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Nasir el Rufai and secularity of the Nigerian-State

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El Rufai needs to be supported for plucking the courage to strengthen the principle of democratic citizenship in a multi-religious society, without sacrificing citizens’ right to promote the metaphysics that brings meaning to their private lives.

The principle of separation of Church/Mosque which springs from the supposed secularity of the Nigerian constitution would be severely battered if this bill is pursued in the way it is.—Caritas International in Nigeria.

Nasir el Rufai’s Executive Bill toward a law to replace the Kaduna State Religious Preaching Decree of 1984 is already raising tension in Kaduna State, but the noise that birthed the tension is more against rights of citizens in a republic than it is in favour of itinerant evangelisers of Islamic and Christian scriptures who want total freedom to bombard incessantly believers and non-believers with high unbearable noise volume.


Of all the many progressive policies of el Rufai since he became governor: policy on free and compulsory primary education; unconditional release of allocations to local governments from joint state/local government account to enable local governments perform their statutory duties; and introduction of free meals in over 4,000 primary schools for over 1 million pupils, none has given him so much negative publicity as his proposed bill to regulate practice of religion in public space. In his bill to replace a 1984 military decree with a democratically enacted law, the governor seems to have attracted more criticism than his good intentions for the security, peace, and stability of Kaduna State in particular and by extension of the country in general deserves.

Ironically, both spokespersons for Islam and Christianity in the state have been calling el Rufai names that include emperor and aspiring dictator, for making attempt to provide a non-threatening and safe public space for all citizens, a duty that is given to him and other governors and the president by the 1999 Constitution. In political parlance, there are two major types of states in the world: theocratic and secular. In a theocracy, there is a clear integration of political and religious organisation of life in the state. Two examples are The Vatican and Saudi Arabia. Secularism refers to a state in which the country’s political culture is neutral to political preferences of individual citizens. Examples can be found in the United States of America and Turkey. All other systems are variants of one or the other. Nigeria’s concept of multi-religious society is one of such hybrids. But existence of multiple faiths in a country does not automatically make it a theocracy.

To all intents and purposes, Nigeria is viewed by the 1999 Constitution as a secular republic even though it may be a multi-religious society. In chapter IV of the constitution on Fundamental Human Rights, Sec38 (1) says: “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. But Sec45(1) of the same chapter says: “Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.”

While Sec 38(1) of the constitution recognizes the importance of religion in the Nigerian society, the Sec 45(1) recognises the right of the state to make laws to protect public space for citizens to thrive, regardless of their religious affiliation. The current constitution has, with combination of these two sections, avoided much of what some religious leaders call tension, that is fostered by elRufai’s bill. Like the United States of America, Nigeria starts all its formal state and official functions with the anthem, rather than with reciting the Bible or the Koran, in order to proclaim symbolically the separation of Church/Mosque and the State. Even where states have Sharia law, the country’s constitution remains superior to customary and religious law.

Instead of praising el Rufai for his courage to promote order in Kaduna’s public space, the governor is being chastised by both Christians and Muslims for attempting to carry out his constitutional duty to make public space safe for all citizens regardless of the God they worship or how they worship him or her. The thrust of the criticism is not to improve the content of the bill but to push for its withdrawal. More specifically, el Rufai’s bill intends to achieve the following: restrict the playing of loud religious messages to the following places: inside one’s house; inside entrance porch; inside the Church; inside the Mosque; and any other designated place of worship and playing of loud messages that project beyond designated places beyond 8 p.m. It also requires that preachers be registered along with their churches or mosques and assigns statutory functions to an Inter-faith committee.

Admittedly, requiring that preachers register after the organisations they work have been registered is superfluous. Faith institutions should have the freedom to appoint their functionaries without having to be slowed down by red tapes. Similarly, it does not make sense to have a cut-off of 8 p.m. for loud messages without indicating when such messages can start, knowing that they often start at 4 a.m. in many places across the state. In addition, the bill’s establishment of an Inter-faith committee instead of a Charity Commission that can regulate practice of faith in the public domain leaves too much of an important decision in the hands of a non-statutory body. It is better to assign such functions to a government agency that is guided by democratic rules in the performance of its functions, rather than by religious precepts and protocols. Apart from these, nothing else in this bill should make Muslims and Christians unhappy. The bill contains nothing that inhibits the practice of any of the so-called two major religions. On the contrary, it is subscribers to other religions in a multi-religious society, such as believers in traditional African religions, believers in Hindu, Buddha, Shinto, Orunmila, etc., that should cry foul about a legislation that has ignored or marginalised them.

Decision making about public order in a non-theocratic state is starkly different from what obtains in private decision making. It is illogical to make laws about public space in a multi-religious society as if public space is synonymous with private space. Citizenship of a multi-religious country is what makes all persons in such society co-owners of public space. In a polity, as distinct from private spaces within it, public domain does not belong to any individual or group of individuals. It is a space that belongs to people of all religious views including atheists and agnostics, and there are many of such people in Kaduna State.

While pastors are the professionals that manage private lives of citizens, it is politicians in a democracy that are mandated to manage the public conduct of citizens of all religious persuasions. In a country that has been destabilised for years by terrorism at the hands of religious extremists, it makes sense for courageous governors to make laws to prevent any form of blatant indoctrination and psychological terrorism or harassment of people of other religions that can arise from the conflation of the private space of religion and the public space of citizenship. By allowing religions to invade public space with their messages at will, as is being canvassed by critics of el Rufai, such policy disrespects the human rights of non-religious citizens in the same country, just as any government’s failure to recognise the right of men and women to express their religious belief in designated spaces for specific religions is a violation of their rights.

The Kaduna governor’s bill is one that should be appreciated for the courage and vision it shows about the need to protect human rights of citizens in a country that simultaneously needs to allow religions to thrive and the political space that makes living in the society possible to be safe for all citizens regardless of their religious orientations. El Rufai needs to be supported for plucking the courage to strengthen the principle of democratic citizenship in a multi-religious society, without sacrificing citizens’ right to promote the metaphysics that brings meaning to their private lives.


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