Is Nigeria a Secular State?

By Kehinde Adegbite

Published on May 28, 2012

Section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution provides:

“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

It is in the light of this constitutional provision that some people say – Nigeria is a secular state. As a matter of fact, the phrase “secular state” is not used anywhere in the Constitution. Worse still, there is no reported Nigerian case so far where section 10 of the Constitution (“the secular section”) has been given judicial interpretation.

So the object of this article is to dig deep into available resources in order to determine whether Nigeria is a secular state or not.

What is Secularism or a Secular State?

The Longman Dictionary defines secularism as: “1. A system of social organization that does not allow religion to influence the government or the belief that religion should not influence a government”. ‘’2. The quality of behaving in a way that shows religion does not influence you…”

Omotola Jeremiah Shola, a political scientist and public administration specialist, defines secularism this way:

“Secularism is commonly regarded as ‘an ideology that holds that religious issues should not be the basis of Politics, or (in the extreme) that religion has no place in public life’. Essentially, secularism seeks to preserve the religious neutrality of government and cultures.”

Black’s Law Dictionary defines secular as: “…Not spiritual; not ecclesiastical; relating to affairs of the present (temporal) world.”

Wikipedia offers the following definition: “…a concept of secularism, whereby a state or country purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion”.

A secular state also claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion/nonreligion over other religions/nonreligion.

Secular states do not have a state religion or equivalent, although the absence of a state religion does not guarantee that a state is secular”.

The quotes above speak for themselves and from them it is deducible that the issue of religion is a private one in a secular state. A secular state does not mean a state where religions are not recognized but where the choice to believe in a religion or not to believe is entirely an individual’s prerogative. So the question is – how does section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution fulfill the pictures painted by these descriptions of secularism or a secular state?

Section 10 of the Constitution Vs. A Secular State

Apart from the clear wordings of the provision of section 10, the margin note to the section reads: “Prohibition of State Religion”.

Therefore with the aid of the margin note and clear wordings of the section, it becomes much easier to infer the intention of the drafters of the constitution which is to separate state from religion. This is to ensure that religion as a private matter does not stray into public affairs. The state must not adopt any religion as one to influence its official decisions or as one being promoted with state funds.

It is a settled principle of law that where the wordings of a constitutional provision are unambiguous, a court has a duty to accord to that provision its ordinary meanings7. It is on this basis that it is correct to say that the drafters of the constitution intended Nigeria to be a secular state. It is however another issue whether in practice Nigeria is a truly secular state or not.

It should also be noted that the recognition of freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination on account of a person’s religion is a further effort to make Nigeria a secular state. Freedom of religion is meant to give everybody a right to belong to any religion of his choice and also a right to decide not to believe. Freedom from discrimination, on the other hand, is meant to ensure that nobody is discriminated against on the basis of his religion or irreligion.

The author of the 1999 Constitution submitted on the same section 10 as follows: ‘’It may be argued in the light of this provision that religious symbols (indigenous or received) have no place on public lands, national edifices, currency, flag, coat of arms, anthem, pledge and other national symbols. By this section, Nigeria is declared to be a secular state and therefore cannot join any organization that has a religious connotation’’.

Is Nigeria a Truly Secular, Religious or Multi-Religious State?

By reason of section 10 and assuming the deductions to be drawn from the clear wordings of the section are followed to the letter, Nigeria can be regarded as a secular state. But from experience, it appears Nigeria is secular only in the constitution and not at all in practice or at best a quasi-secular republic.

Then is Nigeria a religious state? Any person averagely familiar with the Nigerian situation should unhesitatingly answer in the negative. Nigeria is not a religious state because it has not by the constitution adopted any religion as the country’s official creed.

A non-secular state is synonymous with a religious state. On Wikipedia, ‘’A non-secular’’ is defined as ‘’…one where religion is experienced in many everyday events on civil life, and where it is part of the government.’’

On a superficial reading of this definition, Nigeria appears a non-secular state but on a more circumspective consideration it will be seen that Nigeria is not a religious state in the fashion of countries like Saudi-Arabia, Afghanistan or the Vatican city.

And lastly, is Nigeria a multi-religious state? It is common for the opponents of Nigeria’s secular status to argue that Nigeria is a multi-religious state and not a secular state as if “multi-religious” is the antonym of “secular”. Nigeria is indeed a multi-religious state as hardly there is any country the world over that is mono-religious. Even Saudi Arabia is multi-religious13.

Nigeria’s Secularism in Practice

Nigeria is as multi-cultural as it is multi-religious. Even though, in contemporary Nigeria, Christianity and Islam predominate, there are people of other faiths as well. The practice of secularism in Nigeria is usually centered on consideration of what values to be allowed depending on whether it is not a Christian-religious doctrine or Islamic. Yet successive Nigerian governments have fallen into traps of religious affairs at different times.

So what is intended to be brought out under this sub-heading is a list of government activities which have strayed into one religion’s stream or the other.

Christianity and Islam

• Allowance of evangelism in public places Allowance of Islamic sermons in public places

• Observance of public holidays on Sunday Observance of public holidays on Eid Al-Fitr,

• Saturday, Christmas, New Year, Easter Adha and Mawlid Al-Nabawi.

• Construction of Chapels and other worship centers

• Construction of Mosques and praying grounds

• Subventions on Jerusalem pilgrimage Subventions Hajj pilgrimage

Common law system” Sharia law

• Public oath-taking on the Bible Public oath-taking on the Quran

• State-sponsored interdenominational services Nigeria’s membership of OIC15

• State-sponsored carols Nigeria’s membership of IDB16

• Imposition of Gregorian calendar Islamic/Arabic language on Nigeria currencies

• Official recognition of some denominations Islamic Arabic language on army insignia by some Eastern state governments

• Adoption of Islam as “State Religion” in some Northern states e.g. Zamfara

Origin of Secularism in Nigeria

Formalized secularism could only be traced to 1979 in Nigeria as no previous Nigerian constitutions contained a secular clause. Yet, principles of secularism were “informally” applied in public life prior to the 70’s. Between 1977 – 1978, agitations for implementation of Sharia through the establishment of a Federal Sharia Court of Appeal came up during the constitutional conferences that preceded the enthronement of the second Republic.

In order to resolve the imbroglio occasioned as a result of this, the so-called “1978 Solution”19 was arrived which is ushered in sections 24020 and 1021 of the 1979 Constitution. A victory was also recorded for the customary law of those who preferred their native customs by the establishment of a Customary Court of Appeal for any state that wanted it.

Should Islamic Banking be allowed in Nigeria?

Even if Nigeria is practicing full secularism, allowing an Islamic banking system which is run as a private business is not a violation of secular philosophy. The interest of the people of other faiths can only be affected where state funds are employed for any purpose in that kind of a religious venture. If it is kept strictly as a private business except for official regulatory role, no violence can be done to the secular status of the nation on that basis.

Islamic banking is a financial system modeled after Islamic principles and values. The existence of Islamic banking in Nigeria simply emphasizes freedom of religion and the country’s collective secular disposition in the context of a multi-religious society.

Islam and Secularism

Islam itself means “the total submission to the will of Allah”. It is an obligation on a Muslim to live his life from birth to the grave in accordance with the dictates of Allah and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as contained in the Hadiths.

Therefore in most countries predominantly occupied by the Muslims, there is no separation between state and religion (mosque). So the idea of secularism is seen in the Muslim world as an alien concept. Theocracy is the rule in the Islamic world. Though in modern times, few Islamic nations are secularizing and in the forefront are Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan.

Christianity and Secularism

Originally in most Western countries where the Christian faith had its roots, there was no separation between state and religion (church). The idea of separating political leadership from the spiritual came up in the course of history as a result of persecutions suffered by some religious denominations at the hands of the officially recognized denomination.

Secularism was eventually adopted in most Western nations as the only viable solution to secure individual freedom of religion and prevent abusive use of state power to promote a religion at the expense of others.

Opinions on the Nation’s Secular Status in perspective

Countless Nigerians have expressed their opinions at different times whether Nigeria is a secular state or not. Some of these opinions are considered below.

“We wish to correct our Niger-Delta bothers (sic) that Nigeria is not a secular state, but a multi-religious state that adopted officially three major religions. Secularism means having nothing to do with religion.” – Sekinal Lawal

“Anyone saying Nigeria is a secular nation doesn’t understand the meaning of the word secular. There is nothing secular about Nigerian nation since whatever we do will always put Islam and Christianity in the forefront.” – Alhaji Muhammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto

“Constitutionally, Nigeria is not a secular country. No part of the 1999 constitution declares Nigeria secular. It suffices to repeat Dr. Abdulateef Adegbite’s 12-year old challenge to proponents of the Secular Nigeria Myth to present exact statement(s) in the constitution supporting their position.” – Muideen Adesokan

“Nigeria has a substantial Moslem population but it is not an Islamic state. It is a secular state in accordance with the provisions of our Constitution. It cannot be otherwise unless there is a forcible imposition of the religion of Islam on the non-Muslims of this country.” – Late Chief F.R.A Williams

“Not a few Muslims have been railroaded into ‘accepting’ what most of our Christian brothers are only too happy to ‘believe’, namely that Nigeria is a ‘secular state’. ‘Secular’ as in Webster’s Dictionary’s definition means: ‘concerned with temporal, worldly matters’ to the exclusion of ‘religion’; or ‘the profane’ in disregard of ‘the sacred’. And especially in circumstances such as we have now, with Islamic banking needlessly on the Bunsen burner, many are wont to assert that ‘secularity’ even with contemporaneous denial of the country’s ‘multi-religious’ status.” – Mohammed Adamu

“Nigeria is a secular nation not a multi-religions one. And it is precisely because of its secularism that makes its multi-religious character possible.” – Damola Awoyokun

The truth is that Nigeria is not a secular state or at best a quasi-secular one. However, the country must go in the direction of secularism in order to attain a true national unity and cohesion among her people. It will be seen that some of these opinions have been influenced by the individual’s bias and at times, religious sentiments. It has been observed that many people rarely apply their critical and objective mindset on this issue. It is quite hypocritical to regard Nigeria, even with the position religions have conspicuously occupied in our national life, as a secular state.

On the other hand, it smacks of uncritical thinking to claim that Nigeria is a multi-religious state as if, for that reason alone, secularism is inappropriate and unattainable in the situation.

Secularism in Other Countries

Even though not all legally secular states are truly secular in practice, few of them are secular to a greater extent. All countries of the world are multi-religious and as such secularism is seen as the only option to stamp out religious persecution and denial of the individual right to freedom of religion through the state apparatus. In the list below are countries where secularism thrives.

• France is a country populated by about 80% of her citizens being Catholics, yet she is secular. The voice of religions is largely silent in public affairs. In fact, in 2004, a law was passed banning the use of religious symbols in public places which included the wearing of crucifix by Christians or hijabs by Muslim women.

• India is the biggest democracy in the world and home to the largest population of Hindu followers the world over, yet she is secular.

• United Kingdom is a secular state. It is a multi-religious society, even with the existence of the Church of England whose role in the country’s political and public life has decreased greatly. All religions have level-playing field without any singled out for state patronage.

• U.S.A., the official symbol of the nation is “In God We Trust” but this is no reference to a particular God. The constitution is secular as well as the country. Religious practices are banned in public places.

• Turkey, though this is an Islamic nation in terms of the faith of the majority of her citizens, she is secular. There exists a strict separation between the state and religious institutions.

What is the Effect of Violating Section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution?

Section 1032 itself does not stipulate any consequences that should follow its violation. Past and present Nigerian leaders have breached the letter and spirit of this provision without sanctions.

Nigeria was made a member of the Organization of Islamic Countries as well as Islamic Development Bank with reckless abandonment of section 10 and the sensibilities of Non-Muslim Nigerians. It was recently reported in the dailies of a State sponsoring the mass wedding of Muslim women who were singles as part of its Sharia programme.

However, a violation of section 10 should attract a serious sanction. The section is contained under Chapter One of the Constitution which, unlike Chapter Two, is enforceable.

How Should a Multi-Religious Society be Governed? The best way to stamp out religious disharmony and ensure a peaceful co-existence in a multi-religious Nigeria is to entrench true secular governance. Individuals must have freedom of religion and no one must be discriminated against on account of his or her religion.

Religion should be kept entirely private. No public funding should be extended to religious affairs in the nature of promoting any religion at all. By doing this, everyone would be accorded a sense of justice and there will be peace.

Giving a similar admonition, Jide Osuntokun34 recently stated:

‘…every effort must be made not to abandon the concept of a secular state because Nigeria cannot survive a religious conflict and we do not need to re-invent the wheels in this particular case of a secular state because the history of Western Civilization has proved conclusively that secularity works and is the best way in a religiously plural country.’’

Why Nigeria Should Become a Truly Secular State

The only antidote to recurring religious uprisings and ceaseless agitations and counter-agitations of different religious bodies in a multi-religious state like Nigeria is the adoption of true secularism. Nigerian governments at all levels must stop meddling in religious matters. No religious group should be singled out for preferential treatment or victimization.

It will be recalled that Nigeria has lost countless number of her citizens and unquantifiable amount of properties and resources over the years to religiously motivated crises and mayhem. With the emergence of Boko Haram, the Nigerian government must be more proactive to strengthen the secular status of the country. In other words, unless the Nigerian government is seriously committed to uphold the principles of secularism in public affairs, all efforts to stamp out religious unrest in the country will be counter-productive.

True secularism cannot however be achieved, unless section 10 of the Constitution is amended in the manner in which section 145 of the same Constitution was amended following the controversies occasioned by the Yar’ Adua episode in 2010.

Nigeria must be clearly described as a secular state in the Constitution and secularism or secular state must equally be defined in the interpretation section of the same Constitution.

Eze (Dr.) Enyeribe Onuoha has, in a more elaborate manner, proposed the following amendments to section 10 of the Constitution:

“Subsection (1) That no government in Nigeria, Federal, State or Local shall fund religion or religious activities in any way,

(2) No government in Nigeria shall affiliate in a religious organization, within or outside, the nation

(3) No government shall adopt a law peculiar to any religion

(4) No government in Nigeria shall participate officially in religious services, activities or programmes or adopt religious names, images or symbols nor participate in the selection, appointment or installation of religious authorities.

(5) Religion shall not be taught, and proselytizing shall not be practiced, in public schools, hospitals, and institutions.

(6) The State shall not take over property belonging to religious organizations without paying adequate compensation.

(7) Any State that breaches section 10 of the Constitution shall be deemed to have withdrawn from the Federation and, therefore shall, after due process, be denied Federal allocation of funds until purges itself of its effrontery.’’

It is therefore hoped that the current Constitutional amendment exercise being undertaken by the National Assembly will extend to this very important section of the Constitution which goes a long way to determine our progress, prosperity, unity, peace and wellbeing as a people.

The Author

Kehinde Adegbite is an experienced Legal Practitioner, working presently as a Senior Legal Officer in the Ministry of Justice, Oyo State, Nigeria.

He is also a writer whose passion for making the knowledge of the Nigerian law easily accessible to the laypeople led to his setting up of a blog- where he gives free tips to avoid daily legal challenges.

Article picture: gamekyd via Pixabay


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