The Nigerian state will be better off if it hands-off issues of religion The untidy meddling with the tenure and structure of religious organisations and their patriarchs, which led to the removal last week of Mr. Jim Obazee as executive secretary of the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria, touches a much broader but familiar relationship between the church/mosque and state in Nigeria. But the bigger question is that of transparency and accountability in the management of non-for-profit institutions in our country.
Indeed, the controversy has raised three broad issues. One, the relationship between citizens and their faith is a sacrosanct sphere which the freedom of worship and belief in the constitution makes an inalienable and fundamental right. Two, the recognition of religious bodies as not-for-profit entities that do not pay tax lend them easily to government’s regulatory interest. Three, only such organisations can set regulations on the tenure of their leaders/promoters. Therefore, Obazee’s attempt to prescribe term limits for leaders of religious organisations was wrong.
The suspended regulation was an infringement on religious liberty and right to freedom of association as enshrined in our constitution. For any law to take away rights guaranteed in our constitution requires an amendment by the National Assembly. Besides, it is difficult to adopt a regulatory template that would apply evenly and fairly across religious divides. What makes the guidelines even more dangerous is that politicians interested in manipulating the increasing influence of churches, mosques and other non-for-profit institutions can easily hide under these regulatory interests to cause religious upheaval in an already polarised polity.
However, the challenge with the Pentecostal churches lies somewhere else: how to deal with their more profit oriented mega mercantile activities without infringing on their spiritual responsibilities or abridging the fundamental rights of their patrons. But since leaders of religious institutions and foundations are not above the law, it is an issue the authorities must deal with. We believe the FRC board under the chairmanship of Mr. Adedotun Suleiman, in reviewing the suspended guidelines, should look at this issue.
Since churches are registered as charity institutions, funds belonging to them cannot be diverted to establish investments cornered and privatised. For instance, all branches of Nigerian churches in the UK, USA and South Africa are regulated by law in those countries and indeed, many pastors have been sent to jail for sundry acts of fraud.
There is also perversion in our country. For instance, private jets are bought by pastors with church funds but registered in the names of private individuals. In Nigeria, schools and universities are established with tithes and offerings collected from members and registered in the names of pastors and their family members. NGOs also collect millions of dollars annually to execute projects but the funds are diverted. All these abuses cannot be allowed to continue. However, there are rules for dealing with these issues. All churches and mosques are registered under the Corporate Affairs Commission.
Therefore, having registered their constitutions, the leaders of religious bodies are required to comply with the provisions therein. That also means that they must be accountable and comply with the code of corporate governance. But the government has no power to interfere in the internal affairs and management of voluntary societies by limiting the terms of office of any of their leaders. That was where Obazee erred.
In the larger context, Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution provides that the state shall not adopt any religion. But without regard for that provision, the Nigerian state has adopted Islam and Christianity as official religions. Osun State has taken this farther by recognising traditional religions in all official programmes! We believe that the Nigerian state must keep its hands off religion while recognising the fundamental right of citizens to religion, conscience and thought. We must put an end to building of churches and mosques in government offices and quarters and payment of official imams and chaplains from public funds. We must also stop official sponsorship of pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem. Until we can make a complete break between the church and the state, we will continue to wallow in needless crises.
All churches and mosques are registered under the Corporate Affairs Commission. Therefore, having registered their constitutions, the leaders of religious bodies are required to comply with the provisions therein. But the government has no power to interfere in the internal affairs and management of voluntary societies by limiting the terms of office of any of their leaders