A lot has been said about the imperative of inter-religious dialogue in Nigeria and how such an initiative could foster peace and tolerance among the adherents of the different religions in the country. In fact, it was in pursuant to this very noble objective that, some years ago, the Nigeria Inter-religious Council (NIREC) was formed. However, from all indications, little or no dialogue has been going on amongst the different religions in the country. Clashes and killings have characterized inter-religious relationships. Apparently, Nigeria has very little to show for many years of investment in inter-religious communication and conversation.
This was evident in the presentations that the leaders of the two main religions-Christianity and Islam- made at the just concluded conference of the African Consortium for Law and Religious Studies (ACLARS) in Abuja. The theme of the conference was Law, Religion and Human Flourishing and presenters tried to engage this theme by exploring how both law and religion could foster human prosperity and well-being.
However, two presentations by the representatives of Christian and Islamic religions stood out. The clerics who spoke at the opening of the conference used their presentations to highlight religious persecutions in different parts of the country. The Christian representative who is also a prominent catholic bishop from northern Nigeria was the first to speak at the event. He noted that Christians suffered persecutions and discriminations in Northern Nigeria especially in the areas of marriage and the construction of places of worship. The cleric observed that while muslim men were allowed to marry nonmuslim women, muslim women were not permitted to marry Christian men. And any muslim woman who ventured into such marriages could be killed.
The catholic bishop also pointed out how Christians in northern Nigeria were systematically denied their right to freedom of religion. He specifically noted that the Islamic state actors in the region had as a matter of policy refused to allocate land to Christians to build their churches. That when the governments in the muslim majority, sharia implementing states allocated lands to individuals and organisations, they usually added a clause: Not for brothels and churches. As a result of this official discrimination, Christians in the region were unable to legally construct and own places of worship.
In his remark, the Islamic representative, and also an official of the NIREC and of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) devoted his presentation to addressing the issues that the catholic bishop raised. But he did not really do that. Apart from noting that what the catholic bishop said was incorrect and not consistent with the true teachings of Islam, this NSCIA official failed to address the specific cases that the catholic bishop raised. He did not refute the claim that muslim women could not freely marry non muslim men in northern Nigeria or that governments in muslim majority states were not allocating lands for the building of churches.
Instead, he went on to explain how muslims were persecuted in Cross River in Southern Nigeria and in Tafewa Balewa in Bauchi state. In the case of Cross River, the muslim leader noted how authorities at the state university refused to allocate land to muslim students to build their mosque. He told the conference attendees that he intervened and tried pressuring the vice chancellor to yield to the demand of the students without success. The muslim students took the university to court and the court ruled in their favour. The university appealed the judgment but lost. The muslim cleric also pointed out how muslims in the town of Tafewa Balewa in Bauchi state had been persecuted and denied their rights to practice their faith. In fact, he noted to the shock of many Nigerian participants in the audience that “all muslims” in that part of Bauchi had been killed.
The two speakers who represented the two main religions in the country painted an image of a nation that was religiously at war; a country where Christians and muslims were pitched in a battle for domination and subjugation of the other. Otherwise, why didn’t the catholic bishop at least acknowledge that muslim minorities suffered some discrimination in some parts of the country and that such violations hampered human flourishing? Is that not a fact? Why did the NSCIA official totally turn a blind eye on the persecutions of non muslims by Islamic state and non state actors in northern Nigeria? Is that not what is going on in many parts of northern Nigeria? In fact, there was no mention in their two presentations that there were millions of Nigerians who were not muslims or Christians and who were persecuted by Christian and Islamic establishments.
At least this would have given the conference attendees some sense of balance, an impression of some ongoing conversation between the two religions. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
Interestingly, the two clerics spoke on behalf of two religious establishments that constituted the NIREC. But at the end of the day, they gave the impression that the NIREC was a council for religious competition and rivalry, not dialogue. Or better, that the dialogue which was going on at the NIREC was a dialogue of the deaf. In their speeches, the two speakers constantly alluded to freedom of religion but it seemed that they did not understand the full implication of this basic human right. By freedom of religion, the speakers actually meant freedom to practice Christianity or Islam. Apparently, these representatives of Islam and Christianity ignored the fact that freedom of religion implies freedom to practice or change one’s religion including the freedom to renounce, criticize or not hold any religious beliefs at all.
This trend of religious hatred and antagonism that emerged from both presentations did not speak well of Nigeria and of the project of religious dialogue.
So, there is a need to pursue a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue in the country. In fact, we need to know if there actually is any form of dialogue going on at any level and in any form in Nigeria. To this end, there is a need to reform the NIREC and transform it into an effective organ for inter-religious conversation and understanding.
At the moment, the NIREC is made up of only Christians and Muslims. There are only 50 members-25 Christians and 25 Muslims. This membership arrangement must change to include representatives of other religions and also representatives of humanist and atheist organisations.
Religious minorities suffer persecutions and discriminations in both northern and southern Nigeria. They are also denied their rights to practice their faith or belief, or construct their places of worship, meditation and reflection by Christian and Islamic establishments. So the minorities should be part of any effective religious dialogue in the country.
But this cannot happen when the NIREC is moribund. The office at the Federal Secretariat in Abuja is like a deserted place. The NIREC is supposed to meet quarterly. But this meeting rarely takes place. In fact, its office could not confirm if and when the meeting for the next quarter will take place. This is not a mark of an effective organization. Imagine, if the NIREC is not meeting as planned, how is it going to fulfill its role as a facilitator of religious dialogue? If the NIREC is not organizing events and programs regularly how is the body going actualize inter-religious communication? How will this important conversation among the various religions be held in a way that positively reflects on inter-religious relationships in the country?
So, at a time that Nigeria is grappling with religious extremism and abuses, the NIREC is a very important platform to robustly engage these issues. The NIREC presents a unique opportunity for hope and progress, for an effective interaction and conversation among the various religious and nonreligious organisations in the country. And to fulfill this mandate, the NIREC must be reorganized; it must be restructured to meet the challenge of a meaningful inter-religious dialogue that befits a twenty-first century Nigeria.
Written by Leo Igwe