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Constitutional Confusion: Is Nigeria a Secular or a Multireligious State?

Tuesday 14 February 2017, by siawi3


Peter Adeosun

June 18, 2016

Multireligious Nigeria
Nigeria is a not a secular state but a multireligious state.

Most people think Nigeria is a secular state. By definition, a secular state is that in whose governance religion plays no part. In such a nation, anything religion is relegated to the background. Both the governing and the governed have a right to practise any religion but they’re mandated to keep their religion totally private. Nothing in the public has a religious coloration or undertone. That’s a perfectly secular state. But Nigeria isn’t such a country. We run a multireligious government.

Yes. We’re a religious nation. Officially. In Nigeria, our national anthem has such lines as ‘O God of creation…‘. In other words, we’re a creationist nation. Our pledge ends with ‘So help me God‘. Prayers are said at the beginning and the end of official, government meetings. The federal and state governments have pilgrimage boards — boards that administer how the citizens go to pay homage to the spiritual shrines of the Muslims and Christians that invaded our land centuries ago. The government officially celebrates both Christian and Islamic festivals. Our political office holders, from the President to the ward councilors, openly and officially attend religious events. Our immediate past president attended the Christian pilgrimage with the government entourage three or four times. Our incumbent president in just one year has similarly attended the Islamic pilgrimage twice.

I can go on and on but as you can see, we’re not a secular nation. Of course, private practice of religion has dictated things like how we balance the two main religions in choosing president/vice-president electoral tickets, etc. But I’m talking about public governance here. We’re essentially a theocracy in disguise.

But this is all due to the confusion in our Constitution. The 1999 constitution which is the currently operational one appears to declare Nigeria a secular state but doesn’t actually do so. Sections 15, 23, and 38 encourage religious tolerance and freedom of religion. Section 10 says ‘the government of the federation or a state shall not adopt any religion as a state religion’. Beautiful, isn’t it?

But section 24 says

It shall be the duty of every citizen to…respect…the National Anthem, the National Pledge…

In other words, we shall respect a pledge that says ‘So help me, God‘ and an anthem that says ‘O God of creation‘. Where is the secularism in that? Proper secular nations like China don’t have such phrases in their anthems or pledges. The Nigerian government doesn’t force you to hold any religion in particular but it surely forces you to hold at least a religion since you need to hold one to believe in the ‘God of creation’. So what is it with the part that says no one shall be forced to accept a particular religion when everybody shall be forced to accept at least one?

Since every citizen must believe in God as part of their civic duty, then they will have a version of the God. Mostly, it’s either Yahweh or Allah. So what the government is indirectly saying is ‘every citizen must believe in Allah or Yahweh as a requirement for being a Nigerian‘. This is why we’re not a secular state. If we’re not a secular state, then who are we? We’re a multireligious state.

In a secular state, the government doesn’t identify with any religion. In a multireligious state, the government identifies with all the religions in the land. The difference is very clear. There’s a difference between the government simply protecting the citizens’ private right to practise a religion of their choice and the government joining its citizens in the practise of the religions. In Nigeria, instead of the government to stay totally clear of religion, the government participates in both religions. That’s not secularism in any way. That’s theocracy.

That’s why it’s possible for a part of the country to install a religious legal and judicial system for themselves. The governments of 12 out of 36 states officially uphold Islamic values and laws. If the federal government wants every citizen to respect the ‘God of creation’, then a state government can as well interprete that ‘God’ to be ‘Allah’, can’t it?

Religious crisis can not be far from a country like Nigeria. Once the government, in a bid to identify with the citizens’ religious rights, practices the religions, then the fight will be towards every citizen making sure that the government supports his religion more than the other. Remember section 38 (1) that says

Every person shall be entitled to…manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance.

The problem with the section is that every citizen has a right to propagate their belief. How on earth do you think a nation can be peaceful when it allows every citizen to propagate his beliefs? How can a supposed secular state give the citizen the rights to propagate their beliefs?

Nigeria is not the only country with the mention of ‘God’ in their documents but the problem is that most of those other countries are almost unireligious — European, Arab, and South American nations. In such countries, a single religion is practiced by a vast majority. Thus when they invoke God in their documents, they all know what it means. For instance, the Algerian constitution opens with ‘In the Name of God the Merciful and the Compassionate‘ and everybody knows Allah is the God being referred to here. The Kuwaiti document opens with ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, We, Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah, … do hereby approve this Constitution and promulgate it.‘ The Irish constitution opens with ‘In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, (…) do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.’

For a nation like Nigeria where two opposing religions have an almost equal population each, it’s advisable that our Constitution is totally secular. Examples of totally secular constitutions include those of Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, and China. This is the best way to give people real freedom of (ir)religion. Staying totally away from anything religion is the best way by which the government can allow the citizens to enjoy their freedom of (ir)religion.

Nigeria is very similar to the United States of America. The American Constitution doesn’t contain the word ‘God’ but the word was introduced into the Pledge in 1954. The pledge had existed in various forms, having been modified twice, since 1892 when it was inaugurated and for 62 years, it was a secular plegde until the politics between them and Russia in 1954 made them add the phrase ‘under God‘ into the pledge. Of course, as that is already eroding the secular nature the country was supposed to have (i.e., the original intention of the founding fathers), an increasing number of Americans are calling for the return of the pledge to the initial ‘godless’ form.

The problem with the American pledge is that the ‘God’ in it is actually the Christian God. But as the population of other religions are increasing, America will approach the properly multireligious status (i.e., two or more religions equally sharing majorities) and then the kind of religious problem we have in Nigeria will set in.

Multireligious states can never be stable. And that’s my fear for Nigeria. If we’re already battling with multiethnicity, then multireligiosity will surely make matters worse. For us to achieve religious stability, we need to become a totally secular nation as soon as possible!

Peter is a Nigerian, doctor, freethinker, and social activist. He’s a strong believer in the power of reasoning and critical thinking and touts mental liberation via reasoning and critical thinking as the only way to improve the country and humanity as a whole.