On January 2, 2017, two Catholic priests, an Australian and a Nigerian, visiting Nigeria from Australia for the first time arrived at my house in Abuja. They had come for the thanksgiving Mass of the Nigerian priest who was ordained in Australia, and decided to take off some days to tour major cities of Nigeria. Since Abuja has fewer tourist attraction sites, I decided to take them on a guided tour of the National Mosque and the National Christian Centre, two national religious monuments strategically located in the heart of Abuja’s Central Business District. When I mentioned it to my guests, they welcomed the idea with delight. I immediately sent a text message to Alhaji Ibrahim Jega, the Executive Secretary of the National Mosque Management Board asking if we could come over in the morning of the next day. He promptly replied and said he would be glad to welcome us. Alhaji Jega is a very likeable fellow. He served in the Federal Civil Service and rose to the position of Director before retiring in 2010. Thereafter he became Commissioner for Lands in his home state of Kebbi.
When we arrived the next day at the National Mosque, dressed in our clerical attire, Alhaji Jega warmly received us. He took us into his office and lectured us on the role of interfaith dialogue in national peacebuilding, before asking his son to take us on the tour of the inner precincts of the Mosque. He recounted a story of an event that transpired when he was Commissioner for Lands in Kebbi State. On one occasion, he approved the renewal of land tenancy application made by a church in the heart of Birnin Kebbi, defying the riotous threats of some of his Muslim confreres who preferred that the church be given a land outside the city centre. He told us that his confreres felt that a church should not be sitting on a precious land space in the heart of a Muslim-dominated city. They wanted the land to be retrieved from the church and re-allocated for the building of a commercial plaza. Alhaji Jega went home and thought about the matter. He asked himself: “If it was a mosque occupying that plot of land, would I take a decision to have the land confiscated?”
Enlightened by a sense of justice, equity and fairness, he came back to the office the next day and signed the papers approving the land tenancy renewal application for the church. Even when his confreres threatening to protest the decision went to the state governor, Alhaji Jega stood his ground. Luckily, the governor supported his decision. He said the church authorities were shocked when he called them to follow up the process with the other departments of his Ministry. They didn’t expect to have their application granted. This is because there are many places in Northern Nigeria where Christians have been consistently denied access to lands for building of churches, schools, hospitals and other social facilities that benefit the citizens. But in the midst of this fouled religious atmosphere, Alhaji Jega did what was right, and he still feels very proud about his decision.
He told us to story to illustrate the fact that we all have a role to play in promoting peaceful coexistence between the two major religions in Nigeria – Islam and Christianity. In a country where some of the most intractable violent conflicts have been fuelled by religious bigotry, it is absolutely uplifting to find eminent people like Alhaji Jega who are working hard to build peace and concord across religious frontiers and social divides. When some Christians in Nigeria vilify Islam and make sweeping generalisations about the followers of Islam, they sometimes forget that there are many upright and decent Muslims like Alhaji Jega who stand out as models worthy of emulation. They only look at snapshots of those Muslims who give the religion a bad name. But I dare say that just as there are good Muslims, so are there good Christians; and just as there are bad Muslims, so are there bad Christians. This is not a time to gloat over any religion.
It is against this backdrop that I intend to make my modest contribution to the discussion started by Mr Fola Arthur-Worrey in his guest article, “Bugbears of Islamisation”, published on the back page of Thisday of Wednesday February 8, 2017. Mr Arthur-Worrey is a former Solicitor-General of Lagos State and a Consultant on Legal, Security Funding and Governance Issues. In his over 2000-word-long piece, he tried to allay the fears of the Christian community in Nigeria against perceptions that there are deliberate, strategic plans by some Muslims to Islamise Nigeria. He examined this issue within the context of two questions: Whether “there is any obvious, overt, visible, and viable attempts by the government of the national state and its institutions to ‘impose an Islamist social and political system on society as a whole’ and whether there is any serious effort on-going by any group or groups, state or non-state, to convert and bring within Islam, the majority of the population of Nigeria.”
Analysing these questions against the definitions of Islamisation, which he extracted from his dictionaries, Mr Arthur-Worrey concluded that there are no indices to suggest any grand attempt, strategy or plan to Islamise Nigeria. In his view, for any serious attempt to Islamise Nigeria, the laws of the country governing all aspects of our lives would have to be changed to conform to Islamic precepts and norms. This, he says, can only be achieved through a constitutional amendment process (that would touch on areas such as the banking laws, the court laws, the marriage laws, the educational laws, the laws regarding commerce and property ownership, and criminal justice, and the laws on public holidays). Secondly, the national government and its institutions would have to be changed in function and character, to bring them into conformity with Islamic law. This again, he says, can only be achieved through a constitutional amendment process, and it would only amount to Islamisation if it done in such a way as to “seriously interfere with and disrupt the lives of non-Muslims.”
Mr Arthur-Worrey then concludes: “So far, I am not aware of any attempt by any national government over the past 60 or so years, to formulate or impose any of such laws and or policies…” Consequently, “I think we can safely dismiss any allegations of some state-sponsored conspiracy to ‘Islamise’ the country by way of constitutional or legislative action. It would be impossible to achieve in any event, given the make up of the country and its very vigilant and vocal populace and the potential for great unrest should such moves be contemplated…” While I sincerely congratulate Mr Arthur-Worrey for courageously taking up this very knotty national issue and for the clarity of his disquisition, I believe that this conversation is long overdue. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that there are many Christians in Nigeria who thoroughly disagree with Mr Arthur-Worrey’s views. A cursory look at the fiery comments that trailed the online version of his article on the website of Thisday can confirm that there are many people wary of Islamophobia and Islamisation, and their views reflect the thinking of a cross-section of the Christian community in Nigeria.
Is there a plan, overt or covert, to Islamize Nigeria? That is the question. The two major Abrahamic religions in Nigeria – Christianity and Islam – claim to have universal mandates to spread their message to the whole world and to convert as many people as possible to their faith. We Christians believe strongly in the words of Jesus just before his ascension into heaven, where he commanded his disciples to, “Go out to the whole world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15; cf. Matthew 28:19-20). One of the verses of a modern Christian hymn enunciates the missionary duty of the followers of Jesus Christ as follows: “To Christianize oneself and friends and to live the Gospel at their ends.” In other words, Christians have a religious duty to convert others to their religion and to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ into the temporal spheres of life in the society.
This applies to Islam too. The Quran mentions the proper way of calling people to the Islamic faith: “Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching” (Quran 16:125). There are many other Quranic verses that give instruction on the spread of the Islamic faith. In the years following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam spread rapidly from the Arabian Peninsula to the rest of the world through either trade and exploration or conquests. The purpose of Islamic missionary activity is to deliver the message revealed by God through Prophet Muhammad to the world. Likewise, Christianity spread to the whole world after the ascension of Jesus Christ mainly through the inspired preaching of the apostles and disciples of Jesus, in spite of persecution.
While it is a settled truth that both Christianity and Islam have universal claims of spreading their respective faith to the whole world, the real question is how do these religions realise their mandates in the midst of a pluralistic religious society, without appearing to be forcing people to conversion or dominating people of other religions in their midst? Is it by persuasion, by conviction or by the sword? How do we interpret the ancient texts of the Bible about Christian missionary duty in the context of today, after 2000 years of Christian history? Should we simply undertake a wholesale literal transposition of the statements of a first century Galilean Jew, Jesus Christ the Son of God, into the 21st century? Likewise, how do we interpret the texts of the Quran and the Hadith, which mandate Muslims to spread their faith to the ends of the world? Should we literally transpose the 7th century statements of the Prophet Muhammad wholesale into the 21st century, after 1400 years of Islamic history?
These are the perennial questions. They also touch on issues such as respect for the rights and liberties of other religions, peaceful and harmonious coexistence and interfaith relations in a multi-religious society. On 28 October 1965, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of over 2500 Catholic bishops from all over the world, promulgated a historic document that marked a turning point in the Catholic Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, including Islam. Titled Nostra Aetate in Latin, the document has its English rendering as “The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” The document started by acknowledging areas of common affinity between Christianity and Islam, especially our common heritage in the faith of Abraham, and urges Christians to genuinely seek to understand, appreciate and promote what is good in Islam.
With openheartedness, the document declared: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (NA 3). The document further reminds all Christians that the way of Christ demands us to love our neighbours, whether they are followers of our religion or not, for all genuine religion has its focus as the worship of the one True God, albeit in different ways.
On the question of whether there is an overt or covert plan to Islamize Nigeria, the fears of many Christians in Nigeria arise from both religious and political suspicions. Politically, we can go back in Nigerian history to the colonial and immediate post-independence period, especially to the early twentieth century, in 1903, when the British colonial army defeated the Sokoto caliphate established by Usman Dan Fodio in 1804. From that time the British colonial rulers governed Northern Nigeria largely through the sultans and emirs. The colonial lords gave much power to the traditional rulers, who combined both spiritual and temporal powers in the governance of their people. Lord Lugard preserved most of the pre-colonial and pre-modern institutions of the conquered caliphate and insulated it from Christian missionaries and their modernizing schools and hospitals. He banned Christian missionary activity in caliphate territory and recognized traditional Islamic Sharia law.
The independence constitution left the North with powerful advantages. With three-quarters of the land area and more than half the population, it dominated the federation from the outset. The British policy of “indirect rule” also facilitated the tight grip that the Northern traditional rulers and later political leaders kept over the federal system. Today, many people see the political expansionism of the North as a tool of Islamic consolidation. The religious dimension to the issue, which has generated sufficient Islamophobia, can be adduced to two distinct but interrelated factors: the place of Sharia law in the Nigerian constitution, and the statements of Nigerian Muslim political leaders over the years. Let us take the first issue: the place of the Sharia law in the constitution. The place of the Sharia law in our constitution is a colonial baggage. It came into public life after the British conquest of the Sokoto caliphate in 1903 and the institution of the policy of “indirect rule.” With the drafting of the post-independence constitutions of Nigeria, the Sharia law found its place in our national legislation.
Many Christians over the years have been raising objections to the place of Islamic religious law in the constitution of a secular state like Nigeria. The question has been asked: Where lies our allegiance as citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria? Is it in the Constitution, the Bible or the Quran? This is because article 10 of the 1999 Constitution states that, “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” This is what many people understand when it is said that Nigeria is a secular state. All religions are equal before the law. But this is not what the situation is in practice. With Sharia law in place, and no place for Christian religious law in the constitution, it means that our legislation privileges one religion over the other. This, many have said, amounts to discrimination and seriously compromises article 10 of the constitution. The secularity of the Nigerian state does not mean that the government has nothing at all to do with religion, because the preamble of the 1999 Constitution declares that Nigeria is “one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God.” What it means is that Nigeria is not an atheistic state. But it is also not a theocratic state. We are a secular democratic state.
This obvious ambiguity of the Sharia law in our constitution led some Christian lawmakers in the House of Representatives in December 2016 to push forward a bill seeking to amend the constitution to provide for the establishment of Christian court of appeal in the 36 States of the Federation and the FCT. They argue that if Muslims in Nigeria have the Sharia Court of Appeal, which adjudicates on Islamic religious matters (based on Sharia law), Christians should likewise have their own Ecclesiastical Court to adjudicate on Christian religious matters (based on Christian personal law). The matter was presented as a way of balancing the present lop-sidedness in the constitution. On the alternative, they called for the total abrogation of the Sharia law by the government, so that we can all owe our allegiance as Nigerian citizens to our constitution, and not to any religious law code.
This heated debate came up at the 2014 National Dialogue Conference, and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria wrote a position statement on the matter titled, “Religion and the Nigerian State.” The Bishops noted that they are aware that some Christians are calling for the establishment of a Christian court. “The only purpose we can see such proposal serving is to forcefully bring home to our Muslim compatriots the lop-sidedness of the Sharia system in our constitution, which has nothing similar for Christians. We stress that if Islam is a way of life, so also is Christianity. We are guided by Christian norms and rules, which we administer within our respective religious communities, without dragging in the state. At the risk of appearing polemical, we sincerely urge our Muslim community to do the same. That there are millions of Nigerian Muslims who have been living in accordance with Islamic injunctions without a state-established Sharia law is enough proof that what we now have in our constitution is not a requirement for the free exercise of their faith” (CBCN Statement, No. 8). The Bishops proposed a jurisprudential surgery as the way to honestly address the constitutional ambiguity.
Over the years, since the return of democratic rule in 1999, many Northern states have adopted the Sharia law as a parallel to the Nigerian constitution. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but Christian preachers cannot openly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the heart of Muslim-dominated territories in the North, without arousing the ire of a protectionist religious group. On account of the imposition of the practice of Sharia law, and its implementation by the Hisba religious militia, the just rights and liberties of many Christians in the North to practice their faith, without fear of intimidation or molestation, is hampered. The sale and consumption of alcohol is unilaterally banned in Sharia states. In parts of the North today, Christians – whether indigenes or settlers – are denied access to land for building of churches, schools, university chaplaincies, and other institutions of social services, in a way that Muslims are not.
We cannot gloss over the fact that Boko Haram came out publicly to say that its plan was to Islamize Nigeria and impose Islamic rule on everyone. Of course, many Islamic religious and political leaders came out to denounce Boko Haram as criminals masquerading under the guise of religion to foment mayhem and to drive a wedge of between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. But we are also aware that Boko Haram used the Quran, whether correctly or incorrectly, to justify its claims. The spate of mob violence in the North against Christians perceived to have violated the Quran or blasphemed against the Prophet Muhammad is another case where religious intolerance and bigotry mixes with impunity and lawlessness. The most recent case is the freeing on November 4, 2016 of the five Muslim suspects charged to a Kano Magistrates Court for the gruesome murder of the 74-year-old Igbo trader, Mrs Bridget Agbahime at Kofar Wambai market in Kano State on June 2, 2016. She was alleged to have blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad. The court discharged and acquitted the suspects on frivolous grounds.
Nigeria is a country that sits on highly combustible religious fault-lines and the heightened perception of Muslim ‘colonisation’ of political power negatively impacts on peaceful interfaith relations. But let Christians not forget that in the last 18 years since our return to democratic self-governance in 1999, we have had two Christian presidents who have spent a combined period of 13 years in power. Some people have argued that the narratives about Islamophobia are only symptomatic of the collapse of the architecture of government and its inability to secure the rights, lives and property of citizens, irrespective of where they live and work. The failure of the Nigerian state to enforce the law where it is violated has given rise to these perceptions that there is a clandestine agenda of gradual Islamisation of Nigeria. Some people have even gone as far as saying that the multiple cases of attack by Fulani herdsmen on predominantly Christian communities across the country are clear signs of the Islamisation agenda. Others have argued that the problems are largely caused by political and economic conditions, but are allowed to take on religious and ethnic dimensions, thus compounding our difficulty in healing them from the root.
After the Dogon Na Hauwa massacre of Berom Christians by Fulani herdsmen in Plateau State in March 2010, Toma Jang Davou, head of the parliamentary forum of the Berom Christians said that the Muslims want to extend their domination from the core North to the Middle Belt, adding that, “They say they will not be happy until they dip the Quran in the waters of the Atlantic.” Statements like these feed on already existing suspicions following the breakdown of trust and peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians. The ferocity that ignites these fears, whether they are disputes between indigenes and settlers or disputes over farmlands and cattle grazing grounds, soon feed into new, bloodier cycles of mayhem and mass murder.
In August 2001, a former head of state was alleged to have made the following statement at a seminar organised by the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria at Kaduna: “Sharia should be introduced in full across Nigeria…I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria… God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country… It is a legal responsibility which God has given us, within the context of one Nigeria, to continue to uphold the practice of Sharia wholeheartedly and to educate non-Muslims that they have nothing to fear… What remains from Muslims in Nigeria is for them to redouble their efforts, educate Muslims on the need to promote the full implementation of Sharia law.” That former head of State is President Muhammadu Buhari.
In his lecture at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, in February 2015, shortly before his election as president, Buhari tried to disabuse the minds of his audience to the allegations of bigotry, fanaticism and dictatorial leadership that have been levelled against him. After accepting responsibility for past mistakes, he then made a commitment: “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.” But on assumption of office, he started out clearly on a path of sectionalism and nepotism with the appointment of critical public officeholders.
How do you explain a situation where virtually all the heads of the security, military, intelligence and paramilitary agencies of government are Muslims, and from one section of the country? This pattern of parochial nepotism runs through virtually all the appointments that Buhari has made, and the lop-sidedness is so blatant. We have never had it as bad as this in the history of this nation. To the average Nigerian, who has been politically wired to see things through the prism of religion and ethnicity, this means that Muslims and Northerners have taken over Nigeria. President Buhari’s self-styled attitude to power and governance has contributed greatly in cementing this perception of Islamisation among Christians. Some people have even said that his near apathy and stoic silence in the face of the cycle of violence going on in different sections of the country confirm their perception that he is the grand architect of the Islamisation agenda.
So is there is a grand plan to Islamise Nigeria? I don’t know. Is it possible to Islamise Nigeria? If it happens, it will be because 80 million lethargic Christians have allowed themselves to be overrun by 80 million committed Muslims. I believe that Muslims take their faith seriously in politics. For many Muslims, there is no divorce between faith and politics. We Christians often try to make a neat separation between religion and politics, church and state. And this is perhaps our greatest albatross. Yes, religion and the state should maintain a critical distance from each other. Each has its own domain, its place and its respect. But a Christian theology of politics, which surreptitiously absolves Christians of their socio-prophetic responsibility of entering into public life with an evangelical spirit for promoting the common good, only makes Christian politicians a generation of baptized pagans.
I think that if we are looking for overt plans of Islamisation, according to the template of Mr Arthur-Worrey, we might never discover any. But some Nigerian Christians argue that there are subtle plans. We may dismiss the perceptions as baseless, but it is still their perception. And perceptions do not need to be factually true to be real. Many nations have gone to war on the basis of perceptions. The question now is: At what point do we respond to an ailment? At the observation of a symptom or when the ailment festers and the person is in coma?