form of Christianity has been fashioned. (17) It is of value to note those elements which have found a place in the sects, and which correspond to our spiritual needs. "It would be fatal for the Churches to refuse to consider what things have drawn away large numbers of their members," (18) which have proved attractive to Africans. Values of African traditional religion have been undermined but not over-thrown, as we have observed. Christianity and Islam aim at winning converts. "They expand by pushing traditional religion on the defensive and expect Africans to remain silent and listen to their sermons and watch their traditional religion reduced to ashes." (19) But a careful scrutiny of the religious situation shows clearly that in their encounter with traditional religion, Christianity and Islam have made only an astonishingly shallow penetration in converting the whole man of Africa, with all his historical-cultural roots, social dimensions, self-consciousness and expectations.

The Church has always recognised the influences of devils in the human history. Christ encountered them as agents that inflict various afflictions on people. He ordered them to depart from their victims (Luke 9:37-44). "Our battle is not against human forces but against the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits..." (Ephesians 6:10-12). We are also warned that the opponent, the devil "is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). Satan and his fallen angels have been the adversary of man and through their influences, many people worship false gods under different names in various localities of the earth. The worship of these strange gods draws the attention of people away from the worship of the true living God.

In Nigeria, the worship of gods and goddesses is on the increase. Their number ranges from sea gods and goddesses to earth gods and goddesses and other strange powerful gods inhabiting great forests. Many Christians and Muslims converted from this traditional values go back to their former religion because of ill-health. In Nigeria a lot of sickness is attributed to water spirits. The mainline Churches have not done much to alleviate the sufferings of her members who are afflicted with such diabolical sickness. In Nigeria they do not take deliverance ministry seriously. So, when their members suffer from demonic attacks, they defect and seek healing and deliverance from juju priests and prophets of the independent Churches. When they feel they are cured or delivered they do not return to their former Church but remain in their new found Churches.

Besides engaging in deliverance and healing ministries, the Church should realize that Africans are very expressive, so that religious symbols are not treated as mere pointers. This means that the Church's sacramentals should be very important to Africans. The use of the rosary, medals etc., if properly presented, could easily replace the wearing of charms and amulets.

Again, the rapport among the living and the dead is remarkable in Africa. The ancestors and "living dead" are very helpful to their families. The Church should not only promote the intercessory role of canonized saints, but also the family or parish devotion to their members who have developed holiness of life and died well, even if they were not perfect throughout their lives.

The Eucharist should be presented as a way of possessing all the power of the mystical body of Christ. In this way it will be a counter-part to the traditional idea that mystical power, such as witchcraft, is transmitted through food.

In calling for consideration of African tradition, we are not calling on Church leaders to be African antiquarians, resurrecting old customs that people have abandoned. Rather, they should address the African religious needs that endure in spite of the rush for modern or Western things. In doing so, they have to be politically judicious and explain clearly what they are attempting to do, so as not to stir up avoidable opposition.

And, while catering to African tradition, the Church must not neglect anything European or American that appeals to the people, be it Gregorian chant, Methodist hymns or modern gospel music. It must be sensitive to the moments these are appealing and the moments they become boring. The Church must become all things to all men, so as to win all.


1. Luke M. Odinkemelu, The Problem of Mammy Water, Vol. II (Ihiala: Sam Printing Press, 1988), p. 26.

2. Cf. Joseph Kenny, The Catholic Church in tropical Africa, 1445-1850 (Ibadan University Press, 1980).

3. Cf. Robin Horton, "On the rationality of conversion", Africa, 45 (1975), 219-235, 373-399.

4. John Mbiti, 10pt">African religion and philosophy, pp. 233-234.

5. Ibid., p. 234.

6. J. B. Schuyler, "Conceptions of Christianity in the context of Tropical Africa: Nigeria reactions to its advent", in C.C. Baeta (ed.), Christianity in Tropical Africa, (London: Oxford, 1968), p. 220.

7. The Guardian, "Again, the campus cult question", Tuesday, March 9, 1993, p. 20.

8. Ibid.

9. Notably in Christianity, Islam and the Negro race (Edinburgh U.P., 1967, reprint of 1887).

10. Cf. Patrick Ryan, Imale: Yoruba participation in the Muslim tradition (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978).

11. D. P. Gamble, The Wolof of Senegambia, (London, 1957), pp. 64-72.

12. John Mbiti, African religion and philosophy, p. 245.

13. I. M. Lewis (ed.), Islam in tropical Africa (Oxford, 1966), pp. 58-65. This book contains a collection of studies presented and discussed at the 5th International African Seminar held at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (Nigeria), in January 1964.

14. Ibid., pp. 76-82.

15. One of the dailies (I can't remember which), 4 August 1992.

16. Lamin Sanneh, Translating the message (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992); see also J. Kenny, "Islamic monotheism: principles and consequences", in Christianity and Islam in Dialogue (Cape Coast: AECAWA, 1987), pp. 139-149.

17. Geoffrey Parrinder, Religion in an African city, (Westport: Negro University Press, 1972), p. 192.

18. Ibid., p. 192.

19. John Mbiti, op. cit., p. 263.