Is Nigeria A Secular or Non-Secular State?

Section 101 of the Nigerian Constitution provides:

“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall

not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

It is in the light of this constitutional provision that some people say – Nigeria is a secular state. As a matter of fact, the phrase “secular state” is not used anywhere in the Constitution. Worse still, there is no reported Nigerian case so far where section 10 of the Constitution (“the secular section”) has been given judicial interpretation. So the object of this article is to dig deep into available resources in order to determine whether Nigeria is a secular state or not.

What is Secularism or a Secular State?

Longman Dictionary2 defines secularism as:

 “1. A system of social organization that does not allow

religion to influence the government or the belief that

religion should not influence a government.   

‘’2. The quality of behaving in a way that shows religion does

not influence you…”

Omotola Jeremiah Shola3, a political scientist and public administration specialist, defines secularism this way:

“Secularism is commonly regarded as ‘an ideology that holds that religious issues should not be the basis of Politics, or (in the extreme) that religion has no place in public life’.  Essentially, secularism seeks to preserve the religious neutrality of government and cultures.”  

Black’s Law Dictionary4 defines secular as

 “…Not spiritual; not ecclesiastical; relating to affairs of the present (temporal) world.”

On Wikipedia5, “A secular state” is defined as

“…a concept of secularism, whereby a state or country

purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting

neither religion nor irreligion. A secular state also claims to treat all its

citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential

treatment for a citizen from a particular religion/nonreligion over

other religions/nonreligion. Secular states do not have a state

religion or equivalent, although the absence of a state religion does

not guarantee that a state is secular”.( underline mine).

The quotes above speak for themselves and from them it is deducible that the issue of religion is a private one in a secular state. A secular state does not mean a state where religions are not recognized but where the choice to believe in a religion or not to believe is entirely an individual’s prerogative. So the question is – how does section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution fulfill the pictures painted by these descriptions of secularism or a secular state?

Section 10 of the Constitution  Vs. A Secular State

Apart from the clear wordings of the provision of section 106, the margin note to the section reads “Prohibition of  State Religion”. Therefore with the aid of the margin note and clear wordings of the section, it becomes much easier to infer the intention of the drafters of the constitution which is to separate state from religion. This is to ensure that religion as a private matter does not stray into public affairs. The state must not adopt any religion as one to influence its official decisions or as one being promoted with state funds.

 It is a settled principle of law that where the wordings of a constitutional provision are unambiguous, a court has a duty to accord to that provision its ordinary meanings7. It is on this basis that is correct to say that the drafters of the constitution intended Nigeria to be a secular state. It is however another issue whether in practice Nigeria is truly secular state or not.

It should also be noted that the recognition of freedom of religion8 and freedom from discrimination9 on account of a person’s religion is a further effort to make Nigeria a secular state. Freedom of religion is meant to give everybody a right to belong to any religion of his choice and also a right to decide not to believe. Freedom from discrimination, on the other hand, is meant to ensure that nobody is discriminated against on the basis of his religion or irreligion.

The author10 of The 1999 Constitution submitted on the same section 10 as follows:

‘’It may be argued in the light of this provision that religious symbols (indigenous or received) have no place on public lands, national edifices, currency, flag, coat of arms, anthem, pledge and other national symbols. By this section, Nigeria is declared to be a secular state and therefore cannot join any organization that has a religious connotation’’.

Is Nigeria a True Secular, Religious or Multi-Religious State?

By reason of section 1011 and assuming the deductions to be drawn from the clear wordings of the section are followed to the letter, Nigeria can be regarded as a secular state. But from experience, it appears Nigeria is secular only in the constitution and not at all in practice or at best a quasi-secular republic.

Then is Nigeria a religious state? Any person averagely familiar with the Nigerian situation should unhesitatingly answer in the negative. Nigeria is not a religious state because it has not by the constitution adopted any religion as the country’s official creed.

A non-secular state is synonymous with a religious state. On Wiki12, ‘’A non-secular’’ is defined as ‘’…one where religion is experienced in many everyday events on civil life, and where it is part of the government.’’ On a superficial reading of this definition, Nigeria appears a non-secular state but on a more circumspective consideration it will be seen that Nigeria is not a religious state in the fashion of countries like Saudi-Arabia, Afghanistan or the Vatican City.

And lastly, is Nigeria a multi-religious state? It is common for the opponents of Nigeria’s secular status to argue that Nigeria is a multi-religious state and not a secular state as if “multi-religious” is the antonym of “secular”. Nigeria is indeed a multi-religious state as hardly there is any country the world over that is  mono-religious. Even Saudi Arabia is multi-religious13.

Nigeria’s Secularism in Practice

Nigeria14 is as multi-cultural as it is multi-religious. Even though, in contemporary Nigeria, Christianity and Islam predominate, there are people of other faiths as well. The practice of secularism in Nigeria is usually centered on consideration of what values to be allowed depending on whether it is not a Christian-religious doctrine or Islamic. Yet successive Nigerian governments have fallen into traps of religious affairs at different times.

So what is intended to be brought out under this sub-heading is a list of government activities which have strayed into one religion’s stream or the other.

Christianity                                                                                      Islam

Allowance of evangelism in public places                               Allowance of Islamic sermons in public places

Observance of public holidays on Sunday                              Observance of public holidays on Eid Al-Fitri, Eid AL-

Saturday, Christmas, New Year, Easter                                    Adha and Milad Un Nabi.

Construction of Chapels and other worship centers           Construction of Mosques and praying grounds

Subventions on   Jerusalem pilgrimage                                    Subventions Hajj pilgrimage

Common law system”                                                                       Sharia law

Public oath-taking on the Bible                                                    Public oath-taking on the Quran

State-sponsored interdenominational services                    Nigeria’s membership of OIC15

State-sponsored carols                                                                    Nigeria’s membership of IDB16

Imposition of Gregorian calendar                                              Islamic/Arabic language on Nigeria currencies

Official recognition of some denominations                          Islamic Arabic language on army insignia

by some Eastern state governments

                                                                                                                  Adoption of Islam as “State Religion” in some

                                                                                                                  Northern states e.g. Zamfara

Origin of Secularism in Nigeria

Formalized secularism17 could only be traced to 1979 in Nigeria as no previous Nigerian constitutions contained a secular clause. Yet, principles of secularism were “informally” applied in public life prior to the 70’s. Between 1977 – 7818, agitations for implementation of sharia through the establishment of a Federal Sharia Court of Appeal came up during the constitutional conferences that preceded the enthronement of the second Republic.

In order to resolve the imbroglio occasioned as a result of this, the so-called “1978 Solution”19 was arrived at which ushered in sections 24020 and 1021 of the 1979 Constitution. A victory was also recorded for the customary law of those who preferred their native customs by the establishment of a Customary Court of Appeal for any state that wanted it.

Should Islamic Banking be Allowed in Nigeria?

Even if Nigeria is practicing full secularism, allowing an Islamic banking system which is run as a private business is not a violation of secular philosophy. The interest of the people of other faiths can only be affected where state funds are employed for any purpose in that kind of a religious venture. If it is kept strictly as a private business except for official regulatory role, no violence can be done to the secular status of the nation on that basis.

  Islamic banking is a financial system modeled after Islamic principles and values. The existence of Islamic banking in Nigeria simply emphasizes freedom of religion and the country’s collective secular disposition in the context of a multi-religious society.

Islam and Secularism

Islam itself means “total submission to the will of Allah”. It is an obligation on a Muslim to live his life from birth to the grave in accordance with the dictates of Allah and sayings of Prophet Muhammed (SAW) as contained in the Hadiths.

Therefore in most countries predominantly occupied by the Muslims, there is no separation between state and religion (mosque). So the idea of secularism is seen in the Muslim world as an alien concept.

Theocracy is the rule in the Islamic world. Though in modern time, few Islamic nations are secularizing and in the forefront are Turkey22, Egypt23 and Pakistan24.


Christianity And Secularism

Originally in most Western countries where the Christian faith had its roots, there was no separation between state and religion (church). The idea of separating political leadership from the spiritual came up in the course of history as a result of persecutions suffered by some religious denominations in the hands of the denomination officially recognized.

Secularism was eventually adopted in most Western nations as the only viable solution to secure individual freedom of religion and prevent abusive use of state power to promote a religion at the expense of others.

Opinions on the Nation’s Secular Status in Perspective

Countless Nigerians have expressed their opinions at different times whether Nigeria is a secular state or not. Some of these opinions are considered below.

“We wish to correct our Niger-Delta bothers (sic) that Nigeria is not a secular state, but a multi-religious state that adopted officially three major religions. Secularism means having nothing to do with religion.”

Sekinal Lawal25

Anyone saying Nigeria is a secular nation doesn’t understand the meaning of the word secular. There is nothing secular about Nigerian nation since whatever we do will always put Islam and Christianity in the forefront.”

– Alhaji Muhammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto26

“Constitutionally, Nigeria is not a secular country. No part of the 1999 constitution declares Nigeria secular. It suffices to repeat Dr. Abdulateef Adegbite’s 12-year old challenge to proponents of the Secular Nigeria Myth to present exact statement(s) in the constitution supporting their position.”  

– Muideen Adesokan27

“Nigeria has a substantial moslem population but it is not an Islamic state. It is a secular state in accordance with the provisions of our Constitution. It cannot be otherwise unless there is a forcible imposition of the religion of Islam on the non-muslims of this country.”

– Late Chief F.R.A Williams, SAN.28

“Not a few Muslims have been railroaded into ‘accepting’ what most of our Christian brothers are only too happy to ‘believe’, namely that Nigeria is a ‘secular state’. ‘Secular’ as in Webster’s Dictionary’s definition means: ‘concerned with temporal, worldly matters’ to the exclusion of ‘religion’; or ‘the profane’ in disregard of ‘the sacred’. And especially in circumstances such as we have now, with Islamic banking needlessly on the Bunsen burner, many are wont to assert that ‘secularity’ even with contemporaneous denial of the country’s ‘multi-religious’ status.”

– Mohammed Adamu29

“Nigeria is a secular nation not a multi-religions one. And it is precisely because of its secularism that makes its multi-religious character possible.”

– Damola Awoyokun30

The truth is that Nigeria is not a secular state or at best a quasi-secular one. However, the country must go in the direction of secularism in order to attain a true national unity and cohesion among her people. It will be seen that some of these opinions have been influenced by the individual’s bias and at times, religious sentiments. It has been observed that many people rarely apply their critical and objective mindset on this issue. It is quite hypocritical to regard Nigeria, even with the position religions have conspicuously occupied in our national life, as a secular state. On the other hand, it smacks of uncritical thinking to claim that Nigeria is a multi-religious state as if, for that reason alone, secularism is inappropriate and unattainable in the situation.

Continue reading on Part 2

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One Response to “Is Nigeria A Secular or Non-Secular State?”

  1. […] Is Nigeria A Secular or Non-Secular State?NigerianMuseIt is in the light of this constitutional provision that some people say – Nigeria is a secular state. As a matter of fact, the phrase “secular state” is not used anywhere in the Constitution. Worse still, there is no reported Nigerian case so far …and more » […]

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