We are witnessing again the way that passion is easily mobilised to displace reason and subject society to danger when it comes to religion. This has been amply shown in the manner of responses to the proposed amendment to the Regulation of Religious Preaching Edict that has been law in Kaduna State since 1984. The hysteria has been incredible! The proposed amendment is said to be anti-Christian, anti-Muslim and discriminatory against other religions, that is when some adherents are not falsely claiming that it is targeted only against their own faith. Further proving the need for such a law, a preacher has come out to rain curses and decree death in a video clip that showed that he had not really read nor understood the legislation he professed to dislike. Ignorance is often made worse by bluster!
Lest we be distracted by all the display of piety and passion, let us get back to the edict and its proposed amendments. Air-Commodore Usman Muazu first enacted the law as military governor of Kaduna State in August 1984. This followed the Maitatsine upheaval in parts of the north of Nigeria, a convulsion caused by the unregulated activities of a preacher and that was quelled only by the intervention of the military. The 1984 Edict codified the principle of licensing of preachers, a practise that had in the past been enforced by the Native Authorities. It also restricted the playing of religious cassettes to homes, banned the use of abusive language against any person or religious organisation or religious leader and prohibited the playing of religious recordings in public places, the use of loudspeakers for religious purposes other than in a church or mosque, the abuse of religious books and the use of such terms as “infidels,” “non-Islamic,” or “pagans” in describing other religious groups. The penalty for violating the 1984 edict was two years’ imprisonment with an option of fine.
Then came the 1987 religious violence which followed altercations over a preacher’s comments during a student gathering in Kafanchan. The unrest reached Kaduna and Zaria, with soldiers having to be drafted to restore calm. The military governor, Lt. Colonel Abubakar Umar responded with a 1987 amendment to the 1984 edict, that removed the option of fine and extended the term of imprisonment upon conviction to five years. Colonel Hamid Ali further amended the edict in 1996.
Any casual observer of Nigerian history knows that Kaduna State has been torn asunder too often by religious discord of the most violent hue, and that even political differences rapidly degenerate into ethno-religious zero-sum games. Riots over the Danish cartoons took countless lives in Kaduna, as did the Miss World debacle and the 2011 elections. The result is a divided capital city, Kaduna, which has fallen from its pride of place as home to all as the capital of Northern Nigeria, the country’s most diverse region. The city is now divided into a mainly Muslim zone to the north of the River Kaduna and a mainly Christian enclave to the south. Its two other major cities, Kafanchan and Zaria have also tasted of the bitter grapes of religious violence. More recently, the claims of one religious group to decide who can use a public highway led to a tragedy that is now the subject of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry.
The proposed amendments to the law preserve the requirement for licensing preachers, a rational response to limit the irresponsible use of religion to stoke prejudice, violence and mass murder. Aside from this, it introduces only a few new features, including a prohibition on the use of loudspeakers for religious purposes after 8pm in a public place and expands the places where religious recordings can be played to include churches, mosques and any other designated place of worship. It also upholds the ban on on any religious recording that uses abusive language against any person, religious organisation or religious leaders.
Thus, neither the extant law nor the proposed amendments infringe on the right to faith or the right to worship. It is dangerous hyperbole to claim that it restricts any faith, Christian, Muslim or otherwise. In my view, it rightly seeks to ensure that those who will claim to exercise the power of spiritual leadership are known, and are certified to be equipped to reasonably exercise such powers. Muslims are already familiar with the fact that even in a very conservative and strict religious society like Saudi Arabia, all preachers need a license. One could concede that the idea of a license to preach may be novel to Christians but that does not render it anathema. Faith is too important an arena of the human experience to be left unregulated, and I daresay that any honest religious person (regrettably not a tautology) would concede that the potential for extremism is present in any creed. I have heard arguments that ordination as a religious minister should suffice as license for a global remit. License is permission to practice within a specified territory for a prescribed time the skills and knowledge that ordination have presumably bestowed. All rights are exercised within a context. A driver cannot reasonably interpret his right to freedom of movement as freedom to drive against traffic and imperil others. The cherished right to liberty does not bestow powers to constrain another’s. Just as the right to free speech is in many jurisdictions not an excuse for hate speech or incitement.
A government with a duty to secure lives in a climate of tensioned religiosity should be prudent and take the necessary precautions. The licensing of medical doctors and other professionals after long years of study reflects society’s view of the magnitude of the responsibility these professionals bear. Why should those who deal in the sacred realm, with the capacity to inspire both the finest human conduct and the most grievous orgies of prejudiced violence be without any supervision?
The Religious Preaching Edict and its amendment speak to the need to preserve good order in society, to secure the human beings who can practise and be nourished by faith only when they are alive. It seeks to remove noise pollution, penalise hate speech and preserve the practise of religion in the private sphere. I heard someone ask what it would mean for the Great Commission, that admonition to Christians to spread the Gospel. The Great Commission does not have to be practised as the Great Commotion, as an aggregation of the most noisome sound, or the passion of worship alone. The Christian is charged to be a light to the world, that is to be exemplary in conduct and in compassion. As for vigils, their solemn purpose should so thoroughly occupy the voluntary attendees that they should have no need to announce their piety by terrorising non-attendees with loudspeakers.
The amendment that the Kaduna State Government has proposed now brings the whole Religious Preaching Bill into a democratic setting. It restores the original two-year penalty for contraventions and is being subjected for the first time to scrutiny by elected legislators. During the public hearings and the process of legislation in general, grey areas can be clarified and further amendments made to help ensure that religion is no longer used to destroy humanity, but to enhance we frail homo sapiens that the Almighty God created and bestowed with different tongues, colours and creeds.
The nagging question then is why the hysterical and overboard reaction to a 32-year old statute in a state with such a painful history? No Christian or Muslim is hindered in the practise of his faith by this law, except perhaps those who may feel that their piety is measured only by the extent to which they can use it to disturb or form a menace to others. My view is that, even in our Third World morass, nobody should be allowed to insist on a veto over the preservation of security and good order.
Abuja Based Political Analyst/Public and Social Commentator.