Constructing minorities

The legal politics of religious difference in late colonial northern Nigeria still resonate more than 60 years post-independence.

Lake Chad satellite image via NASA on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

The last time Nigeria’s government conducted a survey of religious affiliation in the country’s north was in 1963. At that time, Muslims made up 71.7 percent of the population, with Christians at 9.7 percent, and 18.6% identifying with an array of indigenous religious faiths. Those figures are certainly not a reflection of current statistics, which vary from one source to another. Conversions across religions, among other dynamics, have meant a fluctuation in the statistics. Nevertheless, Muslims remain in numerical predominance in the north, catalyzing social, political—and legal—dynamics that can leave other religious groups vulnerable. But demographic data can portray a story of majority-minority relations that conceal the legal politics of differentiating between faiths and categorizing groups as minorities entitled to legal protections from majoritarian whims. What can we learn from the law’s construction of “religious minorities” in the late 1950s and early 1960s when northern Nigeria transitioned from a formal imperial hold?

The last decade of British imperial dominion in northern Nigeria marked the emergence of self-determination demands for political autonomy. As championed by advocates, the  self-determination aspiration sought the creation of a Middle Belt State for “religious minorities.” That constitutional struggle remains ingrained in public memory as an emancipatory attempt to dismantle imperial forms of domination through the pursuit of political autonomy. In a shift from the routine focus on the state-creation claim, I scrutinize religious minorities,” on whose behalf that claim was made. That investigation identity illuminates the legal politics of religious difference, and sameness, in the late colonial state and reveals a story that troubles popular narratives of the self-determination project.

There is no doubt that a range of power relations condition a group as a minority, yet, marshaling a “minority” identity to make political and legal claims is far from an unmediated outcome of those background circumstances. Far from neutral, the construction of minorities often necessitates deliberate—and inadvertent—choices of inclusion and exclusion with consequences both for shaping the identity and for the substance of the claims to be made. This was the case with the making of the religious minorities’ identity in late colonial northern Nigeria. This emerged to resist the forms of domination that colonialism entailed. However, as shown below, making that identity perpetuated some of the hierarchies and exclusions that colonialism engendered. Significantly, religious minorities’ identity hinged on an antithesis to the Muslim identity, and by so doing, paradoxically embraced the binary Muslim-non-Muslim distinction central to colonial governance.

The colonial state glossed over complexities in precolonial identity formations to classify populations as either Muslim or Non-Muslim. It then based residential formations, political administration, and, ultimately, the jurisdiction of courts on that distinction. Notably, the Muslim vs non-Muslim distinction was also the basis of the policy on Christian missionary activity. The overwhelmingly Protestant missions drawn to northern Nigerian were largely restricted to proselytizing adherents of indigenous religions, frustrating missionary dreams of converting Muslims. A binarized notion of religious difference was, therefore, central to how empire apprehended its colonial possessions and governed its colonial subjects.

This is not a claim that the colonial state manufactured religious differences—these certainly predated the colonial encounter; yet, colonial governance came to define, deepen and hierarchize religion and religious differences in ahistorical ways. It granted ceremonial deference to the colonial remains of the precolonial caliphal aristocracy, and violently repressed critics (Muslim and otherwise) of the state’s alliance with these elites. The state also transformed Islamic law and institutions. That process of redefining and ultimately transforming religion erased the diversity of precolonial indigenous religious populations, homogenizing that identity as simply “non-Muslim.”

The deeply unequal relations of power set in motion by colonial rule created a de facto minority status for Muslim critics of the state, indigenous religious populations, and new converts to Christianity. Yet, the construction of religious minorities to make self-determination claims in the last decade of colonial rule was far from a straightforward reflection of the complex forms of exclusion that colonial governance of religion entailed. Championed by local Protestant nationalists—and with the influence of missionary advisers—the wielding of the religious minorities’ identity for self-determination effectively sidelined non-Protestant concerns. Although that identity purported to be inclusive of all non-Muslim faiths, self-determination advocacy overwhelmingly privileged the Protestant experience. Indeed, the most bitter contestation in the late colonial years emerged from frustrations over the state’s extreme restrictions on Christian missions.

That centering of the missionary experience in the narrative of non-Muslim marginalization masked the disabilities that colonial governance had imposed on non-Protestant groups. Notably, the state’s repression of non-Muslim indigenous religious groups received scant attention in the Protestant-championed self-determination advocacy. Those indigenous groups were classified as “pagan” in colonial discourse and stripped of the jurisdictional autonomy they had enjoyed even during the precolonial caliphate. If indigenous religious groups were formally included but substantively excluded in the legal and political processes that constructed the religious minorities, the religious minorities’ identity outrightly excluded marginalized Muslims.

The case of the Tijaniyyah Sufi brotherhood, subjected to state-authorized repression, including extensive surveillance, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment, is particularly instructive. Like Protestant advocates, the Tijaniyyah sought to air its grievances before the commission established by the government to investigate the minority question. However, that commission barred the Tijaniyyah from appearing before it on the basis that it constituted a “dissident” group rather than a legal minority. Therefore, the commission (like the colonial state) was deploying law and institutional power to authorize the disempowerment of disfavored groups through a seemingly benign definition of religious identity.

Paradoxically, Protestant advocates of the self-determination project also embraced this colonial technique. Even as these advocates envisioned the self-determination project as emancipatory, the legal politics of religious differentiation—and homogenization—that produced the “religious minorities” was far from inclusive.

This was the irony of the self-determination project. In the quest to make a subject worthy of seeking legal redress, the construction of religious minorities became a quest to overturn rather than dismantle colonial hierarchies. Even as the state-creation demand it promoted foundered at independence, the aftermath of that political and legal project lives on.

Further Reading