The Problem Of Religion And Governance In Nigeria

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The death sentence passed on Yahaya Sharif-Aminu by a Kano Sharia court over a song adjudged to be blasphemous to Mohammad has exposed the problems arising from the unhealthy mix between religion and politics that have continued to haunt the country.

Secular In Name Only

So many people found it shocking that in 2020, Nigeria, a country with a supposedly secular constitution, could pass death sentences on people for blasphemy.

The 1999 constitution, enacted during the regime of Abdulsalami Abubakar, was explicit in its dictate that the country would not adopt an official religion. But this has largely been ignored. 

Perhaps it was simply inevitable that a country as religious as Nigeria would not succeed in separating religion from governance. 

Right from its early years, the country’s leaders have instituted policies that appropriated public funds for explicitly religious projects. 

Yakubu Gowon bowed to pressures from Islamic groups in the country to institute the pilgrim board. That marked the beginning of the federal government’s annual sponsorship of Muslim faithfuls to Mecca. 

Not to be disadvantaged, Christians too pushed for their own and under Shehu Shagari’s administration were granted sponsorship of pilgrimage to Israel. 

As a result, billions of tax-payers Naira that would have been judiciously employed elsewhere were used to sponsor pilgrimages. This should be directly contravening Nigeria’s secularity as enshrined in the constitution. 

Following the return to civil rule in Nigeria, about 11 Northern states, led by Zamfara, implemented sharia law. These laws were binding on Muslims in these states and were implemented side by side with the country’s constitution. 

At the heart of its implementation was the politico-religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in the country. Muslims saw the secular constitution as Judeo-Christian in origin and outlook and so sought an alternative Sharia system that would better accommodate their religious disposition.

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Since 1999, most of the Northern states have therefore operated a legal system that implements punitive system such as canning, amputations and the death sentence for offences like adultery and blasphemy.

A Nation-Wide Problem Too

Although it appears the majority of Muslims are okay with the sharia system, Christians down south of the country view the laws with intense disapproval. Since news of the sentence of Yahaya broke out, a lot of Nigerians, mostly Southerners, have criticized the verdict, and have even organized campaigns to prevent the carriage of the death sentence. 

On the surface, it might seem as if the problem is the incompatibility of a more “tolerant” southern-Nigeria with the North. A lot of the outrage on social media focused on how barbaric the sharia law were. But the truth is that the Christian South has its own problems with religion too. 

Sometime last year, the Atheist Society of Nigeria (ASN) dragged the Akwa Ibom state government to court over its plans to construct a church that would gulp millions of taxpayers money. The governor, Udom Emmanuel planned a gigantic Christian worship centre with 8,500 seating capacity, boasting 16 staircases, two churches, and several smaller chapels.

With clear evidence that state money was used to finance the project, the court case still failed. The case of the ASN was struck out because the judge agreed with the defence that the prosecutors did not live in Akwa- Ibom and as such were not affected by the actions of the governor. 

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According to a statement on the ASN website:

“The government’s defence was simple—they denied these individuals lived in Akwa Ibom and that they were members of ASN. They had not visited the addresses of these members shown on their affidavits, nor had they requested copies of ASN’s membership rolls. 

So the judge had to decide between an arbitrary denial from the government’s counsel and two properly-sworn affidavits from ASN’s members. 

The judge chose to accept the defendant’s unsupported denial. That decision was egregiously perverse and, at that point, ASN had lost their case.”

Worship centres built with taxpayers money are scattered all over the country, both in the North and South and attempts to challenge its unconstitutional nature are very unlikely to succeed. Nigeria is a deeply religious country and not many see public expenses on religious activities or infrastructures as a wrong. 

Furthermore, emblems, logos, seal and insignias of most state institutions and national symbols carry Arabic inscriptions. 

Such include the logo of the Nigerian Army and most of the national currencies. 

It should be noted that the Constitution does not recognize Arabic but rather, Section 55 identifies English, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba as the official languages. 

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Arabic is an emblem of Islamic civilization and continues to serve that function.

The constant, unconstitutional channelling of public funds into religious projects constitutes a waste an infrastructurally-deficit nation like Nigeria can afford. 

It is hardly a case of separating from our “barbaric” northern co-occupants. 

Southern Christians would think an independent, homogeneous South with a secular constitution would be better with the elimination of a clash of values with the Muslim north. Their bias, however, would not allow them to see the illegality and wastage in southern leaders routine allocation of resources to religious projects. 

So when those without this bias speak against these things as the ASN had done, they would simply take their place as another oppressed class, a distinct group with values in conflict with that held by the majority, just the way the Christians and Muslims hold different values today. 

So although there are merits in seeing no need for continued co-existence with a Muslim north because of the incompatibility of values, we should understand that the real problem is in the failure to separate religion from the state and this is one problem a separation is unlikely to solve now. 

This might not be a blasphemy-induced beheading, but it demonstrates a failure to separate politics and government in the country that bears similarities to the sharia system in the North. 


The arrest and detention of the Humanist activist, Mubarak Bala brings into clear relief, the unconstitutionality and cruelty of blasphemy laws in Nigeria.

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