Is Nigeria A Secular or Multi-Religious Country?

I used to think the above title was a pretty straightforward question, to which the answer is: Nigeria is a secular country. After all, Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution goes thus:

”The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

That is all – straight and easy. We can now all pack our stuff and go home.

However, within its seeming simplicity is also its complexity, the fact that we do not know what constitutes adoption of a religion as a state religion. When the controversial adoption of the Sharia penal code started in 2000, many of its opponents, myself included, said that amounted to the adoption of Islam as the official religions of the states that adopted that penal code.

In retrospect, that was a golden opportunity to get a proper interpretation of the relevant section, but I guess with religion being the tinderbox it is in Nigeria, there was too much fear over what the suit or the verdict might bring. Either way, about 2000 people died in riots from the introduction of Sharia in Kaduna State.

However, this is a debate that has refused to go away, and which resurrects from time to time, the latest being the news that the Federal Government was subsidizing the exchange rate for Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia as it had done for Christian pilgrims last year.

In the opinions of many, including myself, if Nigeria was a secular country, there will be no need for the government to be involved in this, or even for the existence of glorified travel agencies better known as pilgrims’ welfare boards. As a matter of fact, the need for this interpretation is the subject of a suit filed by a friend at the Federal High Court, Kaduna with the hearing coming up in October.

Of course, there is a regional and ethno-religious split when it comes to the debate: Northern, Muslim-dominated states are far more involved in religion than Southern states, whether it is through the construction of mosques (and a church, in one rare instance by the Gombe State Government in 2009), or the creation of a council of clerics to regulate preaching.

One reason for this is not just the fact that traditionally, there is no separation between state and religion in Islam, which makes it harder to find advocates – Kemal Ataturk who founded the first (only?) secular Muslim country, Turkey faced a lot of backlash in the 1920s. There is also the fact that it has become an excellent form of populism. It is not uncommon to hear a governor being praised for increasing the number of pilgrims his state is sponsoring to Mecca or Jerusalem – in one instance, an extremely candid governor openly said that the pilgrims they were sponsoring will bring votes.

It is pretty much already evident where I stand on this: I believe Nigeria should be secular country, which for me means religion is entirely a personal and private endeavor and the state is not involved in any way in religious affairs. Those who oppose this idea say Nigeria is or should be a multi-religious country – by this, they mean the government’s involvement in religion should be equitable to both Islam and Christianity.

But here is where this argument is faulty: although Islam and Christianity are the two most dominant religions in Nigeria, they are not the only religions with adherents in the country. In my opinion, the involvement of governments at both the state and federal level in religious affairs is tantamount to the two faiths (or in some states, one) being adopted as the state religion, contrary to the Constitution.

Riddle me this: if a group of Nigerian Hindus (I won’t be surprised that there will be a few) desire to go on a pilgrimage to the holy sites in India, will they benefit from getting foreign exchange at subsidized rates like their Muslim and Christian compatriots? We know that this will be very unlikely, which is to say that the Nigerian state is biased against them.

The Nigerian state cannot extend the benefits it gives these two dominant religions to every possible religious faith within the country, and the possibility that new faiths will likely come into existence makes it even more complicated.

This is why being a secular country removes from the government’s plate tricky matter as this.

Sadly, this is a debate that is unlikely to go away anytime soon, but hopefully, we shall get an interpretation of Section 10 of the Constitution in due time.


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