There has been this argument as to whether Nigeria is a secular or non-secular state, religious or non- religious nation. A secular state is a state which 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/ non religion over other religions/non religion. Secular states do not have a state religion.
Some states become secular upon creation of the state, for example the USA or upon secularization of the state (eg France & Nepal). Historically, the process of secularizing states, typically involves granting religious freedoms, disestablishing state religion, stopping public funds being used for religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, freeing up educational system, tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion and allowing political leadership to come to power, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Ordinarily secular means worldly, non religious or not spiritual while non-secular will then refer to be spiritual or religious. But it does not always work out that way in real practice. Some non-secular states actually do not subscribe to any spirituality. Indeed some of the greatest atheist nations are regarded as non-secular, such states as China, Japan, Czech Republic, France, Australia and Iceland. But many non-secular states truly have state religions- that is they recognize a special religion in their constitution. Some Christian nations include Costa Rica, Malta, Monaco, Vatican City (Catholicism); England, Jersey & Tuvalu (Anglicanism); Denmark, Norway, Greenland, Finland (Lutheranism). Zambia is one of the few Christian States in Africa. Many of the predominantly Muslim- dominated states have Islam as the official state religion, countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan and Morocco. Some other States have Buddhism or Hinduism as their state religion. Some Countries have transformed political ideology into some kind of religion. China in the days of Mao Zedong and North Korea even as at today adopt their political ideology as religion and very much resist any true religious influence.
So what is Nigeria- secular on non- secular? My answer is both. Secular because Nigerian constitution does not recognize any official religion yet, some states in Nigeria have adopted the Sharia legal system. It is also non- secular, because Nigeria as a country invests in religious activities and is essentially a religious nation. Every year the tax payer’s money is spent to pay for or subsidize religious trips to Israel and Mecca called pilgrimage. The government of Nigeria funds the offices that organize the pilgrimages and governments- at all levels, donate money directly to religious bodies and for religious purposes. Is Nigeria religious or non-religious? The answer as shown above is affirmative. The country is not only religious, it is essentially multi-religious. It officially allows freedom of religion or worship and often starts many official functions with prayers. The second verse of the national anthem is actually a prayer. But certain sects have developed in Nigeria overtime that have tended to abridge the freedom or rights of other religious adherents. The current Boko Haram insurgents first fought against the Christian churches, claiming that western education was bad, which, of course, has the Christian imprint, before turning full circle to fight those who they believed did not practice their model of Islam. This militant terrorist group with a religious philosophy cannot be said to be contributing anything to Nigeria’s development. If at all, they are an antithesis to development.
That Nigeria is a deeply religious country is well established and well expressed. Truly, I believe that Nigeria is among the most religious nations in the whole world. It is believed that Nigeria has the highest number of church denominations and highest the number of church buildings in the world. I may not speak authoritatively for Islam but I can see mosques everywhere more that I see in many of the nations that I have visited. I have not visited Saudi Arabia but I am prepared to place a bet that there are more mosques in Nigeria than in Saudi Arabia. Even in the traditional religious practices, every hamlet in Nigeria has shrines and coves where traditional worship takes place. At some point, especially in my part of the country, it looked like the Christian religion was displacing traditional religion but there has been a recent resurgence in traditional worship centres and even some so called Christians who are “tired” of waiting for God to act now take their matters to deities and shrines. Nigeria’s Nollywood is giving credence to this resurgence.
Now my question is, has religion helped the growth and development of Nigeria? Indeed has it helped the growth and development of other countries? One way to begin to address this question is to see if there is any difference in the rate of growth of religious nations- where religion is practiced and those nations that prohibit or limit freedom of worship. America, Israel, Germany, Norway, Denmark and the UK are good examples of where liberal Christian religion is fundamental to their way of life, though many now have growing populations of Muslims and Asian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. These countries represent the gold standard in economic growth and development. There is ample evidence that their religious practices have been positive to their economic growth and orderly development of their societies. You can say similar things about Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai, Turkey, Egypt and a few of such countries that have adopted Islam as state religion, even within the context of belonging largely to developing nations categorization. Countries with restricted religious freedom like Russia, Japan and China have shown mixed results. Japan had delayed economic growth but shot up in the 20th century with massive technological breakthroughs. Russia has been mixed. It has not shone forth like other countries of its age. Communism, which was a political ideology that more or less replaced religion for a long time, in my opinion, may have undermined economic growth and development. The low pace of economic development in North Korea as different from the exceptionally rapid growth in South Korea (with one of the largest Churches in the world) may derive in some part from their opposing religious orientations. One area of clear distinction in my view is that those countries that allowed religious freedoms have a higher moral tone and overall better quality of life. Though China has become a recent economic miracle, its economic liberalization which mimicked the western course of development, happened because of toning down of communism and some better religious tolerance. The violence predominant in the Middle East and the terror that have been exported from that axis- Osama Bin Ladan’s Al Qaeda, and its metamorphosis -ISIS May be difficult to explain along religious lines. But there is no gain saying that there is some impact of religion, perhaps misguided extremist religious ideologies that say that God would reward anyone who kills in His defence, such as has been exported to Somalia’s Elshabab and West Africa’s Boko haram.
In Nigeria, there is certainly no gain saying that the multi-religious practices in Nigeria have played more positive roles in its growth and development than the negative consequences of some of the religious practices. That is to say that in my view religion has helped the growth and development of Nigeria. Early education in Nigeria was influenced by both Christian and Islamic religions. Many of the Mission Schools and healthcare centers in Nigeria established by the missionaries especially the Christian genre provided much of the educational and healthcare needs of Nigerians in the years after independence. And even today, they still represent the gold standards as Nigerian governments with few exceptions over the years haven shown a chronic inability to provide or manage efficiently public educational and health institutions.
The major paradox in Nigeria is that it looks like the more religious institutions we build, the more denominations and sects we create, the worse we become morally. Corruption in Nigeria, for example, which is preached against by most (if not all) religious groups, seems to be growing in tandem with our religious expansion. And endemic corruption has severely compromised Nigeria’s growth and development. Violence and all forms of criminality have been growing as our churches and mosques grow. Poor work-ethic and consequent low productivity continue to define our economic land space. Poor governance and poverty have increased along the same scale as the growth in worship centres in Nigeria. In fact in Nigeria, people are now stealing and killing in the name of their “gods”. This development has led many to begin to query the impact of religion on our moral tone and economic well being. They seem to be pointing to atheistic nations as Japan, China and Australia as having better moral tone and registering better growth and development than Nigeria where most people practice one form of religion or another.
As I was discussing this bewildering situation over this week end with a friend of mine at the Full Gospel Lagos National Convention, he raised two reasons why he thinks religion is not making as much positive impact as it made in the colonial or immediate post colonial eras in Nigeria. First is that many false religions or false variants of true religions have proliferated in Nigeria in the guise of freedom of worship. The prayers and activities of these false religions are cancelling out or neutralizing the effect of the true religious groups. The second is that chronic poor governance in Nigeria has driven many Nigerians into poverty and the only religion that interests many now is the religion of “ stomach infrastructure” and many Nigerians are now compelled to worship any ‘ god’ that will guarantee regular meals. So how do we deal with these two problems? For the first one, he suggested vigilance and some form of censorship by the major religious groups. Which is to say that CAN for example should find ways to expose the false prophets and the lions in sheep’s clothing within the Christian religious groups while the JNI should do same for Muslim religious groups. What of the Traditional religious groups? He could proffer no solution. Should we set up a religious control body in the nature of NAFDAC to rout out fake prophets or fake or false churches and mosques? He said that would create more problems than it can solve! On the second issue, he said that the answer was that Nigerians should vote in responsible leadership in the forthcoming elections. If poverty decreased, many will not fall prey to magicians and necromancers who parade as religious people. Or are they? In response, I told him that the way out was to stop religious proliferation- People searching for God and in the process clutching at anything that pretends to be “God” and to begin a culture of people responding to the call of God. God is calling man to repentance and a new relationship. That to me is the true religion which will help change things for Nigeria in the temporal and assure eternal peace.
Mazi Sam I. Ohuabunwa OFR, FPSN