Religion is a Big Deal, Especially in 2023

Religion is a Big Deal, Especially in 2023

Wednesday, July 20, 2022 2:06 pm

Dr Sam Amadi

By Sam Amadi

The big debate in the Nigerian political landscape today is whether it matters that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is fielding a presidential ticket with a southern Muslim as President and a northern Muslim as Vice President. For sure, this ticket does not offend any clear constitutional provision, except a contestable reading of the requirement in Section 13 of the constitution mandating ethnic, religious, and social diversity in the management of the public service of Nigeria to prohibit a ticket that is not religiously diverse. Many prominent Christian leaders, especially from the north, and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) slammed the decision to field a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket as the height of religious insensitivity and disrespect to northern Muslims. Expectedly, opinions differ on whether religious composition of a presidential ticket should matter in Nigeria in the context of the developmental and other existential challenges that the nation faces post-buhari presidency.

The ‘religion does not matter’ camp argues that what Nigerians across religious, ethnic, and social divides care about is a leader who can work the magic of producing jobs, foods, and security. Religious sensibilities are superstructures that are dispensable in the acute situation of the perils of today’s Nigeria. This camp is headlined by Governor El-Rufai’s memorable interrogation of whether if you were to enter a plane you would bother to find out the religious affiliation of the pilot. The logic is that if you don’t care about the religion of your pilot, you should not care about the religion of your president and his vice. What a logic.

The problem with this logic is that it hypocritically trivializes religion and misread the complexities and frailties of the Nigerian state. I use the word, hypocritically, because the same advocates of ‘leave religion out of politics’ are the architects of mainstreaming religion into the administrative framework of policymaking, whether in the executive, legislative or judicial branch. The same persons are those spending public finance to sponsor religious pilgrimages, without considering that such actions destabilize the non-establishment policy in Section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution. Their bigger sin is that they don’t understand, or pretend not to understand, how much religion in politics defines the juridical order of the Nigerian state.

Something consequential happened in Nigeria in 1806. It is called the Jihad. The jihad is a religious war that swept through much of northern Nigeria. it created a religious-juridical order that has shaped the history and development of Nigeria as a nation-state. some of the effects of the Jihad have been undone or have faded away. But some remain. These effects have shaped the political and social development of Nigeria. In 1914, Nigeria came to being through some kind of incompletely theorized amalgamation. By definition, it means that Nigeria was not conceived and constructed in an original sense. Nigeria was patched together, evincing a large degree of incoherence. That incoherence has continued to bewitch the dream of Nigerian greatness. At the present moment the incoherence threatens to decompose the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state verges at the edge of a possible failure. The urgency of now is to retrieve Nigeria, redefine it, and replace it on a new path that leads to stability and development.
But Nigerians suffer from a conceit. They never like to confront their past. They also never admit that they are one step away from collapse, hence they never act urgently and sincerely. But, notwithstanding this social pathology, the crises of the moment mean that we cannot but willfully and wisely confront the past that continues to damage our present.

Nigeria has always been a nation in crisis. It did not take long after the end of colonial rule that the new nation started showing signs of instability. Together with Ghana, Nigeria was one of the earliest countries in Africa to witness military rule. The military continued to rule in Nigeria until 1999 when a successful military transition created opportunity for the consolidation of civilian administration. On the hopeful side, with the defeat of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the handing over of power to the opposition leader for the first time in 2015, Nigeria is believed to have entered the phase that the eminent political scientist, Larry Diamond, called ‘consolidation of democracy’. This cheerful news should not blind us to the reality that the nation has never had a long period without crisis, crisis that shook the foundations of its existence. Most of the crises relate to what Joseph Stalin called ‘the nationality question’, question about who we are as a people, how we will live together in one social space and how we will organize the public space to accommodate, harmonize and arbitrate our differences and similarities. The nationality question has revolved around either religious or ethnic identities or both. The civil war, the most impactful and definitive crisis in the life of Nigeria as a nation, resulted from the mismanagement of religious and ethnic identities.

I identify the crisis of the Nigerian state in three fundamental manifestations. First, it manifests as a crisis of nationality. The Nigerian does not know who he is. Nigeria struggles to structure the various religious and ethnic identities that people its hemisphere into a definitive identity. This crisis turns into a key question, namely, what does it mean to be a Nigerian. The Nigerian crisis also manifests as a crisis of production, a productivity crisis. The Nigerian state struggles to focus on productivity rather than on privilege and rent seeking. The organizing principle of the Nigerian political economy is not wealth creation. It is wealth sharing or rent seeking. This orientation is engendered or enhanced by conceptual frameworks and stratagems that define and sustain public performance and religious sensibilities. The last crisis is the value crisis, seen in the ethical disarray that plague our politics and the institutions that coordinate it.

I believe that the foundation of these crises and their life spring is the incoherent constitutional articulation of religious freedom in Nigeria and the state practices arising from it. This articulation builds on the patchy work of amalgamation, whose normative and functional structures were determined largely by the consequences of the event of 1806. This incoherence depletes Nigerian citizenship of its values and therefore creates a value disorientation that hinders the institutionalization of democratic accountability and economic productivity in Nigeria.

So, religion is a big deal in Nigeria. If truly we are preparing for a redemptive politics in Nigeria in 2023, we cannot afford to leave aside the discourse of religion in Nigerian politics. It will be a clear case of delusion if anyone embarks on a journey to 2023 without paying attention to how we can recalibrate the relationship between religion and politics in Nigeria. The recent posturing by the self-styled class of ‘competence alone matters’ that we ought not to pay attention to the diverse and oftentimes contending religious traditions and practices in the Nigerian state in setting stage for transformative leadership in 2023 is nothing but pure deception, or at best deep and dangerous ignorance.

We cannot run away from the simple fact that one of the potent causes of political instability in Nigeria is endemic propensity to conflict amongst the two major religions in Nigeria. The APC conducted its primary against a national canvass of a terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Owo. The Nigerian security agency fingered the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) as the perpetrators of the attack. Several priests of the Catholic faith and many other Nigerians have been kidnapped or killed by ISWA and Boko-Haram, both religious fundamentalist organizations demanding to make Nigeria an Islamic caliphate. These sample facts of recent history are enough to convinced even the most negligent politician that Nigeria has a severe religion problem that cannot be equated with pedestrian example of flying a plane.

At the same time that the APC was holding its presidential primary, the Supreme Court handed down a decision on a contention about the constitutionality of Muslim students wearing hijab to school. This decision elicited the extraordinary reaction of a Nigerian senior lawyer who dressed in African traditional ritual dress to court, in clear violation of the dress code of Nigerian lawyers, to mock the justice of the Supreme Court. The case came from Lagos, Nigeria’s liberal and cosmopolitan heartbeat. If people in the enlightened southwest can fight nasty about religion, how dare you say religion does not matter? Yes, the Yorubas of the southwest Nigeria are global exemplars of religious tolerance. But today, due largely to the excessive politicization of religion, especially under the APC government of the last seven years, religion has become a dagger drawn through the bonds of cultural unity amongst the Yorubas.

So, we can no longer pretend we have religion under wrap. We have to be intentional and transparent on how we handle religion in Nigeria. The problem is that each time we had opportunity to conduct a rigorous debate about the relationship between religion and politics we drew back. We never stroke the right balance. We never got to a consistent and coherent resolution. It was the case at the 1959 London Conference that birthed Nigeria’s constitutional order. The same incoherence and incommensurability reoccurred in the 1979 Constitutional Conference.

It is now time to be more decisive about religion and politics. And it starts with clarifying what matters for religion. First, we must distinguish between the theological and sociological aspects of religion. The state should not bother about the theological aspects of religion. We should never want to promote religion in a democratic state. That is the essence of the mountain of jurisprudential exegesis by the US Supreme Court on the vexed question of church and state. The key point is that the state should not advantage or burden religion in anyway. This conception of state-religion relationship is incorporated in both Sections 10 and 38 of the Nigerian constitution.

The sociological aspect of religion addresses religion from the perspective of social community. it is not about the rightness of religious beliefs, but the fact of a religious society. This puts an obligation on public officials to recognize the reality of religion as an organizing logic for social action. Democratic societies have responded to the sociological challenges of religion by the logic of secularity. This means that the state totally abstains from getting involved with religion. Nigeria proclaims itself a secular state but continues to meddle with religion in its constitutions. It creates an Islamic legal system and appoints Islamic judges to judicial chairs. This means that Nigeria chooses the principle of religious accommodation even as it calls itself a secular state.

The minimum requirement for religious accommodation for a country that chooses that concept is equality of treatment. There must be balance in the public provisioning for the major religions. Many people question the special place we give to Islam and Christianity in the constitutional order to the detriment of many other religions. That is one peril of accommodationist approach. It will always be unfair to smaller religions and non-religion. But the sociological justification is that what matters is whether the religion has a significant membership as to constitute a significant social category.

Mismanagement of religion and politics can be complex and dangerous for a plural society like Nigeria. The core principle for democratic governance in plural societies is that the state should be agnostic to the extent that it does not recognize and provide for religion or any other comprehensive moral doctrines in public policy and administrative resources of the state. The late US political philosopher, John Rawls, provided a definitive guide on how to achieve such religious abstinence. That is the logic Nigeria seems to have rejected in its incoherent constitutional order. The next logic is the accommodationist logic which provides that the state should, while ensuring that no citizen suffers discrimination or gets an advantage on the basis of religious belief or membership, structure its political power in a manner that reassures all believers of different religions that they would not suffer any disadvantage on account of non-representative in political authority.

That is what the demand for a diverse presidential ticket is all about: a sense of representation. It does not argue that public policy will turn on religious views. It is not a sword. It is a shield to protect against the possibility of a religious faction turning public policy into the promotion of its religious belief. It does not make any sense in the extremely religiously paranoid Nigeria, a country whose founding logic is wrapped around religious accommodation, to cavalierly shred this important shield for half of the Nigerian population.

Even if the APC’s Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket is a winning electoral proposition, it is an ignorant and dangerous one.

•Dr. Amadi, a Law Lecturer, is an Arise TV Analyst.

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