Positive religious freedom can integrate diverse, heterogeneous communities in Nigeria, by Yakubu Dogara

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Yakubu Dogara, Former Speaker, Nigeria's House of Representatives

I count it great honour and privilege to be invited to deliver the key note address at this all-important gathering. Permit me to profusely thank the organizers: Christian Solidarity Worldwide Nigeria with the support of Christian Solidarity Worldwide UK and all stakeholders present here for making out time out of your over crowded schedule in order to enrich our perspectives on advancement of religious freedom.
Religious Freedom includes the right to believe, or not to believe, in religious truths. It must be noted that the term: religious freedom covers a wide range of non-religious beliefs including atheism, agnosticism, veganism and pacifism.
In Nigeria, Section 38(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) makes provision for the citizen’s freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or private) to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. Also, Section 39(1), provides for freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference and Section 40 guarantees the freedom of citizens to assemble freely and associate with other persons.
These are the constitutional guarantees when we talk about religious freedom in Nigeria. As lawyers we know that no right is absolute. The Constitution gives the state power to derogate from the above provisions through laws that “are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” Specifically, Section 45(1) provides that, “nothing shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.”
For the State to derogate from those constitutional provisions, it must show that its action is lawful, necessary and proportionate in order to protect:
• public safety
• public order
• health or morals, and
• the rights and freedoms of other people.
The world is experiencing an escalating global crisis of religious freedom. Violent religious persecution, severe government restrictions, and rising social hostilities challenge religious freedom across all the continents of the world. Our dear country is not left out. The truth is that democracy itself needs defending, and as the traditional champions like the United States falter, core democratic norms meant to ensure peace, prosperity, and freedom for all people are under serious threat around the world.
Only recently, precisely on May 12th this year, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken issued the Biden administration’s first annual religious freedom report. In his speech, he singled out countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and Nigeria, among others, for their particularly severe violations. It is no news that the US has already designated Nigeria as a Country of particular concern (CPC) when it comes to violations of religious freedom. For Nigeria, the cases are well documented and violations are committed by both state as well as non-state actors.
Yet, a major problem in our dear country is the failure of intelligent, rational conversation on any national issue especially religious freedom. Yet there are lots of nerves in the air over this issue and spitting of oppugnancy into the religious wind and space. It is sad that these vitriolic truculent commentaries permeate all shades of society including the established elites of all faiths. I must therefore commend the audacity of the organizers of this event for deciding that we engage in this difficult conversation, today What therefore is nation building and how may the exercise of religious freedom impact on it? Nation building is said to refer to “developing a country’s sense of solidarity and identity as a people.” One may not be wrong to see it as, “a process of constructing or structuring a national identity using state power which aim at the unification of the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run.”
Nation building is a complicated subject and as such we do not have the time and luxury to interrogate the subject in detail. All we are concerned with at this gathering is how the exercise of religious freedom may impact on nation building.
The point has severally been made that Nigeria is the “greatest Islamo-Christian nation on earth”. It is difficult if not impossible to find any other nation that aggregates so many Muslims and so many Christians within its borders. Some of us live in communities comprising of men and women of different faiths. We equally have Muslim friends and confidants whom we can genuinely call brothers. Regardless of the tension that religion generates resulting in occasional clashes and mayhem, we cannot deny the fact that there is an exceptional level of brotherhood and solidarity across people of all faiths in Nigeria.
No doubt the positive exercise of religious freedom in Nigeria can help in no small measure in integrating our diverse and heterogeneous peoples. Unfortunately, our history is marked by disturbing anecdotes of series of ethno-religious violence that have profoundly stymied nation building.
Nevertheless, we can successfully harness and exploit the values in the three main religions in Nigeria for sustainable nation building. We don’t have many effective tools, other than religion, to deploy for the development of the physical, mental, psychological and spiritual potentials of citizens in order to promote sustainable nation building in all its ramifications.
As people of faith, we have a divine responsibility to achieve a better and more fully integrated life for our citizens across religious boundaries. It must be noted that we cannot be a nation if we merely tolerate each other or if our peace is only silence. For progress to be made, we must fight for justice for the Christian, for the Muslim and even for those who choose not to believe at all. As lawyers we don’t have to overemphasize the indivisibility of justice.
What therefore is the role of the Christian lawyer in promoting religious freedom for nation building? By Christian lawyer, I mean those lawyers that are spiritually and not carnally minded. Those lawyers that recognize that they are ambassadors here on earth of a kingdom that is spiritual with a constitution, which is the Bible.
Our first role is prayer and not the deployment of our professional calling and expertise because prayer is the only way we can get God to intervene in our affairs. The conditions to secure healing for our land is well laid out in the Constitution of our kingdom. In 2 Chronicles 7:13 &14, when our nation is pushed to a precipice, God expects us, his ambassadors who are called by his name to: humble ourselves and pray, seek his face and turn from our wicked ways; then he will hear from heaven, forgive our sins and heal our land.
God does not expect others who do not bear his name to fulfil those conditions. The implication is that God squarely places the responsibility for the healing of our land on us, his people and not on others.
Therefore, the problem with our nation cannot be those things we often talked about, namely: Islamization agenda, persecution of Christians, hate crimes, greed, corruption, nepotism, scenes of bedlam et al, which are physical symptoms of the fact that we have abdicated our spiritual responsibility. If we fulfil the conditions stipulated in the above verse God will have no option but to heal our land. I say this with all sense of responsibility as God is too holy to lie or be separated from his word. God cannot violate his word and still remains God. By the very nature of our God, he is sovereign until he speaks because once he speaks he is irrevocably bound by his own words.
The scriptures instruct us that faith without works is dead. After exercising our faith, we must do the work of faith by engaging God’s given talents which we took to the universities and law school to polish.
Christian Lawyers must be eternally vigilant in order to protect constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. It was the Irish orator, politician, wit, lawyer and judge, John Philpot Curran who once said, “it is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he breaks, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt”. No one is better prepared to keep issues of religious freedom on the front burners of national discuss than lawyers.
In order to be vigilant, we must utilize our skills to build networks. In this regard, efforts led for and by Christians will not be effective. It must be borderless and must extend beyond ethnicity or particular faith. Inclusivity is key to advancing religious freedom for nation building. Our networks must include Muslims, other People of faith and even those who repudiate religion. Civil society leaders, representatives of Government institutions and credible international partners must also be brought on board.
We can also deploy our skills in promoting constructive dialogue that targets eliminating prejudice and fear. This dialogue must engage allies and known oppressors as well.
Dialogue may result in getting religious leaders to teach and emphasize the ethical codes of their beliefs that make for peaceful co-existence in a plural society. Through dialogue, states can be dissuaded from interfering with religious freedom and encouraged to harness those innate virtues of religion for nation building and advancement.
Also, we must support capacity building to promote resilience in communities. We can offer training in conflict resolution to Community leaders and activists with the sole aim of equipping them to detect red flags and respond to signs of incipient violence before it snowballs.
Our skill set in mediation and negotiation could be imparted on such leaders to help prevent or end religious persecution. If we toil hard in this endeavour we can help build resilient, inclusive communities, in which equal rights of all people are recognized regardless of religion or belief.
Our role must entail that we stand with the oppressed regardless of what faith they profess. This is not a tea party as doing so requires that we accept the fact that when you stand with the oppressed you get treated like the oppressed. Our faith requires us to stand for others the way we want others to stand for us.
Consequently, we must defend the religious freedom of Muslims and others the way we will defend ours, otherwise we will be breaching the golden command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” given by Jesus Christ himself who is the author and finisher of our faith. For it is in seeking for the good of others that we find ours.
In these turbulent times, some of us worry about the fate of the Church. I urge us not to fret as God has not given us the spirit of fear. May we find solace in the words of Jesus Christ: “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Let God be true, but every man a liar.
No matter the dire situation in Nigeria, it cannot create an emergency in heaven. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. Have you ever asked yourself, how do you defeat Christ, what power will you use?
If the almighty Roman Empire before Emperor Constantine couldn’t, no other power can. If you try to destroy him by fire, it’ll refuse to burn because no fire can consume the consuming fire; if you try to destroy him by water, he’ll walk on the water; if you try to destroy him by strong wind, the tempest will lick his hands and lay down at his feet; if you try to destroy him by law, you will find no fault in him as the spotless lamb of God; if you try to destroy him by the seal of an Empire, he’ll break it; if you try to destroy him by putting him in the grave, he’ll rise; and if you try to destroy him by rejection or ignoring him, soon you will hear a still small voice saying, “behold I stand at the door and knock, if a man will open the door, I’ll come in and sup with him, and he with me”. Jesus is Lord of all!
In closing, I urge us all to redouble our determination to fight for advancement of religious freedom and to hate evil and wanton killings in the land; for we can never become what we hate.
Every generation has its Pharaoh and its Red Sea; its sons of Anak; its Ahab, its King Nebuchadnezzar, it’s Haman; its Goliath; its valley of dry bones, etc. If we take the stand to keep proclaiming the truth and defying radical evil, we may well be our Moses; our Joshua/Caleb; our prophet Elijah; our Daniel/Shedrach/Meshach/ Abednego; our Esther/ Mordecai; our David; and our Prophet Ezekiel. As they prevailed then, so shall we prevail now if we faint not. Our Redeemer is strong; the Lord of host is his name.
I wish you a most productive and spiritually fulfilling proceedings in Jesus name.

Being a keynote address delivered by Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogora, a former Speaker  of the House of Representatives, at an advocacy training for Christian Lawyers Fellowship of Nigeria (CLASFON), on “Religious Freedom in Nation Building: The Role of Christian Lawyers” , which held at Ayalla Hotel, Abuja, on July 13, 2021.

 

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