Secularism remains a taboo subject in Nigeria, with Christian and Muslim figures each dominating cultural and legal institutions in the country.
The African Consortium for Law and Religion Studies recently organised a meeting to explore how law and religion related to human flourishing. Presenters shared insights on the intersections between the various faiths and laws in different African countries. This meeting of the regional body, held May 20-22, provided a platform for Nigerian scholars and policymakers to debate and heatedly exchange ideas on the secularity or non-secularity of the Nigerian state. Secularism is a charged topic in Nigeria due to its tendency to limit particular religious spaces. Although it was a conference where presenters were expected to describe and explain their perspectives, many presenters spoke in declarative terms. The event revealed the disputed and polarising nature of secularism. It was evident that Nigerians were sharply divided on the issue of how church, mosque and state should relate.
The event, held in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria was an ideal host city because in this city the country’s national assembly complex is located. It is in the city that all the covert and overt manoeuvrings, plots and intrigues to politicise religion and to religionise politics take place, which is eloquently demonstrated by the gigantic national mosque and the Christian centre built with substantial government funds.
At this event, speaker after speaker on the local Nigerian situation including clerics, serving and retired judges, and academics, highlighted the conflicts and contradictions in the Nigerian constitution especially the ambiguous relationship between law and religion, church/mosque and state. One scholar drew the attention of the participants to the section in the Nigerian constitution that described the country as ‘a sovereign nation under God’. He pointed out that such a line could not preamble a secular constitution. Another speaker noted the provision for the establishment of a sharia court of appeal as another indication that Nigeria was far from being a secular state.
An appeal court judge, a Muslim, reiterated the fact that Nigeria was a multireligious state. However, he failed to point out where this was stated in the nation’s constitution and what the official state religions of Nigeria were. He argued that section 10 of the Nigerian constitution that states that, “The government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as the state religion”, did not imply in any way that Nigeria state was secular.
It was difficult to make sense of the rule of law in Nigeria, whether as a secular or a multireligious state (whatever that means). Speakers gave an impression of a country characterized by legal cacophony and confusion because of different legal systems- sharia, customary, penal and common law traditions- operated and applied across the country. In fact, a Muslim appeal court judge noted that a Muslim in Nigeria could renounce his or her faith to avoid being tried at a Sharia court, and he argued this way to demonstrate what he regarded as the `beauty’ of the sharia law as opposed to other legal systems that applied in the country. Others judges who spoke at the event avoided or prevaricated on the issue of the inherent conflict and contradictions in the Nigerian legal system.
From all the presentations, questions and comments on the intersections between law and religion in Nigeria, it was evident that Nigeria’s secularisation project was under serious threat. While the constitution of Nigeria has a secular intent, the crafters wanted a separation of state and religion. The secular objective has remained elusive. Subsequent state actors have not allowed the secular intent to materialise due to their religious agenda. Contemporary governors of Nigeria have exploited the loopholes in the constitution to justify the religionization of the Nigerian state including the enforcement of Sharia law. Thus Nigeria operates an Islamic theocracy in the Muslim-majority areas, a Christian theocracy in the Christian-dominated sections and a mix in other parts of the country. Many local speakers at the event showed a disdain for the term secularism but failed to offer a plausible alternative model of governance.
The question remains: why are many people opposed to the idea of secularizing Nigeria? The fact is that Islamists cannot practically turn the entire country into an Islamic state; their Christian counterparts are unable to Christianize the nation. Put simply, turning Nigeria into a Christian or Islamic state is mission impossible. So what is the way forward?
Although secularism remains a contested and controversial issue, the idea of separating religion and state provides a veritable framework for achieving a tolerant, peaceful, stable, and progressive nation. It is a secular state that can guarantee equal rights of Nigerians of faiths and none. A secular Nigeria will be more effective in tackling religious extremism.
Secularists in Nigeria need to adopt a more proactive approach to furthering the secularisation project. They need to counteract the schemes and plots of religionists and theocrats. A secular Nigeria cannot happen by armchair speculation or by mere wishful thinking. Secular Nigerians must wake up, stand up, and campaign to make a secular republic happen. Secular Nigerians need to be visible in Abuja. They should be actively involved in campaigning for the separation of state and religion in all areas of national endeavour. Elections are around the corner. Secularists need to let politicians know that they constitute an important political constituency and that the votes and interests of secularists matter.
“Secularists in Nigeria need to adopt a more proactive approach to furthering the secularisation project”
Both the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs have offices near the national parliament in Abuja. They use these offices to push their religious and political agenda. Secularists should explore the possibility of establishing offices and employing personnel to lobby lawmakers and politicians, and vigorously campaign for the realisation of a secular Nigeria.