Nigeria has officially stopped being the tolerant nation it has always proclaimed to be, especially when it comes to religion. The country with the world’s largest black population, one that has long prided itself for its diversity and peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths, is no longer a safe place, particularly for religious minorities.
Even in Nigerian society where Freedom of Religion is a constitutional right, sometimes adherents of religious minorities voice concerns about religious discrimination against them. Insofar as legal policies are concerned, cases that are perceived as religious discrimination might be the result of an interference of the religious sphere with other spheres of the public that are regulated by law (and not aimed specifically against a religious minority.) Generally people are free to have these issues clarified through the juridical system. Never mind what the Constitution and the state ideology — that freedom of religion is guaranteed and that citizens are protected to practice their faith. Today, those are mere ornamental words. The reality on the ground is the state has started to persecute people for their religious beliefs.
Religious, ethnic and political unrest have recently triggered violence in Nigeria. The country’s Moslem and Christian communities have clashed over the proposed introduction of the Sharia Islamic law. Over the past month, hundreds have died during the fighting in Kaduna, Zamfara and Sokoto. When will this cycle of violence end? Can peace be restored in Nigeria or has recent conflicts destroyed the country’s unity beyond repair?
Religion has long been a major issue in Northern Nigeria, but people in the southern part seems increasingly secular. Despite the 2003 census in Nigeria recording
85% of people as having a religious affiliation, and the Islamic institutions controlling nearly one-in-five schools inside the north, many believers not practicing and the Nigerian Social Attitudes Survey (conducted at “nigeria4betterrule” forum year before) found 24% had no religion.
However religious discrimination has been really put back on the agenda by a rise in
Islamophobia, in the northern part of this country. Marginalized Christians and minority ethnic communities have often used religion to express their identity and until now there has been no specific protection against discrimination for most religious groups in this country. There is still widespread ignorance and indifference towards religion and in organizational settings this may allow ‘unwitting’ and institutional discrimination to thrive.
The divisions between religious discrimination and race discrimination are sometimes blurred, and some aspects of religious discrimination are covered by existing federal character relations’ legislation. For example discrimination against Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ijaw,Efik, Ibibio,Fulani, Nupe,Ikwere, Ogbia and Idoma is outlawed because they are seen as a ethnic group as well a religious one.
At least 200 persons have been killed and many others seriously injured in the early hours of Sunday, following a renewed religious crisis in northern Nigeria’s Bauchi State.
The Islamic fundamentalists, popularly called ‘Boko Haram’ which has been campaigning against anything Western, claimed that its adherents were not allowed by the Bauchi government to publicly practice their religion as well as win more souls to the sect.
It was learnt that members of the sect had been planning a demonstration in Bauchi for a long time but were not given the chance because of the fear by government that their doctrine, if allowed to be preached publicly, would cause religious crisis, considering the fact that the teachings were completely contrary to those of other Islamic sects as regards peaceful coexistence. The sect members in there hundreds trooped to the Dutsen Tanshi police station in the early hours of the day and attacked it. They destroyed everything they could lay their hands on but could not break into the armory.
There were casualties, and over 100 of them were arrested, noting that one AK47, 200 lives ammunition, bows and arrows, Dane guns, explosives and other dangerous weapons were recovered from them.
But President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s recent visit to Bauchi State was never compromised.Defect of his son-in-law, the Bauchi State Governor, Isa Yuguda, to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was not respected, even the governor’s recent threat to resign from the comfort of his office, if that will be the only option for the state to move forward economically. I dare to live in the same roof with a monster than to live with a gentleman who cannot live by his word.
Yuguda, who noted that there was no way he would remain in office, while the state continued to suffer economic deprivation did not decode a signal on this religious mayhem that claimed more than 70 lives. Despite vowing to displace (prefer) his political career as a sacrifice to move the state forward, the governor has not given a resolution to quail the political-turn religious crisis; a vow amidst unresolved deepened political crisis. A notice to impeach the Deputy Governor, Mohammed Garba Gadi, remains horse-trading rather than amicable dealing.
What is most disturbing is the way representatives of the Northern Muslims flexed their muscles to secure the ban, at times using violent language, forcing the government to comply. This is the first time in the republic’s history that the state, which proclaims to be neither theocratic nor secular, has interfered in the substance of the religion. In the past, the state restricted its role to ensuring freedom of religion and the right for everyone to practice their faith. It leaves the question of the right or wrong of particular teachings to religious leaders.
Sunday 19th July, 2009 Bauchi fracas broke the long-held taboo and clearly shows the state siding with the Muslim by agreeing religious favouritism is heresy and contravenes the tenets of Islam. This is setting a dangerous precedent, for no religion is safe now from the possibility of having its beliefs probed and judged to contravene Islam. That literally means just about every existing religion. One wonders, now that the Bauchi Muslims have had their way, which they will target next. They know the state will again be submissive to their will.
This is the state playing God, a dangerous game that would spell the end of the religious diversity that has always underpinned this republic. We may as well declare Nigeria an Islamic state; strangle every Christians to move Nigeria forward. Shame! Without mixed religion and the most important Christian religion, Nigerian by now line-up with Somalia, Afghanistan, Burundi and Sudan. At least the rules of the game for the religious minorities are clear. Christian religion has kept Nigeria abreast. Today, we have a government that is failing in its constitutional duty to protect the religious minorities.
It is encouraging to see that Muslim leaders from the moderate camp quickly distanced themselves from the recommendation by the government panel and denounced it as a violation of the Constitution (which, incidentally, is an impeachable offense). The views of “extremist” elements in Islam rather than the “moderate” that continue to preach peace, tolerance and respect for religious differences is anti-people. More of them should come out of their shell and speak out about religious tolerance.
If the state can no longer be counted on to defend religious tolerance, and then the task should be taken up by moderate and peace-loving Muslims and Christians. They, along with leaders of religious minorities, should join hands in fighting religious extremists in our society (and apparently, in our government) and prevent this country from degenerating into a lawless state. Nigeria was built upon, among other things, religious diversity and religious freedom. If you may wish to take those
qualities away; forget about the unity of this republic!