Nigeria’s anti-Muslim discrimination has its roots in British colonialism

Muslims praying in Lagos, Nigeria. Pic: vic josh /

Writer and author Suleiman Ahmed asks why Nigeria continues to institutionally discriminate against Muslims despite the fact that Muslims make up half the population of the country.

Everywhere the British went, they took the missionaries with them. As their administrators violently oppressed the people, their missionaries pacified them with food, schools and religion. It was a typical good cop, bad cop scenario.

During colonisation in Nigeria, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, many missionaries and colonial government administrators gained access to the interiors of the countries, where they established schools (on lands they probably didn’t pay for) to (mis)educate the people.

Many families became tolerant of the colonisers and even converted to Christianity as a result of this new system of education that had been introduced to them. There were many reports of children going to those boarding schools, as non-Christians, and returning home as Christians at the end of their studies. Some missionaries were even more straightforward with their intentions, as they made conversion to Christianity a pre-requisite to enrolling kids into their schools.

Although, many of the missionaries genuinely wanted to just educate the people, many would argue that the church was part of the colonial package. And as Nigeria was colonised by the British (a historically Christian country) the end of the colonial regime meant that Nigeria was left with a legacy that was filled with a European Judeo-Christian bias. This can be seen in many government institutions, especially in our schools.

In the Muslim-dominated northern regions of Nigeria and most of West Africa, by the time the British and French arrived the people there had been Muslims for centuries. They had what was considered to be sophisticated systems of government, commerce and centres of learning.

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But as their nations were subdued, one after the other, their institutions, which had previously produced the finest philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, slowly began to decline due to cuts in funding, in favour of the Judeo-Christian methods of the colonisers. Thus the Islamic institutions played second fiddle and were slowly relegated to the basement of society.

The current Nigerian school system is by default, a Christian, euro-centric one where Muslims have been excluded because their lifestyle did not fit into the European “secular” standards.

We did not ask to be colonised; however, in school, I and many other Muslim students were forced to pray the Christian prayers, read the Bible and sing the hymns. The school authorities didn’t care whether we were Muslims or not.

The hijab was also not allowed for Muslim girls. I once witnessed a teacher physically harass a young female Muslim student for wearing a hijab. Many Muslims who attended government schools share similar stories: one of bullying, mockery and exclusion – especially in the southern region of the country.

‘We a secular country’

Some people have argued in favour of this injustice by saying “we are a secular country.” However, what they fail to understand is that most things they consider to be secular actually originated from European Judeo-Christian traditions. As a former British colony, what we may see as normal and secular isn’t actually so to people outside the Eurocentric influence.

For example, on Sundays many Nigerian Christians attend a church service. The non-Christians will be forced to shut their offices and stay at home, because their Christian countrymen and women need this special day to worship. Because of the Judeo-Christian foundation upon which our country was founded, Saturdays and Sundays are weekends, which enables Jews and Christians to have a free day to worship.

This is the same all across many historically Christian, European countries and many former western colonies, such as Nigeria. Many Nigerians have not bothered to ask why Saturdays and Sundays are weekends in the country. Furthermore, many have not questioned why Muslims, who account for over 50% of Nigeria’s population, are not given that privilege on Fridays, the holy day in Islam.

Christians make up half of Nigeria’s population Editorial credit: Gregade

If Muslims, on the other hand, demand that Fridays be given to them as a day off so that they too can have a free day to worship properly, the people that have enjoyed work-free Sundays their entire lives would most likely resist this move and potentially brand it as “Islamisation.” That’s when they’ll remember that Nigeria should be a secular and religion-free country, and that religion should be a personal affair.

Let me be clear, I have no issues with Sunday being a weekend in Nigeria. I am pleased that our country is able create an enabling environment for its Christian population to worship comfortably. I am merely drawing this comparison to dispel the myth of “a secular, religion-free country.”

Also, we cannot demand a religion-free country each time Muslims are asking for reforms. Except if we were to radically reform our society through the eradication of all forms of British Judeo-Christian influence, and implementation of a more religious-neutral one (such as moving weekends to Mondays, for example).

The “we are secular” argument should no longer hold water.

In my opinion, our progress to accommodate Muslims into mainstream institutions in Nigeria has been very slow. This is a country where half the population is Muslim, and yet debates regarding the hijab in schools and workplaces are still happening. Even Britain, which colonised us, is more tolerant and accommodating of Muslims in mainstream institutions than Nigeria where Islam has been around for nearly a thousand years.

Government schools (including historically missionary ones) and institutions, should continue to create an enabling environment to accommodate the needs of their Muslim staff and students.

Sceptics are going to push back and resist the change. But we shouldn’t let them distract us from what’s important – to continue to, respectfully, demand reforms where we feel they are needed. We win when we unite upon truth, fairness and justice.

Suleiman Ahmed is a software engineer, social commentator and writer. He is the author of the socio-political novel, “Trouble in Valhalla,” and tweets from @sule365. Instagram: @suleimanwatford

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