The state and reigious balancing in nigeria by

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Abdulrasheed A. Muhammad

Department of Political SAcience

University of Ilorin

PMB 1515, Ilorin, Nigeria




Nigeria is a heterogeneous society comprising different ethnic and religious groups. However, Islam and Christianity have assumed a dominant character to such an extent that necessitates state’s intervention in order to stem a potential source of conflict. Through a careful study of events in the country, this paper seeks to establish that the Nigerian state’s attempt to maintain a balanced relation between the two dominant groups usually reinforces tension and antagonisms between them. The bottom line is that the state must clearly redefine its role in religious matters in order to escape the destructive potentials of inter-religious acrimony.


The quest for a peaceful and stable polity is a pivotal aspiration of countries all over the world. This is true to the extent that peaceful coexistence of various groups within the state is a prerequisite for the attainment of whatever goal the state sets to achieve. For this reason, strategies are devised to attenuate the worst effects of various competing identities within the state. Such identities usually manifests in the existence of different ethnic groups, religious groups, cultural groups or some other basis of ascription. Indeed, the 20th century witnessed the emergence of several modern states as heterogeneous entities defined by one or a combination of these identities. Within this ambit fall many African states with Nigeria serving as typical example. The entity now known as Nigeria was a product of European ambition and rivalry in Africa. It emerged as an independent country after prolonged years of colonial rule formally established in the early 20th century. With a land area of about 923,708 square miles, it is composed of multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups engendered by her colonial past. The existence of multiplicity of religious groups consequently places the burden of creating a peaceful atmosphere and co-existence on the government which is the agency responsible for maintaining peace and stability in the country.

Interestingly, Nigeria has an interwoven of its ethnic and religious character such that the north is predominantly Muslim and comprises mostly Hausa/Fulani ethnic group; the western Yoruba are partly Christian and partly Muslim while the eastern Ibo including the southern minority groups are predominantly Christian. This is not to suggest that there are no other religious groups in existence, but the duo of Islam and Christianity have assumed a dominant status over other forms of religion such as the African Traditional Religion (ATR). Consequently, relations between the two have been characterized by series of ups and downs. Cognizance of this fact and the potent consequences which an unbalanced relation could engender, the Nigerian state put up some balancing mechanisms aimed at ensuring a harmonious relation between the two groups. Some questions objectively arise at this point: How has the character of the Nigerian state impacted on relation between the Muslims and the Christians? What has been the content of such relation and how has the state maintain balance between the two? How has the state’s balancing techniques impacted on Muslim-Christian relation and what implication(s) does this have for the Nigerian state. Examining these issues form the crux of this paper.

On the Concept of Religious Balancing

The concept of religious balancing could be said to imply a process of ensuring equilibrium in relationships between the state and its various religious groups on the one hand and, on the other hand, between and among the various religious groups themselves. Religion according to scholars in a system relating man to an ultimate value epitomize in ‘god’ or ‘the supreme being’ and embodying a creed, code and, a mode of worship and communication (Adegbesan, 1987:96, Kenny OP (undated). It is an expression of man’s belief in a divine or super ordinate being which requires not only succumbing to the tenets of the belief system but equally, a total acceptance of its dictates and doctrines.

Several perspectives exist in the literature on the concept of religion. these have been aptly documented by scholars such as Gofwen (2004) and Ogunji (2004). The dominant perspectives however include the evolutionary perspectives; the functional perspective which reflects in the writings of scholars such as Durkheim, Parsons among others and; radical perspective championed by Karl Max and his adherents.

In spite of divergence of perspectives however, it is generally believed that there is an interaction between religion and society within which it functions. (Gofwen, 2004:32). This aspect constitutes the basis for inter religious relations in the society and shows the necessity of maintaining balance between them. Consequently, religious balancing implies putting appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure that inter religious relations within a state occur in an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence and that potentials of religious groups impact positively on the entire societal process. In Nigeria, these mechanisms include both constitutional and extra constitutional means. But before elaborating on them, it is expedient to look at character of the Nigerian state.

Evolution and Character of the Nigerian State

The entity now known as Nigeria was a product of European ambition and virally in Africa. Located within latitude 40n and 140n and longitude 30e and 150e, and with a massive population currently estimated at over a hundred million, it is the most populous country in Africa and among the five most populous in the tropics (Adalemo and Baba 1993:13). Indeed as Gulrez (2002:107) notes, it is the 10th most populous country in the world. Equally, it has a land area of about 923, 768 square kilometer roughly equivalent to France, Italy, Belgium and Holland rolled together (Jovre quoted in Ojo 1998:2).

Evolution of a modern Nigerian state can be traced to the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 where territories of Africa were partitioned among the European powers. At the conference, British’s right over the territory now known as Nigeria was recognized by other powers. Consequently, the British chartered the Royal Niger Company to trade in and administer the area. By 1900, the British formally took over its administration after revoking the charter of the Royal Niger Company thereby establishing formal colonial rule. Much of the country’s colonial and post colonial political and economic developments have been well documented by scholars (see, Oyovbaire, 1985; Akinola, 1988; Osaghae, 1998; Williams, 1999 and Elaigwu, 2005). It must be stated however that the Nigerian state as presently constituted represents a plural society par excellence. This derives from its multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups. But while emphasis in the literature on Nigeria’s plurality has often been on its ethnic character, little has been done to espouse its religious concomitant. At best, religious plurality is viewed from the angle of Islam and Christianity while other belief systems are subsumed under the label of African Traditional Religion (ATR). These include, Ogun (God of iron); Sango or Amadioha (God of thunder) and several others1. The reality however is that all the groups subsumed under the ATR are not in themselves of the same content as they often assert their differences to the extent that an individual is not expected to be member of more than one belief system. But this is not to say that adherents of the ATR do not participate in the celebration each of others festival – at least, in showing solidarity with fellow members of the community.

Of equal importance is that most of the ATR predates Islam and Christianity though these two have come to be domineering especially in the post colonial era. Some factors, perhaps, serve to explain this. First, the imperialist character of the colonial state with the tendency to, impose its own civilization on other cultures. Other religions are thus are classified as barbarism while the imported ones are portrayed as a saving grace. This is true of Christianity which came along with colonialism. At another level, each of the imported religions has an inherent tendency to dominate and in the case of Islam, it sought to bring people out of their Jahiliyah state into one of enlightenment based on teachings of the Quran and Hadith. Second, in the post colonial era and following from established practices during the colonial era, the government is more disposed to the two religions, Islam and Christianity, than any other religion in existence. Third, there is also the tendency, as Davies (1995) argues, for people irrespective of their ethnic or professional background to show themselves more as either Muslim or Christian outwardly whereas they are sentimentally attached to the ATR. These factors encouraged preponderance of Islam and Christianity above other belief systems.

Apart from the existence of multiplicity of ATR groups along with Islam and Christianity, there are also other imported religious belief systems. These include, Harri Krishna from India, Eckankar movement, among others. Again these groups have not been influential enough as to assert their presence beyond the domineering character of Islam and Christianity.

In terms of establishment, religious plurality in Nigeria could be said to occur at three different epochs in history. First are those already established before colonialism and which are autochthonous to Africa. These are those categorized under ATR. Second are those formally established during colonial period and which enjoyed support of the colonial state, they are Islam and Christianity. Commenting on their arrival in Nigeria, Kurian (1979) notes that, Christianity came through the Southern coast with the arrival of Europeans in Southern Nigerian. With the establishment of formal colonial rule, it became firmly rooted in the South and spreading towards Western Nigeria but met Islam there. Islam on the other hand came through Northern Nigeria via trade contact with Arabs of North Africa and through activities of Islamic Jihadists. It became firmly established in Northern Nigeria and was spreading to the South but was stopped in the West. Thus:

… the resulting religious composition closely follows geographic and ethnic lines; the Southern Ibo are predominantly Christians, while the Northern Hausa are… Muslims, and the Western Yoruba are partly Christian and partly Muslim (Kurian 1979).
Note worthy is that, their different origin coupled with their been rooted within separate geographical localities as well as differential pace of socio-political and economic developments between the localities typified by the North and South during colonial era are what sowed the seed for a discordant relationship between them after the country’s independence.

Finally at the third level of establishment of Nigeria’s religious plurality are those belief systems that registered their presence in Nigeria after independence, though with few followers. These are the Harri Krishna, Eckanker and so on. All the above arguments notwithstanding, all the various groups have come to stay and co-exist within the Nigerian State. What is to be noted is that multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups have now become institutionalized diversities within the Nigerian state. It is within these historical facts therefore that we can locate the reasons behind the preemptive relation that exists between Islam and Christianity in Nigeria and the role carved out by the state for itself.

Religious Balancing Mechanisms in Nigeria

To say the least, Christian – Muslim relations in Nigeria has been more of strange bed fellows. Both religions preach peace and peaceful co-existence but have been involve, perpetually, in a race of ascendancy especially in post independent Nigeria. Noteworthy is that, the marriage of convenience between them dates back to the pre-independent period when the British colonialists had to embark on a policy of protecting the Muslim North from the destructive influences of the Christian South (Osaghae 1998) yet, went ahead to amalgamate the two into one political entity. Suffice to say therefore that the present antagonism between the two groups was the fruit of the discordant seed sown at that period. It is the desire to bring about order out of the disorder therefore that leads to some balancing mechanisms inspired by the state.

As noted earlier, religious balancing in Nigeria is predicated on both constitutional and extra constitutional means. These are with intent to avert possible religious controversy and guarantee equal rights of citizens to profess their faith. Thus, Nigerian governments since independence have often proclaimed the principle of secularity of the Nigerian state. Secularity implies a secular situation. ‘Secular’ means not to be concern with spiritual or religious affairs. A secular state therefore is one which is established on the assumption that political authority is completely independent of religion or supernaturalism and therefore not concerned with spiritual life of its citizens (Davies 1995:81). The emphasis here is that religion is confined to private practice and individual preference. The state will not adopt any religion as official one neither will it give overt or covert recognition and assistance to any group. As an idea, this notion of secularity originated from Europe as the end product of conflict between the church and the state which started in the eleventh century. The church at that period claimed to be superior to the state in both spiritual and temporal matters. The state of-course rejected this claim on the ground that the church is only a part of the whole because it existed within the state. Therefore, the part cannot be greater than the whole (Muhammad, 2000).

In the opinion of the church, the priests were ordained by God and this conferred on them an authority over that of the state including right to make laws and collect taxes. Refusal of the state to concede to such a claim led to series of crises until both parties through mutual consent agreed to demarcate their sphere of influence. Consequently, it was agreed that the church could exercise authority in spiritual matters while authority over temporal affairs was vested in the state (Davies 1995). Modern nation-states there from subscribed to this idea as a way of achieving peaceful co-existence of all religious groups existing within it. This idea was thus clearly stated in Section 10(1) of the 1979 Nigerian constitution. Also, section 10 of the 1999 constitution clearly states that “the government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as a state religion”. This provision is further complimented by section 38(1) which guarantees individual’s “right to freedom of though, conscience and religion”. Suffice to say therefore, that these constitutional provisions have in the strictest sense confined religious practices to the private realm. Hence, Nigeria can justifiably by law be termed a secular state and no religious group is expected to enjoy undue patronage from the state above others.

With regards to the extra constitutional mechanisms, it involves the states pragmatic support to religious groups within it. As will become obvious soon, this idea stands in contradiction to its proclaimed secularity and is partly responsible for the stiff contest for public space between Islam and Christianity in the country. Essentially however, the Nigerian state’s adventure in extra constitutional provisions is anchored on its belief that ‘every religion has a positive and soul redeeming message which ought to be propagated formally and informally in order to promote a culture of religious tolerance in a multi-religious society’ (Momoh 1992:20). Obviously, this idea of propagating formally such religious messages was directed towards the Christian and Islamic faiths. Lending credence to this argument, the government during a seminar organized by NARETO in 1992 declared that, ‘the need now is very urgent not only to propagate Islam and Christianity but also to propagate tolerance and peaceful co-existence in all its religious and ethnic dimensions’ (The Guardian August 14, 1992). Consequently, year in, year out, some days are declared as public holidays for the celebration of Muslim and Christian festivals. Both enjoy five days annually as public holidays commemorating one event or the other. In addition, the government does send goodwill messages to them on such occasions through both print and electronic media. Apart from this, huge amounts are usually paid from government coffers as allowances to some categories of state officials for the celebration of one or the other of either Muslim or Christian festivals to the extent that a Senator was recently alleged by a probe panel to have received up to the tune of 16 million Naira of tax payers money as Sallah gift (The Punch, August 2, 2000:6).

One other area of pragmatic involvement in religious affair by the Nigerian state are in terms of financial and material assistance to religious groups. In addition to donating expansive plots of land in the Federal capital territory, Abuja, the Shagari administration (1979-1983) for instance gave 10 million naira each to both Muslim and Christian groups to build their places of worship in the federal capital territory, Abuja (see Kukah, 1993). These have come to be known as National Mosque and National Ecumenical Centre respectively. Recently as well, a rehabilitation committee for the National Mosque was constituted with the president as chairman and vice president as his vice as well (Thisday, July 24, 2004:2). Additionally, mosques and churches were allowed to be built in premises of some government establishments in order to cater for the religious and spiritual need of their adherents. Recently for instance, the president, Olusegun Obasanjo, commissioned a church built by his regime within the Aso rock premises. This was done with a view to correcting previous situation whereby Muslims can always move out of their offices to observe their prayers in the mosque already built by the past administration – an opportunity which their Christian counterparts do not have (see The Punch, April 24, 2000; International IDEA, 2000).

Other areas of government direct involvement in religious affairs include its external fraternization with religious organizations and official support of Muslim and Christian pilgrimages among others. How all these impacted on Muslim-Christian relations and its implication for the state is our focus in the next section.

Implications and Consequences

There is no denying the fact that post colonial Nigerian state has been a hot bed of religious antagonisms and acrimony between Islam and Christianity. Both have become competitors for public space. At one level, it is rivalry for greater number of converts and at another level, it is competition for vantage position in power matrix. In spite of government’s endeavour to balance relations between the two, mutual suspicion and antagonism has remained a common occurrence. Although the country may not have experienced a full blown religious war, but series of inter religious conflicts occurring is a pointer to the fact that the country is not out-rightly immune from such. For instances of some of these conflicts in the past see Elaigwu (1993); Gofwen (2004); Akinwunmi (2004) and Elaigwu (2005).

What seem to be a major and direct antagonism between Christians and Muslims in post independent Nigeria first aroused in the controversy that trailed the Sharia debate in the 1977-78 Constituent Assembly (CA). Before then, religion was never at the forefront in inter-group relations and plays little or no part in national politics. As Elaigwu (1993:3) notes, amidst the many sins of the first republic (1960-1966), perhaps religious bigotry of groups ranked lowest. However with the controversies generated in 1977-78 CA on weather to include provisions on Sharia court in the impeding Nigerian construction of 1979, issue of religion began to assume a vociferous dimension in Nigerian government and politics. Consequently as events unfold under different administration, the various religious balancing mechanisms employed by the state to manage its religious plurality especially relation between Christians and Muslims not only became sterile but often, counter productive. Consequently, each religious group becomes more and more suspicious of each other and/or the state while most polices and actions are seen through the lens of religion. Osaghae (1998) notes that, the lens also extends to issues of dressing, food and the balance of religious propagation in educational institutions, allocation of air time on radio and television and religious composition of the armed forces among others. In effect, Islam and Christianity in Nigeria have become interlocked in the rivalry for public space and national politics. Even in the arena of inter state relations, both Islam and Christianity have showed themselves as born-rivals. This is evident in controversies that trailed Nigeria’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel and the Vatican; membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1986 and the D8 (group of eight developing countries) during General Sanni Abach regime among others. For the veracity and dimensions of religion in Nigeria’s external relations see Birai (1996); Omoruyi (2001) and Suleiman (2004). The point of emphasis here is that, the Nigerian state’s attempt to maintain positive balance of relation between Islam and Christian has been characterized by large scale counter productiveness with excruciating consequences for Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria as well as the state as a political entity.

In other words, the place of the state as the centre of activity, power and authority in a multi religious society as Nigeria makes it attractive and a point of contest for various groups seeking to dominate and influence the other. This coupled with the fact that, religion is one of the diversities highly susceptible to manipulation by politicians places Muslims and Christians on their toes at moments of appointments and political contests. What logically derives in this context is that the amount of public space enjoyed by a particular religious group will be largely determined by who controls the political power. That is, there is a tendency that whoever controls political power will be more disposed to his/her own religious group as against the other. This trend have always manifested in complains by either group against the government depending on the religious belief of the head of state. For instance, in an undated piece recently circulated by the National Council of Muslim Youth Organizations (NACOMYO) in Nigeria, it alleged the religious lopsidedness against the interest of Islam in the political appointments made by President Olusegun Obasanjo. According to the piece, out of 42 ministers 26 were Christians while 16 were Muslims. Also, of 60 special advisers and aides, 47 and 13 were Christians and Muslims respectively. The conclusion of this group therefore is that Muslims in Nigeria have become endangered specie that may eventually be consumed under a Christianization agenda (NACOMYO, undated). Similar allegations have been leveled in the past by Christians against Muslim head of governments. Little wonder therefore that even issues of party politics and electioneering in the country have been characterized by a ‘high sense of political ecumenism’ to use Kukah’s (1993:150) phrase. In fact, what could be gleaned from the writings of various scholars is that there is no election in post independent Nigeria that is not characterized by either politicians maneuvering the religion cleavage or religious groups attempting to manipulate the political process (see, Birai 1996; Kukah 1993; Akinyele 2002; Suleiman and Muhammad 2005).

It must be noted that, it is the government’s recognition and support for some religious groups that is responsible for the unbridled antagonism between the groups (Christianity and Islam). Indeed Nigeria has witnessed destructive religious crises in the past, but there is nothing to suggest that more of such will not occur given the extent to which religion has eaten deep into the fabric of Nigerian government and politics except the government threads with care. The government must realize that religious conflicts are usually wider in scope and destructive than ethnic or political crises. First, religion especially Islam and Christian has a wider transnational existence than ethnic and political affiliations. As such, happenings in other parts of the globe can trigger violence in Nigeria. An instance was when the government in 2001 made a pronouncement that it was in support of U.S. offensive against Osama Bin Laden, religious violence instantly erupted in Kano and some other parts of the country. While this represents purely an international issue and a foreign policy statement from Nigerian government, it was understood by some as an attempt by the Nigerian government to join forces with the U.S. government against the Muslims (see,; Thisday, October 13, 2001). Secondly, unlike ethnicity which creates several fronts of divide depending on the number of ethnic groups, religion creates fewer divides. In the case of Nigeria, the predominance of Christianity and Islam usually makes it result in two divides. Hence, most Nigerians at moments of religious crises usually fall into either divide irrespective of ethnic and or political affiliation. The implication of this is that, unlike ethnic conflict which may be restricted to areas inhabited by members of the groups in conflict, the whole country would serve as constituency for any major religious violence. Little wonder therefore that a spark of religious violence in Lagos or Owerri instantly replicate itself in Kano or Kaduna whereas ethnic conflict of long year standing as between Ijaw and Itshekiri in Delta state or Ife and Modakeke in Osun state Umueri and Aguleri in Imo state among others have not transcended their abode.

Of equal importance is the fact that, state’s romance with Islam and Christianity amount to a violation of the fundamental rights of the other religious groups. One may then query: what happens if the other groups are able to muster enough strength and support to begin to exert pressure on the state for equal treatment. This may occur as a result of constant conflict between the two dominant groups of Islam and Christianity in which non members of the groups are affected. This has a tendency to inspire them into forming some form of resistance against the domineering character of Islam and Christianity and state’s support for them. The implication of this is that the country may likely be rented by more serious strife that would threaten its very foundation.


The preceding analysis revealed Nigeria’s heterogeneous character evidence in the diversity of its ethnic and religious groups. These diversities have often constituted a source of conflict within the entity. Perhaps cognizance of the fact that religion represents a political force capable of pushing in different direction (Ball and Dagger, 1995:253), the Nigerian state adopted the principle of secularity. Thus it was given a constitutional backing hoping that it would help avoid a potent source of unbridled antagonism. This is in addition to other extra-constitutional mechanisms. However, through an assessment of some practices by the Nigerian state, it is observed that the notion of Nigerian secularity exists only in principle and not in practice. This is because the state has displayed so much affection for religious practices to the extent that religion’s consideration with bias for especially Christianity and Islam underlie some of its activities. The reality is that, this inability to maintain absolute neutrality in religious affairs has serious implications for the Nigerian state and where care is not taken, religion for Nigeria, may be a time bomb patently waiting to explode and shatter its very basis of existence. It is therefore suggested that the Nigerian state should reexamine its level of romance with religious groups and make necessary adjustments in its relation with them in order for it to effectively contain the destructive potentials of inter religious antagonisms.


1. According to Motherland Nigeria, there are a number of different traditional religions available. They usually are specific to the different ethnic groups, and the deities are usually the gods and goddesses that the ethnic group believes in, and each ethnic group had a shrine dedicated to the deities that it believed in. The deities ranged from those who created the earth, to those who offer divine protection and/or blessings to it's worshippers, to those who had control over certain aspects of the world (like weather or war), to spirits that can be somewhat controlled by human beings. Most of these religions did not have written documentation of their beliefs and practices, but they did rely on a priest to teach them and to intervene on their behalf, and the priests were usually very highly trained for this, to the extent of being raised for this task sometimes. Some of the deities were represented by inanimate objects, while others were represented by animate objects, some of which are now valuable antiques in museums and holy places. See,


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