THE bill currently before the Kaduna State House of Assembly seeking to moderate religious preaching in the state presents the state and all Nigerians with a dilemma of choice. Knowing the state’s unfortunate history of religious extremism and the violence it has engendered, should its authorities continue to give religious elements free rein or find ways of curtailing their extreme tendencies?
This is the difficult choice before the Kaduna State government. It is the situation which informed its proposal of a controversial bill, which seeks to regulate religious preaching and other related activities in the state. Christened, “A Bill for a Law to substitute the Kaduna State Religious Preaching Law 1984,” the bill seeks to regulate religious preaching throughout the state, including the licensing of all other outdoor religious activities and the opening of new religious centres.
In response to the criticisms trailing the government’s initiative, Barnabas Yusuf Bala, the Deputy Governor of the state, has explained that the bill is not targeted at any religion. He described the bill as the state’s determined effort to curtail religious extremism. This explanation is coming against insinuations in many quarters within and outside the state that the bill is, in fact, aimed at curbing Christian religious activities.
We sympathise with the government on its quest to find answers to the lingering problem of religious extremism and its threat to public peace in the state. Our grouse with this bill, however, is that it is contrary to extant constitutional provisions.
The 1999 Constitution (As amended), in sections 38 and 42, makes provisions for several freedoms. Section 38, in particular, states 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 community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
It is clear that this section of the Constitution does not envisage a curtailment of religious freedom, whether in private or in public. So, from where did the Kaduna State government draw the power to propose this law? We urge the State House of Assembly that is currently considering this bill to be mindful of this critical question.
Religion, through the ages, has been a very sensitive subject that could become combustible, if not properly handled.
Successive governments and some political actors have at one time or the other sought to play one religion against the other to advance their selfish interests. This has left the country deeply polarized along religious lines. Even the good intentions of government on this sensitive issue are treated with suspicion and, in some extreme cases, have led to riots and a breakdown of law and order.
The Kaduna State government must be wary of the volatility of this proposed legislation. It must be careful to avert a conflagration in its efforts to douse the possibility of religious fire. This controversial bill has the potential to worsen the ailment it is being proposed to cure.
That is why nations are always circumspect about religion, and why the government should withdraw this bill. The First Amendment to the United States constitution distanced the country from religion. That is the wisdom that has served the nation very well over the centuries.
The government cannot curtail the perceived excesses of religionists by making unconstitutional laws. Experience teaches that such results are better achieved through persuasion. Governments, and especially the Kaduna State government, are therefore advised to seek creative ways of fostering peace in their states. They must continuously engage religious leaders and their followers in healthy dialogues to promote peace in their domains. After all, adherents of all major religions in the country acknowledge that God is a lover of peace. What, then, is the source of the acrimony and dissent that often lead to violence among adherents of the different religions in Nigeria?
We call on the Kaduna State House of Assembly to summon the courage to reject this bill in deference to the supreme law of the land. We also call on the state government to withdraw the bill, to douse the palpable tension it is generating. This is the best thing that the government can do now to demonstrate that it does not intend to interfere with freedom of worship as enshrined in the constitution.