Your Excellency, Senator (Dr.) David A. B. Mark, President of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and Chairman on the occasion. Your Excellency, Gen Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Your Eminence, Alhaji Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, The Sultan of Sokoto; Honourable ministers and legislators; distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Ever since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s and the subsequent collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, most African nations have re-engaged themselves and recommitted to democratic political governance. And we see that since the early 1990’s, most African countries are making inroads in the practice of democracy. At the beginning of this century, all the leaders of the 54 nations of the continent promulgated a Basic Law called: “The Constitutive Act of the African Union.”
The object of this Basic Law is to enjoin all African leaders to respect the fundamental human rights of their peoples, to govern democratically, to eschew forcible take overs of power, and to work assiduously towards unifying the continent into a United States of Africa. Ladies and gentlemen, as you are aware, democracy is the only form of governance that assures the most basic of individual human rights – freedoms of thought, expression, movement, association, religion, choice and the rest.
The United Nations General Assembly, recognizing the fundamental nature of democratic ideals in the life of humanity, had earlier encoded these in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at its founding after the Second World War, which all member-countries, including all of Africa, have subscribed to. Among the many rights encoded in that document are religious rights. Religion has been with mankind since man has been known to inhabit this earth.
It is therefore, natural that any discussion of the wellbeing of man can never skirt the discussion of religion. In Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this is what is said about religion, and I quote it partially here: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…”
Again, Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. So as you can see, ladies and gentlemen, religious rights are a subset of democratic rights, and are therefore inseparable. One would then ask “How have religion and democracy existed in Africa?”
In juxtaposing this question to your Anniversary Lecture “Religion, Strife and the Future of Democracy in Africa,” one is tempted to conclude at the obvious that it is turbulent between the practice of religion and democracy in Africa. Your topic is very relevant, not only to Africa, but to the entire world; and not only for today, but also for the future. Religious wars abound in all recorded historical ages. It would appear down the millennia that conflicts tended to emanate from the tendency of a religious group believing that people who did not share in its religious faith were people not favoured by its god, and therefore, should be treated as outcasts.
Hence, for example, the differentiation between the Jew and the Gentile, Muslim and Infidel, Christian and Atheist, Hindu and the Untouchable. This has been the major source of conflict as far back as man can remember. To compound this canker, man in his vaulting political ambition, has also been known to use religion to divide society, subjugate other people and to lord it over them. This has been known to have introduced some of the major wars in history. We learn for example, of the Saracens and the Crusaders around the Middle Ages in Southern Europe and North Africa.
Some of the prejudices and bigotry that continue to bedevil society to this day, can be traced to this factor. History is replete with empires that were built on the back of religion, and also overthrown by religion. The common thread in religious conflicts may be captured in the contention that man should live for religion and not religion for man. All such historic human strives have had their underpinnings in the denial of religious rights and/or other choices of peoples. Indeed, resistance to the impositions of religions, cultural practices and politics of other people or authorities, has invariably ended in strife.
Ladies and gentlemen, a major observation from the study of history down the past centuries, however, can be said to be that human societies around the world including Africa, has been evolving from authoritarianism into liberal and accountable governance. Hence, racism, gender and ethnicity are all being subsumed under humanity. But of all factors of discrimination, perhaps the most recalcitrant is religion. However, if what is transpiring in North Africa and some other parts of the world may serve as an indicator of what the future holds for mankind, then humanity may come to hold sway, and religion would rightfully become less and less divisive of society.
The more social evolution gives pride of place to such individual assertion over religion, the more tolerant we will all become, and the safety valve for minimizing conflicts will be realized. As of now, however, there is no gainsaying the reality that conflicts based on religion are still with us. In Africa, the pursuit of freedom and self-determination has caused so much civil strife, decimated entire populations, and caused a lot of misery to our peoples.
Throw in the intolerance that has characterized religious differences, and you have the recipe for the cause of confusion that has retarded the development of an otherwise resource-rich continent. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, till recently, the former Sudan typified the complex situation where religion sometimes appeared to be on a collision course with the state,or the state, using religion, appeared to be on a collision course with its people. However, the silver-lining to such confused situations has been that in most of the cases, it is not mainstream religion that generates conflict. Rather, dogmatists and extreme doctrinaires who are, more often than not, a minority, are the cause.
Arguably, religion should be a communion between the individual and his God. The major religions teach this and emphasize the brotherhood of mankind. They also enjoin responsible citizenship within society. This is a clear manifestation that when citizens hand over their sovereign will to the state under a social contract called National Constitution, for their will to be exercised on their behalf, as in a democracy, this is in line with religion. Thus, religion should rather reinforce democracy. As we make our democracy work for everybody under the Constitution, it is then that we give true meaning to “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself”.
And no rightful and true meaning of any religious doctrine will require that we engage in civil strife to endanger the security of society. Distinguished invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud that we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the establishment of this noble media organization. In considering the huge influence the media wields in human affairs around the world of today, we should not lose sight of the fact that some media outlets wield their influence not too positively for the social good.
It bears stating that it should be part of your professional ethics to exercise a high sense of social responsibility in the practice of your profession, so as not to become agents of destabilization in society. The media, as a mirror of society, has a bounding role to play in ensuring that the positive, and not the negative aspects of humanity, are portrayed. The impact and power of the media in shaping the minds of the people make it imperative that they continuously emphasize what will bring peace, harmony and development, instead of what will bring fear, anger and civil strife. This does not mean that the media should not report wrong when it occurs.
But wrong should be reported in such a manner as will bring correction and progress, instead of strife and retrogression. We are all witnesses to what negative and hate reportage has done to countries like Rwanda. We need not tread that path again. Our young continent is in need of things that will make it grow, and these are the things that the media should promote, and not those that set us back. I am happy to read from your brochure that The Sun has been described as “a paper of human voices, capturing the unpredictable and unexpected rhythms of life and existence, and the daily heartbeat of humanity in lucid and crisp prose”.
You have indeed set yourself on a noble course and you deserve to be praised especially at this 10th anniversary of your founding. I should end by wishing you more years of responsible journalism and prosperity, to enable you to educate, inform, entertain and enlighten the teeming population of Nigeria and beyond. Thank you.