“Religious law is like the grammar of a language. Any language is governed by such rules; otherwise it ceases to be a language” were the words of British rabbi Jonathan Sacks. If one were to piece apart this statement in an extrapolated effort to understand it better, it would be saying that “Religious law is to religion what grammar is to language. Any religion is governed by its laws; otherwise it ceases to be a religion”. This of course, is true. In Nigeria however, religious laws do not just govern religion alone, they permeate marriage, life, birth, society, the law and every other conceivable part of the Nigerian environment. So much so that in order to capture the exact status quo in terms akin to the quote above, “Religious law is to Nigerians what grammar is to language”.
This essay does not suggest the erection of a wall between the state and religion – an attempt at such would be akin to drawing blood from an elephant with a toothpick – we must rather, draw a clearly visible line of distinction between them. Because – not regardless – of the fact that religion is an integral part of the lives of all Nigerians, it is critical that we keep it separate from our law and government. This will be proven with the points below.
“Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. Governmental and legal systems are based on the Sharia, the sacred law of Islam, which is interpreted according to the strict Hanbali rite by the learned religious elders, or ulama. Beginning in March 1992, the king issued several decrees that established new political structures and promulgated procedures for government. Known as the Basic Law of Government, the decrees defined Saudi Arabia as a sovereign Arab, Islamic state whose constitution is the Qur’an and the Sunna (traditions) of the prophet Muhammad” (Microsoft Encarta).
While digesting this, it is important to consider just how effective or not it would be to replicate such a stance as is obtainable in Saudi Arabia in a more multifarious society. The following answers the question:
A controversial article published on June 17, 1963 in the St. Louis Dispatch had its introductory comment reading thus: “The 1963 United States Supreme Court decision declaring the public school practice of Bible reading and reciting the Lord’s Prayer unconstitutional was a major turning point in the history of civil liberties in the United State”. It is logical to term illegal, any promotion of the practice of prayers and/or rituals of any particular religion among children of a country whose laws take a neutral stance on the matter of religion. We can agree that the 1963 turning point reported in this article was the beginning of many good things for the civil rights struggle in America, with Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech coming only a few months after the publication.
The Nigerian ‘religiosphere’, many will agree, is shared among the Christian, Islam and Traditional religions, a fact which is well enunciated in the Constitution. Therefore, an alignment of government and legal systems with one religion is not only unconstitutional but impractical in Nigeria.
Section 10 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution clearly states, “The Government of the Federation or of any State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion”. The reason for this stance is embedded in the instances sampled above and in the ever-broadening pages of history. History holds the reports of how badly Christianity fared in trying to take charge of Rome, Western Europe and Greece; also of how Islam failed in trying to take legislative charge of Tunisia, Indonesia and Egypt, among others. All of these reports show that so far as a society is multicultural and inherently diverse, any attempt by any religion to get into bed with the state and its legal systems results in chaos and an eventually defunct system.
Chief Ikedi Ohakim, erstwhile governor of Imo state is one man who can bear witness to the strength of the romance between the Nigerian people and their religion. In 2010 while still sitting as governor, Chief Ohakim was accused of arresting and physically abusing a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. All sorts of campaigns were hosted to revamp the governor’s image but he had committed THE evil and the people of Imo would never forgive. Less than a year later, Chief Ikedi Ohakim lost the gubernatorial elections – a record for a sitting governor.
While this may have played out as a favorable scenario for most proponents of a state-cum-religion government, further analysis proves otherwise. Imagine for a while that the Roman Catholic Church was the designated religion for Imo state at the time of Chief Ohakim’s alleged abuse of the catholic priest. If that had been the case, I propose that one of the following two things might have happened: One, the governor since he was running a joint-government with the church, might have pulled a few strings here and there and would have succeeded in quelling the brouhaha that arose from the incident. He would have gone on to win the May elections in 2011, he and the church. Two, the church might have played the incident up and instigated a revolution which would have ousted the governor; provisions for a replacement might have come attached to this revolution, or might never have been mentioned. This would have sounded a lesson to all politicians: Don’t mess with the ruling church.
More recently in Osun state, Governor Rauf Aregbesola came under heat for proposing to build an interdenominational Christian worship centre. The ‘Opon Imo’ governor had earlier instituted some changes in the state’s educational policies which sprouted allegations that he – a devout Muslim – was trying to Islamize the state. The proposed Open Heaven Worship Centre, many analysts believe, is an attempt by the Ogbeni Rauf to pacify the Christian faithful of a state which is too multifaceted to be tagged either Christian or Islam.
Imagine for a second that we are a year into the future, Governor Aregbesola has won his re-election and the Open Heaven Worship Centre (OHWC for the purposes of brevity) is ‘in business’. Members of the state civil service who double as pastors in their individual lives will send in applications to be transferred from the Ministries of Health or Sports or Education to the Ministry of Religion so they could serve at the OHWC secretariat. The senior pastor spot would be for a level 12 civil servant, pastor – level 11, deacon – level 9 and so on, perhaps leaving the Choirmaster and Ushers spots for youths employed under the governor’s O’YES scheme. The church would raise money through offerings, tithes, launching and bazaars, all of which would be remitted into the state government’s coffers. Soon enough, OHWC would be THE church where struggling youths wore their best outfits on Sundays to vie for the attention of Christian top government officials and personalities and for which adverts and calls for sponsoring would run unchecked in the state’s communication media organizations. The mosques and more traditional churches like the Roman Catholic Church would all but find themselves squashed against the unyielding fringes of the state of Osun. And peace and harmony will reign?!
I am Roman Catholic and Christian enough to know that both situations envisaged above are in direct obviation of the basic Roman Catholic and Christian statutes. I am also Nigerian enough to know that they spell doom for the overall sanctity of the state and national government. Deducing from these illustrations, the involvement of the government in religion is a double-edged sword which strikes deathly blows to both the legal state and the ‘chosen’ religion. It is a mutually fatal arrangement for both parties.
…to be continued