Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

On the Beat:
In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

by Matthews A. Ojo

The Nigerian press is perhaps the most vibrant and well developed in Africa. Despite a decline in the national economy since the late 1980s, which has reduced earnings and brought untold hardship, the number of newspapers and magazines has continued to grow steadily. Today there are some 12 national dailies, six news weeklies, three regular tabloids, five evening papers-all publishing in English-as well as many regional papers in both English and indigenous languages. All of them are devoting more attention to religion than ever before.

It is rather an anomaly to refer to the Nigerian press as "secular," because its beginnings can be traced to nineteenth-century Protestant missionary enterprises. On December 3, 1859, Rev. Henry Townsend, a Church Missionary Society missionary based in Abeokuta, southwestern Nigeria, began publishing Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba ("the newspapers for the Egbas and Yorubas"). The paper ceased publication in 1867 when the mission station was destroyed by the Egba in an anti-European uprising. Between the 1860s and the 1920s eight newspapers emerged in Lagos, the new base for the Christian missions and later the country’s capital. Most, however, ceased publication within their first eight years.

The Daily Times, the only surviving paper from the early period, was first published in 1926 and until the early 1980s its well-organized and efficient management set the standard for the newspaper business in the country. Vigorous electioneering campaigns in the 1950s resulted in the emergence of various papers, including the still surviving Nigerian Tribune, to promote the interest of political leaders and their parties. The 1960s witnessed the beginning of governmental involvement in publishing newspapers, among them Daily Sketch, which was established by the government of Western Region. The remarkable proliferation of national and provincial newspapers dates from the 1970s, when private business entrepreneurs entered the field. The Punch, National Concord, the Guardian, and the Vanguard were established in 1973, 1980, 1982, and 1985 respectively, and many more were founded in the 1990s. The press is overwhelmingly situated in southwestern Nigeria, and this area has continued to dictate the pace of social and political developments in the country.

The Nigerian religious landscape is as vibrant as the journalistic one. The North is dominated by Islam, which penetrated there from North Africa in the fourteenth century and became the integrative force in the culture of a substantial part of the region after a jihad beginning in 1804 unified the region under Muslim rulers. Southern Nigeria is overwhelmingly Christian as a result of European contact with the coastal areas. Protestant missionary work began in the 1830s, and by the end of the century Christianity had become fully established following the emergence of indigenous leaders trained in mission schools. At the same time, traditional African religion retains a substantial number of adherents throughout the country. Though not a religion of the book, its influence on the culture is very pervasive.

After Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, some politicians attempted to manipulate religious sentiments in order to gain regional support. Ethnic rivalry and the fear of political domination contributed to the national crisis that resulted in the 1967-70 civil war. During the war, religion was used for propagandistic purposes and to create and solidify regional identity. The secessionist government of Biafra, backed by the press, presented the southeastern Biafran enclave as a Christian country fighting against domination and oppression by an "Islamic" Republic of Nigeria. The press further contended that the British government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been taken over by Satan for its support of the Federal Government of Nigeria. News commentaries, though not written by Christian preachers, were full of such biblical images.

Religion also featured prominently in the press between 1977 and 1979, during a great debate about the inclusion of Sharia (Islamic law) in the country’s new constitution. Before then, Sharia had operated only in the predominantly Muslim North and was confined to family matters. The new constitutional provision was seen as an expansion of Islamic influence at the expense of Christianity. Although the press tried to maintain neutrality, most of the arguments against Sharia came from the South and were published by the dominant Southern press, while those in favor of Sharia came from the North and were published in the New Nigerian, the important daily based there.

After the Sharia debate, the press continued to cover religious issues routinely until 1986, when a new controversy broke out. In the first week of January, it was reported that Nigeria had been secretly admitted to full membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a Saudi Arabia-based organization that promotes cooperation in cultural, economic, scientific, and social areas among Islamic nations. The report indicated that the move had been made in secret, without the knowledge of key ministers who were Christians. A vigorous debate ensued on the necessity for such full membership and its implications for Nigeria’s identity as a secular state. In the course of the debate, which was largely fought out in the pages of the newspapers, the only paper then fully owned by a Muslim, the National Concord, took a partisan position championing the cause of Muslims.

Prior to the Sharia and OIC controversies, the Nigerian press presented news from a purely secular perspective, treating the public sphere as religiously neutral. Since then, however, the public sphere has assumed a religious character. This new development reflects a widespread Charismatic renewal among Christians and, among Muslims, the growth of reformist Islam or (as it is commonly known in Nigeria) "Islamic fundamentalism." Both got underway in the 1970s and by the early 1980s had placed religion at the forefront of the public agenda and greatly enhanced its presence in the press.

In recent years, most newspapers have devoted considerable space to religious violence, because this has implications for political power and access to economic resources in the country. The first big story occurred in May 1987, when Muslims attacked Christians in Kaduna State in the North. More than 1,000 people lost their lives and much property was destroyed. This came as a result of an earlier Christian-Muslim clash over religious sentiments in the small provincial town of Kafachan. All papers reported the incidents, and some continued to cover their aftermath. News of similar religious disturbances-most of them occurring in the North and widely reported by the press-has become a common journalistic commodity that usually brings the press more readers and more revenue.

Besides reports on disturbances, religion news in Nigeria normally takes the form of political commentaries by religious leaders and stories about religious festivals. The latter, which routinely run on front pages, generally report how people celebrate the festivals, along with the sermons that are given. Newsworthy events like the death of Archbishop Benson Idahosa, the country’s most popular Pentecostal preacher, and the visit of the Pope in March 1998, are also front-page news. Newspapers also regularly publish feature stories and investigative reports on religious issues, and occasionally an interview with a religious leader. Nigerian religion coverage includes photographs with extensive captions taken during religious activities as well.

In addition, newspapers run paid notices of registration of churches with the Corporate Affairs Commission of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a mandatory requirement for organizations wanting legal status. Some religious groups advertise crusades, anniversaries, retreats, and the like, but newspapers also publish notices of church activities free of charge-in small print.

It was the National Concord, owned by the late M.K.O. Abiola, a Muslim, that in the mid-1980s introduced a regular Sunday column of Christian sermons. By the early 1990s, sermons had become a prominent and permanent feature of most newspapers. The Punch leads with five regular Christian sermon columns and one Muslim, each of half a page and spread throughout the week. Next comes the Nigerian Tribune, with four Christian sermons, one Muslim, and one New Age. The Daily Times has only one sermon (Muslim), running throughout the week.

Most of these sermons touch on the experiential aspect of religion. Typical headlines are "Voice of Hope in These Tough Times," "Help for the Present Hour," "Family Matters," etc. Though diverse, they are all written to meet the needs of many Nigerians suffering under economic and socio-political hardship. Altogether, they have become a means of de-secularizing the papers, conferring respectability by portraying them as agents interested in the Christianization and Islamization of the society. Invariably, religion has become a smokescreen in the public sphere, and it mediates the harsh economic and socio-political reality in the country.

An analysis of religion coverage in four selected dailies-Daily Sketch, the Punch, Nigerian Tribune, and National Concord-for the first three months of 1998 indicates that religion items account for about 18 percent of the overall content of the dailies. Christianity receives 84 percent of all religion news coverage; Islam, 16 percent. The reason is not hard to come by. Southwestern Nigeria is an area that has witnessed the most intense Christian missionary activities, and a majority of the population is Christian. Christians, moreover, have dominated the media world, both as proprietors and editors. But even National Concord, which is owned by a Muslim, has more columns of Christian sermons than of Muslim ones!

The last few years have seen two major developments in religion coverage. First, the press has shifted attention from reporting on religious institutions to religious experience. Much of the news about religious experience comes via coverage of such programs and events as choir anniversaries, harvest and thanksgiving, funeral and remembrance services, and miracle, healing, and other special services. To the press, these are stories that strengthen the spiritual commitment and the unity prevailing in the public sphere. Second, the newspapers have become a marketplace where religious organizations advertise themselves in order to attract membership. The statutory notices of registration mentioned above are one vehicle for this.

Christian leaders and churches are also using the press to comment prophetically on socio-political issues. Inevitably, Christian leaders have found the media an effective tool for expanding the Christian discourse from the semi-private to the public. This transition into the public sphere has received increased attention, as the press has consistently sought church leaders for comments on almost every political issue, and even for predictions about the future.

In summary, since the mid-1990s the Nigerian press has been devoting more attention to religion in response to a changing religious landscape already saturated with revival and religious experience. The press presents religion primarily as a force that can change the individual for the better, less frequently addressing its influence on society as a whole. While journalistic evenhandedness prevails in the coverage of religion news with a national dimension, the style of reportage indicates the sectional interest of the newspapers concerned.

The print media have continued to occupy a central place in the continuous change and crisis in Nigeria’s social, political, and economic arenas. As articulator of public opinion, the Nigerian press represents itself as the mediator between the public sphere and the individual. As such, it has embraced religion news as a commodity for a consuming religious public. This is in response to the resurgence of religion in the society as a whole. The press has realized that it must appeal to the sentiments of its constituency for it to be relevant and commercially viable.