Rowdy Sessions over Religion, Environment

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The debate on the reports of the national conference committees on religion and environment was a really rowdy affair. Chuks Okocha and Onyebuchi Ezigbo report
The debate on the reports of the national conference committees on religion and environment was a really rowdy affair. Chuks Okocha and Onyebuchi Ezigbo report
The national conference last week deliberated on the reports of its committees on religion and environment. But the delegates could not reach resolve some of the controversial issues and recommendations of the committees. Specifically, two items stood out in the plenary session as the delegates from the North and South remained divided on the issue of “resource democracy” and the call for the abolition of the pilgrims welfare boards for both the Christians and Muslims. This was because of the recommendation that government had no business in the sponsorship of pilgrimage to either Mecca or Jerusalem.
Resource Democracy
Crisis started when delegates started considering the environment committee’s report that there should be resources democracy. But the northern delegates, not satisfied with this, queried to know what the term “resource democracy” meant. A former minister, Basher Dalhatu, asked the chairman of the conference, Justice Idirs Kutigi, that some of the delegates would want to know what resource democracy was.
Though, the conference referred Dalhatu to the chairman of the committee, Senator Florence Ita Giwa, for explanation on what resource democracy was all about, this caused suspicion on further deliberations on the report of the committee, as the northern delegates felt that the term resource democracy was an attempt to bring back the controversy on resource control and derivation. This was the background to the rowdy session of Tuesday and the abrupt adjournment of the conference.
Issue of Pilgrimage
In continuation of debates on the national conference committee on religion, delegates rejected state sponsorship of pilgrimages for both Christians and Muslims. But at the plenary, at a time when everyone thought that everything was going on as planned, delegates, especially from the North, opposed a motion that sought to abolish all pilgrims’ boards for Christians and Muslims.
A motion moved by a delegate from Kogi State, Sola Akomode, to the extent that the pilgrim boards for both Muslims and Christians should be abolished because government had not business with sponsorship of pilgrimage did not go down with many Muslims. They argued that it would be unfair to allow thousands of Muslims perform their religious obligations in foreign lands without any diplomatic care. This was also in view of the fact that Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the pillars of Islam.
The deputy chairman of the conference, Bola Akinyemi, who was presiding, had earlier put the matter to a voice vote and ruled in favour of those that wanted the pilgrims boards abolished. But some Muslims rejected the outcome of the voice vote and became rowdy. It was at this stage that Akinyemi said that the matter would be subjected to voting. By the conference rules, the matter would be decided on a 70 per cent consensus.  The conference deputy chairman moved that votes for the abolishment of the pilgrim boards should be taken Wednesday.
Before then, the delegates had also rejected a recommendation that Fridays should be work-free. They also rejected religious discrimination in job appointment and sponsorship of hate campaigns, stating that offers of appointment must be based on merit. The delegates stated clearly that Nigeria was a secular state and rejected the continued sponsorship of pilgrimage affairs.
The conference in a landmark resolution, recommended that churches and mosques should henceforth be subjected to payment of taxes.
Though, it agreed on the secularity of Nigeria as a sovereign, some of the delegates canvassed that Nigeria should be seen as a multi-religious country. Contributors to the debate were polarised alongside their religious beliefs. The delegates approved the recommendations that conversion to any religion was the constitutional right of all and nobody that converts to any religion should be victimised. It also approved the recommendations that hate speeches should be criminalised.
The conference rejected government sponsorship of mass weddings, stating that any governor that engaged in the act shall be banned from politics for 10 years and should be impeached.
Though, majority of the delegates said that there was no need for the creation of a commission to manage the religious differences between the Christians and Muslims, as there were already bodies like the Inter-religious council, the Public Compliants Commission and that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). They argued that the creation of a body to be known as the Religious Equity Commission was   a waste of public funds, especially in this era of clamour for devolution of power from the centre to the states as the federating units.
Also some of the delegates called for a legislation to regulate the building of places of worship to avoid it constituting nuisance to some residential areas.
While condemning the role of political leaders and the elite in mixing religion with politics, a delegate Dr. Mayram Abdullahi, representing the civil society organisations, said that the relationship between Christians and Muslims took a nose-dive  when Nigeria was admitted as full member of Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
Abdullahi specifically attributed the bad blood to the role of the former Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd), who pushed for Nigeria’s full membership of OIC, alleging that he did that to manipulate religion in order to perpetuate himself in the office.
She said the arbitrary manner in which the membership was arranged led to the mistrust between the two faiths because of mutual suspicion of possible Islamisation of Nigeria.
The delegate who spoke to the applause of her colleagues, said: “The relationship between Christians and Muslims deteriorated when Nigeria was admitted as full member of Organisation of the Islamic Conference. This made Christians to start resisting any move that would portray Nigeria as an Islamic state.
“Mr. Chairman, the then Head of State, that pushed for the admission of Nigeria into OIC did not do that in consultation with the Muslims. He did that in order to manipulate religion as a political tool to perpetuate him in office and now Nigeria is the worst for it. Consequent to this, there is the prevailing mistrust and disharmony between the adherents of the two religions in the country.”
In his comments, Senator Femi Okuroumu from the South-west said that he was worried about the status of Nigeria as a secular state, explaining that government   should not have anything to do with state sponsorship of pilgrimage. He opposed the recommendations for a new body to be known as the Religious Commission.
Awwal Yadudu advocated for a marriage between the Inter Religious Council and the National Religious Council for more efficiency instead of creating two establishments that would be a duplication of agencies.
Former governor of Kebbi State, Adamu Aleiro, described state involvement in religious affairs, especially the sponsorship of pilgrim affairs, as a waste of public funds. He called for the establishment of consular affairs to help Nigerians perform their religious obligations.
A Rivers State delegate, Atedo Peterside, said Nigeria as a secular state did not need the creation of Religious Commission. He also spoke against state sponsorship of pilgrimages, describing religion as a personal affair between man and his Creator. According to him, the creation of the Religious Commission is to bring religion above the question of the fundamental human rights.
A civil society representative, Festus Okoye, called for a legislation that would ban governors from delving into issues of organising marriages, stating that the governors should concentrate on issues of governance. Okoye said the mere act of government sponsorship of pilgrim affairs and paying less attention to governance contributed the problems of the country.
A Plateau State delegate, Prof. Dakum Showun, described religion as a personal affair between God and man, saying the involvement of government in religious affairs is a complete waste of public funds. He opposed the proposed religious commission, due to what he called “the Nigerian factor”, as it is still the government that would appoint members of the commission.
Mike Ozehkome from Edo State also proposed that the government should not engage in the support of any religion. He also disagreed with the planned setting up of religious equity commission, saying that existing commissions are already too many. He said the National Human Rights commission should be made to perform the roles of monitoring the compliance to constitutional provision with regards to religious practice.  Magdalene Dura from Benue State supported the recommendations.
Justice Bilkisu Aliyu canvassed for a social factor of religion, especially with regard to the vulnerable and poor. She said that poverty remained the basic root of religious crisis in the country.
Clark on Niger Delta Environment
The Niger Delta environment was topical in the discussion on the report of the environment committee. Former Minister of Information and Ijaw leader, Edwin Clark, argued that there was nothing new in the report of the Conference Committee on Environment. He said the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) had in 2011 submitted a report which showed that it would take 30 years to clean up the oil spills in the Niger Delta region.
“I would like to say that there is really nothing new in the report compared to the environmental report of 2005. The problem is the implementation of the report. Three years ago, the United Nations submitted a report to the federal government for the cleanup of Ogoni land. The report said it was going to take about 20 years to clean the area and that $20 billion was needed. It was only last year that a committee was created to look into it,” Clark said.
Clark told delegates to look beyond what the country got from the region, but ponder on the level of degradation oil exploration had caused the area.“If we do not do something, one day, we will be wiped out, while the rest of the people will be enjoying the things from the area.”
According to Clark, “Our environment has been polluted. We sit on top of water in the Niger Delta, yet we do not have water to drink. When I was small, we used to put calabash outside and fishes will jump in. Now, my people eat ice fish. There are no more farm lands, no fruits. We have lost everything in the Niger Delta.
“Recently, Chevron had their equipment burnt. For three months, it was burning and there was nobody to put it out. Chevron has refused to compensate communities affected.
“The people are suffering. I am pleading. Do not think of what you get. Think of the area where these things are gotten. We need compensation. We need re-greening in our area.”
In a similar note, Nnimo Bassey, a South-south delegate and an environmental activist, called for the entrenchment of resource democracy in the country.
Land Use
Meanwhile, the special committee to address the deadlock among delegates on whether the land use act should be removed from the constitution was stalemated as the delegates were still divided on the retention of the land use act in the constitution. The panel is still expected to meet to resolve the issue.
The conference recommended that environmental issues be moved to concurrent legislative list, while agreeing for an introduction of environment in the education curriculum.
The conference rejected the recommendation on the setting up of a special court on the environment; it recommended that the federating units should be given powers to legislate on environmental issues while NESREA and NOSDRA should retain their supervisory role.
It rejected an amendment which sought that all matters relating to environment be in the exclusive list and also rejected a proposal for the establishment of ecological commission. The committee upheld the recommendation to ensure a resource democracy and proposed that the NESREA Act be amended to include powers to regulate and monitor compliance to environmental standards in the oil and gas sector.
It also adopted the recommendation on the need to establish regulation on noise pollution.
Death of Kutigi’s Wife
Proceedings at the plenary session of the national conference were mournfully adjourned on Wednesday following the news of the death of Maryamu, the wife of the chairman and retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi. Maryamu, aged 70, died at the National Hospital in Abuja about 2am on Wednesday and has since been buried in line with Islamic rites.
Deputy Chairman of the Conference and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who presided over a brief session of the conference said it was only proper that the Conference be adjourned to enable delegates participate in the burial.
Delegates readily and unanimously agreed to the proposal for adjournment expressed shock at the death and the fact that Conference Chairman could still preside over proceedings until the last day of sitting while the wife was in the hospital.
The deputy chairman described the late Maryamu as a pillar of strength to the chairman and regretted that she had passed on at a time the retired Justice was handling a critical national assignment and needed her closeness and wise counsel.
Akinyemi said it was in demonstration of his deep sense of patriotism and commitment to the affairs of the country that Kutigi continued to preside over the conference throughout the period the wife was lying ill in the hospital.
It was agreed that proceedings at the plenary will resume on Monday with deliberation on more of the committee reports.
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