Sam Amadi, Senior Lecturer, Baze University

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Religious speech and political discourse in 2023 12 Sep 2022

Recently, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) warned politicians against campaigning in places of religious worship and using masquerades for political campaigns. The commission threatened to invoke the sanctions in the electoral law against such prohibited acts. INEC had to act to step in to stop the growing voices of religious leaders in the build-up to the 2023 presidential elections. Although political campaign has not officially begun, Christian and Islamic leaders have been expressing strong reservations and preferences about the presidential candidates.

INEC’s statement has underlined the need and complexities of regulating religion in the quest for social stability and democratic governance. Should religion be part of the public discourse of democracy in Nigeria? Considering the country’s propensity to religious conflict, and its unique ethno-religious landscape, how much role should religious convictions and interests play in political discourse?

It was APC’s fielding of an all-Muslim presidential ticket to the chagrin of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) that provoked religious speech in the 2023 election political discourse. Before the presidential primaries, CAN urged political parties to respect the country’s religious diversity and the contentious nature of religion in Buhari’s Nigeria by diversifying their presidential tickets. When Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a Muslim from the Southwest, emerged as APC presidential candidate, CAN urged him to choose a Christian from the North to balance his ticket. Tinubu chose former Governor Kashim Shettima, a northern Muslim, as Vice Presidential candidate. Since then, leading pastors in Nigeria have called on Nigerians, especially Christians, to reject the ticket. Peter Obi, the Labour Party candidate who is leading a massive youth movement, has frequented many churches where he received massive support of worshippers. Leading northern Christians in the ruling APC have publicly protested the religiously exclusory nature of their presidential ticket.

Considering how much religion has shaped Nigeria’s political history, mostly negatively, the constitution takes an approach that defangs religion without cancelling it. In the language of religion and state relations, the Nigerian constitutional bargain is calibrated between the US ‘strict separation’ and the British ‘accommodation’ models. The Nigerian Constitution follows the US Constitution in establishing two concepts of freedom of religion: the ‘Free Exercise’ and the ‘non-accommodation’ clauses in Sections 10 and 39. Section 10 prohibits the Nigerian state from establishing a state religion. Section 39 guarantees the full complement of freedom of religion.

But the problem is that the same constitution that prohibits state establishment of religion provides for religious laws and court systems in the form of Sharia courts, thereby allowing the Nigerian state to accommodate religion in a manner that looks like establishment, or at best, ‘religion-state-partnership’ as in Germany. The incoherence in the constitutional articulation of the character of the Nigerian state in regard to state and religion relations has resulted in acute political instability and religious conflicts. The mainstreaming of religion in state bureaucracy, a Nigerian malaise that attains the height of a directive principle of state policy under President Buhari, is one of the main drivers of insecurity in the country. How religion should feature in public policy in Nigeria is incoherent and leads to ineffective regulation.

That is the problem INEC will face in removing religion from political campaign. First challenge is how to restrict religious speech without violating freedom of expression. Nigerians have the right to freedoms of expression and association. Political speech is a core aspect of the free speech. It requires great refinement to draw a line between political speeches -- one grounded in religious conviction -- and the other grounded in philosophic ideas, as all of them can be equally comprehensive moral doctrines, to borrow the language of political liberalism, a’la John Rawls.

Restraining religious leaders from engaging in political communication apart from being potentially unconstitutional, could undermine the buoyance of civic consciousness. In spite of the dangers that religion in politics poses for religious tolerance, liberal thinkers have recognized the value of religion in fashioning ‘the Habits of Hearts’, the civic morality that enriches democracy.

The churches played a key role in stimulating many Nigerians to register to vote. They are also playing important role in raising public morality to support free and fair election. Such benign contributions to political education should be recognized even as we worry about the divisive and violent turn that religious politics could take. The problem is how to encourage the positive and restrain the negative.

Typically, the jurisprudence of electoral law does not help. The 2022 Electoral Act broadly criminalizes political speech in religious places. That is too broad to be constitutional or beneficial to political education. The Act also criminalizes all forms of political communication in ‘public offices’, which is defined as any office occupied by a person elected or appointed. This means that every political officeholder in Nigeria, from the President to Governors, have violated the electoral law.

This means there would be no fair and effective prosecution. You can't prosecute religious leaders for political speech in religious houses and spare elected officials for political speech in public offices since Section 92 of the Electoral Act criminalizes both.

The incoherence of both the constitution and the electoral laws makes it impracticable for INEC to effectively regulate religious speech in political campaign. There is a potential danger of unrestrained religious speech in political campaign in 2023, especially in the light of the President’s weaponization of religion and ethnicity. The challenge is how to restrain dangerous religious speech without damaging freedom and democracy itself.

Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.