Religion has a place in the lives of every nation, Nigeria included. Irrespective of the faith or denomination, religion when truly practiced in its truest form and spirit, has been and remains sacred. It plays a vital role in purposeful leadership, community building, social justice, law and order, peace-making, reconciliation, forgiveness and the healing of wounds, be they political, family or personal!.
Hank Eso (2003)
Religion is such a sensitive issue in Nigeria that one has to tread carefully in discussions to avoid flaring emotions, accusations of taking sides or risk being misinterpreted. However, in search of peace, security, and prosperity for our country, we must not shy away, or get discouraged from exploring truth, for “it is the responsibilities of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies” (Noam Chomsky). The purpose of this write up is to present the reader with enough information to draw a conclusion as to whether religion is to blame for the social, economic and political state of Nigeria today. The goal of Openmind Foundation is to inform and educate Nigerians for a greater tomorrow.
Religion is an important part of our lives, from birth to death, and commands immense influence in our national politics. Of course there are voices that argue against mixing politics and religion and others who share the view that politics and religion are inextricable. Chuba Okadigbo was once quoted as saying:
” Religion being a matter of individual choice and faith, must be left where it is, such that our clerics can take care of our souls and religious persuasions, while elected civilians take care of the businesses of governance.”
Though Chuba’s position leans more to the school of thought that views a mix of religion and politics as toxic, his recognition of the importance of caring for the souls and businesses of governance in a society, indirectly reinforces the importance of a partnership between clerics and politicians. “In many ways religion is safer at home and politics in the public domain. But it can be very difficult to separate morality from practicality and politics, particularly at a time when politicians seem to be taking a moral stance on truth. So it becomes almost necessary for the religious institutions to intervene because no-one can claim to have a completely clean conscience in politics” (Professor Haleh Afshar, University of York Politics department, BBC). Although Individuals do interpret religion in different ways, leading to people of the same religious persuasion maintaining opposing political views and parties, “religion and politics are essentially inseparable because religion leads to beliefs about the structure of society and beliefs about the structure of society lead to political action.” (Alice Prince, BBC).
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution (Section 1) emphasised the supremacy of the Constitution and the binding force of its provisions on all authorities and persons throughout the Federation. The section 10 of the Constitution unequivocally declares, “The Government of the Federation or of any State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” In Subsection 2, the Constitution emphasised that “the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall not be governed, nor shall any person or group of persons take control of the Government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” Put it bluntly, Nigerian Constitutions, past and present, decree the secularity of the Nigerian state, the separation of church and state and the freedom to practice religion of one’s choice without fear of persecution and prosecution. Developments in Nigeria in recent years make one wonder whether the constitution means different things to different politicians, states, regions and peoples of the country. The tension generated by failure to observe the sanctity of the Constitution is vividly clear to all and a factor driving the current debate on Sharia Banking. For example, Mr Joe Garba, in his speech of February 15, 2002 to a Nigerian leadership forum, argued:
The inability to maintain the principles of a secular nation and separate the state from religion has added another dimension to existing national tension. Consequently, with the introduction of Sharia laws by several state governments, national politics has all of a sudden become suffused with the deep-seated fear of Islam as a political force. This was never the case in the early years of our independence.”
In an article published in 2003, Hank Eso argued, “It is clear to me that the dangers posed by mixing religion and politics in Nigeria are manifest, except that our leaders are ambivalent about addressing them. To them, the wielding of political power is the most lucrative occupation in Nigeria, and its attainment by any means far outweighs the risks posed to the national interest by that means”. Our political leaders, on both sides, Muslims and Christians, have invoked the name of God in politics, and sought to use religion freely in influencing the polity, decisions and swaying national political and economic policies and to that end governance.
Income inequality, poverty among all but the very top few, lawlessness / selectively lawed, unemployment, poor education system, bastardised healthcare system, and medieval infrastructure have culminated in unlashing a level of hardship and human suffering that have forced many to seek divine intervention through churches and mosques. Elizabeth Dickinson observed that:
“For years, this has bred the sort of suffering that makes people not just uncomfortable, but desperate. Grasping at anything that brings order to an otherwise uncertain life, there has been no more logical receptor than religion, literally the saving grace. Churches and Mosques will provide more services and support than the government could ever hope to do.
Politicians have been quick to embrace religion too, turning up at Churches and Mosques, raising constituencies among their religious peers and allying themselves with specific Pastors and Imams. Unfortunate, nothing positive has emerged from the mix of politics and religion, either by way of economic growth, improved standard of living, reduction in unemployment, reduced corruption, improved infrastructure, or improved security of lives and assets. Consequently, it is not out of place finding Nigerians pointing accusing figure on religion as the root cause of the state of affairs in the country. The question this paper seeks to address is this – Is religion to blame for the woes of Nigeria?
Israel Nonyerem Davidson is of University of Wales and the President of Openmind Foundation (UK/Nigeria).