By Philip Agbese
Since it was first introduced by Governor Nasir El-Rufai, the legislation, “a Bill for a Law to substitute the Kaduna State Religious Preaching Law, 1984” (the 1984 Edict) or simply known as the Kaduna state Religious Activities Regulation Bill, continues to provoke controversy.
The layman’s interpretation of the bill is that is seeks to regulate the practice of Islam and Christianity – the two dominant faiths in Nigeria. This more popular understanding of the proposed legislation is perhaps responsible for the ease with which some mischief makers were able to easily demonise it as proof of their conspiracy theory that there isa plan afoot to Islamize Nigeria.
To think that this understanding or street interpretation of the law is a product of limited literacy would be totally off the mark as there have been well educated persons, some I have interacted with have PhDs, who still join the raging mob against the legislation even when given the benefit of being updated with the content of the bill. For most part, many of the critics have never bothered to learn anything about it, not even the full title of the bill much less its provisions. Yet they are raucous in disowning the bill; one of Nigeria’s self-styled clergies, Apostle Johnson Suleiman of Omega Fire Ministry, even passed a death sentence on el-Rufai if he does not withdraw the bill in what would have qualified as hate speech in other countries.
If the ‘Christians’ that fear the plot to Islamize Nigeria can only quieten down a little they would hear the din also being made by their Muslim brothers who think only an infidel could have thought up what some of them stopped short of describing as ‘blasphemous’. It is inconceivable for this set of people that a man who should be one of theirs is plotting a piece of paper that will slow down the march of a religion whose time has come.
Yet in the reactions of the adherents of these two dominant faiths is proof that the Kaduna state Religious Activities Regulation Bill is sorely needed. Firstly, reactions to the bill exposes the self-centredness that makes them think theirs is the only way of worship so animists, agnostics and the rest have no say in the national life. It also confirms the satanic application of religion as a tool for brainwashing, radicalisation and building fanatical base in the country. A video from Apostle Suleiman’s church service showed his followers ecstatically chanting amen as he invoked death on a fellow human. Secondly, the half-witted criticisms confirmed that Nigerians are trying to get the best of two worlds; here are citizens who want to practice adopted religions on a scale more fanatical than the places from where the religions originated without accepting the safeguards that these countries have put in place.
If those raising dust over this matter would bother to read not just the bill but other literature they would discover that in Israel, which Nigerian Christians hold in such reverence, Gazan Christians must obtain permits to hold processions for feasts as basic as Palm Sunday and Easter Monday. Muslims who frown upon the bill should also ask themselves how it was possible that Saudi Arabia that hosts many of their holy sites is almost free of terrorism while other countries that failed to take a tough stance against hate preaching are reeling from sustained terror attacks – there are other factors definitely but the way people are allowed to preach plays a role.
I have in the past, in opinion articles and interview, outlined how this bill will be useful in curbing the recruitment and radicalisation of youths especially those of the Muslim faith. I think it is one of the key things it seeks to achieve and radicalisation is a problem that is besetting the world today as unregulated preachers abuse their position of trust to fill young people with poison. It is no less in the other faith where the clergy actively teach their followers to be intolerant of those not in their fold albeit without the call to annihilate them. There are also those who use religion to provoke materialism among their flock to a point that their followers commit acts that equally amount to terrorism in order to claim the prosperity decreed upon the congregants.
This is why I think the bill should be revisited. It should be revisited by other state(s) to see if there are areas peculiar that has been missed and that can be then incorporated into their own version of the law. It goes without saying that I am urging each state of the Federation to pass its own version of the law in order to rid the country of extremism in any form. For instance, there is a state in this country where self-style clergy men brand children witches, and consequently manipulate parents into harming or even killing their own offspring; there have also been reports of people killing their parents or relations on the strength of visions or prophesies from charlatans. We cannot continue to live this way.
At the Federal level, members of the National Assembly must rise above pettiness to harmonise resulting legislations from states that take the bull by the horn to arrive at a federal law. They must accept the reality that all religions in Nigeria are now guilty of making life uncomfortable for their neighbors by way of unruly and disruptive processions, blaring of megaphones and loud speakers outside the premises of their places of worship and often time blocking major public roads during their session, prayers or processions to disrupt the peace.
The lawmakers, knowing that many of them exploited religion is some way to win elections, must read up about how the two dominant faiths in Nigeria are practiced in other countries, including their places of origin. Worship centres are made to conform with city building codes, the buildings are soundproofed, there are no loudspeakers blaring unto the streets, it is offensive to attempt forcefully converting others, preaching cannot violate extant laws on hate speeches and the finances of religious bodies are under watch.
The issue of finances of religious organisations and their affiliates is a particularly urgent one. There must be a legislation making it mandatory for them to register as charities to enjoy a tax exempt status and their books must show that money is not diverted for other purposes other than for helping the needy. This is because we have seen how money can leave religious organisations to finance terrorism – like the loan scheme Boko Haram introduced to lure unknowing villagers into their fold.
Government or rather politicians must not allow things get worse than they are currently simply because of expediency. We have seen what radical preaching can do from our Boko Haram experience. As of today, the activities of ‘men of God’ in the media have not been encouraging and the earlier the governors and the Inspector General of Police wake up the better it is for our nation.
We can all embrace the Kaduna example now or spend the years ahead wondering why we allowed ourselves to be held by the religion prospectors.
*Agbese contributed this piece from the United Kingdom.