By: Okanga Agila
Nigeria’s troubled history is continuously worsened by the too much emphasis on religion, at the expense of the state or country. Often, Nigerians push religious interests and sentiments at the detriment of fundamentals of their country.
But a country is broader and more encompassing than religion. Not all Nigerians profess Islam or Christianity or any form of religion in life. Some are even atheists or some sort of traditional worshippers. But every Nigerian is a citizen of the country, Nigeria. If Nigeria per happenstance ceases to exist today, religion will offer nobody an alternative country they can claim descent.
The flair to throw up religious sentiments over interests of the state streams from the liberty state laws accord religion and freedom or right of conscience. Nigeria has witnessed more religions upheavals than crisis spurred by other reasons. The needless destruction of lives and property and the ensuing social dislocations are misfortunes the people would spare their country, if religion is restricted to the self and decently practiced.
The unhealthy excitement over religion and its consequent destructive amplification has been a major problem in the country and issues quite difficult to comprehend. But Nigeria is not the only country in the world which permits its citizenry the liberty of religion, yet citizens do not sacrifice the state on the slaughter slab of religion.
In the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, it is clearly spelt out in the establishment clause that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Despite this freeness it offers, the thinking of Americans on religion, the people do not pander to the antics of chaining their beloved country for the sake of it. The interest of the state is elevated, placed first and jealously protected before religion which is presumed as something very personal to the believer, as spiritual nourishment which is distanced from state affairs.
In his remarks to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, former US President Mr. John F. Kennedy surmised the psychology of Americans over religion in these words;
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
Similar status is accorded religion in other European countries. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the European Convention For Human Rights (ECHR) and its Article 9 provides for the right to thought, conscience and religion as also applicable in Nigeria. The ECHR stipulates in Article 9 that citizens of countries signatory to the Convention will have:
“The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance[…]”
But it restricted this religious freedom, in consideration of the interest of the state, to avert the tendency of abuse. So, the Article 9 holds further that;
“The freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” The simple interpretation as one who has visited the Strasbourg Court in France is that this right is simply not an absolute right rather a qualified right.
It implies lawfully that the interest of the state is not suppressed in favour of religion and this has been the core of the thinking and practice of religion in Europe. But the case of Nigeria has proven over the years to be different. Religious bigotry and extremism has very often pushed the country to the brink of collapse.
Quite unfortunately, in deploying religion as an instrument to battle the state, religious fanatics even instigate the superiority war within different sects of the same religious faith. In Christianity, one often sense the aura of superiority sometimes bandied by Pentecostal churches against orthodox churches. Islam also suffers this scourge, where the Sunnis feel superior to the Tijaniyya sect and so forth.
So, in Nigeria, even among religious sects, there are divisions, which the spirit and essence of religion prohibits. This tendency also invades the open society. It is the stimulation of this meaningless religious extremism by Nigerians that has made the country helplessly prostrate before the ideals of nationhood.
And these tendencies manifest in unacceptable doctrines and the misinterpretation of the word and the letter of the Holy Koran in the case of Muslims and the Holy Bible in the case of Christians. These Holy Books which are supposed to be the guiding instruments of illuminating the sacred originality and teachings of peace of the different religions are brazenly abused or even twisted by self-serving preachers who have turned their pulpits into an altar or something not far from abracadabra performed by an e’rba priest in Agila.
The zeal to appear different and superior to another sect has often caused the introduction of bizarre doctrines which clash with the interests and wholeness of the nation-state. But the clergy freely and mindlessly impart them into adherents.
These incidents are worse in Northern Nigeria and evident in the preponderance of religious crisis in the region. Therefore, instead of deploying religion as a tool for national cohesion and unification, it is used as a weapon against rival religious faiths and or, to cause antagonism within.
Thus, when members of religions expose themselves to such ridicule, they become preys in the hands of dubious politicians who manipulate the religious card to deceive them, mortgage their conscience and compel to work against the interest of the state. Why would any sane Nigerian be compelled into voting a leader at any level at all, on the basis of religion? Membership of a particular religious faith does not confer on anybody, exceptional leadership qualities or impeccable credentials. It is absolute rubbish for Nigerians who allow themselves to be brainwashed this far.
And smart politicians also deploy the same weapon of religion to cause political violence on the casual instigation that Christians are snatching or depriving Muslims of their leadership right or Muslims are denying Christians appointment slots. This flimsy excuse becomes enough reason for narrow-minded Nigerians to cause conflagrations in parts of the country in the guise of protests, which breaches and undermines the interest of the state for a peaceful and secured country.
Even commonsense should inform anybody that such posturings are antithetical to progress. And in decent climes, the citizenry resist and shun such destructive overtures without looking back, preferring instead to protect the interest of the country which is the common patrimony of all citizens and posterity.
In effect, Nigeria has reached a point where citizens must be reminded about certain basic facts about life and their country. Citizens and their religions would perish if there is no country for them to live and practice their faith. But the country would not cease to exist if there is no religion and it will never function or blossom on account of the spiritual solace religion offers.
Therefore, time has come for Nigerians to embrace their country as the new religion, which experience has indicated is a more valuable treasure and provides generous succor to all. Nigerians should resolve now to perceive and passionately embrace their country as the new religion. They should vehemently and jealously protect Nigeria, with the same degree of fondness they have been protecting religion.
Henceforth, it is incumbent on Nigerians to borrow a leaf from other countries like America and Britain by resisting the temptation of undermining the interest of the country for the sake of their accustomed religion; but place their new religion, expressed in the metaphor of their country, Nigeria, higher than anything else.
Okanga writes from Agila, Benue State.