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Is Nigeria a multi-religious state or a secular state?

By Tabia Princewill

SOCIAL media was awash with reports of a young woman who insisted on wearing a hijab for the call to bar ceremony. For flouting the dress code, she was turned away. This has caused some controversy with many claiming the dress code besides being antiquated and obsolete flouts her religious freedoms.

More to the point, many questions as to the type of system we operate remain unanswered both in form and in practice which is why such issues periodically spring up. Is Nigeria a multi-religious state or a secular one?

The two are not synonymous and depending on what the answer to the question is, one would need to update legislation and regulations to support for example, the right for men and women to wear religious symbols such as hijabs in schools, courts and other public spaces, a hotly debated issue even in the European Union.

A multi-religious state is one that recognises the co-existence of different religions and affirms that no religion shall be allowed to take precedence over the over. In my opinion, Nigeria belongs to this category. Our Constitution declares the absence of a state religion precisely because Nigerians observe different faiths.

However, the Constitution doesn’t explicitly proclaim Nigeria’s secularity, if we accept that secularism means that a state is neutral when it comes to religious affairs and uninfluenced by religious leaders and their beliefs. A secular state for example, would not fund pilgrims’ voyages or fund traditional rulers (many of whom also double as spiritual leaders).

Real influence on public policy

It wouldn’t do so because secularism prevents a private matter such as religion from impacting the public space which is supposed to be neutral and, therefore, free and fair to all. Even in the United Kingdom where the Queen is the leader of the Church of England, she doesn’t play a part in state governance nor does she have real influence on public policy: the prime minister is the head of government.

In Nigeria, the intermingling of government, traditional rulers and religious organisations has only served to ensure the poor remain the prisoners of a system working against their interests. One can’t imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope, campaigning for a particular candidate, yet one finds that in Nigeria religious leaders endorse candidates and promote division when it serves their interests.

The Christian Association of Nigeria’s incessant psychosis over the would-be islamization of Nigeria has distorted inter-faith relations and negatively influenced both our politics and the average Nigerian’s ability to judge a person for what they truly are rather than their ethno-religious belonging.

Too many Nigerians oppress or judge others based on outward signs of religion: not wearing a hijab in certain contexts or admitting that one doesn’t attend church every Sunday, could kill a person’s career or social standing if one is unfortunate enough to find oneself beholden to a bigot. Nigeria is definitely not a secular environment: routine discrimination abounds, despite our laws prescribing religious freedom which whether we like it or not also entail the freedom not to adhere to any religious community at all.

In France, perhaps the ultimate secular state, the separation of church and state is so revered that civil servants, public officers or anyone working in the public space, can’t wear a crucifix or any outward symbol that showcases their belonging to any religious group or adherence to any particular belief.

Religion is an all too sensitive topic in Nigeria, further proof that we are not a secularised nation. Even our handling of issues shows we prefer controversy and sensationalising events (which the media is unfortunately all too happy to aid) than real discussion of what methods work best for us. Many on social media have shared pictures of Muslim women who live in western countries wearing hijabs with their police uniforms etc. This only tells half of the story: they don’t show the process these women had to go through in defence of their rights.

Negotiations, campaigns and all sorts of discussions were held to encourage those authorities to respect diversity and allow changes to the organisation’s dress code. Change rarely comes from the outside, it is more often people within the system who know and experience its rules (and potential shortcomings) who agitate from the inside to make change happen. So, those congratulating the young woman for refusing to take off her hijab during the call to bar really don’t understand how the real world works and this is why change is slow to come to Nigeria in any form.

Beyond this particular case, we need to have a conversation about the sort of society we wish to have, continuous conversations, in fact.

Continuous conversations

Some religious leaders will attempt to convince us that secularism means becoming “anti-religion” which is far from the truth; they do so to protect their loss of influence. But why can’t we have ethics and morals which simply stem from decency and the recognition of our common humanity? One doesn’t need to be a Christian or a Muslim to know right from wrong.

This whole debate over the call to bar uniform and the hijab is another symptom of our obsession with religious affairs (mostly the outward show of religion) which has neither cured us of corruption and lawlessness nor has it produced more development for the people.

If we showed the same religious commitment to ending poverty as we did to our religious beliefs (or to what passes for belief in Nigeria), our country would find itself much improved.


Goodluck Jonathan

ACCORDING to the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, DFID, about $32 billion was lost to corruption during the tenure of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan. The more revelations and allegations occur the more powerlessness and anger take root.

If convictions are difficult to obtain in Nigeria (due to a corrupt system, and the National Assembly’s lack of support for special courts), how can we partner with other countries to get trials abroad? Undoubtedly laws must have been broken outside of Nigeria to enable the free flow of money from the proceeds of graft. Nigerians have paid too little attention to the war against corruption and allowed some people to convince them that it is a political turf war as opposed to a fight for this country’s soul and survival.

How many recessions, secessionist movements or terrorist attacks do we think we will survive? Why are we constantly grappling with social instability if not because money meant to develop the common man, to provide roads, healthcare, education and other social goods is stolen or mismanaged?

The Head of DFID Nigeria office Debbie Palmer was quoted as saying: “that is a staggering amount of money. And that is money that is for all of you and your future. That is why we all should care about corruption. Millions of dollars also remain in other jurisdictions tied up in legal challenges.”

Nigerians are yet to discover the role we all have to play in the anti-graft fight.


Drug abuse

EXPERTS warn that drug addiction is on the rise in Nigeria, particularly in the North where three million bottles of codeine are consumed daily in states such as Kano and Jigawa.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, recently publicised its efforts to stem the use of cough syrup as a recreational drug. In other climes, cough syrup (because it contains codeine which is highly addictive), isn’t freely sold.

NAFDAC stated that it keeps records of stocks and distribution from importers’ warehouses.

Yet, cough syrup is purchasable virtually everywhere and by almost anyone in Nigeria where it is sold over-the-counter.

The Ministry of Health must step in with a campaign to educate people: both young people and their parents, as the two social groups in many parts of Nigeria are using over-the-counter drugs recreationally for different reasons. The social malaise in Nigeria is manifold and requires swift action from government.


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.

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