GUEST COLUMNIST BY OKEY IKECHUKWU
Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir el-Rufa`I, was recently tagged `Anti-Christ` by a Christian group, because of a Bill he presented before the state House of Assembly. The title won`t stick however because the same Bill is received with equal hostility by Muslims. The governor`s genuine concern for sustainable public peace made him overlook some of the steps he should have taken in order to secure stakeholder buy-in and Third Party endorsement in dealing with a sensitive matter. Rather than manage the communication in the public domain, he allowed those who did not like his Bill to explain its import to the rest of the world. This same challenge of looking at his destination, without paying sufficient attention to the `terrain`, among others, earned him more flak than he deserved when he was Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The Bill in question seeks to `regulate` religious preaching in Kaduna State, in order to minimize the radicalization of the vulnerable civilian population and, most probably, pre-empt the sort of indoctrination that eventually overran Borno State as Boko Haram did. Even outside our shores, France’s leading Muslim body, the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), announced that Imams would need licenses. This was on November 24, 2015, when its president, Anouar Kbibech, alongside French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, declared that the measure would help “monitor and root out extremism”. French Imams will thus apply for a preaching permit, “like a driver’s license”. They will get this after their theological knowledge is tested, especially for their “tolerance” and “openness”.
El-Rufai`s Bill is actually not enacting a new law. It is to replace the Religious Regulation Edict of 1984, as amended in 1987 and 1996, respectively. The state government says that the law will not affect people’s right to religious freedom and that the Bill is consistent with Section 45(1) of the 1999 Constitution and “… merely seeks to ensure that religious preachings and activities in the state are conducted in ways that do not threaten public order, public safety, and to protect the rights and freedom of other persons.” But who is listening? Everyone is up in arms. The question, therefore, is why?
Some Christian critics preface their narrative by depicting the governor as a mortal enemy of the Christian faith. Beginning with his alleged insult to Christians via a tweet in January 2013, they proceed, as if on cue, to point out that, last year, he shut down the Assemblies of God Church (Jerusalem), Theological Seminary of Northern Nigeria, (TSNN), Shalom Comprehensive College, AGC, Nbare and AGC Evangelist Hospital, all in Saminaka, Lere Local Government Area of Kaduna State. While the state government was said to have intervened to secure public peace, because the contending religious leaders fought “principally to preserve their personal interests with little concern for the common good, and the peace and security of Kaduna State;” the critics can only see the closure of two churches, a seminary, a school and a hospital belonging to Christian religious organisations.
There is also no solace in the fact that the major umbrella organisations of the Muslim and Christian faiths are roundly opposed to the proposed Bill. Some of them have argued, with some traction, that the intents of the Bill are at variance with Sections 38 of and 39 the 1999 Constitution, which protect the rights of citizens to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The suggestion here is that the provisions of the Bill will restrict preaching, reduce the opportunity for spiritual deepening and religious conversion. Therefore, the dominant view today is that the governor`s Bill, and the new body it aims to create to regulate religious affairs, would effectively take over religious leadership of all the popular religions.
Going by the provisions of this Bill, every preacher must obtain one-year license, renewable every year, or risk two years imprisonment. Whoever invites a preacher from outside Kaduna State must ensure that the invitee is licensed for the duration of his/her stay. The government body issuing the license has the right to reject the external preacher if it believes that he is not qualified to preach in the state. It is also criminal to use religious CDs, flash drives and other communication gadgets except in churches, mosques or other places of worship or personal houses.
The JNI and CAN are to keep the records of churches and mosques, including data of preachers, apparently as guide for determining eligibility. Meanwhile, nothing has been said about what ‘data’ is required to qualify anyone for a preaching license. Further still,
The question that arises here is whether the Muezzin`s call to prayers from Mosques, or the use of public address systems that may project beyond the interiors of places of worship, are allowed? Can you listen to religious recordings in your car, or at any place except your house and in a place of worship, without going against this contemplated law? The bill criminalizes the abuse of religious books and makes it punishable by two years imprisonment, but fails to say what it means by the ‘abuse of religious books’.
It criminalizes the use of derogatory terms in describing any religion and makes it punishable by two years imprisonment, but it does not tell us what the ‘use of derogatory terms in describing any religion’ means and who determines that.
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 a public address system after 8.00 p.m, you are guilty of an offence punishable by 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, 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. Really?
The Bill, from its title, seeks to replace the Religious Regulation Edict of 1984 signed by a military government, but the law existed only in name. Not even during the religious crises of the 80s to 2000 was it mentioned, or anyone prosecuted under it. It was a purely `law and order` enactment of the military, without such processes as public hearings or wide stakeholder consultations. The current Bill will not have such an easy ride, because the power of the CAN and JNI Committees to issue license to preachers, is subject to another body, the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee, consisting of nine persons appointed by the governor. The chairman of that committee will be appointed by the governor upon the recommendations of the secretary to the government of the state, while the other members will come from security agencies, with CAN, JNI and `traditional` religion represented by a nominee each.
This is a brilliant ouster Committee that supervises and controls the JNI and CAN Committee. Then there is also the Local Government Screening Committee, consisting of about six to seven persons. The traditional institution, CAN and JNI will each nominate one member. Anybody wishing to be licensed has to apply to the local government where he wants to be a preacher. The screening committee would then either consider the application, reject or recommend it to the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee for approval. Further still, the law does not stipulate what the Local Government Screening Committee must take into account in considering an application. It also does not provide a remedy for anyone who wishes to seek redress.
This shows that the power of regulation rests with the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee, or, to be quite exact, the governor. The name ‘Inter-faith Ministerial Committee’ does not refer to a body constituted from the various denominational faiths, as the members are appointed essentially from government and security departments. The JNI and CAN Committee cannot issue a license to any preacher unless this government body gives prior approval. The bill stipulates that offenders will be tried by customary and Sha’ria courts. Meanwhile there is nothing in the proposed law that says a Christian must be tried by a customary court. There is, of course, the matter of religious discrimination, since Section 4(1) of the proposed bill does not recognize other religious groups outside members of CAN and JNI.
We can argue that France now wants its Imams to sign an “imams’ charter”, to show their commitment to French values and to “respect the laws of the Republic.” We can further observe that preachers of various religions, including Christianity, are licensed to preach in some countries. But the verdict here is that the governor shot down his own Bill by his approach. Nations are made of people and, in the instant case, with elected representatives. They must be heard and taken into consideration in all things. By the way, is it `Ifa`, `Amadioha` or any of the numerous `traditional` religious practices that would be represented?
Finally, and this is actually more important than all the foregoing: would Christ have been able to preach in Israel, or the Prophet in Mecca, if they had to get licenses from the religious authorities, who were agents of the darkness at the time? Where are Buddhists, Jainists, Judaists and many others in all of this? El-Rufa`i`s Bill may have lost its whimper of a fighting chance because of his approach, rather than because of his intentions.