School teacher, Olaitan Akinwoleola, suggests that teaching the values of tolerance may help create harmony between the ethnic and religious groups that make up Nigeria. 

With a growing number of over 200 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. The country is home to over 250 ethnic groups and about 500 different languages. The three major ethnic groups in Nigeria are Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa.

The Hausa ethnic group in the north is mostly Muslim. The Yoruba tribe in the west includes Muslims, Christians and believers in traditional religions. The Igbos in the east and the Ijaws in the south are mainly Christians (Catholics) with some practitioners of traditional religions (Religion in Nigeria, 2020). The ethnic and religious mix of Nigeria makes the teaching of religious studies important for the development of the nation. Since the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914, the dual educational system restricts Quranic oriented education to the North and Western style education to the South.  

Christian missionaries to Nigeria used western education as a tool to help spread the gospel. Therefore, Christianity spread quickly in southern Nigeria with the establishment of mission schools. Isichei aptly observes that the mission schools had almost a monopoly over education. In 1942 they controlled 99 per cent of Nigeria’s schools, and 97 per cent of all students were in mission schools (Isichei 1995: 270). It was common in Southern Nigeria at that time to associate mission with education which became a path to relevance and influence (Isichei 1995: 270) 

The Muslim Arabs brought Islam to Nigeria and quickly established Quranic schools in many states in the north. The teaching method was confessional but also involved the study of Islamic la ws and Arabic grammar. Quranic schools and Islamic studies continued to be part of the curriculum alongside subjects as English language and Mathematics in northern Nigeria. To the Northerners, Islam was the true religion and Christians were seen as those who had deviated from the truth (Lemu, 2002). This also meant that western education was perceived as a way of spreading non-Islamic ideologies.

(Ihedinma, 2004). Christian religious studies and Islamic studies are religious subjects in the Nigeria national curriculum which are designed to serve as tools for the realisation of the Government’s overall philosophy for the nation which is to: “live in unity and harmony as one indivisible, indissoluble, democratic and sovereign nation founded on the principles of freedom, equality and justice” (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1996 p. 7). Under the current system of religious education, Christian students are taught Christianity while their Muslim counterparts the Islamic religion. This approach, however, has been criticism for failing to achieve its aim of providing comprehensive instructional contents from the major religions in Nigeria. Lemu, however, opined that teaching Christianity in Islamic studies may be useful and vice-versa but owing to the existing tension between Christians and Muslims, it would be hard to have a teacher who is a staunch Christian or Muslim explain the subject objectively. This could also lead to protests from parents and religious organisations on the claims of proselytization in schools.

Teaching of cross-religious subjects has not achieved much success despite the efforts to make this happen. Perhaps the security threat from Boko Haram in the past couple of years has also added to that tension. My first teaching experience was in Rijau, an interior part of Niger State, orthern Nigeria. Prior to our landing in the community, there were not so many teaching and learning activities going on in the schools. The subjects they were taught regularly were Islamic religious studies and Arabic. This school had a handful of Christians irrespective which shows that the teaching of religion is almost an everyday practice by a number of religious people. 

Many public universities have a department of religious studies. The Department for Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan offers courses in Christian studies, Islamic religion and African traditional religion studies as well as other religions in the world. Courses that deal with comparative analysis of religions are also offered. In the third year, undergraduates are allowed to major in any of Christian studies, Islamic studies or African traditional religion.

Glory, a graduate of this department, told me that she did not feel any difference in the teaching of any of the religions. However, she thinks she would do better as a teacher of Christian studies if given the opportunity since she majored in Christian studies. Graduates of these departments like Glory sometimes end up being teachers of religious subjects in schools. Perhaps, the teachers only feel comfortable teaching the religion which they majored in at university. This appears to be another reason for the divisions in the teaching of these religions.

The springing up of private universities has also further intensified this divide. Many of these universities are owned by churches and students follow the rules and doctrines of the founding church. Some of these students, on their parent’s influence, remain in their churches’ school system throughout their education from primary schools to secondary and even to universities owned by the churches .For example, many parents with Anglican roots would rather send their children to Ajayi Crowther University which is a university owned by the Anglican Church of Nigeria. 

Another issue that exists in schools like the one where I currently work is that the teaching of religion has been modified as pastoral studies which is a curriculum that includes the teaching of morals and values such as kindness, empathy, confidence. What I have noticed is that some of the younger students do not recognise that different religions exist in their society. Furthermore, pastoral teaching is given less attention compared to other subjects.

Striving for inter-religious education will be a hard struggle. The protection of the faith of one group from those outside that faith is strong. More efforts should be put into teaching the values of tolerance and discouraging further separation in doctrinal and religious systems. 

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