In Nigeria's violent religious politics, the Yoruba offer a unique glimpse of tolerance

A travelling and trading people, the Yoruba became open-minded and pragmatic as both a strategy for survival and success.

NIGERIA is often in the headlines because of religious conflicts that have cost thousands their lives and displaced many more. But the divisions aren’t always simple and clean-cut – sometimes you may find remarkable tolerance, even within the same family, particularly among the Yoruba: testament to their long history as traders that may have exposed them to varying ideas and experiences. 

One commonly cited case is that of Lagos governor Babatunde Fashola, who is a Muslim while his wife is Christian – but by far he isn’t the only case; religious intermarrying is common in south-western Nigeria.

Take for example the Koiki family in Lagos, with eight brothers and sisters, spread over six belief systems and religion is rarely a point of controversy, they say.

“It does not matter to us how and where you pray. The important thing is that you believe in God which will give you support in life”, says Iyabo, a member of the family, while preparing snacks with one of her sisters in a house in Lagos, for a celebration commemorating of the fifth year of the passing of the father of the family.

One house, many religions

He was a deeply religious man, who together with his wife made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Three of his children are Muslim, one is Catholic, another Anglican, two evangelicals, and the oldest belongs to a spiritual movement.

The religious composition of the family may be remarkable but not among the Yoruba. The Koiki children come together when possible to celebrate Christmas as well as the end of Ramadan. But none of them eats pork, clearly a remnant of their Muslim youth. 

Iyabo found Islam difficult to fit into her life as a working woman, a widow and mother of five children. “Christians can pray anytime of the day. It’s not restricted to certain times as Islam is. For me it proved to be a lot easier and a reason why I changed to Christianity”.

Similarly the youngest of the Koiki family is a Muslim and his spouse a Christian. During Ramadan mother and children eat their three meals as usual while the father observes the fasting times. However, the wife makes sure she gets up early to prepare his breakfast so that he can eat before the day breaks.  She knows the importance as she was raised a Muslim herself.

 “It has to do with our culture,” explains Professor Adebola Aiyelabola. “The Yoruba had their own traditional religion but had an open mind and ear for the other religions they encountered during their travels as they are a people of traders”.

In south-western Nigeria, where the Yoruba predominantly live, churches and mosques stand side by side. The only form of competition between the two religious movements is noticeable on Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. During the Friday prayer imams try with powerful speakers to reach as many ears as possible with their sermons. On Sunday pastors, priests, preachers and church choirs of the various Christian denominations battle it out with equally deafening decibels.

Aiyelabola became a preacher after his retirement from regular employment, and founded his own church. He is convinced that his creed is the only correct one, but he accepts that others have different ideas. He knows the Koiki family all his life and fosters admiration for the deceased parents. “Despite their firm belief that Islam is the only true religion, they gave their children entire freedom in finding their own religious path”

250 peoples

Even before the outbreak of the terror of the radical Islamist movement Boko Haram in the north of the country, there were violent conflicts between Muslims and Christians that mostly occurred in the Middle Belt of the country. Northerners are predominantly Muslims. Majority of the Southerners are Christians, and in the Middle Belt adherents from both religions live. However the religious animosity seems to be fuelled more often by regional discord.

The more than 170 million Nigerians are made up of 250 ethnic groups. Although the northern Hausa and Fulani are often put together and labelled as the largest group, they are actually two different ethnic peoples. Taking that into consideration, then the Yoruba are the largest with 21%. They are closely followed by the Igbo and Hausa with 18% each, the Fulani with 11% and the Ijaw with 10%. More than 50% of Nigerians are Muslim, mostly Sunni. Some 48% are Christians and the rest adherents of traditional religions.

The spread of Islam in Nigeria started around the 9th century through trade with Muslims and military conquests. The customs and traditions of the peoples in the North made it easy to incorporate Islam into their way of life.  Christianity only arrived in the 16th century when missionaries, in the slipstream of European traders, brought it to the South of the country.  The situation would have been completely different had the Christian missionaries ventured into Nigeria through the Trans Sahara route. 

The North would probably have been predominantly Christian. If on the other hand Islam had arrived through the Trans Atlantic route the peoples in the South would have been predominantly Muslim.

-The author is an Africa correspondent for various Dutch media and a media trainer. Email: [email protected]


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