On Northern Nigeria: A Brief History On Religion and Culture

Without bias, it is safe to say that Northern Nigeria is significantly behind (socio-economically and educationally) in comparison to Southern Nigeria. To analyze how this difference in development between the two regions came about, one must start at the beginning, before British colonial imperialism. Northern Nigeria, due to it’s proximity with North Africa where Islam had spread from the middle east, first encountered Islam in the early 11th century. By the 16th century, Islam had spread from the north, into the middle belt. Prior to this, the predominant culture in northern Nigeria was the Nok culture. According to Wikipedia,

The Nok culture appeared in Northern Nigeria around 1000 BC and vanished under unknown circumstances around 300 AD in the region of West Africa. Nok’s social system is thought to have been highly advanced. The Nok culture is considered to be the earliest sub-Saharan producer of life-sized Terracotta.

The refinement of this culture is attested to by the image of a Nok dignitary at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The dignitary is portrayed wearing a “crooked baton”. The dignitary is also portrayed sitting with flared nostrils, and an open mouth suggesting performance.”

This goes to show that religion has always been a dominant factor within African cultures. Earlier cultures had also been shaped based on the faiths they held on to at the time. According to O.U Kalu, on the question of the core aspect of culture,

Religion dominates the roots of the culture areas of Nigeria… Little or no distinction existed between the profane and the sacred dimensions of life. Thus, all activities and instruments of governance and survival were clothed in religious ritual, language, and symbolism.”

North Nigerians are guided principally by religion. Marriage, sickness, morality, and social responsibilities are all enforced by religion. A person’s physical existence is strongly interwoven with religious doctrines, be it Islam, Christianity, or Traditional African religions.

With these, the analysis between socio-economic and educational gap between Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria can be discussed more broadly. As religion plays a significant role in Nigeria, the north, with a predominantly Muslim population of the Islamic faith and cultural dogma finds itself in a bind when it comes to letting loose the reigns of these beliefs and accepting ideologies passed on by British colonial imperialists. These were strange men of strange faiths, teaching opinions that were different from the religious and cultural stand point.

In the 1880s, at the time of the colony and protectorate of the Yoruba lands, none of the ethnic groups had adopted any form of monolithic religion (neither Islam nor Christianity), thus, the missionaries found it easier to convince the people and put them on the path of western education and Christianity. Up north, it was a whole other story, by the late 16th century, Islam had already established a strong capital in Sokoto, and the practice of Hausa animism, also known as Boori, which was the dominant religious practice in the North prior to the Islamic era, was almost close to nonexistent. Religious education was taught extensively, the people were well versed in the Qur’an and had already learned how to read and write Arabic at the time of imperialist advancement. They traded with neighboring countries like Gao, Timbuktu, and Mali Empire (also Islamic strong holds). Hence, missionaries who preached Christianity were not welcomed and they were met with strong resistance. The activities of the early 1800s still shape the culture of the people of northern Nigeria, which is why there is a significant gap in western education and socio-economic growth between the North and the South.

Personally, I strongly believe that the North’s propensity to learn and evolve quickly (as proven by the adoption and practice of Islam and also working with colonialists) is the greatest asset to the people. Through out the history of Nigeria, as a people, Nigeria had always been resilient and steadfast. Admittedly, western influence may not be my go to for promoting education and socio-economic growth but it could be used as a catalyst for change. Northern leaders could do well by promoting education.

At the time of writing this piece, Sokoto state, which was formerly the Islamic capital has adopted a new resolution to promote girl child education. This is a step, as the northern culture have found it easy to often side step the female child. The fact that Sokoto state is making this move is very critical to the North, as the city is predominantly occupied by Muslims and an important seat of Islamic learning in Nigeria. It is the city of the Sultan, who is the religious leader for all Nigerian muslims. This will hopefully, encourage other Northern states to prioritize the promotion of education in the North. However, this does not mean that the North is filled with ignorant uneducated people. On the contrary, Northern Nigeria has done well to produce scholars and change agents. It may not be on a large scale like that of the west, but progress is being made. States like Kaduna and Kano are breaking stereotypes. Bayero University Kano is one of the top ranking Universities in Nigeria. The University also houses the International Institute of Islamic Banking and Finance (IIIBF), the only one in the country. So, we trudge on.

An educated population is a progressive population.


This post is part of our quarterly theme “Culture, Religion, Society”.” |  Read more publications for this series.

Asma'u Shaheedah

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