By Tabia Princewill
The Supreme Court decided to legalise same sex marriages across America. Let me say now that this article is in no way asking for the legalisation of same sex marriages in Nigeria or in Africa. I feel we have far more fundamental things to be preoccupied with, if I am to be honest, as the most basic rights and liberties have not been secured for the majority.
This is why when same sex relations were banned in Nigeria, I for one was surprised: like legislators setting up committees to work on their clothing allowances etc., we never seem to get our priorities right in Nigeria. Banning gay relationships or even talking about their existence is the least of Nigeria’s problems.
Gay relationships do not stop children from attending school or our youth from getting jobs, corruption does and it is a far worse enemy than what consenting adults choose to do (and not eleven year olds unlike the Senate’s nod towards sexual relations with children). But what I find most interesting about the legalisation of same sex marriages in America is the implication for the relationship between church and state (or the absence thereof) and the contrasts one can draw with what obtains in Nigeria.
The founding fathers of America refused an “established religion”, that is a religion officially supported, protected and even funded by government. Rather, they preferred the state “tolerate” religion, that is, accept it’s presence in society but without deferring to it.
In Nigeria, many state governments pay for pilgrims to go to Jerusalem or to Mecca and government is frequently involved in religious programs of all sorts. There is no official religion in Nigeria yet religion is omnipresent in our politics and society and quite a few religious leaders have made a lot of money from this. I am not of course asking Nigerians to separate religion from their lives.
I am however asking that we separate government from it. A lot happens in Nigeria, under the guise of religion, cultural practice or traditions which government shies away from condemning, forgetting that Nigeria has no official religion so our government owes nothing to religious leaders but owes everything to Nigerians whose rights and safety it was sworn in to protect.
Having said that, due to the peculiarities of Nigeria, government does, it seems, owe a lot to religious leaders: pastors campaign for presidents and governors and many Nigerians follow said “prophets” blindly.
Nigerian governments have been timid and quite frankly close to incompetent when it comes to public policy (which differs from politicking) and in so many areas. Under the guise of federalism and each state deciding for itself, we have made so many mistakes (or rather allowed power hungry, greedy men and women to do as they please). One such mistake is allowing the implementation of Sharia law in our country.
There cannot be two courts in a supposedly secular country and although Obasanjo seems to have joined “team change”, we cannot forget the wrongs he either personally did or that he allowed under his watch which have led to the chaotic situation we find ourselves in today. Indirectly, sharia and traditional courts, the omnipresence of religion in our social and political life emboldened and encouraged pseudo-religious groups such as Boko Haram to spew hatred and dangerous ideologies.
Currently there seems to be no real constitutionally established balance between federal and state governments in Nigeria. In the United States, gay marriage could be voted in by the Supreme court because the Federal Government can intervene if it believes states violate any constitutionally secured rights.
Now that Sharia law is so well implemented, most people cannot even conceive or imagine a debate to justify or explain its removal. Religious law and not secular law, guides most of what obtains in Nigeria. This isn’t right. The government and not any religious institution should define what is possible or impossible, acceptable or unacceptable in Nigeria.
We have left the North (and the people in the South who see this region as backwards), to believe that anything can happen there as “that’s how they want it”, the same way we all believe anything, no matter how unjustifiable, intolerable or simply morally wrong, can happen in Nigeria which is why Saraki’s emergence as Senate president shocked few people.
In jurisprudence textbooks they say federalism is about “dual sovereignty, shared authority” between federal and state governments, to avoid the concentration of power.
Yet in Nigeria, state governments look to the centre to pay their bills, even though they create little wealth and can barely justify their existence to the people whose lives they don’t impact outside of the electoral calendar. If the whole point of federalism is to protect citizens from “arbitrary power” then how was Sharia, a religious court based on exactly that, allowed to thrive and spread to so many states ? The state exists to secure personal freedom, yet the manner in which we practise religion in this country, be it Christianity or Islam, is not only intolerant and intrusive but quite frankly repressive.
I would like now to call on our judges, who have done so well under the brilliant stewardship of Justice Mahmood Mohamed, chief justice of Nigeria, in preventing unending politically motivated election petitions and tribunals.
But beyond elections, where is judicial activism in Nigeria? Judges have a responsibility to invalidate all laws that do not conform to the Constitution and there are many with strange, inhumane provisions like the sexual offences bill which I hope the President doesn’t sign as it stipulates that children over 11 years old are of age to consent to sexual relations. Public sentiments in Nigeria are many times, uninformed and politically motivated, cloaked in false religious perceptions, which many do not have the strength or the will to question. If we are serious about reform in this country we need to go back to the very beginning and reassess or redress the fundamentally illogical practices we have long accepted.
Federalism is one such topic we must quickly decide upon as although we call ourselves a federation, for all intents and purposes we do not operate like one. Most of our states are necessary only on paper and the prevalence of religious leaders and traditional courts in our political life is honestly contrary to the nature and philosophy of federalism.
Lawmakers throwing chairs and punches over the distribution of offices, this is money politics at its best, not the change Nigerians voted for. Honourable Yakubu Dogara’s refusal to accept the list of names his party sent to him to occupy the offices of majority leader etc. further points to the fact that many within the APC, particularly those who were once part of the PDP are not on the same page as President Buhari or the citizenry who endorsed the change mantra.
Honourable Dogara says the list didn’t respect the principle of zoning. Zoning is anti change: it does not allow the best and the brightest to shine, instead it pursues antiquated ethnic agendas. Zoning is a false federalism that divides rather than unites us. We must review our understanding of federalism and push for constitutional reforms without which development will be difficult.
The President is right to cut down the cost of governance and definitely cannot appoint ministers till he assesses the real financial state of existing agencies and their usefulness but his media aides must do a better job of explaining his thinking to Nigerians. Otherwise, we fall prey to political job seekers and their noise making, urging Buhari to appoint their own boys. Buhari the democrat must be as tough as Buhari the general in order to succeed. Let’s give him time, if only because he is truly on his own: most of his party men do not wish to see him succeed as change is only in the interest of the Nigerian people.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.