The president of the Senate, David Mark, yesterday said that any political figure who emphasises his religious belief as a campaign tool is a failed politician.
Also, a former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, yesterday advocated the ending of federal government's funding for religious pilgrimages, adding that it should play a regulatory role instead.
They both made the remarks at the 10th Anniversary Public Lecture of the Sun newspaper entitled "Religion, Strife and the Future of Democracy in Africa".
In his remark, Mark decried the use of religion by politicians and religious leaders to cause strife in the country. All religions preach peace and it is only failed politicians that use religion to play politics, said Mark who was also the chairman of the occasion.
"It is only failed politicians that bring religion to the fore of politics, because when you campaign you do not campaign on the platform of any religion. Any politician who comes up and brings faith in politics has missed it; bringing religion to the fore is not the best for our nation," he stated. "When people find they can't make progress anymore they begin to employ their various faiths, and that is wrong. Any politician that emphasises his or her faith ... is a failed politician. We will not deny our faith. I am a Catholic, and I will say it anywhere. The bottom line is that Nigeria needs to move forward."
He added: "A criminal is a criminal; there is no Christian criminal or Muslim criminal. When you get yourself involved in such bad activities and you are caught, you will be treated as a criminal. And the law should be allowed to take its own course. However, today, organised criminals constitute a major problem. And I think some Nigerians today are organised criminals."
Religion, he said, should be used as an instrument of peace that will unite all Nigerians and not divide them.
Responding to a comment that the almajiri schooling system should be scrapped, Mark defended the almajiri school initiative by the government, saying it was better to have the children educated in some way than leaving them uneducated at all.
Atiku, who was the guest of honour at the lecture, faulted government's funding of religious pilgrimages, adding that it should concentrate on regulating the process.
He stated that, in the old Northern Region, "people went to Saudi Arabia but we did not have a pilgrims board".
He said: "I remember when I was a vice president, I drafted a law for us to just have like a regulatory body to make sure we appoint agents who are responsible for taking care of pilgrims when they go to Saudi Arabi or Jerusalem or wherever they want to go.
"But, at the end of the day at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have a section that does Christian welfare board, Muslim welfare board. It is not a regulatory agency we are having."
He branded all religious crises as criminal, refuting claims that they were instigated by poverty. Atiku continued: "Somebody spoke about poverty; yes, it is true that poverty can drive young people particularly to go into crime. Because as far as I am concerned what they do is crime, it is not religious. But in the First Republic we also had poverty. The level of our education at that time is not like we have today. So was it that we never had suicide bombers like we have today? It is true that with more education and more jobs we will get the kids off the streets and the violence will be minimal.
"But, all the same, I think Nigeria is unique across the world. It is about the only country in the world where you have almost an even population of Christians and Muslims living together in peace. There is no country in this world like Nigeria."
He added that time has vindicated him over his description of sharia law as championed by some governors in the past as "political sharia" which will fade out with time.
Recalling how he was taunted him as "Reverend Abubakar", he lamented how politicians use religion to seek votes.
"I remember when they brought sharia: I told the president that this is political. Some politicians used it to win election and go. Where is the sharia today?" he asked. "They forgot that in Northern Nigeria when we had Sir Ahmadu Bello we did not have sharia. Yes, we had some elements of Islamic laws governing inheritance and marriage, but we had hitherto Northern Nigeria. So this is where sometimes, if we are not careful, politicians will play on our intelligence."
Describing the topic of the lecture as apt and timely, Atiku in his earlier remark said: "As we are gathered here to celebrate this 10th anniversary of this publishing outfit, different parts of Africa and indeed Nigeria are being torn apart by ethnic, religious and regional conflicts. The cost to Africa in terms of human lives, property, productivity and trade is clearly enormous. And this is a continent that continues to be weighed down by other developmental challenges including poverty, disease, unemployment, drought, low productivity due to lack of infrastructure and near insignificant contribution to world trade."
He added that there is an urgent need for the continent to "quickly and decisively tackle these conflicts, whether they are religious or otherwise, not only to stem the needless waste of lives and property but so we can also focus on developing our human and material resources to provide our people better lives".
"As leaders, we must avoid trying to score political points with the very serious security challenges facing us but rather show responsible leadership and commitment in searching for solutions to them wherever that search takes us," said Atiku
The guest speaker, former Ghanaian president John Kufuor, lamented that, right from history, religion had been used by man to access power and control over others. "To compound this canker, man in his vaulting political ambition has also been known to use religion to divide society, subjugate other people and to lord it over them. This has been known to have introduced some major wars in history."
Kufuor, who also maintained that all religions preach peace, advised that religion should be a communion between the individual and his God, not an instrument of control.