Monday, 03 May 2021 00:59

Pastors, Islamic clerics fight over Reps’ religious discrimination bill

A bill to control religious discrimination is before the House of Representatives. But, there are concerns about some of its contents, especially some unintended consequences that may further polarise the country along the religious line.

The bill was presented to the House for first reading on February 10 when the House resumed from its Christmas break as Religious Discrimination (prohibition) bill 2021. However, it surfaced on the floor of the House for the second reading five weeks after, making it one of the fastest moving bills in the House. It was presented for second reading on March 17, 2021, as “a Bill for an Act to Provide a Mechanism for Enforcing Certain Provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; and for Related Matters”.

Leading the debate, its sponsor, Saidu Musa Abdullahi said if passed into law, it will go a long way in discouraging discrimination in all forms.

Lynda Ikpeazu shared the sentiments of the sponsor and suggested the Bill be submitted to the Special Committee on the Review of the Constitution. The bill was referred to the Ahmed Idris Wase-led Constitution Review Committee.

Section 4 (1) of part B of the bill says “A person shall not, directly or indirectly or by any combination of the two, be intimidated, harassed, victimised or discriminated against on the basis of religious belief or activity or on the grounds of manifestation of religion or religious belief or any other ground of a characteristic that people who have or engage in the religious belief or activity generally have; and on the grounds of a characteristic that people who have or engage in the religious belief or activity are generally presumed to have or manifest which may include wearing religious emblem, head cover, hijab, scarf, habit, decent and modest religious dress.”

But the General Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Daramola Joseph Bade, said the passage of the bill will promote religious war in the country. Bade believes that there is an ulterior motive behind the bill in view of the recent development in Kwara State. He questioned the reason for the haste to pass the bill.

He said: “Why the haste and why the bill? Is it a kind of bill that will bring food to the table of hungry Nigerians? Is it a bill that will assist the hospitals and allow our people to have quality medication? Why are we so much in a hurry to do something that is sectional? We should be cautious enough not to ignite a religious war over wearing of hijab or whatever.”

Justifying the bill, Abdullahi said: “What we are trying to achieve is to ensure that people enjoy some freedom in the public space. We want people to have that liberty to manifest their religious belief in the public space.”

On why he sponsored the bill, he said: “Religious discrimination has become a big challenge and we have shied away from it over the years. So, we came up with a proposal to address religious discrimination in this country. It was not really about the hijab issue that it has become today. Some of the things contained in the proposal were informed by some of the things happening in the country.

“There are so many sections of the Constitution that guaranteed people the right to religion without discrimination. But we have seen this issue rearing its ugly head over the years and it is really taking us back as a country. Religion has become a source of hatred and it has dampened the confidence and trust that we are supposed to have among ourselves. If we cannot build consensus and understanding and appreciate who we are as a people.”

But the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev. Samson Supo Ayokunle, believes that there is no need for any fresh legislation as the country already has enough laws that can take care of discrimination, adding that “if anybody is discriminated against, the court is open to handle such a matter. Why do we still need a law on this issue now?”

He argued that if the bill is allowed to become law, it would enforce discrimination rather than war against it.

He said: “As a Muslim, when you go to worship, you sit on a mat, you remove your wears (shoes) as you enter. That bill is saying that a Christian who is not of that religious practice can enter the mosque without respect to your own rights to worship in a particular way because it is his own (Christian’s)

“Also, educational institutions that this bill will target are the Christian schools. And your name will go into history as one of the ones that, through your position in the House of Representatives disregarded the rights of the Christians to promote their own faith through their own laws in their privacy, in their private institutions.”

A Former General Secretary of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), Prof. Yusuf Turaki, criticised what he described as the central focus of the bill, which appeared to be the wearing of the hijab. He stressed that already, there are too many religious violations in the Northern part of the country and warned against adding to it.

The Professor of Theology said: “Are Muslim women denied the right of wearing hijabs? If there are, your bill stands the right. The intent of the bill is to target Christian institutions in Nigeria. Every other place is allowed to wear hijab. Christians establish institutions in order to serve their God. I do not see how this bill is going to protect Christian institutions.

“So, bringing hijab, you are going to add division to chaos. Give it legal backing, it will set Nigeria ablaze. The bill should be withdrawn and not to be discussed and passed by the National Assembly,” he said.

Section 7 of the proposed law makes it unlawful for any employer of labour, whether in the public or private sector, to “discriminate against a person on the ground of the person’s religious belief or activity or on the ground of the other person’s manifestation of religious belief such as using or wearing religious emblem, religious head cover such as hijab, decent and modest religious wear etc in relation to the arrangements made with respect to the offer of employment; in the determination of who should be offered such employment; or in the terms or conditions on which employment is offered or accepted”.

In the same vein, Section 8 makes it unlawful for “an employer to discriminate against an employee on the ground of the employee’s religious belief or activity or on the ground of the employee’s decision to manifest religious belief such as using or wearing religious emblem, religious head cover such as hijab, decent and modesty religious wear etc in relation to the terms or conditions of employment that the employer affords the employee; by denying the employee access, or by limiting the employee’s access, to opportunities for promotion, transfer or training, or to any other benefits associated with employment and by dismissing the employee; or subjecting the employee to any other detriment such as intimidation, harassment, victimisation or unfavourable working conditions etc. Section 9 applies to professional bodies, Section 10 applies to employment agencies, section 11 to education institutions while section 12 applies to goods and services and Section 13 applies to employment into security services”.

But Dr. Sam Amadi, a Senior Lecturer with Baze University, Abuja is one of those not comfortable with the contents of the bill. He said: “Some of these things about violations or not are issues that the court will handle as the case arises and not a law. I have read the proposed law and it appears to me that it is primarily focused on hijab because Sections 8, 10 and 11 keep talking about hijab and other reasonable decent religious emblem. It appears that this law is focused on enforcing hijab even in private institutions. Secondly, focusing on the hijab and putting others under an ambiguous and omnibus clause of religious wear will create a problem. There are several religious bodies, including the occult and the law says they have the right to propagate their religion through any legitimate means including setting up institutions. Some of those provisions undermine the right to freedom of religion which allows you to serve your God through setting up institutions dedicated to propagate your religion. It undermines your right to set up a Muslim institution and not allow somebody to come there with a pig.”

One of the areas of disagreement is the provision of Section 11 which states that “It is unlawful for an educational institution to discriminate against a student on the ground of the student’s religious belief or activity or manifestation of the student’s religion or religious belief by denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the educational institution, expelling the student; or subjecting the student to any other detriment. Provided that if an educational institution shall adopt any uniform dress code or code of conduct prescribing decent dressing as well as the manner of dressing, a student shall take into consideration such dress code or code of conduct as to decency and manner of dressing in the manifestation of his religious belief in relation to the choice of colour, type, or design of such religious emblem.”

Former Chaplain of the Aso Rock Villa Chapel, Dr. William Okoye, said since the bill was not likely to add any value to addressing the economic and security challenges in the country, the lawmakers should consider not passing the bill.

But the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) described opposition to the bill by Christian leaders as conservative and reactionary and asked the lawmakers to go ahead with the bill. MURIC Director Prof. Ishaq Akintola said the bill would liberate workers and women from discrimination.

He said: “CAN is not talking about morality, legality and justice in its opposition to the bill. CAN is not interested in whether it is right or wrong.”

SOURCE: THE NATION

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