Why Nigeria Needs El-Rufai's Law


With the only exception of the alleged abduction of a teenaged girl from Bayelsa, the raging fuel crisis and the reactions it provoked, in the past several weeks, no other issue attracted as much attention as the bill introduced to the Kaduna State House of Assembly by Governor Nasir el-Rufai seeking to amend the State’s Religious Preaching Law enacted in 1984 in the wake of the bloody ethno-religious crisis that threatened the peace and stability of the state in the same era.

Decidedly, contrary to the uncouth and pedestrian reactions credited to some Muslim and Christian leaders who should know better, the bill did not emerge in a vacuum. The special circumstances of the early 1980’s in Kaduna ensued the law was enacted under the prevailing military administration of the time. Presently, there is nothing out there to suggest that the original law has outlived its usefulness.

On the contrary, with the advent of the Boko Haram insurgency, and the serial bombing of Churches and Mosques across the nation; coupled with the bitter religious tensions their campaign of sheer lunacy generated, it is clear that the 1984 law in its present form and substance, desperately needs to be strengthened. Before el—Rufai’s decision to amend the law alerted public attention to its existence, there is no evidence to even suggest it was ever enforced in the first place.

Either due to the lack of political will or capacity for good governance, the failure of successive administrations in the past to enforce the law even in its original form no doubt contributed to the frequent re-occurrence of the ethno-religious disturbances which devastated the socio-economic equilibrium of the state on far too occasions than we care to remember since 1984. For readers not too familiar with the fine details of el-Rufai’s proposed amendment, a brief recount of the major provisions of the bill is essential at this point.

The bill seeks to establish a joint multi-religious Committee with representations equally drawn from the Jama’atul Nasir Islam and the Christian Association of Nigeria in the state to enforce the regulation of all religious preaching in the state. The same Committee will be responsible for the issuance of licences to all preachers in the state. Any preacher without a valid licence issued by the Committee consequently becomes ineligible to practice among other provisions and proposed penalties.

With religious extremism threatening to polarize the world, and with our unfortunate recent history with the Boko Haram insurgency, I don’t see now any of the provisions should pose a threat to anyone. But this is Nigeria. Even some Islamic clerics who should know a thing or two about the genesis of Boko Haram have joined in lampooning the Governor.

But the harshest criticism has come from Christian groups and individuals. Some, like Apostle Johnson Suleiman, founder of the Omega Fire and Miracle Ministries have even sentenced el-Rufai to death for daring to propose the amendment in a video that has already gone viral on the internet. I will probably receive the same treatment if he gets to read this piece. Others like the Chairman of CAN in Kaduna state, Bishop George Dodo, swiftly convened a secret meeting in Kaduna after which he was generous enough to concede that its sole purpose was to abort the bill at all costs but will not reveal the details on how they intend to achieve the goal.

I chose to write this because by the weekend it was obvious that the plot against the Governor had reached ridiculous levels. A lie was obviously spread that the Governor was involved in a fight with his Deputy who happens to be a Christian. In the fable, el-Rufai was allegedly dealt a dirty slap in the altercation and was subsequently rushed to hospital for treatment afterwards. Mercifully, the Deputy Governor has since denied the rumor. But it did not stop Apostle Suleiman from gloating over the alleged incident in his video.

That is the level to which religious evangelism has descended to in Nigeria. I attended a few missionary schools as a youth to know that Jesus – revered as Prophet Isa (SAW) in Islam did not condone violence in his teachings. He did not wish death on anyone in the manner suggested by Apostle Suleiman. His attitude and utterances on this matter says a lot about the constitution of many Pentecostal churches in Nigeria today. We shall return to this subject in due course.

The proposed bill is not perfect like all things created by man. But then, that is why it remains a proposal to the legislature which is expected to be heavily debated. It is not yet the law. Some commentators have already pointed out that it does not stipulate what ‘data’ is required to qualify for the issuance of a preaching license.

It is also silent on whether individuals can listen to religious tapes in their vehicles. Clarifications will also have to be offered for Christian congregations in churches that use loud speaker (microphone) after 8.00 p.m. The criteria for what qualifies people to be issued with a license could also be mage less ambiguous in the opinion of others. Also, some have citizen the bill because although it does not regulate traditionalists in the practice of their beliefs, they are to have a representative on the Committee which regulates the Christian and Muslim religions.

All these are issues that can be cleared with a modicum of civility. I agree with Pastor Suleiman that every Nigerian has a right to practice his or her religion in accordance with with Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution which presupposes that every Nigerian has a right or freedom of thought, conscience and religion and a right to change religion. I also concede to their inherent right to preach to their followers. But in doing so, it is implied that they do so with responsibility in order not to distort the teachings of their religions. You no longer practice or preach religion when you promote hate. You forfeit the rights to be called a preacher when your sermons run contrary to the provisions of the Quran and Hadith, or the scriptures. A clear distinction must be made between preaching the word of God and barefaced blasphemy. And yet, they had other options.

When the proposed law succeeds in purging the activities of Islamic radicalization it is not only Muslims that benefit but ultimately their neighbours of other faiths. When the nation is purged of religious extremism on both sides, our places of worship will also be safer because the potential threats to both have been dealt with at the source.

But Nigerian preachers are extra-ordinary people and the extent of their unbridled bigotry against each other has no limits. We saw that far too often in the past particularly in the run-up to the last general elections. Many of the clergymen who abused our collective trust belonged to Pentecostal churches most of which are run like private businesses. It is therefore possible to understand their frustration in this affair.  

The worst of demagogues, including Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump, are at their best when the emotions of gullible millions ever desperate to vent their social frustrations. Religion and politics often provides the platform to actualize their designs for their chosen societies. When I listened to Apostle Suleiman, I became further convinced that Nigerian clergymen and politicians are no less adept at the crude exploitation of people.

On the surface, the target for their attack appears to be the bill, but stark reality is that its draft amendments fundamentally threatens their raison-detre of many who have come to see religion as a legitimate business. The bill will check their excesses. It is also inimical to the foundations of their business strategy which is to expand the size of their congregations by any means necessary even if it means issuing death threats.

There is nothing in the manner that they have carried out this campaign that suggests anything to the contrary. Not even the massive costs of the Boko Haram insurgency appears to have tempered their criminal illogic that the quest to regulate religious preaching is targeted at Christians alone. By the same token, there are also people who know that if approved the bill will do much to address the societal problems of the Almajiri system and the dubious preachers who exploit it for profit. No one currently regulates their curriculum. 

They have forgotten that without proper regulation even psychiatrists will also qualify and be entitled to preach for as long as they have access to loud speakers and the requisite gullible audience too battered by our existing socio-economic conditions to tell the difference.

It is not only Kaduna state that requires a law to regulate religious preaching, the entire nation needs one as well.