John Shiklam, in Kaduna, writes on the contentious executive bill seeking to regulate preaching and other religious activities in Kaduna State
An executive bill by the Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, aimed at checking the activities of preachers in the state is generating controversy among Muslims, Christians and legal practitioners. The bill, titled “A Bill for a Law to Substitute the Kaduna State Religious Preaching Law, 1984,” is currently before the House of Assembly for consideration and possible passage into law. It is at the Committee Stage awaiting public hearing and final presentation for Third Reading.
The bill is said to be a replication of the 1984 law enacted by the military, with some slight additions. The military government in the state at the time was said to have enacted the law to check the activities of preachers following religious riots, particularly, the Maitatsine riots, in Kano in the 1980s.
The bill is made up of 15 sections and the promoters say it seeks to prevent both Muslim and Christian preachers from acts that could cause crisis in the state. Explaining the reason for the bill when he met with officials of the Christian Association of Nigeria in the state, the deputy governor, Mr. Barnabas Bala Bantex, maintained that it was necessary to curb religious extremism and hate speech, adding that the government has a duty to ensure that religious violence no longer threatens the state.
Kaduna State has witnessed much bloody religious violence, which had led to the killing of many people and the destruction of property. Bantex said the law been sought was not new but had existed since 1984, with amendments in 1987 and 1996 by the military governments, which enacted it to respond to outbreaks of religious violence such as the Maitatsine in 1983 and the riots in Kafanchan in 1987. He maintained that there was nothing in the bill that suggested any effort to abolish, stop or limit the freedom of religion and religious beliefs, stressing that it merely seeks to ensure that religious preaching and activities in the state are conducted in ways that do not threaten public order and public safety, and to protect the rights and freedom of other persons.
The controversial aspects of the bill, which both Christians and Muslims are kicking against, include the setting up of a kind of regulatory bodies for the two religious groups. The bill proposes the establishment of two committees, one from the Jama’atu Nasir Islam for the Muslims, and the other from CAN for the Christians. It also proposes the establishment of an Inter-faith ministerial committee, which shall exercise supervisory control over the JNI and CAN committees.
The two committees are to issue licenses approved by the ministerial committee to preachers, which shall be renewable every year, while a visiting preacher not based in Kaduna shall be issued a permit for the period of the event that brought him to the state.
Similar committees are to be set up in the 23 local government areas of the state with the aim of screening applications for licenses in the local areas and making necessary recommendations to the ministerial committee for approval.
The bill also empowers the Kaduna State chapters of JNI and CAN to keep records of all the churches and mosques, including the data of all preachers in the state. This provision does not exist in the 1984 law.
The bill restricts the playing of all cassettes, CDs, flash drives or any other communication gadgets containing religious recordings from accredited preachers to one’s house, inside entrance, inside the church, inside the mosque, and any other designated place of worship. The 1984 law only restricted the playing of such gadgets to one’s house and porch.
The religious bill further prohibits the playing of cassettes containing religious recordings that use abusive language against any person, religious organisation or religious leaders.
It makes it an offence for any person to preach without a license; play a religious cassette or use a loud speaker for religious purposes after 8pm in public places; use a loud speaker for religious purposes other than inside a mosque or church and the surrounding area outside the stipulated prayer times; abuse religious books; incite disturbances of the public peace; abuse or use any derogatory term in describing any religion; or carry weapons of any description, whether concealed or not, in places of worship or to any other place with a view to causing religious disturbance.
Anyone found guilty under the bill shall be liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years or a fine of N200,000 or both; and may, in addition, have his license revoked if he is a licensed preacher.
The religious bill has attracted mixed reactions – while it is being condemned in some quarters, others have applauded it as a step in the right direction.
One of the groups opposed to the bill is the Kaduna State chapter of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria. PFN described it as an infringement on religious freedom. The state chairman of PFN, Professor Femi Ehinmidu, said the organisation was opposed to the bill in its entirety and shall do everything legally possible to ensure that the right of Christians to preach the gospel was not curtailed.
According to Ehinmidu, “The Bible commands Christians in the book of Mark 16: 15 to go into the entire world and preach the gospel to every creature. This is the foundation and life wire of the Christian religion. We will rather obey God than man…
“Taking away our rights to preach and evangelise is telling us not to practise our religion as we are commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He maintained that even the Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of worship and the “rights to propagate our religious beliefs,” stressing, “The Kaduna State government cannot claim to be wiser than the whole lot of eminent Nigerians who gave the nation the constitution.”
The Catholic Archbishop of Kaduna Archdiocese, Most Reverend Dr Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso, also asserted that the law was unnecessary, noting that there are many laws available to handle the issues concerning religion.
“The bill will create confusion and disharmony. Therefore, our stand is that our existing laws are enough to deal with people who use religion, tribe or sentiments to create confusion, discord and make people to commit violence against each other,” Ndagoso said.
JNI, in its reaction, said the bill was not new. Its chairman, Alhaji Ja’faru Makarfi, maintained that preaching activities were being regulated since the days of the late Sardauna. “JNI has been regulating public preaching since the era of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello,” he said, stressing that when former Governor Ahmed Makarfi tried to make a law on preaching, he was told of an existing law regulating preaching.
The JNI chairman declared support for the present administration in trying to regulate public preaching, adding that the position of JNI has not changed.
“We are solidly behind the regulation of public preaching because as Muslims, we are taught to follow rules and regulations. A Muslim preacher should not go out in the public and start abusing the citizenry all in the name of preaching,” he maintained.
Also reacting, chairman of the Kaduna State Council of Imams and Ulamas, Sheikh Abubakar Usman Babatunde, said the government ought to have consulted stakeholders over such an important issue before coming out with the bill. He said the council had met with the lawmakers, who promised to look at the bill very carefully.
“This is why, presently, we cannot say anything with regards to the bill because we have a lot to say about it. First of all, there are many grey areas in the bill, which we feel needed to be amended,” Babatunde added.
He frowned on the provision of the bill banning preaching and the use of loudspeakers after 8pm in places of worship in the state.
Legal practitioners have also given different perspectives on the legality or otherwise of the bill.
Lawyer and Executive Director of the Kaduna-based Human Rights Monitor, Mr. Festus Okoye, argued that the bill was an affront on the Nigerian constitution. He said the bill should be withdrawn, properly aligned, and represented to the Assembly for passage into law.
Okoye said almost all the provisions of the bill were contrary to constitutional order, maintaining that section 38 of the constitution guarantees that every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in a community with others, and in public or in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
According to Okoye, “This particular bill fails all constitutional tests and cannot for all practical purposes be said to be a bill which, when passed into law will be justifiable in a democratic society in the defence of public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.
“What the bill does is to effectively recognise what it calls two major religions in Kaduna State and it is these two major religions that will determine acceptable religion, belief, worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
He added, “It is patently illegal and unconstitutional to elevate the Jama’atu Nasri Islam and the Christian Association of Nigeria to a preeminent position over and above every other religious group or association.
“The Jama’atu Nasril Islam and the Christian Association of Nigeria enjoy the same incidents of registration and incorporation as any other association registered under part B and C of the Companies and Allied Matters Act. They are associations just like any other association recognised by the constitution and the bill cannot confer them with a special status over and above any other groups similarly registered. For the CAN, there is nothing that makes it mandatory that every Christian denomination must belong to the association.”
However, another legal practitioner, Mr. James Kanyip, insisted that the bill was constitutional. He noted that the proliferation of religious activities was worrisome, adding that public order and peace are being seriously threatened by uncontrolled religious activities.
Kanyip explained, “Many precious lives and property worth billions of naira have been lost as well. Kaduna State had in the past witnessed carnages as a result of religious intolerance. Presently, peace is fragile and relative in the state.
“Aside from the foregoing, religion is also being employed by some dubious and unscrupulous persons or preachers to perpetrate fraud on innocent and unsuspecting people. The need to balance between religious freedom and public order/peace becomes very necessary in a religiously plural and volatile state like Kaduna.”
He emphasised that though freedom of worship was a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution, the right cannot be used to suppress other rights. “One’s right ends where another’s begins,” he said.
Kanyip added that even the right to life, which is the most important and cherished human and fundamental right, is not absolute. “It is our view that if people were to practise their religions truthfully, there would not be need for the entrenchment of human rights in man-made laws like the constitution, he stressed, saying, “The religious preaching bill of Kaduna State will find constitutional anchorage under the above provisions if ultimately passed into law. The bill is not seeking to abolish, stop or derogate the freedom of religion and religious beliefs. No, that is not its purpose. It merely seeks to control religious preaching and activities in the state for purposes of public order, public safety, and to protect the rights and freedom of other persons.”
However, justifying his decision to initiate the bill, El- Rufai explained there was no any ulterior motive to the bill other than to put a framework that will ensure Kaduna State citizens live in peace with every one practising his religion. He regretted that the state had suffered untold deaths and destructions due to misuse and abuse of religion.
Speaking in an interview with journalists in Kaduna, El-Rufai said the logic behind the bill was to strengthen the 1984 law, “so that we regulate and ensure that those that are given the opportunity to preach at least know what they are doing, have a level of responsibility to develop society rather than divide it. This is our goal; we don’t have anything against anybody or any religion. “
The governor also dismissed insinuations in some quarters that the bill was proposed because of the Shiite crisis, disclosing that the bill was sent to the House of Assembly in October last year.
El-Rufai stated, “Honestly, we do not have any ulterior motive other than to put a framework that will ensure Kaduna State citizens live in peace with every one practising his religion, but disallowing every Dick, Tom and Harry to come and say he can preach…
“Many of the people that are talking about the law have never even read it. If you read that law, it is very short, it is 16 sections. Read it; tell me what you don’t like. Don’t say you don’t like the entire law because we know we have a problem and I am the governor and I need a solution. So don’t say the solution is not to have the law, tell me what you don’t like, we can discuss it.”
“We want to find a solution that will bring peace; we are not fixed in our position. What we are fixed about is that Kaduna state people must live in peace. Everyone must be allowed to practise his religion without let or hindrance. We are fixed about that, we can’t negotiate that. Other than that, everything can be discussed.”
El-Rufai stated that nothing in the bill was purposed to hurt Christians. “There is nothing in that law that prevents or infringes on the practice on religion. It seeks to ensure that those that preach religion are qualified, trained and certified by their peers to do it,” he said, emphasising, “The way some sections of the media had made it appear is as if the law was drafted against Christianity. It’s most irresponsible! For people like that, I have nothing to say except to leave the matter to God. God knows our hearts, God knows what we want to achieve. That is all I have to say.”