Grace Nwamah is a PhD student at the University of Leeds with the school of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science. Her research focuses on the ways in which religion can positively impact society. She is an assistant lecturer at Imo State University, Owerri, Nigeria. She received her BA in Religion and Cultural Studies (2007) and MA in Religion Master of Arts (2012) at the University of Nigeria Nsukka.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
Two things have been central to the journey so far - my religious commitments and my passion for good governance. So, for a long time, I have been keen on how religion is practised and how it relates to the power structures. Growing up in the parsonage is one experience that shaped my choices. I was actively involved in religious activities from my early years and this grew into becoming a Sunday school children's teacher. I have remained in this role for as long as I can remember, and it helps me to think of myself as a teacher. Fast forward to my university days, it was no struggle for me to choose the subject of religion and cultural studies and to continue my studies and training towards a teaching career.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
I will say the yearning for good governance with reference to the public role of religion in Nigeria sparked my interest. Anyone who reads about Nigeria understands that religion is a huge force in the country. I study the interactions between Church and State in Nigeria. During the lockdown in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, the Nigerian government passed into law, a bill for the amendment of the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA 2020). An Action that has been described as the government’s attempt at regulating the religious sector. This government action touched on the sensibility of Nigerians and in particular, the religious leaders. As a result, there was an intense controversy in the country coming mainly from the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) with the religious bodies and civil societies as key actors. My research is using the CAMA 2020 case study to question the interaction between Church and State in Nigeria. The study is at the intersection of religion, law, and politics and hopes to explore the impact of CAMA 2020 for the assessment of the Nigerian state’s approach to regulating religious groups and how this affects democratic governance.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
I have just completed my second year of PhD which mainly focussed on data collection. At this stage in my studies (beginning of my third year), my hands are full. I am currently still transcribing and indeed, coding my data on NVivo software and writing two conference papers that proceed from my work, among other things. In one of the papers which I will be presenting at Cambridge University, I am exploring Pentecostalism and CAMA 2020 law in Nigeria. In this, I examine the key arguments and concerns reflected in the Pentecostal opposition against CAMA 2020 and what this tells us about the instability of Pentecostalism as a political religion in contemporary Nigeria. Given the exponential growth of Pentecostalism in Nigeria, some scholars have suggested that Nigeria has become a ’Pentecostal Republic’ (Obadare 2019). In contrast, the controversy about CAMA 2020 demonstrates that Pentecostal churches and leaders feel, in fact, threatened by government interference in religious affairs and are concerned about what they consider as unequal treatment of Christian and Muslim groups. The second paper has a broader focus on my research, and it is for a conference at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The sad reality is that these two conferences are happening in the same month (with only six days apart) and this for me is challenging.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
The role of religion in public life is at the heart of my research. In Africa, religion and the public sphere are married together. Religion has never ceased to be visible from the public domain and has constantly played very important roles in society. In Nigeria, religion is not only visible but largely decisive in virtually all events. Religion has been used to determine who rules and who does not. Many writers observe that in Nigeria today, it is rather difficult to hold a public office without being affiliated with a religion (BellaNaija 2018). Religion offers the springboard most Nigerian politicians leverage to reach their targets. During my fieldwork in which I had the chance to interact with top government officials and religious leaders, I could not help but imagine the kind of politics of religious balance that play out within the power structures. Some of my respondents of Muslim extraction will go ‘I really do not know what these Christians want. While the president is a Muslim, his deputy – the vice president is a Christian. Even in the house of the senate, the deputy senate president is a Christian. Also, the deputy chief whip is a Christian. Etc’. Conversely, some Christian respondents stated ‘we have never had it this bad! All key positions are held by Muslims, and they want us to keep silent that all is well. This country is under siege. There is obviously an Islamic agenda going on and we must do everything to stop it. It is remarkable how the very first thing to think of an officeholder in Nigeria is their religious affiliation and this goes a long way to tell you how much religion plays out in the public sphere. Religion is one of the most potent institutions of society, especially in Nigeria where religious practices are very vibrant. So, if it is not adequately regulated, it will bring a setback to the state. It will pose challenges to some democratic principles and therefore make governance somewhat difficult. CAMA is legislation that is aimed at ensuring that religion is duly regulated to enable society to function well. Compared with Western society where religion is fairly regulated, it is perceived that their society fares better. Religion itself is a double-edged sword. Religion can integrate, and religion can disintegrate. Religion can cause harm; religion can cause good. My study hopes to show that if there is any good in religion, it wants to retain it. And if there is any bad in religion, it wants to extract it, expunge, and exterminate it if possible. This is arguably why the government came in with the CAMA 2020 amendment. They want to look at things to see the problems religion has posed and create a way to address it. Government cannot do this by going to the pulpit as religious actors would. They can do it based on the role of government, one of which is to regulate the activities of the religious sector. It is the role of government to make laws and to ensure that laws are enforced. CAMA is not just about law but also about the enforcement of established law. Observers may question if government in Nigeria could muster the necessary political will to enforce the law to the latter. Again, the regulation does not come without challenges (a good example being the CAMA 2020 controversy) and that goes to show how vibrant religion is. Religious organisations in Nigeria are so strong that they can also attack anything that they perceive comes against their interest.