by Matthews A. Ojo
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
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 countrys 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 countrys 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 Nigerias 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
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
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 countrys 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
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
The print media have continued to occupy a central place in the continuous change and
crisis in Nigerias 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.