Since its independence in 1960, Nigeria has struggled unsuccessfully to clearly articulate the relationship between religion and the state. Whereas the British colonialists seemingly bequeathed to the new nation-state a secular regime at independence, the internal contradictions, which, paradoxically were propagated by the colonial authority, incubated to pose a challenge to the new state soon thereafter. On the one hand, there was the Muslim north, groomed under the English indirect rule, which accommodated the sharia legal order; on the other hand, there was the Christian/Animist south, mentored under the British-secular regime. Thus the post-independence secular state, which seemed acceptable to the Christian/animist south, was abhorred by the Muslim north. This paradox has remained the Achilles' heel of Nigeria’s corporate existence, as northern Islamists have consistently sought the establishment of an Islamic state to replace the extant secular regime. This article therefore seeks to situate the legal and constitutional frontiers of state–religion relations in Nigeria. It is intent on delineating the conceptual boundary between religion and politics, while evaluating the impact of the current relationship on national security. The article advocates for a moderate secular regime—by whatever name—that is constitutionally defined and institutionalized.
Nigeria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The major religious groups in this country of more than 160 million inhabitants are Christianity and Islam. There is a scientific representation of neither the numerical strength of these religious groups nor their geographical distribution.1 The Islamic faith preponderates in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the country [which is composed of Sokoto, Zamfara, Borno, Yobe, Katsina, Kano, Kebbi, Jigawa, Bauchi, Taraba (although Taraba State has an almost equal distribution of Christians and Muslims), Gombe, and Adamawa states]. On the other hand, Christianity is more prominent in the southeastern and south-south geographical zones (composed of Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi, Delta, Edo, Bayelsa, Rivers, Cross-Rivers, and Akwa Ibom states—with Edo State arguably comprising an equal distribution of Muslims and Christians.
The southwest and north-central zones (composed of Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun, Kaduna, Niger, Plateau, Nassarawa, Benue, and Kogi states) and the north-central zone (the Federal Capital Territory) have reasonably balanced numbers of Muslims and Christians; except for Benue State, which is entirely composed of Christians and followers of Traditional Religion (TR). Although often marginalized, TR has a fair amount of followers and, therefore has a significant degree of influence in the determination of state–religion relations. In spite of the apparent dominance of Islam and Christianity in public relations, the syncretic nature of religion among Nigerian tribes has paradoxically made TR a sort of melting pot, as those who profess both Islamic and Christian faiths frequently patronize traditional religious priests for spiritual rituals. Thus, in spite of the apparent scorn of TR by Nigerian elites as a result of the modernizing influences of the colonizing religions, TR continues to be furtively patronized by a great many adherents of both Islam and Christianity and has therefore maintained its relevance.
Pre-colonial state–religion relations among the disparate ethnic nationalities that now form the geographical entity called Nigeria took various forms. Whereas the traditional institutions of governance of some ethnic nationalities were an amalgam of political and religious authority, religion and its institutions were independent of political authority in some communities. Also, the incongruous system of colonial administration in the different regions allowed the Islamic caliphatorial system of governance in northern Nigeria to continue uninterrupted, while imposing a Western secular system in the southern part of the country. This administrative contrast reinforced the pre-existing incompatibility in state–religion relations among the ethnic nationalities that were now integrated as one nation state. Ultimately, the cultural divergence among the ethnic nationalities, which was reinforced by the colonial policy of governance, bred a culture of sustained conflict and struggle for superiority between religious and state institutions on one hand, and between the various religious groups inter se.
Contemporary state–religion relations in Nigeria are characterized by ill-defined boundaries. Whereas the Nigerian Constitution has declared freedom of religion and apparently seeks to separate state affairs from the doctrinal leanings of religion, the same constitution creates and recognizes executive and judicial institutions with religious biases. Thus the existence of multiple judicial systems based on secular, religious, and traditional jurisprudence, as well as multiple educational systems based on secular and religious principles, only serve the purpose of obfuscating the real character of the Nigerian state, whether secular or religious. The security ramifications of this conceptual uncertainty mean that religion is often instrumentalized for political and hubristic ends, thereby creating strong animosity among religious groups. This is particularly so as the politicization of religion inevitably breeds premeditated inequities in terms of resource allocation and other ramifications of patronage by the dominant religious group(s).
The consequence of this dysfunctional configuration of state–religion relations is the persistence of religiously induced conflicts in the country since the early 1980s. The persistent struggle by Islamists in northern Nigeria to establish sharia law and governance has been a consistent source of conflict; hence radical and violent groups often take advantage of the predominant deference to sharia law and governance among northern Muslims to orchestrate their clandestine motives. The Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in northern Nigeria, which is ostensibly founded on an Islamization agenda, demonstrates the ramifications of this challenge, as this group's violent activities have stretched the elasticity of national security and unity, thereby calling into question the viability of the Nigerian state. This scenario necessitates an enquiry into the real nature and character of the Nigerian state in terms of its relationship with religion. In this regard, this article argues that the contradictions propagated by the colonial administration in the northern and southern regions before their eventual amalgamation in 1914 are deeply implicated in the post-colonial character of state–religion relations. In view of the destructive character of this current situation, the article advocates the separation of state from religious affairs, without necessarily detracting from the spiritual essence of religion in private life.
2. Pre-colonial Religious Influences on Governance Among the Ethnic Nationalities in Nigeria
Prior to British colonial incursion into the disparate territories that are now aggregated as Nigeria, the various ethnic nationalities within these territories had their respective systems of social organization and religious beliefs. Although religion and politics were dominant features of life in the traditional settings of the different ethnic nationalities,2 there were some communities where religion and politics were autonomous. In view of the variety of ethnic nationalities in Nigeria,3 reference can be made to the pre-colonial religious practices among three most populous ethnic groups in the country (the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo) which existed in the pre-independence geographical arrangements (northern and southern Nigeria) before they were amalgamated in 1914. An analysis of religious influences on communal politics/governance in these pre-colonial societies as well as the transformation of state–religion relations among them will show how their respective historical developments influenced contemporary state–religion relations.
A. State–Religion Relations in Pre-Colonial Hausa-Fulani Societies
For a clear understanding of the nature and character of state–religion relations among the Hausa-Fulani ethnic nationality, a cursory consideration of its transformation is useful. ‘Hausa’ was a term originally used to describe the Hausa-speaking peoples of northern Nigeria (consisting of the Habe and Maguzawa). The Hausas were traditionally organized into seven large, centralized states—Biram, Daura, Kano, Katsina, Gobir, Rano, and Zazzau or Zaria.4 These states were ruled by independent emirs, yet there were close political and cultural ties among them.
In 1810, however, the Fulbe-speaking nomadic tribe, popularly called Fulani, invaded the Hausa states, under the leadership of Uthman dan Fodio, and established an Islamic central authority under the Sokoto caliphate.5 The caliphate was an amalgam of 15 states called emirates, each headed by a ruling dynasty of Fulani origin. The Fulani rulers of the Hausa states progressively adopted the sedentary life, language, and other customs of the Habe people whom they subdued, partly through intermarriage.6 Thus the term ‘Hausa’ is now normally used to refer to the original Habe population, the sedentary Fulbe-speaking people, the Tuareg or Kanuri of the old Kanem Borno Empire, and most other tribes of northern Nigeria who have adopted the Hausa language and culture as well as Islam.
Before the traditional Hausa communities were captured by Uthman dan Fodio’s Islamic jihad in the 19th century, both Islam and TR flourished in Hausa societies, although the former had an edge over the latter due to its universality.7 The nature of traditional Hausa religion was spirit- and family-centred.8 The spirits formed hierarchies of good and evil, while sacrificial offerings and spirit possession were prominent characteristics of the worship. Diviners and shamans exercised significant influence over the family worship, although this influence was localized at the family level.9
In terms of general administration, the emirs in the respective states were responsible for local politics and foreign relations. Administration was hierarchically organized, from the family (Gida) which was the lowest level, to the emirate, at the apex of political authority. Communal leadership began from the family head (Mai Gida) to the ward head (Mai Ungwa) to the village head (Sarkin Gari) before crystalizing up to the emir, who was the ultimate repository of administrative and judicial authority. The emir often appointed state officials such as the Waziri, the Sarkin Yaki (Chief of the Army and War), the Sarkin Ruwa (Chief or Minister of Water Resources), or Magaji to assist in the execution of these functions10; religion, however, remained a personal endeavour.
The surrender to dan Fodio’s jihad and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic caliphate, however, changed the complexion of state–religion relations in Hausa communities. From the pre-caliphate notion of religion as an activity, essentially within the family and personal realm, Islam became a state religion. The Sultan of the Sokoto, who superintended the 15 emirates of the caliphate also served as the caliph, a position that encompassed both political and religious authority. Based on the British fiction that northern Nigeria was mainly Islamic, the colonial government’s system of ‘indirect rule’ relied heavily on the Hausa-Fulani political cum religious establishment to maintain control of northern Nigeria.11 Thus, by political design, the British authorities not only protected the existing marriage between the state and religion, they prevented the disturbance of the status quo by prohibiting missionary proselytization in these areas. Islam, therefore, was not only strengthened during British colonialism in these areas; it was made an organ of the state.
B. State–Religion Relations in Pre-Colonial Yoruba Communities
Religion was a critical element of pre-colonial Yoruba politics; in fact, political activities derived their source and legitimacy from religion. There is unanimity among all oral traditions regarding the foundation of Yoruba social organization that Ife is the traditional home and centre of dispersal of the Yoruba people.12 Accordingly, the complexion of state–religion relations in Ife and its sister Kingdom of Oyo would be used to represent all Yoruba kingdoms, which are indeed similar in composition and character. In pre-colonial Yoruba land, the King (Oba), or in the case of Ife and Oyo specifically, the Ooni and Alaafin respectively, was the chief executive, in whom was reposed both religious and political authority.13 The traditional authority in Yorubaland was perceived as divinely ordained and, therefore, was revered by its subjects. According to Afe, ‘Kings in Yorubaland were regarded as the divine representatives of the gods on earth … . They were often credited with various kinds of supernatural powers, including that of clairvoyance.’14
The political organization of the old Oyo Empire was analogous to that of Ife, where the King (Alaafin) personified political and religious authority. Falola and others have aptly described this political complexity:
Generally, therefore, kings in Yorubaland, were to be accorded utmost reverence by the people whose perception was that doing otherwise was acting contrary to demands of traditions, which could incur punishment from the gods’.16 In this theocratic monarchy then, reverence attached to the Oba’s authority not because of his temporal standing but due to the spiritual endowment, which put him beyond ordinary mortals. Religion was, therefore, a cornerstone of Yoruba politics.
… the Alaafin combined spiritual and temporal powers in his office. In his spiritual capacity, the Alaafin was seen by his subjects as the companion of the gods. As far as temporal powers were concerned, he exercised political control over central administration; designated administrative officers reported to him as well as owed him allegiance in exercising powers over provincial matters. But whilst in theory, the Alaafin’s power was absolute because he was Ekeji Orisa, that is to say the companion of the gods and owner of the land, in practice, the Alaafin was circumscribed by a system of checks and balances which greatly limited his influence and power.15
C. State–Religion Relations in Pre-Colonial Igbo Communities
Politically and socially, the traditional Igbo society had no centralized form of government,17 except in kingdoms such as those of the Nri, Arochukwu, Agbor, and Onitsha.18 The Igbo society was segmentary, as various social units based on kinship existed.19 Socio-political organization among the Igbo people was stratified into several independent but interrelated kinship layers, from the family to the extended family, lineage, village, and the clan levels, constituting the lowest to the highest socio-political unit. The elders at all the identified levels of government played a prominent role as the holders of authority, though they did not act alone.20 At all levels, government was largely republican and democratic, as all adult males, or in exceptional situations some females, took active part in the decision-making process.21
The Igbo communities presented a paradox of a sort, in terms of community–religion relations. Whereas the people were highly religious, politics in Igboland was not completely dominated by religious bias, although religion played an important role in communal relations. The Igbo are, and have always been, a profoundly religious people who believe in a supreme creator, known as Chukwu. According to oral traditions, Chukwu created the visible universe (uwa)22 and everything in it, but dwells in the sky with a host of powerful divinities and primordial beings.23 Whereas Chukwu is seen as the supreme deity and ultimate beneficiary of sacrifices, there are a host of subordinate gods, which represent him on earth and are worshipped by men. These gods or spirits are known as Alusi, alternatively known as Arusi or Arushi (depending on dialect).24 They include, among others, Ala (the earth-goddess, the spirit of fertility of man and the productivity of the land), Igwe (the sky-god), Imo miri (the spirit of the river), Mbatuku (the spirit of wealth), Agwo (a spirit envious of other’s wealth), Aha njuku or Ifejioku (the yam spirit), Ikoro (the drum spirit), and Ekwu (the hearth spirit, which is woman’s domestic spirit).25
These minor divinities were worshipped at the level of the family, as there existed variations in the choices of deities among families. The role of the diviners was to interpret the wishes of the Alusi, while the role of the priest was to placate them with sacrifices.26 The priests of the various divinities enjoyed enormous respect in the communities;27 they were important political men since they acted as final arbiters in cases through the use of traditional oath taking. They were also in charge of oracles, whose declarations were final in certain disputes.28 In spite of the respect accorded to religion and the diviners/priests, the priests enjoyed no superiority in communal decision making, as they were just a part of the political complex. Thus, in terms of the relationship between politics and religion, the Igbo society differed significantly from the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba societies, as religion and its personalities were merely accorded some privileges and respect in the decision-making process. Though relevant to social organization in Igboland, religion was dominant at the family level due to the diversity in worship and subscription to diverse minor divinities.
3. Post-Colonial Nature of State–Religion Relations
As British colonialism came to its twilight, it was recognized that ‘a functioning Nigerian state – one that incorporated both the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south – would have to be of a secular character’.29 The independence constitution made Nigeria a regional parliamentary democracy, with a ceremonial president and a prime minister who was the head of government. There were three regions (northern, eastern, and western) and the Federal Capital Territory.30 The regions were led by their respective premiers and had their laws and constitutions, distinct from the federal laws and constitution.31 By virtue of this regional configuration, the allegiance and loyalty of politicians and public servants were to their respective regional governments and premiers as opposed to the federal (central) government.32 This situation had negative implications for the development of common national consciousness as it reinforced regional differences, including religious diversity. The northern region particularly championed a policy of regionalism, which was essentially aimed at weakening the centre and strengthening the regions, the objective of which was to promote peculiar regional tendencies, particularly adherence to Islamic law. In spite of the relative regional autonomy, the legal system was unified and cast in a constitutional framework which gave pre-eminence to the secular legal order, while subjecting all other laws to the unified control of the secular federal Supreme Court and, ultimately, the Crown.
Accordingly, the judicial structure that was adopted during the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914 was retained with modification. There was a Federal Supreme Court, which was presided over by a Chief Justice of the Federation, while each region (then northern, eastern, and western regions) had a high court presided over by a Chief Justice. Appeals from each of the high courts of the regions went to the Federal Supreme Court, while appeals from Magistrate Courts, Customary or Native Courts Grade A went to the regional high courts. Although customary law was still applicable in secular courts, its legitimacy was contingent upon the validity test established by the Native Courts Proclamation of 1900.33 Islamic law was considered as customary law,34 by which standard it had to pass the validity test before being recognized by the secular courts. Similarly, although a Sharia Court of Appeal was established for the northern region, by Section 112 of the 1960 Constitution, appeals from the Sharia Court of Appeal lay before the Federal Supreme Court—which was a secular court, established under Section 104 of the Constitution. In terms of the sources of Nigerian law, the common law of England, the doctrines of equity, and the statutes of general application, applicable to Nigeria before 1900, were to be administered in the courts in so far as local circumstances permitted. Thus three sources of law were applicable in Nigeria courts—English law, customary law, and sharia law—although sharia law was considered by the British as part of customary law.35
Following the colonial legacy reviewed above, the predominantly Christian and animist south (comprising the eastern and western regions) had little problem embracing the secular character of the state, since that was the political legacy bequeathed to them by the colonial administration. On the other hand, the contradictions inherent in the very nature of Islamic law and political theory36 predictably generated serious resistance from northern Muslims, who saw secularity and secular institutions as atheistic and against the very foundation of Islam. Although the conflict between Islamic legal and political values and the Western colonial principles was tolerated by the northern establishment under colonialism, these contradictions became relevant shortly after independence. As noted by a northern scholar, ‘When we were hopeless because of foreign domination, we tolerated the supremacy of unIslamic laws, but we are now the masters of our destiny.’37 Thus independence for Nigeria came with a serious burden of defining the relationship between religion and politics, as the northern Muslims continued their search for an Islamic identity through the realization of a full Islamic state.
The conflict between Islamic and secular law in northern Nigeria was in place before independence. The colonial native courts in the region, which were in most cases presided over by Alkalis (local judges who applied Islamic law), had their decisions sometimes quashed on appeal to the regional high courts on the basis of repugnancy.38 For instance, under the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, an accused person is prohibited from pleading provocation, either as a defence or in mitigation of the offence of murder or homicide; hence the death penalty [qisas] is applicable, on the demand of the heirs of blood, where the accused caused the death of the deceased by any hostile assault, however intrinsically unlikely to kill or wound and no matter how extreme the provocation.39 In accordance with this principle of Islamic penal law, the accused person in Tsofo Gubba v Gwandu Native Authority40 was convicted of intentional homicide and sentenced to death by the emir of Gwandu’s court (applying Islamic law), although, had the accused been tried on the same facts in the English courts (applying the Criminal Code), he would only have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a term of imprisonment due to his plea of provocation. Before the West Africa Court of Appeal, the conviction was quashed and the sentence set aside. In the opinion of the court, whenever a native court tries any person for any offence defined in the Criminal Code, it is bound to follow the Code to the exclusion of Islamic law or native law and custom. Similarly, in Maizabo v Sokoto Native Authority41 it was held that though a native court had power to try a case under native law and custom—Islamic law then considered as native law, it could not impose a sentence higher than what the accused would have received had his case been tried under the provisions of the criminal code.
The nullification of Islamic courts’ (native courts’) judgments by secular courts, therefore portrayed the emirs, who administered Islamic law in these courts, as powerless, consequently depicting Islamic law as subservient to secular or British law and justice.42 The establishment of a Muslim Court of Appeal in 1956 was therefore aimed at pacifying the northern emirs and thereby quelling the resistance that the subordination of Islamic law to Western secular law generated. This was followed by the establishment of a Sharia Court of Appeal for the Northern Region on Nigeria’s Independence Day (1 October 1960). Thus the British bequeathed to a unified Nigeria a seemingly secular system of government, albeit with deeply segmented religious cleavages, reflected in its institutional configuration. Nonetheless, all post-independence regimes in Nigeria have striven to enforce the country’s secular character in the face of serious constraints from northern Islamists who have persistently wished for an Islamic state.
Several factors underlie the resistance of northern Muslims to secularism after independence. First, dan Fodio’s jihad, which brought about the caliphate, was anchored on the establishment of an Islamic state based on sharia. Clearly therefore, Islam was a state religion in the Hausa-Fulani states that were subsumed under the caliphate, after dan Fodio’s jihad. As noted earlier, the British colonialists themselves sought to protect this political and legal order for reasons of imperial convenience, until it became obvious that an Islamic legal order would not serve the commercial interest of Western merchants, particularly after independence. Unfortunately for Britain, its change of mind at the twilight of colonialism was too little too late, as the sudden introduction of Western secularism introduced a contradiction that would challenge the Islamic way of life and, therefore sow a seed of instability in the new state. This is because Islam under sharia is conceived by Muslims as an amalgam of political, religious, social, and economic life of Muslims, and even more. An emergent secular regime that sought to separate religion from state affairs was therefore problematic to the northern oligarchs, who were accustomed to the fusion of political, economic, and spiritual roles under an Islamic regime.
As demonstrated below, this contradiction is clearly and consistently asserted by Nigerian Muslims in their quest for an Islamic political and legal order. According to Olayiwola:
In the same vein, Abikan, posits that:
Islam does not admit a narrow view of religion by restricting it within the limits of worship, specific rituals and spiritual beliefs. In its precise meaning, Islam is not only a religion; it is also a way of life that regulates all the aspects of life on the scale of the individual and the nation. Islam is a social order, philosophy of life, a system of economic rules and government. Islam clearly establishes man’s duties and rights in all relationships – a clear system of worship, civil rights, laws of marriage and divorce, inheritance, code of behaviour, laws of economy, laws of governance, laws of war and peace, of buying and selling and laws of relations and co-existence with one another, parents, children, relatives, neighbours, guests, Muslims, non-Muslims and brethren.43
It is this monolithic philosophy of Islam that has sustained the persistent agitation by Nigerian Muslims especially those from the north, for sharia.
A Christian for instance may be prepared, in the notion of giving to Caesar and God what respectively belong to them, to limit his right to religious freedom to matters of faith and worship only. A person from the West may also be contented with the western compartmentalization of life into religious and temporal. … A Muslim on the other hand would view religion as covering all the facets of life. This is because his spiritual and moral worth is tested against his daily interaction with others at the congregational prayers, in marital union, in the pursuit of his legitimate livelihood and in the holding of public responsibilities, amongst others. To him, right to freedom of religion would encompass aqÊdahwa al-ibādah (freedom of belief and worship), right to live by Allah’s commandments (SharÊ‛ah) and (ámr bi al-ma‛rËfwa al-nahy ‛an al-munkar) right to encourage good and forbid evil.44
Second, northern Muslims have had an obstinate adherence to the traditional philosophy of power and leadership that existed in pre-independence caliphate, a philosophy that associated governance with rulership in the traditional mould of the caliphatorial oligarchy. As stated earlier, the British maintained the Fulani oligarchy that was created and led by dan Fodio’s lineage. Accordingly, the transition from an Anglo-Fulani colonial northern government to a modern democratic Nigeria based on egalitarianism came to the northern oligarchy as a rude shock. This political jolt was essentially based on a previous perception of power as an exclusive preserve of the emirs and the nobles, as well as the reality of a new nation that sought to create a distinction between political and religious authority. Consequently, when the new class of northern oligarchs engaged in political activities, it did so within the limits of the concept of power in Hausa society, a concept guided by a hierarchically stratified society, with the emir at the top.45 This abrupt incorporation of less noble individuals into governance on the one hand and the separation of political from religious authority on the other was not well received by the northern elite, and it still remains a contentious issue.
Given that the social organization of the caliphate recognized the fusion of political and religious authority, the post-colonial Hausa-Fulani political elite continued, albeit informally, to associate religion with politics in the new political order, thereby creating an unhealthy tradition of politicizing religion and instrumentalizing it for political mobilization. Under the new political dispensation, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, a caliphatorial prince, became the premier of the northern region, the de jure political leader of northern Nigeria, while the Sultan of Sokoto remained the de facto leader of the Muslim community in the north. This unorthodox arrangement, by caliphatorial standards, created a gulf between the two personalities, as Islam hitherto provided political legitimacy to the political leader in the caliphate. As eloquently captured by Kukah, ‘although the Sardauna had now come to preside over the political kingdom of dan Fodio, his biggest problem lay in the fact that the real basis of the power, that is, the spiritual authority, had now eluded him.’46
Realizing that the division between political and religious authority was cast by modern politics, Sardauna, the political leader of northern Nigeria, sought to establish himself as the religious leader of the region in order to consolidate his legitimacy. This motivation led him into an ambitious Islamization campaign in the region and beyond, he allied with the Arab Islamic world in the process, attracting praise from that region as a champion of Islam and drawing millions of dollars from there in support of the faith in Nigeria.47 Of utmost concern to critics of Sardauna’s Islamization campaign was the use of state funds for the support of Islam, by way of building mosques and schools, granting educational scholarships, and dispensing patronage to new converts, among others.
In addition, the Islamic faith became a source of political patronage. The Northern People’s Congress, NPC (the political party that held power in the north), was knit in the identity of Islam and Allah. For northern Nigerians, therefore, attainment of political power as well as advancement in the Public Service and the Military were intricately tied to Islam and association with the faith.48 Although the Sardauna’s pan-Islamic campaign was cut short by the 1966 military coup—bringing to an abrupt end the first republic—the sharia controversy survived him, and indeed heralded the second republic in a more acrimonious atmosphere. This contradiction has remained the most challenging part of Nigeria’s political existence. Thus de jure, religion was separated from politics, but de facto, it remained a veritable source of political legitimacy in the north before the end of the first republic.
4. Between Secularity and Spirituality: Situating the Nigerian State
A. What is Secularism?
Before determining whether Nigeria is a secular or spiritual state, it is useful to unbundle the concept of secularity/secularism. The terms secularity and secularism have undergone intense scrutiny by various scholars, institutions, or groups seeking to conceptualize distinctions and impose definitions on the terms. Although scholars have established a distinction between secularity and secularism, these concepts are commonly regarded as meaning the same thing: political neutrality, freedom of religion, atheism, or irreligion. The English word ‘secular’ derives from to the Latin saeculo, referring to parish priests who were ‘in the world’ (in saeculo), as opposed to the monks who withdrew to a cloister.49 The contemporary use of the term in English is credited to the British philosopher, George Holyoake, who first used ‘secularism’ in 1851 to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief.50 Barry Kosmin outlines the etymological development of the concept:
The terms ‘secular,’ ‘secularism,’ and ‘secularization’ have a range of meanings. The words derive from the Latin, saeculum, which means both this age and this world, and combines a spatial sense and a temporal sense. In the Middle Ages, secular referred to priests who worked out in the world of local parishes, as opposed to priests who took vows of poverty and secluded themselves in monastic communities. These latter priests were called ‘religious.’ During the Reformation, secularization denoted the seizure of Catholic ecclesiastical properties by the state and their conversion to non-religious use. In all of these instances, the secular indicates a distancing from the sacred, the eternal, and the otherworldly. In the centuries that followed the secular began to separate itself from religious authority.51
In contemporary sociological ‘secularity’ refers to individuals and their social and psychological characteristics while ‘secularism’ refers to the realm of social institutions. Secularity involves individual actors’ personal behaviour and identification with secular ideas and traditions as a mode of consciousness. Secularism, on the other hand involves organizations and legal constructs that reflect the institutional expressions of the secular in a nation’s political realm and public life.52 Thus the secularity continuum ranges from liberal religionism to deism to agnosticism to atheism, while the degree of secularism depends on the level of institutional expression of secular sentiment in a nation’s political and public realms.
In terms of typologies, the soft and hard (correspondingly moderate and strict) variants of secularity and secularism have been identified.53 This distinction relates to attitudes towards modes of separation of the secular from the religious and the resulting relationship between them. Kosmin used the historical divergence between the French and American revolutions to construct the theoretical divergence between soft and hard secularism. According to him, the French revolution, which was anchored on a joint struggle against despotism, religion, the monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church (ie the French Jacobin tradition), was unreservedly antagonistic to religion and therefore promoted atheism.54 This tradition, which epitomizes hard secularity/secularism, is predicated on Max Weber’s ‘transformation of consciousness’ as popularized by other philosophers.55 This atheistic ideological viewpoint was leveraged by the former USSR and today’s remaining communist countries to infuse secularization at the social and political levels of their societies, the objective of which was to assault and eradicate religion using the state apparatus to bring about a thorough and consistently hard secular society.56
Contrary to the French Jacobin tradition, the American Revolution was anchored on the Protestant heritage of the Reformation, whereby religious individualism and autonomy predated any concept of political autonomy; hence Americans adopted a more moderate approach, characterized by indifference towards religion or encouragement of religious pluralism as promoted by the deists and liberal Protestants of the early republic.57 Kosmin describes a soft secularist of the American creed as one who is
… neither a convinced Atheist nor a principled materialist, and may not be hostile to religious beliefs and institutions. In fact, the majority are liberal religionists. The soft secularist is willing to take a live-and- let-live attitude toward religion as long as it doesn’t impinge on his freedom of choice or seek control of American public institutions. For the soft secularist, religion is properly a private lifestyle option, which must not threaten liberty and social harmony in a differentiated and pluralistic society.58
From the theoretical construction of soft secularism described above, it is discernable that the legal and constitutional safeguards of soft or moderate secularism are dual-pronged. On the one hand, such safeguards ensure the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people in a multi-religious state and secure insulation of human activities and political decisions/actions from biased religious influences. On the other hand, soft secularism safeguards guarantee the right to freedom of worship and religion to all persons, both leaders and the led, thereby protecting the rights of religious minorities. Such a soft secularism, therefore, seeks to significantly reduce religious influence in public life, while at the same time guaranteeing freedom of religion and conscience to individuals and groups in the private realm.
A nation state could therefore adopt the hard (strict) variant of secularism or the soft (moderate) form. Hard secularism in its contemporary form is associated with the French laïcité, which denotes the strict absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs.59 In its classical form, it abhors or prohibits the use and display of religious symbols in public institutions, while religious references are generally considered out of place in mainstream politics and vice versa. Laik is the Turkish model of hard secularism, modelled after the French laïcité.60 The soft (moderate) variant of secularism practised in most liberal democracies attempts to separate government affairs from religious dogmas while divesting religious leaders of authority over political decisions. Nevertheless, in such systems religious symbols and connotations are commonly used in public institutions, while religious beliefs are widely considered a relevant part of the political discourse in many of these countries. This is true of the United States, for instance, where religious sentiments are brought to bear on issues of abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc. Similarly, religious indications like ‘In God We Trust’ are engraved on the currency; ‘one nation under God’ is a part of their Pledge of Allegiance, while the Bible has remained the book upon which most public officials may swear their intention to perform their duties.61 It has been argued that these practices all illustrate the willingness of the American secular order to allow an institutional intimacy with the sacred order.62
As we shall see later, the colonial intention was to bequeath to Nigeria a moderate secular state; yet the historical religious sectarianism, occasioned by intense politicization of religion, has deeply implicated the state in religious patronage, thereby creating a contradiction as to the true character of state–religion relation. Thus even the soft or moderate conception of secularism is vehemently opposed by religious organizations as a threat to spirituality and a gradual recession to atheism. Accordingly, a middle-of-the-road approach which seeks the limited integration of religion into the public realm (what I refer to as moderate or concessional secularism63) is hereby suggested as the most appropriate strategy.64
B. Is Nigeria a Secular State?
The statements above demonstrate the divergent perspectives on secularism by the two dominant religious communities in Nigeria. On the one hand, the Nigerian Christian community, particularly its leadership, has consistently held the view that the divine state has universally given way to the secular state, where the temporal (secular) ruler enjoys full autonomy as ruler with no control from religious or spiritual authorities.65 A statement by Archbishop Olubunmi Okogie, the Catholic Bishop of Lagos Diocese, represents the Chrisitan community's perception on the relationship between the state and religion: ‘When you are in a position of trust, forget about your religion because it is a private affair between you and your God. If you want to bring religion in, let it be after office hours.’66 On the other hand, northern Muslims have consistently maintained a hostile view of secularism since independence, describing the concept as atheism or irreligion, a perception consistently expressed whenever reference is made to Nigeria as a secular state. The Jamma’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) (Society for the Victory of Islam) for example, argued that ‘secularism is a system of social teachings or organisation which allows no part of religion’, while Sheik Abubakar Gummi, the late pillar of Islamic activism in Nigeria, said ‘a secular State is an atheistic State.’ Another Muslim intellectual, Ibrahim Suleiman, argued that ‘secularism is hostile to Islam. It seeks to undermine Islamic values, supplant the Islamic laws with those of its own and deface the sanctity of the Muslim society.’67 With this divergent view of secularism by the two dominant religious groups, it was only a matter of time before the contradictions inherent in the seemingly secular Nigerian state bequeathed by the British colonialists would manifest themselves.
Anyone saying Nigeria is a secular nation does not understand the meaning of the word secular. There is nothing secular about the Nigerian nation since whatever we do will always put Islam and Christianity in the fore front.
—Alh Sa’ad Abubakar; Sultan of Sokoto and leader of the Islamic community in Nigeria, 2011
Nigeria is a secular nation. Somebody said it’s a multi-religious nation. It’s a secular nation. … Ours is a secular nation. That’s what our constitution stands for.
—Bishop Ayo Oritsejafor, President Christian Association of Nigeria, July, 2011
To situate Nigeria’s locus on the secular–non-secular spectrum, the relevant provisions of the constitution and other applicable laws are examined in contrast with the attributes of secularism. Afterwards, an evaluation of these laws is made against the de facto relationship between religion and the state. This analysis attempts to isolate what ought to be from what is the actual relationship between religion and the Nigerian state. The starting point, therefore, is to identify the characteristics of secularism in a constitutional democracy. Wing and Varol exhaustively circumscribed the attributes of secularism in the following passage:
First, in secular regimes, sovereignty belongs to the nation and not to a divine body … . Second, religion is separate from the State in a secular government. Religion does not affect the government’s affairs, meaning that laws and regulations are not based on religion. Third, a secular government is neutral towards all religions. As such, the regime cannot have an official religion and does not protect one religion over another. Likewise, all individuals, irrespective of their religion, are equal before the law. Fourth, a secular regime requires the education and the legal systems to be secular. The legal system does not contain laws based on religion, and the education system is based on logic and science, not religion or dogmas. Fifth, a secular government requires freedom of religion and conscience. Thus, secularism does not mean the absence of religion from society. Individuals are free to exercise their religions and manifest their religious beliefs in both the private and the public sphere. Finally, a secular regime is based on pluralism, which requires the government’s respect for all religions and religious beliefs.68
Granted that the Turkish state, upon which Wing and Varol constructed their analysis, is regarded as a hard or strict secular state, the characteristics they identified represent the barest minimum professed by all secular states, be they strict or moderate. On the basis of these characteristics, therefore, the following queries are appropriate: Where does sovereignty reside in Nigeria—in the state or in a divine body? To what extent are Nigerian laws insulated from religious dogmas? Is the Nigerian state neutral and fair in its dealings with all religions? Are Nigerian legal and educational systems independent of religious dogmas? Does the Nigerian constitution guarantee freedom of religion and conscience? Does the Nigerian state adhere to the principle of religious pluralism (respect for all religions)?
First, Section 14 (1) (a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (1999 Constitution) provides that ‘sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this constitution derives all its powers and authority.’ The import of this provision is that whereas sovereignty resides in the state, the state in itself derives its sovereignty ultimately from the peoples who had collectively yielded sovereignty to the state via the constitution. The state is therefore sovereign to the extent that the constitution permits. Consequently, Nigerians being a multi-religious people would not have conceded to the state the right to govern them on the basis of a particular religious creed. This logic rationalizes the provision of Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution which says: ‘[T]he Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion’, thus ensuring the absence of a State religion. It has been argued that the significance of this provision is that no aspect of governance, federal or state, should be run according to the exclusive dogmas or jurisprudence of any religion.69
Second, Section 38 (1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that ‘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.’ Nigeria can therefore be referred to as a multi-religious state where freedom of worship and conscience is constitutionally guaranteed. It is doubtful, however, whether Nigeria’s educational system is secular, as both the law and practice concerning education are unclear on issues of secularism in religious instructions. Section 38 (2) of the 1999 Constitution provides that ‘[N]o person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.’ Similarly, subsection 3 says ‘[N]o religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.’ The implication of these provisions is that, whereas all religious groups or communities have the legal right to wholly own educational institutions and provide religious instructions to pupils/students of that community based on their faith, any pupil/student of the community or another who professes a religion other than the one recognized and provided by that institution, shall not be compelled to take the said religious instructions provided by the institution.
In practice, the Nigerian Federal and States’ Ministries of Education have all provided similar non-faith-based guidelines for the establishment of primary and secondary schools.70 Nonetheless, religious organizations do establish private schools which are run in accordance with their respective religious dogmas. In many instances, pupils in such institutions who profess faiths other than those recognized and instructed are not afforded the opportunity of receiving instructions in their religions. For instance, Christian children who attend Islamiya schools are sometimes denied the opportunity of receiving Christian religious instruction, while Muslim pupils attending Christian schools are sometimes denied the right of receiving Islamic religious instructions, in violation of the constitution. In addition, by virtue of the introduction of Islamic law in some northern states of Nigeria, all girls attending public schools in those states are required to wear the hijab scarf. In some cases also, admission into schools owned by religious organizations or societies is restricted to pupils of the recognized faith. For example, the Covenant University Ota, an institution owned and run by a renowned Pentecostal fellowship, Living Faith Chapel, was embroiled in controversy over its refusal to admit a Muslim student who met all the admission criteria.71
In most cases, parents who question the legitimacy of such actions by religious school authorities are asked to withdraw their children or wards. The major incentive for this development is that such religious schools are situated in predominantly religious communities; hence open confrontation with the school authorities over such perceived violation of right to freedom of religion and conscience could generate religious violence capable of undermining the welfare of the pupils or parents in question. Unfortunately, the common, though fallacious, presumption in Nigeria is that putting children in religious schools where opposing religious instructions are given is voluntary; hence parents who willingly do so are deemed to have volunteered to expose their children or wards to such religious instructions. In view of such environmental and cultural constraints, most parents who for any reason decide to put their children or wards in such schools, forbear to complain against such practices or even trigger judicial intervention in aid of the situation. Although any courageous challenge to such constitutional violation stands the prospect of favourable judicial determination, the potential consequences of legal actions are thought by parents to outweigh the benefits; hence, to date, there has been no known legal challenge or judicial determination of any legal challenge to such practices.72 Ultimately, parents and their children who find themselves in such situations live in forbearance of religious oppression. As a student of Covenant University Ota aptly described his situation, ‘I’m a Muslim and my roommate is a Muslim. I know some Muslim students who go into hiding before they pray … .’73
Third, the sources of law under the Nigeria legal system are three-pronged. The system recognizes the English law—composed of the common law of England, the doctrines of equity, and the statutes of general application in force before the 1st day of January 1900– in addition to the customary laws of the constituent ethnic nationalities74 and Islamic law75 as the sources of Nigerian law. This system is given constitutional validity under Section 6 (2 & 3) of the constitution, which vests judicial powers on the Federal and State courts created by the constitution. Section 6(5) creates the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; Sharia Court of Appeal of a State; the Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; and Customary Court of Appeal of a State, among others, as the courts vested with judicial powers.76 These courts have been established by several sections of the constitution77 and have been practically institutionalized. In addition, the renaissance of sharia in some northern States since the year 2000 has seen the adoption of full sharia law in at least 12 northern states, although it runs concurrently with the secular English law. These states include Zamfara, Bauchi, Kebbi, Jigawa, Sokoto, Kaduna, Kano, Niger, Borno, Gombe, Katsina, and Yobe.78
Fourth, there are laws establishing religious institutions which are wholly funded by government. The Muslim National HAJJ Commission of Nigeria is established by law and funded from the Federation Account.79 By Sections 3 and 9 of the Act, members of the Commission are appointed by the president and remunerated by the federal government. Similarly, the secretary and staff of the Commission are remunerated by the federal government and also enjoy all privileges available to public servants. By Section 12 of the NAHCON Act, the Commission prepares and submits its budget for pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia directly to the president for funding. In the same vein, the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission is established by an Act of the National Assembly.80 The Christian Pilgrims Commission Establishment Act has similar provisions and functions with its Muslim counterpart—except for that fact that it addresses the Christian faith—and also obtains its funding from the federal government.
Government sponsorship of pilgrims, which was initiated during military rule, is sustained under the present democratic dispensation. In spite of its endurance, the practice has recently come under intense scrutiny from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), the media, and adherents of religious groups other than Christianity and Islam. Among other reasons, critics contend that the substantial amount of public funds used on this unconstitutional endeavour, the lack of transparency in the process of selecting beneficiaries, and its general abuse as a tool of political patronage and loyalty by senior politicians, among other reasons, have completely obliterated the religious essence of the practice and rendered it a tool of class and political conflict.81 Whereas opposition against state sponsorship of pilgrimage has endured, none of its critics has so far approached the courts for judicial determination of its constitutionality or legality; hence the practice has continued in spite of the president’s indication that government may soon stop the sponsorship of pilgrims. In any case, a presidential directive for the discontinuance of this practice may likely meet with opposition from some state governors, who may exercise their constitutional autonomy to defy such directive.
In view of the current political reality, it would be extremely difficult to eliminate government sponsorship of pilgrimage. In spite of the president’s expression of intent to discontinue the practice, the political imperatives heavily weigh against such action. This is because the practice has become a tool for political patronage, as state governors and federal politicians use the opportunity to reward party men and women in the hope of solidifying their political bases. As aptly represented by one commentator, state sponsorship of pilgrimage is a tool for political parties and governments in power at all levels to reward their cronies.82 Furthermore, the practice creates opportunity for rent-seeking among politicians and senior public servants who exploit the impervious process of administration at the various pilgrim boards, for personal aggrandizement. This opportunism is effectuated by inflating the cost of travel fares and other logistics as well as travel allowances. Most significantly, the practice has generated a huge bureaucracy at the state and federal levels, which benefits from state sponsorship of pilgrimage. This bureaucratic force would resist any effort at reversing the status quo. Under these circumstances, only a judicial declaration of unconstitutionality or illegality would suffice to dismantle state sponsorship of pilgrimages.
Fifth, legislative activity in the National Assembly and its outcomes demonstrate a strong deference to religious bias. For instance, the recent attempt by the senate to enact a law legalizing prostitution was condemned by legislators who cited religious reasons to delegitimize it.83 In the same vein, some Nigerian laws are laden with religious substance. The Penal Code Act, which is modelled after the Sudan Criminal Code, has significant sharia flavour,84 while the enactment of laws like ‘Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2006’ were influenced by religious arguments. The English law, therefore, runs concurrently with customary and Islamic laws, and there is a strong religious influence on the Nigerian legal system generally. One can therefore assert that Nigeria falls short of the characteristic of secularity which requires laws devoid of religious bias.
The preceding analysis provides an informed platform for assessing Nigeria’s neutrality and religious pluralism in its official dealings. As one commentator has observed concerning Nigeria’s respect for religious inclusiveness ‘Muslim and Christian holidays are observed. Nobody respects the wishes of traditionalists. Politicians want power to rotate between Christians and Muslims as if every Nigerian must be either a Muslim or a Christian. Pilgrimages are sponsored by the State.’85 In addition, there is an unofficial tradition of making Christian and Muslim prayers at every official and state function in disregard to animists and other religious adherents. The Presidential State House has a church and mosque in it, while states’ government houses have either churches or mosques, depending on the religious predominance of a religion in the state. The sponsored pilgrimages are for Christians and Muslims; no one gives a thought about traditional religious adherents. One can argue, therefore, that whereas religious pluralism is guaranteed in the constitution, the religious neutrality requisite for characterizing a state as secular is obviously lacking in Nigeria. All of which urges the question: Is Nigeria a secular state?
From the analytical depiction of state adherence to secular ideals made above, it would be difficult to answer the question in the affirmative; yet to say Nigeria is not secular also would be a fundamentally flawed conclusion. Whereas the constitution demonstrates a genuine intention to separate the state and its institutions from religious doctrines, the religious character of the people—which has attained cultural synthesis—makes it extremely difficult to avoid reference to religion in the public sphere. Moreover, the predominance of military regimes in the country, which ruled with characteristic absolutism and autocracy, precluded any critique of this aberration, as is the case with many other public issues. In spite of religious influences on Nigeria's laws, government patronage of the two dominant religions, the trifurcation of the legal system and other imperfections identified above, the essential aim of the Nigerian state, as depicted by the constitution, is to conduct government business in a manner that is devoid of religious dictates. Indeed, the ambiguous character of states in respect of their suitability to secularity is universal; Nigeria is not an exception. To that extent, Nigeria may be classified as a moderately secular or soft secular state, since there is a clear constitutional intent to separate official from religious affairs.
Of course, no state possesses the entire array or absolute attributes of secularism.86 Although Nigeria’s prohibition of a state religion, its constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and conscience, as well as the prohibition of discrimination on the ground of religion by the constitution are not sufficient to warrant its characterization as a hard secular state, yet the deficits identified above also do not warrant a description of the country as non-secular. Although some commentators have argued that Nigeria is a multi-religious state as opposed to a secular one,87 secularism and multi-religiosity are not necessarily antonymous,88 nor is religiosity antithetical to secularism. France and Turkey, which exemplify strict secularism, are multi-religious nations with many pious people, yet religion is kept out of government and its institutions.
Neither does secularism mean irreligion or disregard of the sacred as some have attempted to assert. Consistent with the Muslim perspective on secularism discussed above, one commentator concluded that ‘a nation is secular only if it is “concerned with temporal, worldly matters” to the exclusion of “religion”; or “the profane” in disregard of “the sacred”.’89 In this view, Nigeria is not a secular state, to the extent that it is concerned with both ‘temporal’ and ‘religious’ matters.90 This is the general illogic that pervades Islamic literature on secularism in Nigeria. In reality, secularism does not detract from religious devotion; instead, it reinforces it. This is because a secular state guarantees freedom of religion and conscience, thereby enabling all religious adherents to practise their faiths uninhibitedly. Turkish citizens are predominantly Muslim, yet the Turkish state is a hard secular state.
It is true that many nations with deeply entrenched Euro-Christian traditions lay claim to secularism, in spite of the overt influence of religious traditions on their public lives. In the United States, for instance, religious references are copiously imbued in national functions and symbols. It is common for example, to hear the US President say ‘God bless America’ at the conclusion of an address to the nation. As mentioned earlier, the American currency bears the slogan ‘In God We Trust’; US government officials and Supreme Court justices take oaths of office while placing their hands on the Bible or other holy book; the Pledge of Allegiance refers to ‘one nation under God’; while some Justices of the Supreme Court attend the ‘Red Mass’ annually before the first day the Court is in session.91 Yet the United States is said to be a secular State. In England, where there is still an established church, the secularism that has emerged clearly rejects the church's total authority over society and its collective institutions.92 Until 1985, Catholicism was the recognized state religion in Italy, and public life is heavily influenced by Catholic traditions and personalities; yet, the Italian State asserts its secular nature. To assert that these states’ claims to secularism are founded on their temporal or worldly form of existence would be grossly incorrect. It would be more accurate to describe such secularism as ‘the separation of the state from the dogmas and personalities of the church’.
Ultimately, therefore, it is safe to assert that Nigeria is a moderately secular or soft secular state, as there is ample constitutional evidence of an unambiguous intention to separate state affairs from religious creeds. Whereas successive military dictatorships either aided or condoned the illegitimate influence of religion on state matters, the gradual entrenchment of democracy and the rule of law should, and has, indeed marked the erosion of these religious vestiges from the domain of governance. Recently, the Stephen Oronsaye Committee on cessation of sponsorship of pilgrimages recommended that the federal government should stop sponsorship of both Christian and Muslim pilgrimages, to Jerusalem, Israel, Mecca, and Saudi Arabia.93 President Goodluck Jonathan has himself suggested that the government may stop the sponsorship of pilgrimage in the near future. These developments not only present evidence of separation between state and religious activity; they represent the beginning of the end of religious influence on public affairs.
5. Implications of State–Religion Relations on National Security
The blurred relationship between religion and the Nigerian state has negatively impacted national security since Nigeria's independence in 1960. However, for a proper understanding of these implications, the explication of the concept of ‘national security’ in the Nigerian context is imperative. Globally, security has transformed from the orthodox or state-centric viewpoint that prevailed prior to and during the bipolar era, to the contemporary human security viewpoint which focuses on the individual as the primary referent of security analysis.94 The current view on national security envisions protection or safety from a wide variety of existential threats such as hunger, violation of human rights, crime and criminality, political instability and conflict, poverty, and environmental degradation.
From this premise, national security is defined to reflect the ability of a state to protect its citizens from these multiple threats. National security can therefore be defined as freedom from danger or absence of threats to the multidimensional elements that may affect the nation’s ability to protect and develop itself, promote its cherished values and national interests, and promote and increase the wellbeing of its peoples. Invariably, the Nigerian notion of national security denotes ‘the aggregate of the security interests of all individuals, communities, ethnic groups and political entities’.95 It is in this sense that that the ‘Nigerian Defence Policy’ identifies Nigeria’s national security interests as including strengthening the Federal Republic of Nigeria, advancing her interest and objectives, containing instability, controlling crime, eliminating corruption, enhancing development, progress and growth, and improving the quality of life of every citizen.96 Accordingly, any act that has the potential to trigger instability and conflict, thereby undermining the development of Nigeria and weakening its co-operate existence, negates its national security objectives. It is in this light that the implication of the current state–religion relationship is examined.
Since independence, religion has remained Nigeria’s Achilles’ heel. As demonstrated in the analysis of the various pre-colonial nationalities in Section 2 above, religion was in that time a source of political legitimacy. This tradition was dominant in the Hausa-Fulani caliphate, where Islam had established a tradition of governance which guaranteed a union between politics and religion. Consequently, like Sardauna in the First Republic, all post-independence northern political elites have consistently striven to keep religion within the corridors of power for purposes of political legitimacy on the one hand and of religious sanctity on the other. This development has led to a culture of ‘religious politicization’, a tradition that has engendered sectarianism and engendered political divisiveness between the two dominant religious communities.
Although it was significantly active in the First Republic, the instrumentalization of religion for political objectives was taken to its climax in the build-up to the Second Republic, through the secular/sharia debates at the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) and the Constituent Assembly (CA) in 1976–1978.97 Bola Ige, a member of the CDC and CA, captured succinctly the controversy that raged at the CDC over the purported secularism or otherwise of the Nigerian state: ‘It was suggested that the phrase “Nigeria is a secular state” be inserted in the constitution. Immediately our Muslim colleagues heard this, they raised objection, saying a secular state is a godless state. In spite of the hot debate members of the CDC had on this, the word “secular” had to be deleted.’98 This debate was to be a harbinger of the spurious sharia debate that followed in the CA in 1978. The bone of contention was the proposed establishment of a Federal Sharia Court of Appeal by the Muslims, a move that was fervidly resisted by non-Muslim delegates who saw it as creating a parallel judicial system for Nigeria, against the spirit of secularism bequeathed to the country by the British.99
The debate was inconclusive due to the tension it generated and the lack of consensus among members. In the end, the military government decided to give states the liberty to establish ‘State Sharia Courts of Appeal’ as opposed to a ‘Federal Sharia Court of Appeal’ which was sought by the Muslim north. In spite of its inconclusive nature, the sharia debate was significant in two material respects: one, it reinforced the politicization of religion, as both sides of the divide adopted pseudo-religious populism to impress their followers; two, it either introduced or reinforced religious acrimony in politics; a development that has remained a significant indicator of political alignments and policy configuration. As noted by Kukah,100 the sharia debate at the CA was part of the political landscape for the Second Republic, as various groups and individuals engaged in pre-CA manoeuvring and strategic positioning, using Islam and Christianity as bases. While rationalizing this contention in respect of the Muslim north, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, the former Governor of Kaduna State argued that:
In the face of the new political programme, the ruling class had no foothold or any solid base for political competition as a block with the rest of the country. In view of this political bankruptcy, it became clear that Islam would offer the only alternative for the protection of their class interest. But even this was not an easy card to play. The Muslim north no longer existed, but all the same, it was clear that to seek to defend it would enhance their position. So they held on to the issue of sharia in the Assembly as their only weapon for mobilisation in the north.101
As the sharia question consistently rears its head in the Nigerian polity, its costs for the nation are damning. Sharia-motivated violence has become the nation’s prime security challenge. The issue has transcended its extant utility for the ruling elite to become an existential obsession for most urban and rustic northern Muslims. The consequence of the search for a pristine Islamic state has taken its toll on the security of the people, as innocent lives are lost and an incalculable degree of destruction is done to property and the nation’s social capital. There is an unprecedented proliferation of militant Islamic movements in the northern part of the country, which are intent on forcing the establishment of an Islamic state. The most vicious of these movements is the Boko Haram sect, which killed an estimated 10,000 Nigerians between 2002 and 2013, and 1500 in the first three months of 2014 alone, as well as dozens of Nigerians and foreigners and has caused untold damage to property, in apparent pursuit of an Islamic republic. The mayhem unleashed by this sect has made Nigeria an unsafe destination for business and leisure, and in November 2013 the United States categorized the sect as a terrorist organization—a move that could further threaten Nigeria’s interests. The activities of these Islamic puritans have almost rendered the government impotent, as both Nigerians and foreigners no longer have confidence in the state’s ability to provide security. This situation ultimately threatens the viability of the Nigerian state as calls for secession or disintegration have bourgeoned amidst the Boko Haram challenge. Ultimately, therefore, the entire gamut of Nigeria’s professed security interests identified above has been compromised by religious extremism and violence, which is induced by the blurred relationship between religion and the state.
6. The Need for a Secular Paradigm
The analysis above reveals that, though opposition to secularism is ostensibly founded on its apparent anti-religiosity, the concept does not necessarily connote agnosticism or atheism. Instead, the cultural basis of religion as a fulcrum for political mobilization has been exploited by politicians to portray secularism as promoting atheism and moral degeneracy. This perception has served to degrade the utility of secularism while reinforcing an unholy matrimony between religion and politics at the expense of national security. In view of Nigeria’s extant multi-religiosity, and having advertence to the unsavoury inter-religious relations that are created by the blurred relationship between religion and politics, subscription to concessional secularism is strongly advocated. This suggestion is premised on the historical, religious, political, and existential factors shown below, which have compromised national security and thereby reinforced a transition to moderate secularism.
Nigerian politicians have historically leveraged religion and religious identity to gain political advantages for themselves.102 The elite have used religion as a tool of exploitation to achieve selfish socio-economic ends, while politically deploying religious fanaticism and favouritism to polarize the people and sustain unhealthy tension in the country.103 To date, public officials use public funds as a tool for political patronage, thereby generating resentment and outrage from rival religious groups.104 The Nigerian scenario is identical to that of pre-Ataturk Turkey, where religious fundamentalism and its concomitant culture of political opportunism led to the reforms that transformed a highly spiritual state of Turkey to a strictly secular one. Secularism therefore acquired constitutional status in Turkey by reason of the historical experience of religious fundamentalism.105 Given Nigeria’s similar character of sectarianism, secularism—albeit the moderate type—would serve as a guarantor of religious tolerance and cultural convergence which are essential conditions for democracy and development.
On the other hand, the current divergence over the notion of secularity held by Muslims and fundamentalist Christians creates confusion as to the true character of the Nigerian state, a situation which requires clarification. Is Nigeria a secular or non-secular (ie religious) state? If it is a secular state as the Christians posit, what nature of secularism does it subscribe to? If it is a religious state, what is the nature and extent of the role of religion and/or religious leaders in state affairs? It would serve the purpose of political clarity if Nigerians could define the character of the state and the role of religion and religious dignitaries in it. If Nigeria subscribes to moderate secularism as advocated in this article, then there is the need for a clear constitutional definition of the attributes of this concept, a proper delineation of its scope and extent, and, most significantly, a consensual home-grown designation or appellation of the concept that is agreeable to all religious stakeholders without derogating the essence and reverence attributed to their respective religions.
It can be gleaned from the constitutional provisions examined above that there is an understanding, in principle, among all Nigerians that state affairs should be separated from religious affairs. If the drafters of the constitution intended otherwise, that should have been clearly captured in the constitution, in view of the collective reverence that Nigerians hold for religion. The problem with the word ‘secular’ is its Western-liberal origin and its association with agnostic-reformists like Holyoake, which has created the old and nearly universal sentiments against the concept among Christians and Muslims. But most importantly, it is my view that the characterization of secularism as anti-religiosity or atheism is a deliberate strategy of the religious power blocs, calculated to sustain political loyalty through religious identity, a situation which benefits them politically and economically. In view of the contemporary universal acceptance of a separation between political and religious authority, Nigeria requires some introspection about how it really wants the relationship between the state and religion to be. If there is a convergence on separation, as we assume here, then an autochthonous appellation may be required to define such a political system and appropriately characterize its attributes, without necessarily referring to it as secular.
In the meantime, this article takes the view that religion should be separated from the public realm and encouraged in the private domain. The excessive zeal with which Nigerians attend to religious rituals could be exploited positively in building strong ethics and values that would serve as building blocks for the transparency and not quite that are required for national development. The individual internalization of religious values could also serve to invoke the moral ethos of communalism requisite for evoking humanist feelings, as opposed to the crass individualism that has taken centre stage in our national life and consequently eroded our communal values. The universal religious code of ‘respecting the sanctity of human life’ would also serve as a restraint against the senseless killing that is often done in the name of religion.
My advocacy for a separation of state from religious affairs is predicated on the fact that religious codes are based on inelastic doctrines which are obviously not in harmony with the dynamism, pragmatism, and farsightedness of contemporary statehood and the vicissitudes of governance. Whereas the dynamism of contemporary governance requires foresight and balancing of forces, religion is retrospective, paying premium to its fundamental ideals in abhorrence of change. Moreover religion does not provide reliable grounds for making policy designed for the entire populace.106 The foundation for decision making is always based on morality or spiritual health of adherents; hence religious decisions are almost if not entirely, emotive and parochial, considering the common good of adherents only. This customary inclination to bias does not provide a good platform for unity in a multi-religious or multi-cultural society. In addition, religion has not generated the expected puritanical disposition or abhorrence for sin (wrongful acts) among adherents, which would have served as a basis for universal integrity in governance. It is a historical fact that the unbridled corruption of religious institutions in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey led to its eventual fall.107 Many have questioned why Nigerians are highly religious yet unimaginably corrupt. This fact justifies my assumption that religion in itself is not a guarantee of ethical conduct; its patronage by politicians is, therefore a mere tool for propaganda and political advantage. The natural demise of the sharia legal system in northern Nigeria as well as the indulgence of some Boko Haram leaders in the use of exotic technological articles and pornographic videos108 is indication that the real motivation for the group’s fanaticism and violence is anything but sharia. Similarly, the indiscriminate selection of urban and rural party men and women, who have no business with the church or Christianity, for pilgrimage to Jerusalem has nothing to do with spiritual edification but all to do with political patronage.
I am not oblivious of the impediments that would challenge an attempt to constitutionally designate Nigeria a moderate secular state, in view of the vested interests that thrive on the present constitutional contraption. The approach should therefore be gradual but sustained, with the long-term aim of developing significant consciousness among Nigerians of the basic principles of secularism and religious pluralism. This could be achieved through intellectual development in the province of secularism and religious pluralism at three levels: the local, school, and intellectual—with the intellectual level taking the lead role. At the intellectual level, the establishment of an institute for religious pluralism is advocated. This institute should be charged with the responsibility of research and publication as well as advocacy in these fields of study. It should also develop guided curricula for instruction at the school level (involving universities as well as secondary and primary schools). In the same vein, the institute could develop the framework for advocacy at local levels (composed of communities, faith-based organizations, political parties, etc). Once sufficient awareness has been developed of the shared values of religion, the desired values of religious pluralism, and the fundamental principles of secularism, a constitutional recognition of secularism would be made easier. As long as the religious adherents are largely ignorant or at most ill-informed concerning what secularism represents, the religious power blocs would continue to present their self-seeking conception of secularism, with the clandestine aim of preserving the status quo which benefits them.