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Delegates clash over religion

From IHEANACHO NWOSU and FRED ITUA, Abuja

Tempers rose yesterday as Christian delegates confronted their Muslim counterparts over what they described as the unfair treatment of Christians and Christianity in the country.

The remarks of two representatives of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), who spoke when the conference resumed after its lunch break, angered Muslim counterparts who opposed their submissions.

Joseph Bagobiri, Bishop of Kafachan Diocese of Catholic Church and Pastor Emmanuel Bosun from the South-West, both representing CAN, agreed that the constitution of Nigeria is skewed in favour of Islam and Muslims. They called on delegates to ensure that the imbalance is corrected.

Bishop Bagobiri  reopened the debate on religion. He gave a detailed analysis of how the constitution does not have any mention of Christianity or the church, but Islam was repeatedly mentioned.

Bishop Bagobiri also argued that the adoption of a particular religion by states must be done away with. He opined that in a country like Nigeria, neutrality was needed.

The bishop said that since Islamic courts have been created, it was only normal to extend the hand of fellowship to Christianity in order to create a fair state.

He called for the establishment of ecclesiastical courts to handle Christian-related disputes, just like Sharia courts, adding that funding should also be provided for the Christian courts, just like Sharia courts, so that Christians can have a sense of belonging in their own country.

In a supportive move, Pastor Bosun argued that the conference must address religious imbalance in the country. He opined that the conference needs to address religion squarely before it destroys Nigerians.

He said: “The constitution forbids the funding of religion by the state. In the 1999 constitution, Islam was mentioned 78 times, while Muslim was mentioned 10 times, but Christianity and church were not mentioned at all. Christians are being killed all across Nigeria. We must address religion.

“There is the need for us to take a closer look at the constitution of Nigeria and address every imbalance. If we set Nigeria on fire, nobody will be able to live. Christians do not hate Muslims. I live with Muslims in the South-West and there is peace. We need peace in Nigeria.”

The position of the two Christian delegates was challenged by a former governor of Kebbi state, Adamu Aliero. He called on the house leadership to disregard the statements on religion. He hinged his argument on the fact that the issue is capable of dividing the house.

His words: “The speaker on the floor is bringing up issues that are not part of the president’s speech. He is bringing up issues that cannot be verified. He is bringing up what can divide the house.”

Aliero was ruled out of order by the deputy chairman, Professor Bolaji Adeyemi. The deputy chairman however, appealed that people should be allowed to speak their minds. He said delegates needed to speak in order to arrive at an agreement at the end of the day.

At yesterday’s proceedings, many seats allotted to the various delegates were empty. Many delegates whose names were called out to make their contributions to the ongoing debate of the speech of President Goodluck Jonathan were absent.

The absence of many delegates became very obvious soon after the lunch break. At the resumed sitting by 4pm, more seats were seen empty. Even during debates, some delegates walked out and did not return.

The growing fatigue and apathy, Daily Sun observed, is borne out of the non-availability of food for the delegates. Many delegates have openly complained on the floor of the house about how the secretariat is unable to provide them lunch.

Delegates who have to drive out of the premises to get lunch do not return to the venue for the 2-4pm proceedings. The chairman of the Conference, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, openly admitted the insufficiency of the lunch provided to delegates.

“That is very bad if there is no food. You are supposed to be provided with lunch,” Kutigi openly admitted.

Making his contributions, Pastor Tunde Bakare told delegates not to deviate from the principles set by President Jonathan. He advised that doing so will only make the conference a jamboree.

His words: “Two earlier delegates have described the president’s speech as a martial plan for the conference. If our expectations are different from that of the president, then we are in a jamboree. It appears Mr. President knew his onions and he laid it bare. He knows that the greatest problem of this government is the system of government.

“Many conferences have been held in the past. We do not need more than 10 committees to restructure Nigeria. Nigeria’s federalism died on January 1966. General Aguyi Ironsi made the declaration. Until we return to true federalism, we will be deceiving ourselves,” he said.

In her submission, the Executive Director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Dr. Abiola Akiode-Afolabi, representing Civil Society Organisations, said the conference should bring power back to the people.

She referred to the section of Jonathan’s speech, where he alluded to the fact that “sovereignty belongs to the people and their voices must be heard and factored into every decision we take on  their behalf.”

Akiyode-Afolabi charged  that the conference, as a duty, must ensure that power reverts to  the people.

She said: “The conference must restructure governance system to be answerable to the people; we want to see a legitimate government that is open, transparent and accountable. Organs of government must yield to people’s wishes and aspirations.”

Akiyode-Afolabi also urged the  conference to write a constitution that will reflect the  wishes of the Nigerian people, particularly ,women, girls and people with disabilities.

“Our issues on citizenship, indigineship and agreeable age of marriage and a constitution that will guarantee rights of the girl child and discourage marriage of children, must be the priority of the confab. The conference must ensure that basic rights to health, education, shelter and food are guaranteed in the constitution,” she added.

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