By Sam Eyoboka
KADUNA State governor, Mallam Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, who, in January 2013, allegedly insulted Christianity in a tweet and received bashing from adherents has, again, stirred the hornet’s nest as Christians, across the state, are voicing their opposition to an executive bill before the state House of Assembly, allegedly designed to restrict all forms of religious preaching in the state.
In recent weeks, the social media has been awash with reactions from Christians who have kicked against the Religious Regulation Bill, arguing that it is at variance with Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution which presupposes that every Nigerian has a right or freedom of thought, conscience and religion and a right to change religion.
The Religious Regulation Bill, designed to replace the Religious Regulation Edict of 1984, is geared towards regulating Christianity and Islam as it seeks to create an inter-faith Ministerial Committee to be appointed by the governor and exercise control over Jama’atu Nasril Islam, JNI, and the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN. Highpoints of the bill include:
*The ministerial committee shall issue licenses to religious bodies.
*Without such licenses, you cannot preach.
*No external preacher can preach in Kaduna without a permit.
*The committee has the power to refuse to issue licenses
No criteria are given as to what will qualify one to have a license issued to him or for one to be denied a license.
While the law does not regulate traditionalists in the practice of their beliefs, they are to have a representative on the committee which regulates the Christian and Muslim religions.
The bill empowers JNI and CAN to keep records of churches and mosques including data of preachers. (The law does not stipulate what ‘data’ is required to qualify for license). The law criminalizes the use of religious CDs, flash drive and other communication gadgets except in churches, mosques or other places of worship or personal houses.
The implication is that you cannot listen to Christian tapes in your car or at any place except your house and in a church.
If you preach without a license, you are guilty of an offence punishable by two years imprisonment.
If you hold any Christian gathering even in a church and use loud speaker (microphone) after 8.00 p.m, you are guilty of an offence punishable with two years imprisonment.
If you listen to a message in your car, you are guilty of an offence punishable by two years imprisonment.
If you hold a crusade or any programme or any other kind of programme and use a loudspeaker at the said programme as long as it is not a church, you are guilty of an offence punishable by two years imprisonment.
The bill criminalizes the abuse of religious books and makes it punishable by two years imprisonment. (It does not define what ‘abuse of religious books’ mean. It criminalizes the use of derogatory terms in describing any religion and makes it punishable by two years imprisonment. It does not define what ‘use of derogatory terms in describing any religion’ means.)
Every preacher will have to obtain one year license (renewable every year) or risk two years imprisonment.
If you invite any external preacher (i.e. preacher from outside Kaduna State), such a person must be licensed for the duration of his/her stay and the body issuing the license has the right to reject the external preacher if it feels he is not qualified to preach in the state.
Mr. John Achimugu, who represented Christians in 2005 when President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the National Political Reform Conference and in 2014 at President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Conference, shared his perspectives on the bill with Sunday Vanguard. The Kogi born lawyer, who practices in Kaduna, is an advocate of freedom of worship, not only for Christians but for all people.
“The bill that is before the Kaduna State House of Assembly, from its title, seeks to replace the Religious Regulation Edict of 1984. I have been in Kaduna for longer than that. That law has been only in existence on the pages of the statutes. It has never been implemented. And because it was not implemented, many people were not aware of that law till this bill came up,” Achimugu stated, noting that, even through the religious crisis that engulfed Kaduna from the 80s to 2000, nobody has ever been prosecuted under that law.
“So because it was not a law that was passed by parliament, there wasn’t anything like public hearing or people coming to understand the existence of the law or being aware of its existence because of the way it was made as an edict at that time. So the current bill seeks to regulate religious preaching in Kaduna. And the regulation is to be done by four bodies.
“The first one is the CAN and JNI Committee, members of whom will be appointed by CAN and JNI from the Izala and Dareka groups of Islam. The members are constituted from CAN and JNI. And all the power they have is to issue license to preachers and also to keep records of places of worship within the state and list of preachers. That is all the power they have. If you look at the surface of it, it would appear as if the control of regulation is given to CAN and JNI Committee but that indeed is not true.
“The second body responsible for the regulation is what they call the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee consisting of nine persons. The chairman of that committee will be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of the secretary to the government of the state. Other members will come from security agencies with CAN and JNI having a nominee each on that committee. And that committee has the power to grant approval upon the recommendation of the local government screening committee to grant approval for the issuance of license to an applicant who wants to be licensed as a preacher. It supervises and controls the JNI and CAN Committee. That is where you now know that the power of regulation is actually domiciled in the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee.
“From the name ‘Inter-faith Ministerial Committee’, one would be tempted to think that that would be a body constituted from both Christians and Muslims through JNI and CAN, but that is not true. The members of the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee are appointed essentially from government and security departments. The name inter-faith is a deception as far as I’m concerned. If it is inter-faith, it will be nominees of CAN and JNI just as the CAN and JNI Committee as I earlier refered to as the first body that does the regulation through the issuance of license. But the JNI and CAN Committee cannot issue a license to any preacher unless there is the prior approval of this Inter-faith Ministerial Committee that is essentially a government committee.
“Then the third body is the Local Government Screening Committee consisting of about six to seven persons with CAN and JNI nominating one member each. The traditional institution nominates one. Anybody wishing to be licensed has to apply to the local government where you want to be a preacher. Upon his application, the screening committee will consider the application. They might reject it or recommend it to the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee for approval. They can only screen and recommend. That’s the duty of the Local Government Screening Committee.”
The lawyer further argued that the very serious issue in it is that the law does not stipulate the factors the Local Government Screening Committee must take into account in considering an application.
“So you will find from the very clear pages of the bill that the process for either recommending or rejecting is purely subjective. There are no objective criteria specifically laid out on the basis of which the screening committee can either recommend or reject an application. The danger to it is this; what if you are in a local government and all the members of the local government screening committee are Christians and they say we don’t want the preaching of Islam in the local government and they reject your application. The law does not provide a remedy for you or any fora where you can seek a redress of your grievances as to why you are denied a recommendation for the issuance of license. There is no remedy for you,” he pointed out.
Also reacting, the Zonal Chairman of CAN, Bishop David Bakare, described the proposed law as “satanic” and “anti-God”, not just for the Christians but also inadvertently for their Muslim counterparts for various reasons.
According to Bakare, who doubles as the National Vice President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, el-Rufai should remodel the Ahmadu Bello Stadium to accommodate the number of preachers who will fall victim to the legislation because the bill stipulates that offenders will be tried by customary and Sha’ria courts and there is nothing in the proposed law that says a Christian must be tried by a customary court.
The bishop argued that the composition of the licensing committee shall be by the governor and made up of two members each from CAN and JNI while five other members could be security officers who are bound by the tenets of their personal religions, stressing: “Security officials in this part of the nation are mostly Muslims and are duty bound to vote against any Christian preacher they don’t like his face.”
Similarly, Christian lawyers in Kaduna, after a meeting, voiced their opposition to the proposed bill.
They said Section 4(1) of the proposed bill is discriminatory as it failed to recognize other religious groups that are not members of CAN and JNI.
“The proposed bill is vague as to its application on use of tapes, cassettes or other recordings of unaccredited preachers outside Kaduna State and where they can be played. Moreover, it has restricted the use of Christian materials to only designated places (excluding cars, reception venues, schools, etc.)
The composition of the proposed Inter-faith Ministerial Committee could easily generate disapproval of the society or a section of it”, the lawyers said.
“Finally, the proposed bill contravenes the express provisions of the Sections 38 & 39 of the 1999 Constitution which protect the rights of citizens to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression”.
Asked if there were consultations before the bill was drafted and transmitted to the House, a lawyer, Mr. Maxwell Kyon, said: “Ordinarily, you would expect that a bill on such sensitive issue may have some sort of publicity. If not for some of us who have made it public in the social media, it wouldn’t enjoy any publicity at all. I think with the call and some other persons who either agree or disagree with the bill, we are hoping that there may be some sort of consultations by the House of Assembly in terms of public hearing before the bill is passed into law”.