African Postman: The Dangerous Mix of Politics and Religion

I thought I would share with you an interesting article by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning writer, who has been a good friend of Jamaica. He is currently the first African to be honored as the President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University in Maryland. Professor Soyinka has been politically active inside Nigeria and has continued to speak out on political and social issues in his own country, in Africa and globally. Professor Soyinka’s Nobel acceptance speech in 1986, “This Past Must Address Its Present,” was dedicated to Nelson Mandela. A link to the lecture is below.

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka at Calabash
Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka at Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, Jamaica in 2010.

Here is an article by Professor Soyinka from, in which he expresses his long-held concern over religious fundamentalism – in this case expressing his views on the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram (its name means “Western education is a sin”). Today (June 18), Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the bombing of three churches in Nigeria’s northern state of Kaduna over the weekend. The attacks, and subsequent reprisal killings, left at least 75 dead and 120 wounded. 

Church bombing
The aftermath of a church bombing by the Boko Haram militant group.
Here is the link to the article: 
The Nigerian government is opposing plans by the United States to include Boko Haram on its list of foreign terrorist organisations.

Boko Haram is completely political. But with the toxic element of religion infused into it, it gives them the leg to ally with international terrorist bodies based on religion, who are only too happy to be of assistance.

Let me begin by reminding everyone that Boko Haram has a very long history, whether you describe Boko Haram as an army of the discontent, or even as some people grotesquely try to suggest, “revolutionaries,” or you describe them as, legitimately, this time, as marginalized or feeling marginalized.

When I say that the phenomenon has a very long history, I am talking about a movement that relies on religion as a fuel for their operation, as a fuel for mobilisation, as the impetus, an augmentation of any other legitimate or illegitimate grievance that they might have against society. Because of that fuel, that irrational, very combustible fuel of religion of a particular strain, of a particular irredentist strain; because of the nature of that religious adherence, which involves the very lethal dimension of brain-washing from childhood, all a man needs to be told is that this is a religious cause. All they need to be told is that this is an enemy of religion and they are ready to kill. No matter the motivations, no matter the extra-motivations of those who send them out, they need only one motivation: that they are fighting the cause of that religion.

People wonder, sometimes, if they are fighting the cause of religion, why are they also killing fellow religionists? It is very important for us to understand that they have a very narrow view of even their faith. Anyone outside that narrow confine, narrow definition (in this case, we are talking about Islam), is already an infidel, an unbeliever, a hypocrite, an enemy of God (they use all these multifarious descriptions) and therefore is fit for elimination. If they believe that this environment contains any non-believer in their very narrow strain of Islam, that person or that very area is due for sanitation. And if there are those who also believe, who are confined within the very narrow limit of their arbitrary religion, any chance that there are such people, they consider them matyrs, who will be received in the bosom of Allah, with double credits as having been killed accidentally.

What I am saying is not any theorising; it is not any speculation. Examine this particular strain of Islam from Afghanistan, through Iran to Somalia to Mauritania. We are speaking in fact of a deviant arm of Islam, whose first line of enemies, in fact, are those who I call the orthodox Muslims with whom we move, interact, inter-marry, professional colleagues and so on. They don’t consider them true Muslims.

So the seeming paradox is explained in that. And this mind is bred right from infancy. We are talking about the madrasas, we are talking about the almajiris. They have only one line of command: their Mullah. If the Mullah says go, they go; come, they come; kill, they kill; beg, they beg. They don’t believe in leaving their narrow religion, which teaches them that they have to be catered for either by their immediate superior as an authority or by the community or sometimes an extension of that by the town. When they go out to beg, they believe that this mission of begging is divinely ordered and it is the responsibility of the person from whom they are begging to give them alms.

They sit before their Mullah or their Emir or their chief or whatever and memorize the Qu’ran. Their entire circumscription or mental formation is to be able to recite the Qu’ran from the beginning to the end. Outside of that, there is no educational horizon. So, I want us to distinguish very carefully. If you don’t distinguish, if you don’t narrow these things down to the specifics, we are likely to be misunderstood, as people like me have been misunderstood, because I have been against fundamentalism all my life, of any religion, whether it’s Christianity, Orisha worship, Buddhism, Hinduism or whatever. Any kind of extreme in faith that makes you feel that you are divinely authorised to be the executioner of your deity or that there is only one view of the world, or that only one view exists, for me, is pernicious and it is anti-human. That is why I am making this preliminary explanation.

The second elaboration I want to make is that I have never liked the expression, “the core North”. We are talking about North because the North is very much identified with Islam. And for one reason, there is no core South. I don’t know about the core East, I don’t know about the core West. So why that expression? For me it is too general, too loose and it confuses the dramatis personae of our political life.

I, however, identify hard-core northerners, as in hardcore pornography. There exist hardcore northerners. They may be in the minority, but they believe that they are divinely endowed to run any society.

They are hardcore Northerners, whether you are talking about Sheikh Gumi and others. For a character like Sheikh Gumi, politics fuses with religion. A man who said Christianity is nothing, who said a Christian would rule this nation over his dead body. So, we have hardcore northerners, hardcore northern Islamists like the late Sheik Gumi. Among those that I describe as the hardcore northerners, (note I didn’t say Islamists), are people like Sani Ahmed Yerima, the former Zamfara State governor, who is now a legislator. There are hardcore northern Islamists. Why do I use Yerima? Because in him, you also encounter the fusion of a credo in Northernism and at the same time in Islamism. So you can see somebody like him as an opportunist. And I say this, you know, because he himself admitted to some of our people in NALICON during the immediate post-Abacha era, when he was asked why he decided to turn Zamfara into a theocratic state in a secular dispensation. He said, and I dare him to deny it, that it was the only weapon he had to snatch power. He said the PDP machinery was so strong that he needed something which would appeal to raw emotions, to mobilise and get the governorship.

If, periodically, I refer to this individual, it is because he represents to me, the opportunistic face of Islamism. And, of course, he had to deliver after he became governor. He is not the only one. I distinguish between him and Gumi because Gumi never sought political power. He was just a raw believer in raw Northernism and Islam. The two tributaries fuse in a personality like that.

In the case of Mr. Yerima and a number of others, Islam is just an instrument. I don’t consider them genuine Muslims. For them, however, they are willing to go the full length of Islam because it pays them politically. Having said that, I do not say for a moment that he is responsible for Boko Haram or that he has any hand in it. But I say that his school of thought and his school of opportunism is responsible for the birth of a movement like Boko Haram.

Nigeria map
Map of Nigeria showing the largely Islamic states of the North.

Related articles and websites: Wole Soyinka on Boko Haram’s Hit List Biography of Wole Soyinka on Now that Boko Haram has shunned dialogue (Nigerian Tribune) What is Nigeria’s Boko Haram: Five Things to Know (CS Monitor) Wole Soyinka: A Special Gift for Calabash (Jamaica Gleaner) Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize speech

U.S., Nigeria At Odds Over Designation of Boko Haram As Terrorist Organization (

Blasts hit northern Nigerian city (

Boko Haram Wants All Christians To Convert To Islam (

10 thoughts on “African Postman: The Dangerous Mix of Politics and Religion

  1. Great analysis Petchary, though I wouldn’t encourage the youth anywhere to move to the hills if the outcome is guerrilla warfare, suicide attacks and mass murder. As I wrore above, I hope it never happens…
    As a survivor of a war that decimated many in my part of Nigeria, my belief is that we will find a way to solve the current chaos and violence meted out by Boko Haram. After the Biafra/Nigeria war, our leaders vowed to never let those divisions lead to secession attempts again. It would be hard to pull off; the natural resources of the nation are in the South and East. Boko Haram extremists are in the North. Secession would be counterproductive to survival and governing in the North. As for Soyinka, he is one of my all time favorite Nigerian artists/thinkers… Great post! 😉


    1. Thank you very much and I do appreciate your thoughts as a Nigerian who has seen the terrible divisions that led to the Biafra/Nigeria war. Since the north is so poor it would not seem like a good move I suppose to split the country in two – but wouldn’t this ensure peace? Yes, Soyinka is marvelous isn’t he!


  2. I’m sure the European empire never imagined the “Godless heathens” would one day use religion as a crowbar to wrest back power.
    For the majority of Europeans, religion is a part of life – while for people of developing countries, it IS life. Everything is seen through the prism of religion and as you said, it’s used to support all sorts of questionable claims on power and politics. Those in power know nothing can harness the will of the people like the indisputable bonds of religion and only education can arm those people with the knowledge and confidence to think and act for themselves. As you said, many can recite the Qur’an but few know what the words they are reciting mean, as the Qur’an is always recited in Arabic, the language it was revealed in.
    I’m pretty sure there’s a line in the Qur’an that advises people to avoid politics by moving to the hills, but I can’t find it. But thankyou for drawing a clear line between the average, common-or-garden muslim and the extremists who give us all a bad name.


    1. No – history truly has some twists and turns. My blog post was linked to a Nigerian blog post on Boko Haram and what struck me was that those attracted to Boko Haram and other militant Islamist groups have a lot in common with our own disaffected youth here in Jamaica (without the religious element). The Nigerian blog notes that Boko Haram followers include “the impoverished Northern Islamic indigenes believe in the provision of Allah to every mouth created by HIM in terms of feeding even with harsh economic realities. A 25 years old male has 15 children and without a serious source of livelihood. Also another Northern male elite of 45 years old met two of his 46 children and failed to even recognize them. There are no jobs in the North and the politicians are governing their people with no sense of redemption because it is only in the subjects’ poverty that the rulers prosper and that’s why the only means of political loyalty amongst many politicians in the North is the merger of politics with Islam and not the issues that are affecting the societies. Recruitment into the camp of the dreaded sect is just a matter of survival that is confused in religion opined a learned Northerner(Names withheld).” Moving to the hills to avoid politics – I like that idea. I would recommend that to a few Jamaicans I know!


  3. I suspect eventually Nigeria will split on religious lines (as has recently happened in the Sudan). Like most African countries, arbitary borders drawn on a map by European empire buildings are bound to fail.


      1. I hope it never happens… After the Biafra/Nigeria war, our leaders vowed to never let those divisions lead to secession attempts again. It would be hard to pull off; the natural resources of the nation are in the South and East. Boko Haram extremists are in the North.


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