Sunday narrative: Why El Rufai’s religious bill is implausible
In the last one week, the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el Rufai has stepped up his media campaigns, ostensibly to win converts to his side on the controversial religious bill that seeks to regulate religious activities in the state. There is currently an executive bill in the Kaduna State House of Assembly, which if passed, will empower organs created by state to intervene and interfere in matters of religious practice, in contrast to what is granted in the Constitution of the Federal Republic (1999), as amended.
The Constitution in Section 38 grants every person the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private. In the manner it is presented in the Constitution, persons are permitted to manifest the practice of their religion in whatever style that they deem fit. However, the freedom to worship is only one out of other rights that the individual is entitled. There is the right to life, right to fair hearing, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom from discrimination, right to freedom of movement, right to peaceful assembly and association, among others. In this intricate web of rights, the Constitution also cleverly put borders on the extent to which individuals or groups can utilize the provisions, so that the overlapping rights of others to exist and enjoy their own freedoms are not curtailed.
This has been very tricky for the country, especially on matters of constitution, rights and religions. Even the State (Constitution) that so generously allows for freedom of worship also empowers the legislature, national and state assemblies, to make laws for the good governance of the country. And the single most volatile practice that has threatened good governance in Nigeria at all times is religion. Drafters of the Constitution, it appears, were very mindful of the dangers to which religion could be put, hence, on one hand they provide for freedom of worship, and on the other give the legislature overriding powers to regulate how this freedom and others are exercised. The Constitution went a step further to recommend that government of the Federation and or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.
After all the painstaking effort by founding fathers to give to Nigerians a polity that is mutually safe to live and indulge in liberties, each new day finds the Constitution still being a labyrinth of conflicting regulations, routinely exploited, flouted and denied. In practice, Nigeria is a bedlam of religious tendencies. And it is on this canvass of confusion that El Rufai operates.
Those who are familiar with Kaduna State know that it used to be a very peaceful place. Kaduna town itself was the sizable metropolis up north, similar to Lagos, in terms of its ambiences that ensconced Nigeria’s varieties and diversities. In terms of religion, it was a good blend that did not discriminate. Wusasa, for instance, used to be a Christian enclave within the Muslim dominated Zaria Emirate. There was no threat to life of any kind. But all that changed and the state became the hotbed of violent and murderous religious hostilities, between the Christian South and Northern Muslims.
Kaduna appears relatively at peace today, but it could be said to be peace of the graveyard, because it is only a tinderbox waiting to be ignited anytime. The battle lines are well drawn and the religious groups know the borderlines. Perhaps, El Rufai sees this as not a good environment to plan growth and development; hence he has waded into another controversy with the religious bill.
The Bill, if passed, will seek to audit and license preachers. It will ban the use of loudspeakers for religious purposes, other than inside mosques and churches and the immediate areas within stipulated prayer times. Meaning that such acoustics will not be permitted beyond 8pm. If the law passes, it will stop the circulation of all cassettes, CDs, flash drives or any other communication gadgets containing religious recordings, in which abusive language is used against any person or religious organisation or religious leaders (past or present). It will also prohibit sales of religious books and materials, except in designated places.
Listening to El Rufai explain the intentions of the Bill, as well as his passion for the peace and development of Kaduna State, many will agree that he means well. Indeed, Kaduna needs peace, just as Nigeria earnestly needs peace. Without peace, there will be no sustainable development. There is also the need to contain the religious excesses of our people.
But there are some background checks to certify El Rufai’s fitness to legislate on religious issues. Today’s El Rufai is not the same as the one who crooned with reckless abandon from the opposition bunkers of yesterday. Today, he is saddled with the responsibility of giving peace and order to Kaduna. But while he was a private citizen, El Rufai talked and tweeted with abandon. On matters of religion then, he was like an agent provocateur, with his combustible and tendentious conversations in the social media. At a time, he tweeted unprintable materials that could have inflamed another round of religious trouble in Kaduna, but men of good will contained his provocations.
The question then is; can El Rufai be trusted with a religious Bill that will place him in the position to adjudicate among people of different faith, when his passions are not hidden? Can the Shiites of Zaria trust him with a new law, when his body language and statements have long betrayed his biases? After the bloody clash between the Army and Shiite members in Zaria, while the matter was yet to be fully investigated, the state hurriedly deployed bulldozers to destroy their camp, which the state claimed was not accommodated in its town planning records. It became double wahala for the sect. And when a judicial commission of enquiry was established to look into the fracas, the Shiites, who felt prejudged, no longer have faith in the system. Can the same Shiites trust El Rufai’s proposed law to further regulate them?
El Rufai talked about a new Islamic group, Dosiyya, which do their Zuhr prayer around 11am, and have different prayer times from other Muslims, which he said his government had taken appropriate steps to contain. Meaning that even before the bill becomes law and effective, the Kaduna government has already commenced its application, deciding when and how the Dosiyya members conduct their prayers.
I am strongly for regulations that will further promote harmony and good governance as envisaged in the Constitution. But in a democracy, an El Rufai does not have the licence to work presumptuously from the answer to the problem. He seems to have made up his mind. That was why he dubiously allocated a population of 70 percent to Muslims and 30 to Christians in Kaduna, without supporting his assumptions with empirical data. He said the same of Plateau. The last census exercise, 2006, did not use religion as factor in the enumeration. By my last check, this idea of oligarchic domination is what has been used to suppress and stifle northern minorities, Christians and otherwise. The military, which was also oligarchic used it to allocate more local governments, constituencies and wards to communities in Kaduna north and kept Southern Kaduna perpetually marginalized, politically and developmentally.
Working from that old template of injustice and domination renders El Rufai’s religious bill, even though well meaning, implausible ab initio. Let him go back to drawing board. Take the bill to a town hall and let the people take ownership and decide which items of it they are comfortable with. Let El Rufai invest more in education, so that his people can learn the advantages in peaceful coexistence. Let them know that in Lagos and in other southern states, people of different religions coexist and work deliberately for peace, without coercion. In Lagos, there is a law against noise pollution and from time to time, churches, mosques and other noisemakers are penalized. It is not perfect anywhere, but a people have to decide whether to make progress or become drugged on religion.
Meanwhile, the Bill does not have a word for African traditional belief systems. Another bumptious denial!