From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
What does the House of Representatives intend to achieve with the Religious Discrimination( Prohibition and Prevention) Bill 2020? The bill, which is sponsored by Saidu Abdullahi seeks to allow citizens to wear religious emblems like the hijab in educational institutions, place of work and other public places, among others.
The proposed legislation, according to its explanatory memorandum, “seeks to provide a mechanism for enforcing certain provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as altered, Universal Declaration of Human Rights Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, African charter on human and people’s rights, the protocol to the African charter on human and people’s rights on the rights of women in Africa.”
Section 4(1) of the bill provides that: “A person shall not, directly or indirectly or by any combination of the two, be intimidated, harassed, victimized or discriminated against on the basis of religious belief or activity or on the ground of manifestation of religion or religious belief or any other ground of a characteristic, that people who have or engage in the religious belief or activity generally have; and on the ground of a characteristic that people who have or engage in the religious belief or activity are generally presumed to have or manifest which may include wearing religious emblem”.
Similarly, Section 12(3) of the proposed law states that “ a person shall not be subject to any condition, requirement, measure or practice that limits or proposes to limit the person’s right to manifest his religious belief such as using or wearing religious emblem, religious head cover such as hijab, tunic and veil, decent and modest religious wear etc, as a condition to access public good, services or facilities such as access to finance, health, education, recreational activities or registration with any private or public office, or services such as registration for passport or any other enrollment exercise of public nature”
Also, the bill in Section 13(2) stipulates that “any person employed in the security sector, whether within the military or paramilitary or otherwise, shall not be discriminated against on the ground of the exercise of his right to manifestation of his religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance such as wearing religious emblem, head cover, or hijab in concomitant with the common uniform code or conduct in relation to the choice of colour, type, or design of such religious emblem, religious head cover or hijab.”
However, the proposed legislation has been a source of controversy in the polity with the Christian community kicking against it. While the sponsor of the bill says, it will help to promote religious harmony in the country, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) says there is more to it than meets the eyes. According to the Christian body, the proposed legislation, apart from being to the detriment of Christians, will trigger crises in the country.
Ironically, the bill had scaled second reading in the Green chamber without much ado and is currently awaiting public hearing.
Abdullahi, who represents Bida/Katcha/ Gbako Federal Constituency of Niger State, on the platform of the All Progressives Congress ( APC) says the proposed legislation is intended to bring religious harmony in the country.
The lawmaker, who spoke during an advocacy visit to the CAN leadership, ahead of the public hearing on the contentious bill, said “ I see a problem that has become a big challenge and we have shied away from it over the years. It is the issue of religious discrimination. It has been mirrored to just one aspect of discrimination.
“So, we came up with a proposal to address religious discrimination in this country. When we came up with the proposal, it was not really about the hijab issue that it has become today. Some of the things contained in the proposal were informed by some of the things we see happening in the country.
“We came up with the idea in 2019 and wanted to come by way of a motion to discuss the issue. But we got a superior argument that we should provide a legal framework for prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their religious belief.
“There are some sections of the constitution that guaranteed people the right to religion without discrimination. But we have seen this issue rearing its ugly head over the years and it is really taking us back as a country.”
However, the CAN president, Rev Samson Ayokunle demures. Ayokunle said the proposed legislation if passed into law will be a recipe for chaos in the country.
“We have laws already that can take care of discrimination. And if anyone is discriminated against, the court is open. The bill if passed will enforce discrimination rather than war against it.
“The bill is causing wahala. You don’t sit on my nose because you have a right to sit down. Beyond your good intent to solve a problem, we may be creating many other ones. There is no mutual respect.
“Your name will go into history as one who disregarded the rights of the Christians to promote their own in their institutions.”
Ayokunle added: “Why do we have to wage war against ourselves? Why do we want to wake up a problem which is sleeping. Wearing of hijab has not made any student more intelligent. Piety is in the heart. In a multi ethnic nation like ours, school uniform creates uniformity, classless. Once you pass that bill, be prepared for a state of confusion”.
According to him, “We have laws already that can take care of discrimination and if anybody is discriminated against, the court is open to handle that matter. So, why do we still need laws on this issue now? Secondly, the bill if passed into law will enforce discrimination rather than fight against it.”
He stated that: “as a Muslim, when you go to pray, you remove your shoes, sit on a mat and pray. That bill is saying that as somebody who is outside that religious practice, I can enter the Mosque without respect to your right to worship in a particular way.
“That will create problems and lack of mutual respect. What we are saying is that despite your good intention to solve a problem, you may be creating many other problems unintended.”
Analysts say the fear of CAN leadership is justified. In recent times, Kwara State has been boiling over attempt by the state government to introduce the wearing of hijab in all the schools in the state.
Pundits argue that the bill, if passed into law, will cause religious strife, and further escalate religious tension across the country.
Another CAN leader, Professor Yusuf Turaki concurs. Yusuf stated that the central focus of the bill was on wearing of hijab in public places, as it did not address religious discrimination against Christians in Northern Nigeria.
According to him, “there are serious religious violations in the North. In some areas, Christians are being discriminated against. I didn’t see it in your bill.
“Are Muslims women denied the right of wearing hijabs? If there are, your bill stands the right. If not, your bill doesn’t stand.
“The central focus of your document is hijab. This bill is a bill for hijab. Nigerians will ask themselves, why is hijab becoming a problem? A bill is not yet enforced yet it has become a fight. I bet you, it is going to engulf this country.”
Yusuf added : “The intent of the bill is to target Christian institutions in Nigeria. Every other place is allowed to wear hijab. Christians establish institutions in order to serve their God. I do not see how this bill is going to protect Christian institutions. Is your bill going to protect Christian institutions of all kinds or one today? This bill will be misinterpreted?
“We have Boko Haram in the North East because of Sharia; we have bandits, herdsmen, those states are now called Sharia states. They said they are going to bring development in the far North but today, it is a sorry state. So, bringing hijab, you are going to add division to chaos, crisis. Give it a legal backing, it will set Nigeria ablaze. This bill is going to create crises upon crises. This bill should be withdrawn and not to be discussed and passed by the national assembly”.
Regardless, the Niger born lawmaker says he would not support anything that will cause divisions in the country. Abdulahi implored the Christian community to come up with suggestions on how to enrich the proposed legislation.
According to him, “Let it be on record that I will never be part of anything that will cause division in the country. I am not out to cause any confusion in this country. The proposal is to find a lasting solution to the problem in this country.
“I didn’t do it because I am a muslim. This is not a complete document yet. By the time we get to the public hearing, people will make their inputs which will form part of the law.There is a lacuna in the constitution. It is not enough. This is an opportunity to discuss it. I am just interested to see that this country works for us. I am so mindful of sensitive and delicate nature of religious issues in Nigeria.
“I understand some of these hiccups; that’s why I decided to make this call to build consensus. There will be a public hearing too.”
However, the question is: will the House listen to the concerns of the Christian community and jettison the bill or will it go ahead with the proposed legislation?