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Repentant terrorists, unforgiving religionists, and a religious Nigeria

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Not less than one thousand five hundred of our terrorist compatriots have in the past few weeks realized it is wrong to steal, kill, and destroy in God’s name and tendered their apologies to us. In fulfilment of its divine responsibility, the Federal Government has rehabilitated them, washed them clean of their terrorist past, and handed them a clean slate, that second chance we all love to be given whenever we stray, stumble, and fall. The once upon terrorists are now ready for reintegration into the society that bears in its heart the bleeding wounds of terrorist acts but sadly the society is not willing to receive them.

Given the religious credentials of the Nigerian society, that hesitancy is strange and unexpected. In fact, it is extremely disappointing that our religiosity does not find an unconditional expression in the duality of forgiveness, a centripetal force which daily gravitates us toward divine acceptance. This is a serious issue considering our insatiable appetite for mainstreaming religious laws into every aspect of the secular state. From North to South, the Sharia Law politics remains a confusion spot in our amorphous legal system, even as the yearning for the Ecclesiastical Law is growing in some quarters. While we exercise ourselves in unforgiveness, the Federal Government overtook us and took Nigeria into a realm of spirituality, far above mere adoption of religious laws. By the singular act of forgiving the repentant terrorists on our behalf, the Federal Government showed us a non-disruptive way of mainstreaming religious ideals into the affairs of Nigeria.

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In our responses to the plea of the repentant terrorists, we stumbled at two things that are fundamental to life in a religious state. First, because of the gravity of their acts, we consider granting the repentant terrorists forgiveness too cheap, a contravention of all known religious laws. Second, we believe that the repentance which produced the miracle-like transformation is doubtful. While these are valid grounds for apprehension, they are not justifiable reasons for withholding forgiveness from those who ask for it. Forgiveness is central to Christianity and Islam. It is equally central to Judaism, as we must not exclude our Biafran Jews in this all important issue. With local gods cannibalized and their essence appropriated, these three offshoots of the Abrahamic Faith define the religious landscape of Nigeria at the moment. According to the three religions, to freely give His forgiveness, all that God asks of the errant is repentance. God does not stop there: He asks those who believe in Him to as well forgive those who wrong them in one way or another. When God commands that believers forgive those who wrong them, does He make a difference between offences? Are there some people too bad to be forgiven? Even if there are, whose prerogative is it to determine who is too bad for forgiveness? The Quran encourages the errant not to despair the Mercy of Allah because Allah forgives all sins. The Bible invites the wicked to forsake their ways and assures them of God’s mercy and abundant pardon. Again, this degree of mercy and grace exists beyond the realm of religious laws, access to which we unforgiving religionists need to learn from the Federal Government.

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Also, character study of some personalities in the Holy Books can help us gain insight into the unconditionality of God’s forgiveness. By today’s definition, many of the religious personalities of old that have become venerated into sainthood are nothing but terrorists. Remember Saul, later named Paul, and how he consented to the murder of Stephen by a mob? He is no different from the Sheik who allegedly issued a death fatwa on the innocent young man who was mobbed to death in a northern university some years ago.

Remember Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon? By today’s standard, they are by every means genocidal maniacs who saw to the fall and annihilation of many kingdoms. We believe the killings which those characters did in obedience to God were allowable acts of valour and the ones they did in error were fully forgiven. What then has happened to the measure of God’s grace that forgave the wretched of old that it can no longer forgive the wretched of now? As overly religious people, we should not have a problem forgiving those God has forgiven. When we were much younger, we witnessed repentant armed robbers who went about town preaching as personal testimonies the heinous things they did in their criminal years. If there was in the Church in those years grace enough to forgive the sins of such people and to even admit that God could anoint them for His use, it certainly was not inspired by any known religious law. The Federal Government understands this fact so well, but sadly the religionists among us do not.

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We should remember that the Federal Government headed by Mallam Muhammadu Buhari too had a choice in its response to the plea of the repentant terrorists. The president could have gone the way of the law of the land he swore to uphold at all time. Instead, he chose the way of forgiveness. The extant law stipulates as punishment for terrorism up to 20 years imprisonment or even a death sentence. That law does not anticipate a situation where terrorists would come asking for forgiveness from Nigerians. Happily, religious ideals recognize such a situation and make relevant provisions for it. The president, being a pious man, recognized this strength that religious ideals have over the secular law he swore to uphold and sided with the former.

The action of the president exposes another critical inadequacy of our constitution, its blindness to magical transformation of terrorists. The blindness confirms pro-secession agitators’ claim that the 1999 Constitution is good only for the trash can. On this we are in agreement that, in the governance of Nigeria, the Constitution cannot take precedence over religious ideals. We disagree only about modalities, and that is a minor issue. In the way it handles repentant terrorists so far, the Federal Government has given us a foretaste of how compassionate governance informed by religious ideals is. No doubt a government that brings terrorists to repentance in a matter of weeks must be close to the heart of God.

Incontrovertibly, the Federal Government has contributed to the making of a religious Nigeria more than any religious group has in qualitative terms.

The religionists among us want a country that answers to the laws of their faiths.

They are not known to be mindful of the few who find the idea of religion altogether repugnant. They believe religious laws will take the country far away from the depravity and the decadence caused by the godlessness of our secularity. But merely adopting these laws does not reflect divine goodness in perfect details. Yes, some of the twelve Sharia states in northern Nigeria have now become globally matchless in producing terrorists who are capable of repenting momentarily, seeking forgiveness from the people whose lives they make a hell, and encouraging their victims to embrace peace.

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The credit does not go to implementation of Sharia in those states. Religious laws stipulate specific punishments for acts that constitute terrorism. Under normal circumstances, if those states were allowed to invoke the Sharia, the terrorists would have paid dearly for the acts. This is confirmed by how hesitant religious and political leaders from the Sharia states are in welcoming the repentant terrorists back to their communities.

The repentant terrorists now walk free simply because the Federal Government operates at a higher level of religiosity where the quest is to embody divine ideals which transcend religious laws. From all indications, the Buhari government is an answered prayer, having taken Nigeria from secular law to divine rule without implementing any divisive religious laws.

To properly align with the new national religious reality led by the Federal Government, we all need to extend the frontiers of our forgiveness to cover especially those who need it the most, be they repentant terrorists, insufferable criminal herders, or irritant secessionists. The Federal Government cannot be done with the business of forgiveness in a hurry and we are all in it together.

Oladapo wrote from the University of Ibadan.

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