By Kayode Ketefe
This writer has often heard it said by some starry-eyed political theorists and religion enthusiasts that Nigeria is not a secular state but a mulch-religious state. This view, which offends the conventional interpretation of the constitution, seems to be gaining grounds even among enlightened liberal thinkers who are not enmeshed in religious biases.
The oft-peddled justification for this latter-day rationalisation on our non-secularity is that the 1999 Constitution, like others that preceded it, does not anywhere mention the word “secular” whereas the said constitution provides for freedom of religion. The proponents of the said construct would also point to religious apparatus by the authorities like Pilgrims Welfare Boards as mainstreaming of religious tenets by the officialdom.
The state does not only plan and organise the pilgrimage to Mecca and Jerusalem but also subisidise the costs of and even completely sponsors some pilgrims. The declaration of numerous public holidays on religious holy days by the government has also been cited as a formal recognition of religion in Nigeria. Furthermore, religious creeds are taught in our schools from kindergarten to the tertiary institutions.
Is Nigeria then a non- secular republic? I think the starting point is to analyse the provision of the 1999 Constitution which provides in its section 10, thus “Section “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”
What is the meaning of this? Adoption of state religion translates into what I may call national spiritual mainstreaming which is the formal and official integration of religious philosophies and tenets into all national policies.
The Oxford Advanced Learner Dictionary defines the word “secular” as “not connected with spiritual and religious matter” while “secularism” is defined as “belief that religion should not be involved in the organisation of society, education etc” So a secular state is one in which government does not put official imprimatur on any religion but leave same to individual’s prerogative.
Religion is a way of life which has stipulation on virtually every existentialist issue; it regulates human conducts from birth to death. For example the name a person bears, the kind of food he may eat or not eat, the kind of person he can marry and even the rites that would be performed at his funeral are clearly spelt out by each religion.
Anybody that wants to see the difference between a secular and a religious state should look at happenining in some states in the North which adopted shari’ah jurisprudence where the governments forbid people to drink beer, arrests people who laze about during praying hours and slam stoning to death penalty on women who committed adultery.
Compare that with what happens in other parts of Nigeria where secularism reigns; people do what they like; you may shun mosques and churches without any consequences while nobody controls what you eat or wear. That is the secularism in action.
Can anybody point to any country in the world that adopts state religion(s) where the peoples’ lives are not controlled almost to the minutest detail? In Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, adult male were mandated by law to grow beard or risk being arrested!
I want to submit that having a multi-religious society and a secular state is not self-contradictory. As a matter of fact, it is a nation that is blessed with diverse peoples, multiple layers of identities and religious diversity that often embrace secularity as state policy in order to entrenched neutrality rather than exposing itself to explosive vagaries of religious multiplicity. That is the reason the framers of our constitution made the nation grundnorm to be secular.
I have one theoretical question to put as an acid test to people who insist that our constitution is not secular. Suppose the Federal Government refuses to declare a holiday of any religion as a public holiday, is that actionable as a breach of constitution? Can the aggrieved adherents go to court to seek an order of mandamus to compel the federal government to make the declaration? No! That shows there is nothing in our constitution that mandates the government to observe any religious rites.
What I have found out from my arguments with some learned friends on this matter is that people often take “secularism” to mean “irreligion” that is lack of religion or total absence of religion. For example in the communist USSR, religion is officially prohibited, that, of course, is a different thing entirely from secularism.
Nigeria’s constitution does not support any religion neither does it espouse irreligion. To that extent it is secular. Nigerian people are religious, that is sociological fact. But my position is that this is a fact with no legal implication. The mere fact that government recognises religions through its policies does not mean we are legally multi-religious.
The government’s liberality may be construed as deference to people’s constitutional right to freedom of religion; it is an attempt to support the people whose security, welfare and happiness are the primary purpose of government. So my submission is that the Nigerian society is multi-religious but the grundnorm law on which the nation rests is secular.
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