Thursday, 30th November 2023

Jurisprudence and safeguarding religious equality in Nigeria

By ‘Femi D. Ojumu
23 August 2023   |   3:39 am
The certainty of change in humanity remains an immutable constant, notwithstanding its inherent paradox. However, there are certain things, which we know, that we know.

The certainty of change in humanity remains an immutable constant, notwithstanding its inherent paradox. However, there are certain things, which we know, that we know. One of those things, is that when a child is born, that child enters this world not as a Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Judaist et al. The inference being invoked is that of innocence and the purity of birth. Put another way, that human being cannot by the definition of that innate purity, dislike anyone because he/she is incapable of so doing. This phenomenon characterises the nature versus nurture dilemma, which is logically resolved by the former.

The emerging question then is: if a child is incapable of disliking anyone, why should any right-thinking sentient adult dislike another person purely upon the basis of the latter’s religious persuasion? Does this make sense? Obviously not! The thesis of religious equality presupposes the existence of religious inequality. What can the justification be for religious inequality in this day and age? None! Does anyone religion and its rational interpretation, preach hatred for other religions in this day and age? No!

What then, is religion? Is it personal? How does it fit within the socio-legal milieu of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious secular democratic societies? Are ideological clashes necessarily inevitable in such societies? Assuming, without conceding, they are, how does the law objectively intermediate therein and exercises constitutional supremacy?

To really grasp the kernel of the concept of religion, this treatise examines three pertinent definitions. defines religion as “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of special reverence… consisting of the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death…one’s relationship with or attitude towards gods or spirits”.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (1828) accessible via, affirms religion as “a personal set or institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices”. And,, encapsulates it as “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”.

Accordingly, religion is patently a personal belief system and an individualistic relationship with a supreme entity as comprehended by each person.

From a sociological perspective, there exists a warring concourse of opposite ideologies between structural functionalists, religious believers, and nonbelievers. According to the authors, John Macionis and Linda Gerber, the kernel of structural-functionalism is that society is a “complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability”(Sociology, 7th ed). It holistically examines social configurations relative to the dynamic interrelationships of customs, institutions, mores, norms andvalues.

One of its greatest exponents was the German philosopher, Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx opined in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right(1843) that religion aims to null human suffering in the material world, contending that man makes religion; religion does not make man! He argued further that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the “opium des volkes”, the drug of the people!

Believers, especially of the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, quite unsurprisingly,reject structural-functionalism as expounded by Marx. They affirm their enduring faith in a Supreme monotheistic deity, who is omnipotent, omnidirectional, omnipresent, and omniscient whose injunctions, and final will, governed, governs and will govern, all affairs of humankind ad infinitum.

Subscribers to indigenous Afrocentric religions share similar belief systems to those of the Abrahamic faiths as regards the pivotal centrality of a Supreme deity. The Yorubas interchangeably proclaim that deity to be “Eledumare”, “Eledua”, “Olodumare” and “Olorun”. A key distinction between the Yoruba indigenous religion and the Abrahamic faiths is that of polytheism, which exists in the former, not the latter. In the former, other “gods” or “orishas” exist like “Obaluaiye”, the deity of healing and wealth; “Obatala”, the earth and firmament deity; “Ifa”, the divination deity; “Ogun”, the iron deity; “Osun” or “Osun”, the beauty, fertility, and love deity; Orunmila, the knowledge and wisdom deity; ỌOya, the deity of rebirth; “Sango”, the thunder and lightning deity.

Further exposition is afforded by late Chief Fagbemi Ajanaku Araba (former Chief Ifa Priest) of Lagos who opined thus: “Ki ni wan je ifa paa pa? Ifa ni akojopo oro Olorun, to fi ran Orunmila si awon eda aye”. The translation is: What is Ifa? Ifa is the totality of God’s message to mankind sent through Orunmila (Fagbemi, 1978, Iwe Asa Ibile Yoruba).

There are millions of “Olodumare” adherents throughout Nigeria (especially in the states of Ekiti, Kogi, Kwara, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun); West Africa, Brasileiro, Columbia, Cuba, Haiti, the United States and beyond. The indigenous ancient Yoruba traditional religion is called Isese.

Atheists are non-believers. They do not subscribe to the notion of any superior force in the affairs of mankind. Agnostics are deeply sceptical about the existence of any deity.

The alignment of religion within the socio-legal milieu of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious secular democratic societies like Nigeria is quite complex. The country is home to adherents of Christianity, Islam, Yoruba traditional religion, Isese, and other Afrocentric religious belief systems.

That is hardly surprising because the nation of over 220 million people, comprises over 250 different ethnic groups speaking over 250 different languages. If ever there were verbal skirmishes as to the meaning of ethno-religious and diversity, Nigeria provides the perfect resolution in its cultural heterogeneity. Although ideological religious clashes are not necessarily inevitable, there are countless examples where these have resulted, unfortunately, in deaths, kidnapping and terrorism – nearly always driven by intolerance and extremist interpretations of religious codes.

For example, on Sunday June 5, 2022, over 40 Roman Catholic worshippers at St. Francis Xavier, Church, Owo, Ondo State, were brutally murdered by ethno-religious terrorists. Between 14 through 15 April 2014, approximately 276, mostly Christian female students aged between 16 and 18, were kidnapped by Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. (Associated Press/BBC/ Wikipedia).

Progressive nations learn, and really must learn, from positive and negative domestic and international historical antecedents. Religious and sectarian clashes in Northern Ireland claimed approximately 3000 lives in the 50 years to 2019; the Bosnian war (1992-1995) claimed over50,000 lives.
Given its multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual configuration and the devastating impact of the virulent Nigerian/Biafra Civil War (1967-1970), and the pivotal necessity to learn from history, unsurprisingly, the recitals to the Nigerian 1999 Constitution (as amended), establish inter alia, its objective as “promoting security, welfare and good governance and fostering the unity and progress of the people of Nigeria”.

Indeed, section 1 (1) of that Constitution establishes the supremacy of the constitution and its binding force on all authorities and persons throughout Nigeria and section 10 (supra), a fortiori, explicitly, and mandatorily, prohibits any state religion whatsoever viz: “the Government of the Federation or a State shall not adopt any religion as State religion”. The only rational deduction here is freedom of religion. And, if there is freedom of religion, which there is, it matters little whether one is in Agbarho, Biu, Daura, Eket, Gusau, Ibadan, Ilorin, Iwo, Kaduna, Mbaise, Obiaruku etc. In short, anyone can theoretically practice their religion anywhere in Nigeria.

However, the jurisprudential rationale and subsistence of the law, de jure, is one thing. The practical enforcement of the law; the compelling political will to enforce the law; the capacity to enforce the law amidst competing demands for law and order; and the demographics of a particular precinct and the religious skew therein, to either enhance, or sabotage, the intentions of the law, are completely different things.

Be that as it may, the law is the law. Ignorance of the law is no defence in civilised societies and violations are to be punished for the enduring preservation of law and societal order. Of course, cultural sensitivity is important. However, no one religion, should be accorded greater priority over any other, given Nigeria’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and socio-historical dynamics. Besides, for over a decade, the country has battled ethno-religious terrorism, the infernal heartbeat of which is religious intolerance.

According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, over 35, 000 people have been killed since 2009, when Boko Haram launched its terrorist insurgency aimed at toppling Nigeria’s secular government and establishing an Islamic state; andthere are approximately two million internally displaced persons in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states alone.

To end, under domestic law and international law, all persons deserve equal protection subject to specific exceptions for established legal violations. Evidence for this is afforded by section 38 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution supra: “every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief…”. Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 1986 guarantees persons freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion. Underpinning these, are the seminal provisions of article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which guarantee freedom of belief and religion.

Therefore, Christians, Muslims, Isese adherents, persons of other faiths and those of no faith, must be actively protected by law everywhere in Nigeria. Exemplifying this point in practical terms, in August 2023, de facto commitment to religious equality has now been eloquently reinforced in Lagos, Ogun, Osun and Oyo states with the recognition of a dedicated Isese day, like the annual public holidays granted to adherents of the Abrahamic faiths.

Only time will tell how other states, and indeed, the Federal Government, address the symbolic and practical necessity of demonstrable religious equality in words and deeds.

The simplistic analogy of a child and purity of innocence at the start of this piece is therefore valid. Folks must learn to live harmoniously and peacefully. That proposition is very well captured in a seminal publication, To Serve in Truth and Justice (Balogun, Hairat A, 2010) viz; “no religion or faith preaches violence or corruption. What is important however is the ability to tolerate the views of others and doing to others as we wish to be done to us, no matter in what position we find ourselves.”

Ojumu is the Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal practitioners and strategy consultants in Lagos, Nigeria.