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History of Religion in Nigeria (Before and After Colonization)

Nigeria is no doubt one of the most religious countries in the world with a rapidly growing population. Colonization has left an indelible mark amongst Nigerian people of pre and post colonial era and has forever influenced the belief systems of the people.

One of the reasons for the internal struggles often experienced  in Nigeria is religion as there has been and there are still religious crises ongoing in the land.

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All tribes in Nigeria had traditional belief systems peculiar to each one before the advent of British colonization which established Christianity and before the Islamic Jihadists enforced Islam in their conquered territories.

History of Religion in Nigeria (Before and After Colonization)
Islams during their prayer session in Nigeria

We shall look at the roots of the traditional religion of the three major tribes in Nigeria,which are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

It is noteworthy to state that after colonization, the various traditional religions are still being practiced by some of the people who still adhere to them even though colonization has brought about domination of Christianity especially in Southern Nigeria while Islam has also long spread due to the Fulani Jihadist war campaigns of Usman Dan Fodio especially among the Hausa in the North before the British came.

Hausa Religion Before Colonization

The Hausa people are one of the predominant Nigerian tribes but are now mostly representatives of Islam religion. They are presently the least influenced by traditional religious beliefs.

The reason for that of course is Islam. As early as the 11th Century, traders from Guinea, Mali, Borno and North Africa brought Islam to the Hausas, who accepted and supported its spread.

Islam empowered the Hausas to be a dominant tribe for they in conjunction with their Fulani fellow believers and later conquerors created the Sokoto Caliphate, which even waged war against colonial powers in the 19th Century but lost and became part of the British Empire.

Maguzawa Religion and Hausa:

The major Hausa traditional religion is called Maguzawa which was mainly practiced in remote areas of Hausaland in pre-colonial Nigeria. As at now, Maguzawa is also the name of a subgroup of the Hausa people.

Practitioners of Maguzawa religion believe in spirits (Iskoki) numbering up to three thousand which are divided into two major groups:

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The Gona (Farm spirits) and the Daji (Bush spirits).

Six major spirits are identified in this religion, namely:

1. Bagiro – the spirit that can devour souls.

2. Manzo – meaning “messenger”. This spirit is described as a dog which can torture souls.

3. Babban Maza – meaning “great among men” It is thus described as a pestle.

4. Waziri – the spirit that provides gifts to people.

5. Mai’iali – she is said to be the queen of spirits and is generally portrayed wearing a large cloth with children.

6. Sarki Aljah – he is said to be the king of all spirits.

Bori religion and Hausa:

Bori is another Hausa religion which has been practised before colonization. Spirit possession is the main feature of Bori religion. For instance, they used spirits to heal illnesses by performing exorcism (curative possession).

In this case, Bori priests “tamed” spirits for the purpose of healing practices. A woman called “Inna” held the highest rank. Inna translates into the mother of us all.

Igbo Religion before Colonization

Before the advent of colonization, the Igbo people of South-Eastern Nigeria believed in Odinani, the common name for the traditional Igbo religious practices. Odinani had a monotheistic attribute. They believed in one God (Chineke or Chukwu) who also had lots of spirits (Alusi).

Chineke is believed to be the creator of everything on Earth. The religion divided the world into Human and Spirit worlds. Death was believed to be a transit of humans to the spirit world.

Odinani taught that each person had a guardian spirit which was called “Chi” and was assigned by Chineke. The closest concept to Chi spirit is the guardian Angel in Christianity. A person’s Chi was believed to follow them into the spirit world at death.

Ancestral worship is another aspect of Odinani in which Igbo people believed they could communicate with their ancestors who lived in the spirit world. They made offerings to their dead in ancestral shrines dedicated to ancestrial worship.

Moreover, along side Chukwu as the supreme Spirit, there were lesser spirits:

1. Anyanwu – the sun god who together with Amadioha, controls the weather.

2. Amadioha – the god of the sky who also dispenses justice and lightening.

3. Ana or Anada (also called Ani or Ala) – the Earth goddess.

4. Ikenga – the god of time and achievements who also had control over blacksmithing and farming.

5. Ekwensu – the god of war who was mostly honoured among warriors.

The system of priests under Odinani  were divided into two types:

-Hereditary Priests: They were servants of a particular god or spirit.

-Seers: These priests were empowered with justice functions and had symbols of power and almost limitless authority.

Yoruba Religion before Colonization

The Yoruba people of SouthWest Nigeria still practice their traditional religious beliefs of which the key element is ‘Ayanmo’ (destiny). Every human being is believed to possess an ayanmo which eventually will be connected to the creator after death.

The Yoruba believe in one Supreme God, who they call Olodumare/Eledumare, Olorun and Olori.

-Olodumare is believed to have created everything in the world. When people died, their ayanmo connects with Olodumare.

-Olorun refers to the ruler of the Heavens.

-Olofi serves as the conduit between the two worlds of “Orun” (Heaven) and “Aye” (Earth). Orun is the place where all gods and spirits live while Aye is the abode of humans.

Yoruba believe in in lesser gods and spirits (orisha) which have the ability to travel between Heaven and Earth. They can be servants of gods or just independent spirits. There are also the “irunmole”, spirits that are said to be servants of Olorun which are his messengers to the human realms.

Ile-Ife, a kingdom in present day Osun state, is the spiritual headquarters and origin of the Yoruba religion and race. Various sacrifices are made here everyday. The Oba (King) of Ile-Ife, a descendant of Oduduwa, the proclaimed father of all Yoruba people, is said to be custodian of over 200 gods and spirits.

Some of the major gods of Yoruba religion include: Aganju, Yemoja, Ogun, Oya, Orisha Ibeji, Oba,Osoosi, Osun, Obatala, Esu, Erinle, Sango, Orunmila, Osanyin. All these gods had priests with hierarchy who served at their various alters.

Yorubas also practise anscestral worship by offering gifts and pouring libations to their dead who they also pray to in dedicated shrines especially in ancestral homes. The priest is usually the eldest or one of the elders in the extended family.

The Yoruba people consulted an oracle called Ifa for divinity to solve difficult life issues and riddles through the services of an Ifa priest (babalawo). Kings, Chiefs, communities, families and individuals relied on what the Ifa oracle says before undertaking such as war choosing a new king or chief, marriage, travelling, etc. as the case may be.

Various Yoruba homes had deities unique to them.

Cutting across all tribes in Nigeria is the masquerade worship. Masquerades are believed to be anscestral spirits visiting the Earth to bless their people. They differ in colour, size, appearance, dancing style and practices among the various tribes in Nigeria.

The British colonization has no doubt altered the history of religion in Nigeria for the colonial masters massively spread Christianity among the people of especially Southern Nigeria. Nigerians have even founded their own Christian missions which they have exported overseas.

However, the various traditional worships mentioned above still exist and are still practiced by faithfuls in remote and rural areas even though majority of Nigerians are now either Christians or Muslims.

A popular saying among the Yoruba is-“Christianity (faith) does not forbid our tradition”. Therefore, it will not be wrong to say that many so-called Christians and Muslims secretly consult traditional worship priests and belong to such groups while only God knows the true faithfuls. Some however openly participate in the traditional ceremonies or sacrifices claiming they cannot abandon their ancestral legacies.

Nontheless, the British colony in the land area called Nigeria remained culturally tied to the British tradition and religion and influenced a lot of Nigerians to accept Christianity while colonization lasted.

Many movements within the various religions have since sprouted and remained in Nigeria today.

Presently with a population of over 180million people (2015 estimates), Nigeria is the most populous African country and her population is nearly equally divided between Christianity and Islam, while the remainder is shared by the other religions but, the exact ratio is unknown.

The majority of Muslims here are Sunni who dominate the northern region while Christians dominate the south.

Christianity after Colonization 

From the early days after colonization; 1960s to the 1980s ,most Nigerian Christians were protestants; i.e Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists etc. Of course the British were majorly protestants and the British queen is the head of the Anglican church. The Catholic also has many followers, perhaps about a quarter of the protestant population.

From the 1990s to the 2000s, there has been a significant growth of new generational (Pentecostal) churches, the major missions being the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Winners’ Chapel, Christ Apostolic Church (the first Aladura Movement in Nigeria), Deeper Life Bible Church, Evangelical Church Winning All, Mountain of Fire Miracles, Christ Embassy, The Synagogue Church of all Nations, The Common Wealth of Zion Assembly (COZA), The Aladura Church (indigenous Christian Churches which are especially strong in Yoruba and Igbo areas), and the Evangelical Churches in general. We also have the strong presence of the Pentecostal Apostolic Churches which include the Christ Apostolic Church, The Apostolic Church, The Celestial Church of Christ, The Cherubim and Seraphim Church, etc.

The leading Protestant Churches in Nigeria are the Church of Nigeria of the Anglican Communion ,The Assemblies of God Church, the Methodist Church, and the Nigerian Baptist Convention.

The Yoruba area contains a large Anglican population, while Igboland is predominantly Catholic and the Edo area is dominated by the Assemblies of God, which was introduced into Nigeria by Augustus Ehurie Wogu and his associates at old Umuahia.

Still, many new age Churches are sprouting in present age Nigeria. It is said that the number of Churches in a street in Lagos outnumber the total number of  Churches in some countries.

Islam after Colonization

Nigerians constitute one of the largest Muslim populations in West Africa. The Muslims are so numerous in present day Nigeria that it is even claimed that they outnumber Christians. Various sects are found among Muslims:

SUNNI: The vast majority of Muslims in Nigeria are Sunnni belonging to the Maliki school of jurispudence; however, a significant minority also belongs to the Shafi Madhhab. Many of Sunni Muslims are members of Sufi  brotherhoods most of who follow the Quadiriyya, Tijaniyyah and/or Mouride movement.

SHIA: The Shia Muslims are found mainly in Sokoto state and are about four million in Nigeria. Ibrahim Zakzaky, who along side his wife is presently in detention, introduced many Nigerians to Shia Islam.

Clashes between security forces and Shia followers have been ongoing in Abuja, the Federal capital of Nigeria as Shia followers stage protests demanding the release of their detained leader and his wife.

SUFI: This Islamic sect emphasize asceticism and mysticism and form groups called “Tariquas”, “Sufi orders” or “Sufi brotherhoods”. They always preach peaceful co-existence and had no empathy for radical Islam.

AHMADIYYA: This movement was established in Nigeria since 1916 and make up about 3 percent of the present day Muslim population. Numerous Ahmadiyya centres are situated in Nigeria among which are the Baitur-Raheem Mosque in Ibadan inaugurated in 2008 and the Mubarak Mosque in Abuja.The first Muslim newspaper called “The Truth” was established by this sect.

QURANIYOON: Also called Kalokato, they are a Nigerian group of Quranists. Their name means “a mere man said it” referring to the prophet Mohammad. They rely entirely on the Qur’an and are found among poor communities in the country.

BOKO HARAM, DARUL ISLAM and MAITATSINE: These are the major extremist groups which have sprung up in Nigeria and have resorted to violence in an attempt to realize their ambitions on the wider Islamic and Nigerian population as a whole.

Poor socio-economic infrastructures and inefficient governance has been blamed for the thriving of these radical movements. Poverty and ignorance has therefore pushed many to join these extremist groups. Politicians have also been suspected to be linked to the increase and aiding of these religious extremists for selfish ambitions.

Boko Haram has gone to the extent of taking over several local governments,declaring them as Caliphates, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, before the Nigerian Army fought tough battles with them to reclaim the lost territories. All these occurred in the present 2010s. Up until this moment, though decimated, the group still pose a lethal threat as they still carry out suicide bomb blasts and gun attacks despite several years of ongoing military campaign against them.

During the 1980s, religious riots occurred in and around the five cities of Kano in 1980, Kaduna in 1982, Bulum-Ketu in 1982, Jimeta in 1984 and Gombe in 1985. These acts of violence were perpetrated by an offshoot of Islam called “Yan Tatsine” who violently rebelled against the authorities and non-members. They were inspired by a Cameroon preacher, Alhaji Mohammed Marwa Maitatsine, who slated government, and was subsequently arrested in 1975.

These radical sects are usually against Western education and lifestyle and want to implement Sharia law across the whole country.

Traditional Religion after Colonization

The traditional belief system is still widely practised especially in the city States of Yorubaland and its neighbours where a more reserved mode of life persists.It is expressed as a theology that links local beliefs to a central citadel government and its sovereignty over a domain of communities through the Monarch. The seat of the king (Oba) is responsible for the welfare of its jurisdiction,in return for confirmation of the legitimacy of the Oba’s rule over his subjects.

Yearly and seasonal traditional carnivals are held in various domains in Nigeria.These include the Eyo festival in Lagos, Ojude Oba in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, New yam festival among the Igbo tribe,Agemo festival in Ijebu towns, Various masquerade festivals across Nigeria,Osun Oshogbo festival in Osun state, Oro festival in Ijebu land and several more. These festivals usually draw tourists from the world over.

The Reformed Ogboni Fraternity is a Yoruba elites group who have modernised the traditional occult Ogboni group in Nigeria.

Hinduism after Colonisation

Hinduism is a minor religious group in Nigeria with a current population of about 200,000 people who are concentrated in Lagos State. This along with Buddhism were imported from India and some other Asian countries.

From the facts stated above, religion in Nigeria has come a long way and will remain an influential part of Nigerian history.


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Awolesi Victor

Awolesi Victor, is a Content Developer at InfoGuideNIgeria.com. InfoGuide Nigeria is a team of Resource Persons and Consultants led by Ifiokobong Ibanga. Page maintained by Ifiokobong Ibanga. If you need a personal assistance on this topic, kindly contact us.

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