19 January 2013

Nigeria: Freedom of Religion, Democracy and Nigerian Constitution

Section 38 (1) of the 1999 constitution and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right, provide:

"Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

Since Nigeria transited into Constitutionally Democratic Government in 1999, there have been posited a clash of civilizations emerging from fundamentally opposing sets of values some which are rooted in religious belief, for instance, the Nigerian Constitution and the body of laws identified different sources of the laws to wit: Common Law, Islamic Law (shariah) and Customary Law, these left the system as already a complex one. The conflict is more pronounced between anti-Shariah Sentiments and Shariah apologist.

The anti-Shariah sentiments argued that, even though the Nigerian legal system is complex but the Shariah system is a personal matter of Muslims, notwithstanding provision in the constitution which requires enforcement of Shariah Laws as integral part of the Nigerian Legal System, Prof Ben Nwabueze argued thus:

"The practice of the Shariah and the observance of moral precept and injunction in the Quran are personal matter for the individuals to be inculcated by teaching and preaching in the Quranic schools and Mosque by individual self-abnegation and self discipline not by enforcement through the coercive machinery of government"

The Right to Freedom of Religion is a Fundamental Right as enshrined in the constitution and its enforcement is the requirement of the constitution, section 46 (1) provides for enforcement of Chapter IV (Fundamental Rights) of the constitution, thus:

"Any person who alleges that any of the provisions of this Chapter has been, is being or likely to be contravened in any State in relation to him may apply to a High Court in that State for redress"

The Right to Freedom of Islamic Religion can only be practiced through Shariah. The Shariah is a Code of Conduct and Religious law of Islam incumbent upon a Muslim by virtue of his religious belief.

The preposition that the practice of Shariah is only as a personal matter negates the provision of the constitution which requires enforcement on breach of laws regarding the Shariah personal laws, section 277 of the Constitution gives Shariah Court of Appeal Jurisdiction to entertain matters relating to marriage, divorce, custody of children, gift, waqf, inheritance where the parties are Muslims, this with respect, requires the enforcement of the law.

The Shariah by its definition is encompassing, it is a complete way of life. For a Muslim to practice his religion according to section 38 (1) of the Constitution he can only do so according to the Shariah. Allah says in the Holy Quran 45: 18, thus:

"Then we put thee on the path (Shariah) so follow thou that (way) and follow not the desires of those who know not"

Muslims are always being cautioned with a speculative view that Islamic Values/ Shariah will further fuel religious tension essentially between Christians and Muslims, the emotional reactions by non-Muslims to anything Islamic left Muslims with no option than to understand an unambiguous denial of their Constitutional Right to practice their religion, for instance, under Shariah, Muslims were not allow to engage in forbidden transactions i.e Riba (interest) transactions, when Central Bank of Nigeria gave license to Jaiz Bank Plc to operate Islamic Free Interest Bank, the emotional reactions by non-Muslim to the development is worrisome, presupposes flagrant abuse of Muslims Right to Freedom of their religion as enshrined in the Constitution. The practice of Islamic Finance (Islamic Banking, takaful, sukuk as against Conventional Banking, Insurance, Stock Market etc) is part of Shariah and within the ambit of section 38 (1) of the Constitution, Muslims should pursuit vigorously the practice of their religion (shariah) within constitutional means possible.

In democracy, important public decision on question of law and policy defend directly or indirectly upon public opinion formally expressed by Citizens of the Community (Weale, Albert. 1999. Democracy. New York: St. Martin's Press).

In Nigeria, Muslims who constitute the majority of the Nigerian populace expressed their popular opinion in favour of Shariah, why the opposition? Unless we are not under democratic government, the Anti-Shariah Sentiments even though quite aware that Nigeria as a democratic republic operates complex system of law where Common law, Islamic law and Customary law applied side by side, took emotional steps to create political and religious tension and enmity in the Nigerian system.

The Shariah as a civilization and world view pre-dates modern Nigeria and its application is constitutional without any apology. Muslims have the Constitutional Right to practice their religion.

Ibrahim Esq. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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