When stakeholders gathered in the name of religious freedom and society

April 9, 2018

It was two days of brainstorming and dialoguing on ‘Religious Freedom and Society in Africa,’ a workshop organised by the The Kukah Centre, Abuja in collaboration with Yale University, USA, at the Pope John Paul II Centre, Abuja from March 15-16, 2018.

The program was organized as a response for the yearning demands for religious freedom and the development of common citizenship, according to the Director of The Kukah Centre, Rev. Fr. Atta Barkindo.

The event featured participants selected based on their expertise on issues of religion and nation building as well as governance and policymaking, who also have huge influence in their constituencies in a way and manner that could affect peaceful coexistence.

The workshop which held under ten broad categories including Project on Religious Freedom & Society in Africa, Beyond Political Mobilisation: Church and Civil Society, Values of Character in Higher Education, Faith & Society in Muslim and Christian Africa and Engaging Emerging Leaders, among others, brought together the clergy, academia, politicians, civil society organisations and lay people.

Barkindo explained that there were particular reasons for organizing the event. 

He said, “Over the years the Boko Haram conflict has divided communities and reinforced ethnic and religious identities. Responses and interventions have also been dictated by religious considerations and have become sources of conflict.

“Furthermore, the strategic response of the government to the herder/farmer conflict has created the platform for religious contestation. In the context of all these, the country appears to be more divided than ever before. This makes it necessary for prominent Nigerians to debate and formulate policies that will lead to peaceful coexistence.”

Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Archdiocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan who was a facilitator at the workshop in his address said this is one of two workshops planned for Nigeria with the other to hold in Lagos with a different set of participants still under the same theme. 

He said, “We will have to find a way of bringing the two conversations together into a coherent Nigerian narrative. At some point, this would have to feed into the wider African project.”

The cleric who said interfaith issues have become a matter of top priority even on the global landscape, added that, “though a lot of challenges still remain to be addressed, our experience is that much progress has been achieved in many quarters. The struggle must continue.

Whilst emphasising that the link between religion and civil society community I Nigeria still needs to be better clarified Onaiyekan added that, “Among controversial issues still on the table include the place of Islamic Shariah in our national legal system, religion in government, the status of some “traditional rulers” with claims of religious authority and responsibility, the scope and limits of the “secularity” of the Nigerian state,” among others.

Yale’s Prof Lamin Sanneh a scholar of missions and religious studies in his memorandum for the workshop, said the politics of nationalism and nation building in Africa have been complicated by the cross-cutting loyalties of religion and ethnic advantage. He said the uneven distribution of loyalties across geographical boundaries and societies, challenges any generalization about religion and ethnicity as fixed, unchanging realities. 

Sanneh, a historian of African Christianity, added that, “It should however bring clarity to the subject of thinking of both religion and ethnicity as fundamental aspects of civil society: our religion and ethnicity are matters of identity and self-understanding, and we have that in common with others.”

Against the backdrop of African religious and other community leaders have spoken of how the modern secular heritage has unleashed forced that have not spared traditional institutions and values with the young entangled in the swirl or rapid social change, he highlighted the reflections of Bishop Matthew Kukah who gave illustrations from Nigerian politics. 

According to him, Kukah citing a friend said, “‘it is impossible for anyone to rule Nigeria without pretending to be religious,’ a statement intending to acknowledge the pervasive influence of religion with the sole understanding that religion it too important to ignore, but also too important to subjugate as a political appendix.” 

For the former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, except Nigeria gets its politics right, there is no hope for the country. 

Obi who spoke on ‘Engaging the political class’ said it is critical for Nigeria to get its politics right “because, for any society, if you get most things right and your politics is wrong, everything will go wrong.”

Stating that Nigeria’s major problem is that its politics is ransactional rather than transformational, he said, “People go into politics for every reason other than for service and sacrifice for the good of all. Therefore, there is a need for all groups of stakeholders especially religious groups and civil societies to meaningfully engage the political class on good governance and doing what is right for the society.”

Prof. Ibrahim Ashafa, of the Department of History, Kaduna State University, dwelt on faith in Islam, society in Islam and the faith, Africa and the Muslim. 

He said, faith is a conviction of the truth of a given principle, and in Islam it is essentially the basis of belief and for action. Building society is the responsibility of the leadership and followership. 

Describing Islam as a code of life, which prescribes the big and small for people of faith to comply with, Ashafa said, “The Islamic concept, the kind of society Islam prescribes is one governed in faith where no one has advantage over another, no class gas superiority over another, no race or gender has any advantage over the other and no group has any advantage over another. Where leadership is a responsibility and followership goes rights and obligations. It is a society simply for the human being.”

At the end of the workshop contributors agreed that Nigeria has a major problem regarding religious freedom and issues of co-existence. 

Against this backdrop and in an effort to address issues raised during the program, a committee was set up to explore intra-faith dialogue sessions within Christianity to achieve a united response.

Barkindo said there will be more inter-faith sessions with policymakers and religious leaders at the highest level to ensure that real change begins to take place. 

Other participants were Bishop Matthew Kukah (Convener), Rev. Fr George Ehusani, Dr. Abdullahi Musa, Archbishop Emmanuel Kwashi, Barrister Yakubu Pam and Hon Edward Pwajok.

Original article can be found – here.