ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail: email@example.com
The separation of faith (church, mosque etc.) and state lies at the foundation of the modern secular state. Theocratic states have an easier ride because the freedoms of individuals, the conduct of corporations and the transactions of communal life are integral to the dictates of the dominant theism. In a theocracy, the business of governance can be relatively easy because God has handed down a ready made blueprint for the conducts of princes and principalities. It is all written in whatever holy book that applies.
Once separated, faith and the state guard their respective precincts with considerable militancy. Trouble always comes when the state, for reasons flowing from the wisdom of state, trespasses into the realm of faith and religion. The reverse is rare but nonetheless equally dangerous.
On the festering controversy over the new Corporate Affairs Commission revised law, the Buhari administration may have gotten itself into avoidable trouble for reasons hard to understand. Only regime high priests seem to understand why the government insisted on this misadventure at this time. An earlier intention to regulate the activities of our festering coterie of Non Governmental Organisations, including religious organisations, by an act of parliament hit the granite wall of public opposition and legal ambush. By some act of executive ingenuity, however, the original intent has now reappeared as clauses in the recently revised Companies and Allied Matters(CAMA) law. The ink had not quite dried from Mr. Buhari’s pen when government megaphones rose in high praise of the new law. Thereafter, public minded lawyers and religious oligarchs took a closer look at the revised CAMA law and found the old anti-NGO law hidden untidily in there. Old wine in a new skin! The offensive part is that it contains clauses that allow government a back door to cross the ancient barrier between faith (church, mosque) and the state.
Ordinarily, an overdue revision of a jaded companies registration and regulation law should be welcome news. After all, ease of doing business and an enlightened regime of regulation of business practices are part of the new catechism of capitalist reform around the world. A cut and paste government like the one we have has little choice but to appear to be doing something in the right direction.
Predictably, the business community has noted the provisions of the new law and largely nodded in hesitant agreement. I suspect that the high priests of the business community may not have had time to pay much attention to the gamut of good intentions in the new law. What has instead dominated the headlines are the raw nerves of religious sensitivity that the new law has touched. The trouble is with those provisions that open up religious and social organisations to the peering eyes and possible ugly hands of governmental officialdom.
The relevant provisions of the new CAMA law as they affect religious organisations unmistakably aim at bringing these organisations under increased government regulation and even scrutiny. They are now required to have registered trustees who can be sanctioned, removed or replaced by the relevant government agency, namely, the Ministry of Trade through the instrumentality of the CAC. The organisations are to become financially accountable to their respective boards of trustees.
In the event of discord among the trustees on grounds of corporate governance disagreements, government can appoint an interim administrator, manager or board of trustees to run the affairs of the affected organization. If in the estimation of the relevant government agency, there is duplication of aims and objectives among these organisations, government can merge those with similar objectives.
It is hard to fault the overriding need to bring religious and other non governmental organisations under some regulatory framework with government oversight. While acknowledging that faith belongs in the private domain of social life, organized religion is a social phenomenon whose practice directly bears on the harmonious relations among citizens. It involves interactions among citizens and between groups of citizens that may not hold the same beliefs. As subscribers to organized religion, citizens enter into relationships with one another and with other citizens. Religious activities also make demands on other segments of society. Churches and mosques generate noise, traffic congestion, parking disorder and sometimes involve conducts and activities that may affect the freedoms of other citizens. Government remains the only agency that can intercede and arbitrate in all such situations.
Most importantly, organized religion partakes in the values that govern the larger society. Religious practice and their patron organisations in a capitalist society incorporate the profit ethic and a certain transactional ethos. Churches and some mosques generate revenue, acquire real estate, establish business concerns in the form of schools, universities, bakeries, air charter companies etc. Once they extend beyond the confines of individual salvation and exert themselves in the affairs of “this world”, they attract the controlling hands of the secular state.
The topicality of the religious ferment in Nigeria has arisen because our religious organisations have also come to display some of the excesses of the capitalist ethos. What has become worrisome of late is the growing oligarchy of religious entrepreneurs especially of the Christian persuasion with Hollywood style life styles: multiple private jets, yachts, luxury villas around the world and a deficit of transparency and inclusiveness in the running of these mega churches. Most of them have become private family dominions protected from members’ scrutiny by the spiritual firewall of biblical curses and apocalyptic repercussions for those who dare ask prying questions about mammon.
Similarly, their Moslem counterparts have used their spiritual linkages to Islamic holy places in the Middle East to access opportunities for incredible wealth and influence that sometimes trespasses into political terrains. Some in the latter faith have embraced the fellowship of violence and fanatical terror that has haunted parts of the Arab world in the recent past. No one knows how much religious funding goes into sustaining movements like Boko Haram in the North East and the Shiites in and around Kaduna state.
In addition to conspicuous consumption, exhibitionism and an exploitative relationship between religious entrepreneurs and the multitude of their congregations, some religious leaders are also taking advantage of their positions for political advantage and visibility. These excesses are the factors that have invited the attention of government to the realm of religious organisations especially of the pentecostal ‘prosperity’ church variety. These churches have since emerged as formidable private financial fiefdoms owned and controlled by their founders and overseers who run them more like medieval family estates.
Some religious organisations have graduated into multinational corporations with outreaches and branches across national boundaries. In this expansive mode, our religious organisations have become outlets and agencies of competing international and national interests. Such international reach sometimes implicates the more influential faith organisations in major diplomatic calculations involving different countries. Strategic interests sometimes recruit and incorporate religious organisations or use them to extend or expand their interests both here and around the world. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for instance, is interested and reaches out routinely to the Islamic high priesthood in Nigeria for instance. The Shiite Mullahs of Iran are not indifferent to the plight and activities of their sectarian faction in Nigeria. Similarly, the Vatican looks out for the welfare of Nigeria’s considerable Catholic population just as the Anglican Church of England is interested in what happens to its hierarchy and the entire Anglican communion here and elsewhere.
As a fact of political reality, major religious organisations control and command large followership and in the process become politically consequential. Faith and its tremendous followership is a political force all over the world. Our political leadership make it a point of duty to either attend the friday Muslim prayers or pay ceremonial visits to the enclaves of major Pentecostal churches as a way of enhancing their political followership. The political clout of religion becomes matrixed in the general calculus of democratic outcomes in times of electoral contest.
It is therefore imperative that any responsible state should at least establish ground rules for the regulation of the conduct of religious organisations both for purposes of corporate governance accountability but also for reasons of ensuring the supremacy of the state over the rampaging dominion of faith. Whether or not we admit it, religion is a major national security issue.
However, the nature and scope of the state’s intervention in the affairs of religious organisations is a treacherous terrain. The realm of faith does not lend itself to mechanical organizational tidiness or interpretation. The dividing line between divine blessing and enterprise is hazy in matters of success and failure in any enterprise including religion. Quite often, the foundation and subsequent prosperity of the largest congregation may be the fruit of one man’s inspiration and vision. He nurtures it, grows it, develops the business model until it becomes a thriving faith industry and successful business empire. In the process, the organization acquires a life of its own with a hierarchy that is peculiar to itself and an organizational model that produces the results it seeks. The argument is therefore that it would be undue interference in the work of God for the government to seek to foist its own corporate governance templates on such a religious organization.
The corollary argument is that most of the leading companies of today were also founded by the dreams and vision of an individual. The authenticity of Bill Gate’s vision or Elon Musk’s courage or indeed Mark Zukerberg’s audacity does not stop the Securities and Exchange Department or the Internal Revenue Service from regulating the conducts of Microsoft, Tesla or Facebook. Between these global multinationals and the spiritual enterprises run by T.D. Jakes, Enoch Adeboye or David Oyedepo, the difference is only one of article of trade. In either case, the prerogative of regulation belongs squarely to the sovereign states where these practices take place.
Arguments based on invoking the divinity of religion to justify their sometimes autocratic corporate governance practices are neither here nor there. As a fact of the supremacy of sovereign authority over all social organisations, the responsibility of government to regulate the conduct of religious organistions is not subject to fruitless disputation. What ought to be interrogated is the nature and extent of such regulatory oversight. The same Nigerian churches crying wolf over the new CAMA amendment pay their taxes and are subject to regulatory oversight in foreign jurisdictions like the United States and the United Kingdom where they have established branches. Some of them have either been subjected to heavy fines and penalties or other sanctions. What needs to happen is for Nigerian religious entrepreneurs to compare the provisions of the new law with what obtains in these other jurisdictions where they are compelled to comply. Only such a comparative analysis can convince the public and the authorities that they are indeed serious in their objections to the new CAMA provisions.
The new provisions of CAMA would probably have passed without much controversy under a different political dispensation. In Buhari’s Nigeria, even the most well intended piece of legislation or policy measure is bound to assume a contentious and divisive character. This president has enshrined unnecessary division and dichotomy into directive principles of state policy. Everything bears the stamp of dichotomy: North versus South, Christian versus Moslem, APC versus PDP, Buharists versus non-Buharists etc. Suspicion has replaced trust in the language of normal communal interaction and social exchange. The language of national discourse has broken down and given way to the idiom of hate and acrimony.
More importantly, Nigeria is no ordinary place in matters of religion and faith. Our people breathe and live religion. People are either Moslems, Christians or superstitious animists steeped in the ancient covens of primordial origins. Somehow, obsessive religiosity has come to fill the vacant space left in the consciousness of our people by the absence of national loyalty and patriotic fervour. Either as Moslems or Christians, Nigerians are more likely to kill or die for their faith than for the nation.
In recent times, the exploitation of religious differences by the presiding political leadership has weaponized the two dominant faiths into opposing armies with undisguised militancy. At no other time has this trend been so sharpened as under the Buhari presidency. Mr. Buhari’s body language, his sickening lopsided key appointments and tacit endorsement of the activities of murderous Fulani gangs disguised as herdsmen has put the Christian population on a defensive edge. A prevailing atmosphere of fear has fuelled a wild conspiracy theory of a grand Islamization plot hatched at the highest levels of government and political leadership. Hollow and unfounded as these tales may seem, in the ears and minds of a largely fanatical populace, it would be futile to underestimate the threat this poses to public peace, social harmony and national cohesion.
This is the atmosphere in which every proposition, legislation or appointment by this government is being perceived and interpreted. Whether it is the Water Resources Bill or the revised CAMA, the same halo of monumental suspicion and devious conspiracy envelopes all things emanating from the Buhari government. The only way to strip government actions and legislations of the curse of divisiveness is to reinvent the entire orientation and devices of the government. I am afraid this president is too far gone in his tenure and is too ossified in his native entrenchments to beat a convincing retreat.
On the immediate matter of the new CAMA and the faith establishment, therefore, it is wiser to restrict the regulatory ambit of government to matters of trusteeship and neutral arbitration in the event of serious governance disputes that could derail the spiritual mission of the faith organisations. The matter of mergers on grounds of duplicated objectives is illiterate. All religious organisations are established with a common objective: to prepare man as a candidate for salvation. The National Assembly has a an urgent task to mitigate the extremes of the new law by removing threats to the independence of the religious establishment in matters of their freedom to determine their leadership and succession. Even in situations of apparent internal conflict, the government has no business getting involved. In terms of recognizing the peculiar natureof the faith enterprise, the relevant clauses in the revised CAMA reflect embarrassing laziness. The real central philosophical task is to return to the principle of the separation of faith and the state in a way to respect the sacred while reiterating and respecting the sovereign precedence of the state.