Lets dispense with a misconception: the Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of worship as a basic right of citizens. Similarly, there is no specific institutionalized hindrance or barrier to the right to worship in any part of the Nigeria that can be defined as a genuine barrier to freedom of worship. The issue therefore is not to attempt to located problems relating to the exercise of freedom of worship outside the laws of the land. Disputes over freedom of worship have basically not been about what the law provides or fails to provide. Freedoms of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the rights to propagate, practice and teach are guaranteed. Citizens are protected from being compelled to receive religious instruction or to partake in religious ceremonies other than those to which they profess or subscribe.

What this suggests is that disputes over the application of the provisions on freedom of worship, to the extent that they exist in that form, are social and political, not legal. In a nation with multiple religious and social categories which are substantially shaped by faith, it is important to ask a question: are our problems with co-existence of different faith failures of the law to protect the exercise of freedom of worship, or are they symptoms of deeper social problems which are predicated on political competition for resources and power?

I would like to offer my views on the linkages between religion and social conflict in our recent history as a nation. The first is that none of any of the major conflicts in the recent past that I know of had been over the exercise or denial of rights of individuals or groups to worship. In this regard,

*Text of a presentation made at Plateau Roundtable Forum on 27th September, 2013 **Executive Chairman, D.I.T.V/Alheri Radio, Kaduna.

I refer to conflicts arising specifically from an overt and specific attempt or successful prevention of citizens to worship as they choose, or the imposition of another faith or mode of worship on citizens. Second, conflicts involving groups which assume religious dimensions are basically about power and resources (including land, access to state resources or institutions which empower individuals and/or groups). Thirdly, faith-based politics has become a major issue in competition between fragments of political elite, and faith is becoming increasingly a vital demographic index in the struggle for power and resources among the elite. Finally, Nigerian communities have always lived with multiplicity of religions, and the two largest religious, Islam and Christianity have co-existed for more than a century with predictable stresses and tensions which, however, are not informed by the specific failure of the state to protect freedoms of worship of citizens.

It will be misleading to assume, however, that flashpoint do not exist in relations between major religious groups in a manner which will suggest that the right to freedom of worship has not been abridged. When faith boundaries converge around other issues which encourage competition for political power, control and accumulation and allocation of economic resources, faiths of competing groups are counted among victors or losers. Groups which prevail or predominate in particular geo-political formations often define parameters for allocation of resources and conduct in such a manner that minorities feel that their faith, among others, are being punished by the majority. Often, the failure of the state to mediate relations between groups identified by specific social demographics such as faith lead to stresses and conflict.

There are also inevitable and endemic sources of friction which are part of the fabric of a multi-cultural and multi-religious nation. Our constitution is built outside a religious context, and specifically demands that the state shall not adopt a religion. It operates on the basis that Nigeria is a multi-religious nation, and on the basis of multiplicity of legal systems which have their roots in western, Islamic and traditional values. Conflicts arise around the degree to which the application of a type of legal system impacts on others, and the manner citizens interprete their interests in changes in the dynamics of multiple legal systems. When many states in the North expanded the scope of Sharia, many Muslims welcomed it, and Christian groups worried over its likely impact over their lives. Significantly, not a single Christian has been deprived of his right to his faith since then, and it is arguable whether Muslims in the affected states became better Muslims as a result of the changes. More significantly, hundreds of lives were lost in riots and inter-religious conflicts because elites in both religions portrayed the development in terms of major achievements or setbacks for their respective faith.

The politicization of faith is now a major threat to national security and even the survival of the Nigerian nation. The insurgency of Jamaatu Ahli Sunnah Lid’daawati Wal Jihad (a.k.a Boko Haram) and Ansaru represent the clearest examples of the convergence of faith the struggle for political power. Stripped to its rhetoric which offends the basic tenet of the Islamic faith which insists that no one should be compelled to be a Muslim, these insurgencies demand the elevation of Islamic faith to the polical level as the fundamental guiding philosophy of the state. That position offends the concept and practice of the model Islamic society which existed in Madina during the life of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), which was a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation with a written constitution predicated on consent by Christians, Jews and idolators.

In many parts of the nation, practices exist or are encouraged which restrict the unhindered application of the freedom of worship of citizens. These include:-

  • Policies and practices which discriminate between citizens in terms of access to resources and power principally on the basis of their faith;
  • Policies which discourage mixed living patterns and encourage and condone segregation of people of different faiths;
  • Policies which discourage citizens from building or having access to places of worship in areas where they are minorities or threatened;
  • Policies which discourage religious practices such as calling Muslims to prayers and congregations, or which discourage Christian churches from particular types of services or worship;
  • Policies which offend religious codes of dressing in schools, or rights of children and students to pray when they should; or discourage the training and deployment of particular religious subjects in schools in some states;
  • Policies which seek to punish “radical” young people in schools, or encourage the tolerance of overtly-partial disposition of authorities;
  • Policies which ignore sensitive cultural values and seek to push through reforms of the legal system, such as the Child Rights Act and anti-polio campaign.

I would like to conclude by recommending a number of steps which I believe are important in improving the manner citizens can enjoy their freedoms of worship as well as live safe and secure lives.

  • The efficiency and sensitivity of leaders at all levels in reducing poverty and spreading wealth in Nigeria must be radically improved. The competition for power and resources by the elite pitches Muslims and Christians against each other in a manner which suggests that their respective faiths are at stake. Corruption impoverishes Muslims and Christians alike, and their leaders who share the same faith do not reflect their faith in the manner they govern. There needs to be a radical overhaul of the current ruling regime in Nigeria, and improvements in the manner core religious values such as selfless service, honesty and compassion become guiding values of all leaders;
  • The intimate relationship between the political leadership and the clergy in Nigeria is unhealthy. Religious leaders have lost the capacity to uphold truth and goodness and check excesses of leaders. Leaders have lost a valuable source of guidance and correction which the clergy could provide. As a result the clergy is largely the mouth piece of politicians, and politicians ride to power on the back of a clergy which makes people believe that service to God and acts of worship are the same as the pursuit and support for narrow personal political goals of politicians;
  • Our young people need to be better educated to appreciate that God has no place for hate or violence. Religious and civic education should be made compulsory in all our schools;
  • Nigerians are a deeply religious people. Our systems of government, public institutions and our economy should be made to reflect the core values which all our faiths share, such as honesty and integrity. If we run a decent nation, every Nigerian, irrespective of faith, will have enough room in it.