There are at least three serious questions that we must try to address ourselves to: what do we mean when we speak of a 'secular state'? Should our country be described as secular or not? Whatever our answer to the above questions, how do we address the specific practical issues which give concrete expression to the theoretical debates on secularity?
I believe that these are questions that we can no longer gloss over. It seems there are indeed deep and serious differences in how Nigerians envisage the place of religion in the affairs of the state. There is a limit to how much difference we can accommodate in this matter and still live in peace as a single nation where there is religious freedom and equality for all citizens. To hammer out that minimum of necessary consensus, it is necessary to clarify what we mean by the words we use in our discussion.
Secularism is a word that is mainly Christian in its origin and development. An Arabic-speaking friend told me that the word has no exact equivalent in Arabic. I do not know how the concept is expressed in Arabic. An attempt to translate the word into any of our local Nigerian languages will certainly show how much difficulties can arise when we try to transpose an idea from one thought pattern to the other. This may be at least partly responsible for the fact that Christian-Muslim debate on this point often becomes in Nigeria like a dialogue among deaf people. Some points:
a. Per se, the concept of secularism is neutral as regards the sacred and the spiritual. It neither affirms nor denies the sacred and spiritual. It merely stresses the due autonomy of the material dimensions of life vis-à-vis the spiritual. It is a question of distinction, not opposition.
b. However, the term, especially in its historical development, has become quite ambiguous. It can mean, and it has in fact at times been used to mean, denial of the other world and opposition to spiritual concerns in human relations. Thus, some states, which persecute and suppress religion, claim to be "secular". But this is a relatively rare and restricted meaning of 'secular'.
c. At times, attempts are made to avoid this ambiguity by distinguishing between secularism (in a pejorative sense) and secularity (as a neutral or positive term). But in the last analysis even this seems to boil down to sheer semantics or word games.
What lessons can we learn in Nigeria from the above general observations? As far as the state and secularism is concerned, in theory, as well as in practice, there are a variety of options open to different nations according to their different circumstances. Broadly speaking, from the point of view of our discussion, the states of the world can be divided as follows: Monoreligious (a) Multireligious (b) Neutral in religion ( c) Hostile to religion (d).
Considering these four categories, it should be obvious that for Nigeria, the first and the last are untenable. The 1979 Constitution clearly excludes type (a) when it says in Art. 10: "The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion".
This section of the 1979 Constitution has been repeatedly reconfirmed by all subsequent regimes, both military and civilian. With the pluralism of religions in Nigeria, to adopt any one as the state religion would certainly bring about injustice to the rest. However, it seems the question is still open as to what constitutes "adopting a religion as state religion". This is the point of the on-going debate over the new dimension of the Sharia in some Northern States of the Federation.
It is significant that this article of the Constitution speaks not only of the Federal Government, but also of State Governments. This means that even if a state had a 100% Catholic population, it could not make Catholicism the state religion. It is alleged that some of the Northern States are actually being run as if Islam has been adopted as the state religion, especially where there is a near total Islamisation of almost every aspect of official public life. There will be need to agree among ourselves on what government may legitimately do in the area of religion even at state levels. Any situation where a government is promoting one religion to the detriment of others is certainly against the spirit of our Constitution.
As for option (d) Nigerians are so deeply religious that no atheistic government can claim to represent the people. We are therefore left with options (b) and (c).
Theoretically, we could adopt the "multi-religious" option. This would mean listing all the religions and denominations that a government would promote and officially recognize. This would present serious difficulties: the list of recognized religions would be too long to handle adequately. The present practice of recognizing Christianity and Islam as the two religions of Nigeria is only approximate. Within each of the two groups there are appreciable differences in denominations, especially within the Christian fold. Furthermore, not everyone falls into one of the two religious groups. Some people would therefore always feel unjustly left out. But even if our list of religions were exhaustive and complete, there is the next problem of dealing equitably with each of them without favouritism and partiality. The polemics over government handling of pilgrimages shows how difficult it is to be fair and appear to be fair in these matters.
For these reasons, many people have come to the conclusion that the best model for Nigeria is option (c). This means that the government would be advised to keep its direct involvement with religion to the barest minimum, in accordance with the spirit and letter of our Constitution about state neutrality in religious affairs. Unfortunately, this is an area where it seems every government has found it difficult to be clear and consistent. And yet the matter has been discussed several times in the past. For example, in the first stages of its work the sub-committee on National Objectives of the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1978 did propose that Nigeria be explicitly described as "secular". In subsequent drafts, the word disappeared from the text. It surfaced again during the debate at the Constituent Assembly which met later in the same year. Opposition against the term came largely from some Muslim members, led at that time by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who was later to become the President of Nigeria. These Muslims maintained that it could lead to making it unconstitutional for the state to have anything to do with religious matters like pilgrimages and the Sharia Law. The formula in Art 10, quoted above, was supposed to satisfy both sides. The experience of past years shows that the matter is still to be settled to the satisfaction of all.
At present, there are several areas of our national life which we need to look into dispassionately with a view to finding a policy that would best promote peace, harmony and progress. We shall now direct our attention to some of them.
1. Support for Religious Projects. We must admit, and indeed recommend, that the state has reasons and at times obligations to support certain projects undertaken by religious organizations. This is particularly true with respect to projects of a social nature. Here the name of the game should be partnership. The areas that come very quickly to mind are education, health and social welfare. These are areas where both the state and religious organizations have not only legitimate stakes but also respective competencies. These are also areas that affect citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliation. It is therefore to be expected that public funds be made available to religious institutions when they undertake projects for the good of the community.
But what about the support of government for what could appear as purely religious projects, like building places of worship or even contributing towards the formation and training of religious personnel. Here I believe we should be guided by two considerations: caution and equity. In this regard two specific projects come to mind. First, there is the project of the National Mosque and the Christian Ecumenical Centre in Abuja. At first, these two projects generated a lot of controversy. It seems now that there is a general consensus that the two projects are worthwhile and may even be useful for the nation. However, it is still not clear whether these are national projects or the projects of the religious bodies. Perhaps, it is best seen as one area where the state and religious bodies cooperate in a project that is of common interest.
Second, there is the issue of pilgrimages. We know how much controversy has been generated over the years on this matter. I think it is a good thing that the tendency of government is now to gradually distance itself from the funding and even the organization of pilgrimages. Each religious organization ought to be able to organize itself for pilgrimages wherever they want to go. This, of course, does not stop government from offering logistic assistance both at home and in the countries where pilgrims go.
2. The Religious Agenda of the Government. Whether the government is religious or not, there are certain programs and projects that the government in Nigeria has taken as official. Here I am thinking of two examples. First of all, the religious chaplaincies in government institutions, whether the armed forces or the higher institutions. I believe that this, again, is an area of fruitful collaboration between the state and the religious organizations.
The other area is in cases where places of worship have been built in government premises, especially in government houses and in the State house. It is important that the purpose of such projects be made clear. I believe it is possible to formalize the practice in such a way that it will not depend on the whims and caprices of whoever is in power. It is also important to make sure that whatever public resources are expended on such matters can easily be accounted for.
3. The Legal System. I referred earlier to the issue of religion in our legal system. This concerns mainly Islam in Nigeria, particularly with the place of the Sharia in our public life. We obviously need to admit the burden of our history and the carry over of certain past practices. But at the same time, we must look at the present and towards the future. I believe that the future lies with a uniform law for every Nigerian, in order to enhance our unity and common existence. The sooner we start moving in that direction, the better. Whatever provision is made today for the Sharia on the national or indeed the state levels will remain a constant point of debate until a clear solution is arrived at.
It is in this regard that the latest development, where certain state governments have adopted a full-blown Sharia Code of Law, including criminal penal aspects, for the entire state, is with all due respect, in my opinion a step in the wrong direction. One thing is obvious: the whole adventure has generated not only controversy but grievous disturbances, leading to the loss of hundreds and thousands of lives. We also hope that the nation has not decided to close its eyes to the fact that thousands, perhaps millions of, Nigerians have decided to relocate away from those states precisely because of the consequences of these latest developments. We know that this is partly responsible for the explosion of the population in the suburbs of Abuja. This is an issue that was never placed before the Nigerian public in the political campaigns of our rulers. Nor did it feature in the discussions at the recent Political Reform Conference early in 2005. The issue cannot be swept under the carpet indefinitely.
4. Foreign Policy. In this connection, we still remember the hue and cry generated over the issue of Nigeria's membership of the Organization of Islamic Conference: (OIC) about the year 1985. Up till now, the position of Nigeria in that Islamic body has remained nebulous. I believe the fact right now is that our country is considered a full member of that organization. A lot of effort has been made to justify our membership of the body. But the arguments have always gone largely along religious line, and most of the time are unconvincing on logical grounds. At the end of the day, the question is whether Nigeria ought to be a member of such a body, simply because some Muslims want it, or whether it is a matter that requires the full consensus of the Nigerian nation. Closely linked with this is our policy, if any, with regard to our diplomatic representation in countries that claim to be officially religious, in particular the nations that are considered Islamic Nations.
The crucial issue is not the words we use to describe our nation, but the concrete policies by which out national life is regulated. "Secular" is not our language; we can agree to stop using the word if we find it confusing. But the country must have a clear policy on the state and religion, which everyone is ready to accept as binding. The Constitution has already excluded making any religion the official religion of the federation or of any state. This must be scrupulously observed. In concrete instances, government actions in matters religious must be guided by the principles of freedom for all and the equality of all religions vis-à-vis the state. The ordinary laws of the land have adequate provisions for dealing with any misuse of religious freedom. The state should strive to create conditions for greater integration among its diverse citizens, and watch out against any policies that might deepen suspicions or arouse jealousies among religious groups.
This is necessary if religious groups are to be in a position to contribute positively to the progress of the nation. For far too long religion has been perceived as one of our many problems. It is about time for it to begin to play its true role of honoring God and serving neighbor.