Leo Igwe, the Nigerian human rights activist who is coming to the U.S. for the Humanism at Work conference and a two week speaking tour of Ohio, Indiana, Chicago and Michigan, has an article in The Humanist about how religious extremism in his home country prevents development and all attempts to improve the lives of the people there.
When the drafters of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria enshrined in section 10 that “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion,” they envisaged the divisive and polarizing nature of mixing faith and politics. They knew that for a religiously pluralistic entity like Nigeria to survive and develop, thrive and flourish, the state must be neutral in religious matters.
Unfortunately, subsequent state actors in Nigeria have ignored this crucial constitutional principle to the detriment of the Nigerian nation. Segments of the Nigerian Federation or state have continued to mix religion and politics in ways that have undermined progress, unity, tolerance and development across the country.
In particular, political Islam rules in the Muslim majority states in the north. Contrary to the constitution, sharia is the state law, Islam is the state religion, and jihad is a way of retaining, restoring, or securing the Islamic political status quo.
Politics is driven not by attempts to grow the economy, alleviate poverty, or tackle unemployment but by the so-called struggle to establish an Islamic state. Politicians from these northern states regard political Islam as a necessary qualification for participating in the Nigerian state…
Both versions of political Islam are alienating and antagonizing, turning northern Nigeria into a religious battleground pitching Muslims against Muslims, and Muslims against Christians and other religious minorities. No society can achieve meaningful development under this climate of fear, hatred, and mistrust.
To develop and prosper in the contemporary world, northern Nigeria must dismantle the structure of political Islam and separate mosque and state. Politicians should de-establish Islam, stop state enforcement of sharia, and end the legalized discrimination against non-Muslims. The government of Katsina is using state money to build mosques and pay imams as part of its sharia implementation program. And the sharia police in Kano have destroyed goods belonging to Christians in the name of enforcing sharia law in the state. It is not the duty of the state to enforce Islamic laws, finance the building of mosques, or sponsor religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The state should instead focus on guaranteeing the equal rights of all citizens to profess their religion or belief and providing an enabling environment for local and foreign investments. The people in northern Nigeria should value a state that is religiously neutral; a state that can uphold the rule of law, of civilized, secular, human rights-compatible laws. People are likely to invest and contribute to the development of a state or country where they are treated with dignity and respect—where their full human rights are respected and where they can access justice.
There is also an urgent need to improve the quality of education in the region. According to Unesco, northern states have among the lowest literacy rates in the country. Development depends on information and learning, and any society that wants to develop must take education seriously. To combat underdevelopment in northern Nigeria, mixing education and Islamic indoctrination must stop. Schools should no longer be an extension of mosques and Quranic learning centers.