The Pervasive Influence of Nigeria’s Religious Leaders

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.


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