On paper, Nigeria is a secular state. A budding multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural democracy brimming with potential. We have the 1999 Constitution – however imperfect it is – continuously reassuring us of this.
The authors of that dated but hallowed document were unambiguous about this secular stance they dreamt up for the Nigerian state.
Section 10 reads:
“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”
The goal of this can be seen as a deliberate effort to prevent favouritism and the sinking of the Nigerian state into a theocracy. If no religion enjoys state patronage then no religion can claim superiority over another. It is beyond religion, however.
Section 38 of the Constitution guarantees all Nigerians the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The latter entails freedom from religion as much as it does the freedom to practice one without discrimination.
Yet, as many people who have been prosecuted – take the case of 13-year-old Omar Farouq or that of President of Humanist Association of Nigeria Mubarak Bala – for blasphemy have found out, Nigeria is only neutral about religions on paper.
It can be argued even that neutrality is too dishonest a term to use to describe the silence of the Federal Government over for instance the continued illegal detention of Mubarak Bala. That complicity speaks to the massive influence the two major religions in the country – Islam and Christianity – have in the country’s politics.
Simply put, secularism is indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations in state affairs.
The conversation about state entanglement with religion has never been more pressing than it has become lately particularly after a scandal involving a minister’s alleged links with a terrorist group burned briefly and fizzled out. With the Nigerian government openly taking a side that runs the risk of signalling approval of Islamic extremism in the country.
It is difficult to discuss the place of all human groups – Christians, Muslims, traditional religion practitioners as well as the irreligious – in a country that has a history of taking sides. More difficult still when sections of these human groups wouldn’t even dignify others enough to sit at the same table with them and discuss forging a country that is fair to all peoples regardless of their religious affiliation or lack there of.
Understanding this need for dialogue, humanist organisations in the country most prominent among which is the Humanist Association of Nigeria which Mubarak Bala presided over until his detention, reached out to religious leaders for dialogue. The responses received are varied and telling.
Leo Igwe, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Humanist Association of Nigeria and a renowned human rights activist explained why dialogue is imperative now more than ever in a communique in commemoration of World Humanist Day – celebrated on June 21.
“Dialogue is critical to the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of people of faith and [those of] no faith. Nigeria is on the path to self-destruction and annihilation facilitated by religious discord and dialogue is critical for a change in direction,” he said, “[dialogue is needed] to improve the knowledge and understanding of the other- both religious and nonreligious other. In a religiously pluralistic society, it is important for people of faith and those of no faith to understand one another and appreciate their differences. There is a need for a change in attitude and orientation. There is a need to replace this disposition to hatred, persecution and forceful conversion or imposition of one’s religious dictates on others with dialogue and tolerance for the opposing and critical views and positions of others.”
It is a statement many religious leaders have made before, and if one doesn’t know Dr Igwe for his humanist stance one can easily mistake him for a pacifist clergyman. It is telling therefore that despite their occasional harping of these sentiments when contacted for dialogue with the nation’s irreligious population a section of the religious flat out refuses to engage.
On the continuing stalemate on achieving meaningful dialogue with religious leaders, Dr Igwe noted that the response from Muslim leaders has been so demoralizing. There has been none despite multiple attempts to establish contact through the body whose board he chairs.
“In 2019, we reached out to the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs for some dialogue but we never got any reply,” he said, “Since the arrest of Mubarak Bala and his continuing illegally detention we have used various channels to contact the Sultan of Sokoto, Emir of Kano and other Muslim leaders for some dialogue. So far it seems evident that the Muslim leadership in Nigeria does not recognize Nigerians without faith or religion.”
The refusal even to establish contact suggests that Muslim leaders do not want to dialogue with people of no faith. Perhaps Muslim leaders do not think that it is worthwhile to understand the positions of humanists and irreligious Nigerians.
By contrast, the reception by Christian leaders has been positive and promising.
“We have engaged Christian leaders at the national level and through the interfaith mediation center in Kaduna,” Dr Igwe revealed.
Dialogue with people of faith will however not be complete without Muslim leaders on board.
“Sustainable peace and development will not be realized in the north until people of different faith and those without embrace dialogue and tolerant pluralism,” he said, reaffirming what most every rational person understands.
He urges Muslim leaders to seize this opportunity and embrace dialogue. The hope is that it will bring about tolerance over time.
“The religious bloodletting in northern Nigeria has gone on for too long. These savage killings are an indictment on the religion of Islam. So there is a need to explore the means of dialogue to find a way out of the jihadist nightmare in the region,” he said.
The removed, out-of-reach stance of Muslim leaders, like the acquiescence of the Federal Government to blasphemy prosecution and what it says about the hallowedness of the Constitution from which the FG derives its legitimacy, is dangerous to both.
It begins to look like Muslim leaders endorse Islamic extremism and bigotry including the extrajudicial killing and imprisonment of alleged apostates and blasphemers. It may well be so, but the good faith position remains to maintain the benefit of the doubt and hope that somewhere in the hydra-headed behemoth that is the Muslim Ummah – Arabic for community – voices of reason yearning to make contact are snaking their way through the din of unreason to do so.
Dr Igwe also urges Muslim leaders, especially the Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Kano, to facilitate the release of Mubarak Bala who has been languishing in detention for over a year partly because Muslim leadership is in support of his illegal incarceration.
Humanism may yet save Nigeria.