Religious Sentiments and the Law in Nigeria

Two major recent events in the Nigerian legislation arena have highlighted an issue, which different factions discuss only when it suits their whims and caprices. This article discusses this issue – the influence of religion in legislative matters.

Like most countries in the world, Nigeria is a secular state. In other words, there is no recognised state or official religion as obtains in countries like Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Nigeria’s secularism is enshrined in Section 10 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN), which expressly provides that the Federal or a State Government shall not adopt any religion as state religion.

But why does Christianity or Islam influence legislative decisions?

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on the tension between law and morality in civilised democracies. It is normal for morality to be influenced by religion, but in a secular state, religion should have no influence whatsoever on legislation – especially when the legislation covers issues that have no direct bearing on religion.

The two recent events I referred to above are:

  1. The Constitutional Review of section 29(4)(b) CFRN, which deals with renunciation of citizenship; and
  2. Governor Rochas Okorocha’s reversed position on the proposed ‘abortion law’ in Imo State.

While deliberating on the retention or deletion of section 29(4)(b) CFRN, the Senate had initially voted for its deletion, but upon Senator Ahmed Yerima’s bidding, the resolution was reversed on the ground that deleting that provision would infringe rights under Islamic Law. On that basis, the Senate resolved to retain section 29(4)(b) CFRN.

This was a matter with purely federal concerns, yet progress was derailed on religious grounds (albeit unfounded). A lot has already been written on this event, so I would not flog it any further.

With regards to the ‘abortion law’ proposed in Imo, Mr Okorocha had initially assented to the bill giving women the right to decide on what happens to their bodies, whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy, amongst others. In other words, this would have brought Imo State’s law in line with what obtains in other modern democracies like the United States and United Kingdom; an affirmation of some of the principles in Roe v. Wade.

However, upon criticisms of this law by the Catholic Church in Imo, the governor changed his position and asked the state’s legislators to take steps to expunge the offending provisions in the law.

These events clearly show how religious sentiments impact legislative decisions in Nigeria – both at the federal and state levels. In these examples, religion had no business and ought not to have been considered. Especially in the second example; although the Catholic Church (and Christians generally) is known for its stance against abortion, this law is a law that was founded on purely social and health policy – no religious implications.

This does not mean that the Catholic Church should not have spoken against it – freedom of expression is guaranteed in Nigeria; and that is where it should end. The Church is permitted to publicly condemn the proposed law and preach its beliefs and doctrines to its congregation but that should not sway the government on its position.

If in a convoluted universe the government decides to decriminalise rape, the churches would also rise up against such proposal but why should they? The Bible states that if a man rapes a virgin and is caught, he should pay her dowry and marry her and shall not divorce her for the rest of his life (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). And since the same church condemns abortion (regardless of the reason), they are expected to live happily ever after.

Nigeria is a diverse society founded on various customs, traditions and religions. It is for this reason that Nigeria is a secular state; if its laws were to be governed or influenced by any religion, it would have been made so – but for peace to reign and to cater for its diversity, our founding fathers ensured that secularity be entrenched.

In my opinion, religion is important and should be a guide to how we direct our actions, especially our moral principles. If a person decides not to steal, it is not necessarily because it is illegal – it might be because his/her religion condemns it or he/she feels it is morally wrong. A man should not need a law before he knows that having sexual relations with a child is purely repugnant (even if his religion allows him to).

It must not be forgotten that Christianity and Islam are not the only religions practised by Nigerians. Steps have been taken to curb some of the excesses of repugnant and despicable traditional practices such as the killing of twins, human sacrifice, inhuman and degrading treatment of widows, treating women as chattel (property), etc.

If Nigeria is truly a secular state founded on principles of non-discrimination, steps should also be taken to curb some of the excesses of the two major religions.

If religious sentiments continue to have unnecessary influence on Nigerian laws, progress would be stalled, Nigerian legislation would head towards a downward spiral and there would continue to be disagreements and disunity on issues that should be purely based on policy and other important considerations.

Originally published by The Nigerian Telegraph here



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