The essence of the religious policy of the Nigerian state is best expressed by Section Ten of the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions which carry a short prohibition section stating: “The Government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as a State Religion.”
This formulation followed the acrimonious debate in the 1978 Constituent Assembly over the establishment of a Shari’a Court of Appeal. Specifically, many Christians saw the suggestion as the first step towards the establishment of an Islamic state in the country.
Muslims on the other hand argued that the established of the Appeal Court was a logical extension of the existence of inferior Shari’a courts, which Muslims had been demanding for, for a long time.
In the compromise that emerged, the Shari’a Court of Appeal was established but its appellate jurisdiction was limited to civil law. The Shari’a question entered a new phase on 27th October 1999 when the then Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima of Zamfara state inaugurated the adoption of the Shari’a legal system, which took effect from 27th January 2000.
The Zamfara Law extended the application of Shari’a from personal law to criminal law. Following the Zamfara example, eleven other Muslim dominated states in the North also adopted similar laws.
Constitutional provisions often reflect mediating between difficult choices and that is the reality of Section Ten. In general, Christian activists have argued for a secular clause while Muslim activists consistently opposed the idea of a secular provision in the Constitution respectively.
The formulation in Section 10 was done by the Obasanjo Administration in 1979 in such a way as to assure each group that the Constitution respects its core values.
To satisfy Muslim concerns, the word secularism is not used in the Constitution. To satisfy the Christians, the Grand Norm provides a guarantee against the adoption of a state religion.
To achieve this dual purpose, the formulation of Section 10 has to a certain extent been coined to be deliberately ambiguous. The result has been constant haggling over the “true” meaning of Section 10. While some have argued that the provision guarantees secularism, others have contested the assertion.
The major problem with the provision is that it appears to allow for preferential treatment to be accorded to particular religions without formally adopting the said religion as a state religion.
The 1989 Constituent Assembly tried to clarify the situation by formulating a less ambiguous provision: “No Government shall overtly or covertly give preferential treatment to any particular religion”. This formulation was however rejected on the grounds that Nigerians are a very religious people so their state cannot hands off from religion. Indeed, the Preamble to the Nigerian Constitution declares the resolve of Nigerians: “To live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble Sovereign Nation under God.” The question that is posed therefore is how can such a country in which the resolve to obey and live under God’s guidance has become an article of faith declare itself to be secular. Many Nigerians, not all, have come to accept that the State has a duty to sponsor or promote religious education and pilgrimages.
Section 10 expresses a political choice for an ambiguous formulation deliberately made to allow political actors have more room to make public policy choices on the terrain. It is this ambiguity that has created the conditions for the political crisis over the introduction of Shari’a criminal laws in some states in 1999. What was interesting about that debate was that each side interpreted the provision in a manner that supports particular conceptions of Nigeria’s political order – federalism.
The basic principle of federalism is that such problems have to be politically negotiated. Section 10 allows us to do that and is therefore adequate for our current needs.
The most important objective of the religious policy of the state is to guarantee religious freedom. Section 38 (1) in Chapter four of the Constitution on Fundamental Human Rights has clear provisions on religious rights. “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private), to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Of course this right can only be exercised by adults.
One of the most important reasons why religion has become such a contentious issue is that basic policy decisions are often not implemented in Nigeria. Section 38 (2) and (3) in Chapter four of the Constitution has clear provisions on the rights of people to receive religious instructions of their choice. The reality in many of our schools however is that some pupils and students in different parts of the country are obliged to take religious instructions they have not chosen to take. Religious courses in particular, are often denied or imposed on students.
All educational institutions must guarantee the freedom of worship to their pupils and students, especially those from minority faiths.
Religion has remained a bastion of conservative practices that often work against the interest of women. Within the Christian tradition, one of the legacies of Christian missions and colonial influence in Nigeria relates to the underdevelopment of girl education. Education for girls followed the gender stereotypes of Victorian England in which the utility of female education was de-emphasised. The same case has been made for Islam in which conservative and erroneous readings of religious tenets have been used to discourage girl child education and promote girl child marriage. In general, states should desist from supporting oppressive and anti-democratic forces in their use of ‘religion’ against women. At the same time, there is a need to subject official discourses on gender to greater scrutiny, critical analysis and public debate.
One of the disturbing developments in the country is the systematic denial of land to certain religious groups to build places of worship. It is important that all state governments must have policies that guarantee the acquisition of land for building places of worship to all religious groups.
The Constitution guarantees the right to proselytization. There is however no standard content of what can or cannot be preached. Often therefore, extremist views as well inflammatory and provocative speeches and hate speech are routinely preached. It is imperative that such behaviour should stop if we are to promote religious harmony.
Nigerians need to consciously promote civility towards each other. Polished and refined manners are expressions of respect for other members of society. It is a pre-condition for democratic practice as citizenship cannot be effective if the rights and the dignity of the person are not respected. Part of the African tragedy is that refined and civil manners, which are essential elements of socialisation in most traditional societies, have been eroded by economic crises, state terrorism, hunger and the parochial politics of authoritarian leaders, which have pushed people into losing respect for their neighbours. What has not been sufficiently emphasised is that many active religious movements have an even more effective capacity and record of inculcating intolerance, an ideology of contempt and exclusion and indeed, incitement to annihilate the other.
One of the most important sociological traits of contemporary Nigeria is that religiosity, that is, the intensity of the performance of religious rituals has increased significantly over the past three decades. At the same time, the level of ignorance people have of the basic tenets of their own religion and the religions of others remains high. The promotion of religious education aimed at eliminating religious bigotry rooted in ignorance is imperative. The younger generation should be educated in such a way that they can question religious interpretations that encourage extremism, hate speech and action towards others.