Sat. Jan 16th, 2021
Covid-19: between the state and religion 

By Ropo Sekoni

Given the need to get this page ready for readers to read on Sunday morning, January 3, 2021, the draft of whatever gets on this page on Sunday, needs to reach my editor by 1p.m. on the preceding Friday for editing. Hence, today’s article was written on December 31 when the topic it now discusses was at its most exciting period; the moment of suspense, when it was not clear whether the position of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Ondo State on Crossover Service for the outgoing year would prevail over that of the state government. Time will tell.

But the avoidable controversy between Ondo State Government and the Ondo State Branch of CAN is one public debate that needs to be examined by public affairs observers and commenters, regardless of what takes place on Thursday night in Ondo State and other states where some CAN members have chosen to flex muscles with people elected to govern the state. The threats of CAN’s representatives in Ondo State over the position of the government on mitigating or even avoiding spread of coronavirus in its second wave in the state hints at aspects of the 1999 Constitution that requires rethinking.

A short summary of developments on federal government’s efforts to save Nigeria from the second wave of the pandemic, as it has succeeded in doing with the first wave. The Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 advised religious leaders against church services in the late hours of December 31, insisting on adherence to the regulation against mass gathering of people. Some of the main Christian denominations, such as Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the Winners Chapel, and Daystar announced their agreement with the federal government’s advice on Crossover Service for 2020. The chairman of the national body of Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. Samuel Ayokunle, advised it state chapters to abide by the federal government’s directives on mass gathering in the night of December 31, pleading with Christians, “There is no sacrifice that is too much to put an end to the Coronavirus pandemic in the interest of all and sundry,” a reference to the citizenry, primary owners of the country’s social contract and sovereignty to which this page will return to later in this piece.

It was also reported as the eve of Dec 31 got nearer that some states still quietly insisted on lobbying governors to allow Crossover services to hold. But the state Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Ondo State has been reported to have kicked against the directive of the government, saying “the association was not consulted before the decision was taken.” It was immediately after Oladapo’s release of the preceding statement that the writing of today’s piece got written. And it is in the juxtaposition of the statement by the national body of CAN, “There is no sacrifice that is too much to put an end to the Coronavirus pandemic in the interest of all and sundry” and the statement of the Ondo branch of the same association, “Services hold as the normal tradition demands. We were not consulted. We are not aware of that” that the thesis of today’s page, the need to avoid needless disagreement capable of creating avoidable confusion in a democracy was formed.

The 1999 Constitution, despite its many flaws, is clear on the right of citizens to practice his or her faith without fetters. Correspondingly, conventional wisdom is a given in democracies that that nobody would ordinarily practice such faith at the expense of the security of others, in other words, at the risk of life and property of fellow members of the same physical and political territory. Even though citizens do not generally discuss the danger that can come from an irresponsible practice of religion, except as we often do in Nigeria when we choose to list fault lines at the instance of politicians. What makes human rights meaningful to citizens is recognition of the importance of each citizen protecting his right without disrupting national security and the security of individuals.

Should any religious group have the right to frustrate the government of any state from protecting citizens from physical or psychological danger? The main concern today is the danger posed by any attempt of groups of people—be they Christians, Muslims, Jews, Agnostics, Atheists, or Animists—for the security of citizens other areas including health matters such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Should the Ondo State branch of CAN succeed in holding this year’s Crossover service despite the insistence of the state government on the obligation of all citizens and residents in the state to refrain from holding mass gatherings that can add management of the pandemic to the country’s list of threats to the security of the land.

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Is the insistence of Ondo State Christian body a right thing to do in a situation of national health emergency such as the second wave of the pandemic represents across the globe? Does any religious organization require a special consultation other than the consultation with the most important stakeholders, the citizenry? Does any country struggling with such a deadly virus be further encumbered by a section of one of the country’s faith communities? If the federal government needs to consult every faith community specially about the logic of discouraging mass gatherings during a second wave of the pandemic outside the consultation with citizens as collective owners of the polity and the territory, how feasible would this be, given the uncontrollable speed of the virus?

As this column prays that this current pandemic is the last in the country’s history, democracy and constitution watchers should start thinking anew about the 1999 Constitution that avoids identifying itself as a secular State while proclaiming that Nigeria is a multireligious society. Given the fierceness of Ondo State branch of CAN on its right to special consultation from the state government before enforcing the federal government’s protocol of no Crossover service while the second wave of Covid-19 lasts, the danger remains real that the country may be put at the risk of subjecting policies made in the name and for the interest of all citizens to the whims of special religious groups in a multireligious society.

It should be possible to have a multireligious society that is also a secular polity. The United States is one such example. What may be confusing is what Nigeria has at present, a multireligious society that is unwilling to become a secular polity. Democracy is given its chance through an executive and legislative system that enables citizens or special interest groups to lobby those in government, but it frowns on encouraging special interest groups or individuals to insist that it requires to give its consent before government can carry out its regulations. Those who are clamoring for constitution amendments ought to consider making Nigerian constitution overtly secular, rather than hiding under the canopy of multireligious society.

This column plans to return to the confusion about which level of government has the authority to plan strategies and methods to prevent spread of Covid-19 infections after the true picture of the extent of adherence to protocols surrounding Crossover service in all states become clear after January 1 from reports of professional journalists.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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