Monday, May 25, 2020 6:17 am
By Sam Omatseye
Our constitution is a scaffold that wrestles with itself. Since 1999 when it came into being, it has been searching for itself. An odyssey without self-discovery. It is alive with the bones and biceps of a sumo wrestler. It is strong but not healthy. An elephant that is not agile. It roars without a message. Rosy and robust, it is a carrier of diseases. It careers on without a compass. It is a beast, a beauty but also a burden. It is ultimately a priest with dubious sacraments. Justice may be blind, but this is not a maiden with a fold over its eyes. It peers at justice but it tears at it.
We saw this last week when Covid-19 pitted three forces against themselves over the Friday prayers ahead of Sallah. The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Saad Abubakar III, warned against any massing of the faithful on prayer grounds because of the dangers of spreading the ailment. Some governors across the north countered that their prayer grounds were holy and wholly for Allah. They ignored the leader of the faith, the ear and eye of the Almighty and oracle of the mystics. The states included Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Jigawa, Gombe, Borno and Zamfara. From the presidency came the word that everyone should mutter their supplications in the solitude of their closets.
Suddenly the constitution became a shadow presence in this wrestling match. We are supposed to have a federal constitution. That leaves the decision in the purview of state executives. But the president has powers in a federal constitution to subvert the cocky brow of any state executive. We saw that in the language of the inspector general of Police who warned against any prayer activity, whether Christian or Muslim or even traditional, that contravened the federal position. We often turn the word federal to mean central, which is exactly a travesty.
As the state-versus-centre conflict unfolds, how is the power of faith? Constitutionally, faith leaders should subject themselves to temporal authorities. So, Lords temporal is powerful. In the hearts of the people, the lords temporal are temporary. The lords spiritual are eternal, come from heaven. The lords temporal are bound by the human document that comes and goes. The lords spiritual, in the people’s heart, may be flesh and blood, but their spirits soar above us, like the eagle consorting with angels. The lords spiritual are in the people’s heart, the temporal in their heads. Hearts trump heads.
After all, who fights for the nations the way armies scrimmage for gods? Is that not why nations at war coin their patriotism with the register of the almighty? When you fight for the country, you are fighting for God. The enemy nation belongs to Beelzebub. Hitler coined Nazism as a battle between Christ and Jews who slaughtered him? George Bush saw Sadaam as fighting against a Christian America. Saladin in the Crusades inspired the faithful who bested the Christian army and seized Jerusalem for Allah. Even wars against those of the same faith see themselves as authentic believers against hypocrites or despoilers of the sanctum.
But when the sultan said all the states should respect social distancing, it also provided a paradox. The spiritual authority was bowing to science. The temporal authorities were bowing to faith. Faith respected science; the others defied science. Where does the constitution, a secular document, provide an answer? It would have been interesting if such a matter went to court. The faithful, though, does not need a court. God judges in his time. The seculars live on courts. Such a duel would apply a temporal document, the constitution. The faithful believe Koran superior to the constitution. But the governors, all Muslims, would be in a delicate position dueling against their God in a human court.
Separation of religion and faith is rooted in Islam. In the early years, scholars stayed away from the government. The Christian faith, which always wanted the church as an interloper, borrowed the concept from Islam. The United States Constitution saw to that in the polemical engineering of Jefferson and Madison, and it made its way into the First and Second amendments. Before that, we know of the Holy Roman Empire, which historians described as neither Roman nor Holy. England formed a church in homage to romantic squabbles with Rome. Men like Thomas Cromwell and Henry the Eighth dramatised the era as superbly recorded by historians and recreated in fiction like the Booker Prize-winning novel, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The irony though is that the concept of Caliphacy, which in Nigeria dates to the 1804 Uthman Dan Fodio onslaught, has come to cast Islam as prioritising theocracy over what Buhari has called for today: prayers in the closet. ISIL, Boko Haram, Al Qaida, only are extreme manifestations of the perversions over the ages.
Jesus himself was not a great advocate of open and uproarious prayers or the open banditry of the prophetic word. He said pray in private, God will reward you openly. He also said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” That is the strain that the Sultan reflected for Islam when he urged caution. Those who defied the sultan were also playing politics with the faith. According to Yusuf Alli’s reporting, some of the governors noted that defying colleagues were influenced by local leaders, including Ulamas. It is the politicisation of the mystical.
But if the constitution is agnostic, what of the centre versus the periphery? The states, as Lawyer of lawyer Wole Olanipekun, noted in an interview on my TVC Show ‘The Platform’, give birth to the centre. The problem is there was never a formal handover ceremony from the parts to make the whole. Impunity is therefore fuelled by lack of memory. Without memory, there is no desire. How do you say you handed over power to me when there was no such event in history? The 13 colonies did so in the United States and deliberated in perhaps the most turbulent fest of ideas in history.
The 1999 constitution is foisting an unnatural power from the centre, and that is accounting for the fulminating actions of men like Nyesom Wike. Covid-19 is perhaps bringing out the beast in the Nigerian nation.
Sallah prayers brought out three De facto sovereigns: the governors, the president and the sultan. The matter is settled outside the constitution. So we ask, why do we need the law? It means that when we have good men, the law is superfluous as Apostle Paul asserts. When we contend with bad laws, good lawyers save them. When we have bad laws, good people save us. What do we have today? We have bad laws searching for good men and lawyers.
-Sam Omatseye, journalist, writer and social critic, is the Chairman, Editorial Board of The Nation
Credit: The Nation