African Traditional Religion as a Political Theory

This November we are excited to be publishing the next volume in the African Griot newsletter. This newsletter covers all aspects of African studies, featuring new publications and exclusive author interviews. You can find the archive here. And don’t forget to subscribe!

In the lead up to the 20th volume we will be publishing some past articles from authors originally featured in the African Griot. Today we are excited to begin with a reflection of Ethics and Society in Nigeria from Nimi Wariboko.


Ethics and Society in Nigeria: Identity, History, Political theory, as a work of political ethics and cultural criticism, illuminates the human condition in Africa’s most populous nation and biggest economy. The book is about the texture and quality of social existence in Nigeria. The book analyzes the country’s social-ethical identity, history of emancipatory politics, religions, and culture in order to frame a new way of imagining the nation and its democratic republicanism. It envisions a Nigeria where young persons are stirred into radical emancipatory politics to liberate their country from the dead hand and deadweight of bad governance and destructive corruption that inhibit national, collective existence.  

The book is specifically devoted to developing a political theory of Nigeria in the light of the philosophical ideas embedded in African traditional religions (ATR). The history of ideas, practices, and institutions is the methodological tool I deployed to bring forth the contributions of ATR to critical political theory. History helps me to engage the ethical and political not as a philosopher positing a set of abstract principles and necessities that should guide citizens in a polis, but as a novelist developing characters in her work—embedding each character’s behaviors, actions, or utterances in their unique particularities and histories. In this book, ethics and politics of Nigeria emerge as products of historical processes of identity formation, resistance, and institutional developments. Its method is based on the rediscovery of the practices and principles of emancipatory politics and a retrieval of fundamental virtues and capabilities that go to the core of the functioning of pluralistic communities. 

The Fivefold Methodology  

The methodology of this book displays five distinctive qualities. First, the overall tenor of the book shows that the condition of the ethical is the political. Following Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, politics is deployed as the proper science to study the good, “life and the good life” of the Nigerian polis. The ethical and the political are not two distinct provinces. It is only from the perspective of the political that we can adequately grasp the radical relationship of ethics with the inertia of ongoing power processes and political institutions that thwart human flourishing in the nation.

Second, the book engages in a series of provocative meditations on history and social ethics to forge a new way of critically reflecting on the roles that history can play in the political theorization of Nigeria. History is pressed into very specific services to draw out shapes of a political theory that speaks to the Nigerian “situation.” This book “is neither a history of ideas nor an exercise in sociological history, but it uses history to propose a style of critical reflection on” the Nigerian political society. (Achille Mbembe Critique of Black Reason 2017: p. 8). Ethics and Society in Nigeria engages history in five ways (a) history as a social practice; (b) history as a philosophical concept; (c) history as a discipline of study; (d) history as a form of social imaginary, and (e) history as a witness of the flows of contemporary events; that is, history as cultural criticism.

These various ways of engaging history in social ethics or meditating on history as a boaster of political ethical thought encouraged me to write seven short reflections which appeared as epigrams for chapters 2-8 and they serve to give readers some orientation to how history is helping me to struggle with the subject matters of these chapters (see the epigrams here).

Needless to say that in my engagement with history I neither pretend nor aspire to be a professional historian. I have only tried to use history to illumine my diagnosis of the Nigerian “situation.” I seek to use empirical data relative to the relevant past that lend support to my diagnosis of the moral problem I am addressing. I believe that implicit in that diagnosis lies the prescriptive principle(s) for its cure.

Third, continental philosophy (Western philosophy as considered outside the analytical movement) is a major methodological tool in this book; yet it is not the determinant of the regnant issues of Nigeria that I discuss in it. I emic-ally deploy continental philosophy to interrogate, conceptualize, clarify, and rigorously analyze the internal regnant issues, elements, themes, concerns, and practices, and to lift up their assumptions to intellectual scrutiny. In this task, continental philosophy is not only a tool for critical intellectual scrutiny, but also a methodology of interpretative understanding that aids this writer to grasp the subjective meaning of social practices and ideas that are dominant in the Nigerian context.          

Fourth, instead of Christianity or Islam it is African traditional religion (ATR) that is used to undergird the social-philosophical constructive tasks in this book. I made the deliberate choice to formulate the critical-theoretical discourse of national identity in this book only through the perspective of African traditional religions, subjecting critical social theory to a specifically ATR reformulation. This is a conscious effort to develop a political theology or craft political theory under the rubric of African traditional religions. I demonstrate in this book that there is a proper conceptualization of ATR that makes it indispensable to a rigorous analysis of the notions of history as it intersects with political theory in Nigeria.

Finally, there is the Tillichian theological method of correlation that helps me to weave together questions about Nigeria and responses to them from political theory and history that intersect with theological interpretation. Theology here is hermeneutical, interpreting the “situation” that is Nigeria. Theology here is also non-Christian. Theology (precisely theological discourse) under this rubric is an interpretation of a situation, that is, positioning, qualifying, and criticizing the specific human condition in a given community, so as to point it to its “salvation” or “redemption,” which is nothing short of human flourishing for all its members. 


I have demonstrated in this book that there are potentials in Nigeria’s history and traditional religions, there are deposits to excavate, to draw from in order to address the country’s social problems, to press for emancipatory politics, or craft a viable ethos for human flourishing. This form of historical imagination was combined with critical theory (continental philosophy)—as controlled under the demands of the philosophical sensibility of African traditional religions—to forge a framework for political ethics or political theology.

Ethics and Society in Nigeria constructs a vision of the Nigeria nation and endowed it with meaning, with normative valences. Nigeria goes beyond the simple identity of a collection of ethnic groups and is conceived as a social-ethical collectivity endowed with normative value and binding mythos of abundant belonging, a purposely constructed matrix of significations for nation building. The nation as a normative imaginary has a performative dimension; the “people” (who are still emerging) do need to learn to perform the nation, their social-ethical collectivity. The performativity is in two senses: citizens as “subjects” draw on the normative force of nationhood, but they also contribute to the particular constellations of normative values against which their performance is understood.

This guest post was written by Nimi Wariboko, the Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University. He is the author of Nigerian Pentecostalism, available from University of Rochester Press. This article was originally published in the African Griot Volume 19.

Ethics and Society in Nigeria
by Nimi Wariboko
9781580469432, Hardcover, £71.50 or $87.75

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