THE declaration of November 15 a public holiday to mark the commencement of the Islamic year in Osun State has set off major alarm bells that cannot be ignored.
The Governor of the State, Rauf Aregbesola, rather took his dalliance with religion a step further when he claimed that Hejira marks the beginning of the lunar calendar “that Muslim faithful use for their programmes and should be accorded its due respect like the first day of January.” The decision was odd and totally uncalled for.
Though Public Holidays Act states, “Subject to section 1 of this Act and subsection (1) of this section, the Governor of a State may by public notice appoint a special day to be kept as a public holiday in the State concerned or in any part thereof, and any day so appointed shall be kept as a public holiday,” such powers should not be used to further religious interests.
The Aregbesola government has opened itself to criticism with an indulgent attitude toward religion. The holidays held dear by Islamic faithful are primarily the Eid el-Fitri to mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan and Eid el-Adha to mark the conclusion of the hajj, one of the faith’s five pillars, and the submission of Prophet Ibrahim in agreeing to sacrifice his son Ishmael. The Federal Government already has these two as national holidays and others, including Id el Maulud, in celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed.
Interestingly, many predominantly Muslim states do not even have public holidays for Hejira. Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s founder and whose king is the custodian of its holiest sites, does not. Similarly, Iran whose supreme law and supreme political authority flow from Islamic religion does not. Nor does Qatar, another Persian Gulf state, observe a work-free day for Hejira. In Turkey, only Eid el-Fitri and Eid el-Adha are public holidays.
What was Aregbesola’s interest? And what was the fortuitous holiday meant to achieve in a secular society like Osun, whose diverse sub-nationalities have a robust history of accomplishments in education, culture, business and the professions and are renowned for their religious tolerance and political sophistication? Was his intention to curry favour with adherents of a particular faith? His false optimism that his frivolous holiday “will promote religious harmony in the state” falls wide of the mark. Will the Governor grant similar requests to adherents of other religions, including Orisa Osun adherents whose worshippers travel from all over the world to attend its annual Osun-Osogbo festival? Can the holiday be sustained? Will it not create disaffection if another governor, for instance, an Ifa faithful, creates another holiday for his religion in future?
Already, Nigeria is known for too many holidays. Excessive public holidays cause productivity slowdown and set the economy back. In May, Portugal cancelled four public holidays from its national calendar.
It is disastrous to structure public life in such a way as to encourage people to organise around their ethnic or religious identities. Such purely sentimental actions are key factors in the rise of religious intolerance elsewhere and in this country. For instance, cynical manipulation of religious sentiment began in Pakistan in 1977 when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initiated some religion-based laws to shore up his waning popularity. Gen Zia ul-Haq, who toppled him in a military coup and thereafter hanged him, went further to entrench state patronage of religion; a trend successive governments in that country have followed with tragic consequences. Zia’s regime in Pakistan was focused on how to strengthen Islamic orthodoxy rather than how to strengthen Pakistan. The general’s attempts to “Islamise” school subjects including science played havoc with the education system. Zia had changed the character of the constitution from a liberal to a theocratic document. Successive parliaments since Zia have not got enough liberal members to undo his amendments.
Here in Nigeria, the use of religion as a political tool that began in the late 1980s and culminated in sharia rule in 12 northern states, has not promoted religious harmony. On the contrary, the entire North is dangerously polarised and cities once vaunted as melting pots where Nigerians of every ethnic nationality and faith peacefully co-habited have become sectarian killing fields. Boko Haram terror, a tragic example of religious extremism, has claimed more than 3,000 lives since 2009. Kaduna, Borno, Yobe, Bauchi and Plateau states are not witnessing harmony but are wracked by suspicion and mutual hostility among and within faiths after years of misguided state dabbling in religion. Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, put it succinctly when he said recently, “Certainly, it cannot be denied that religion has proved again and again a spur, a motivator and a justification for the commission of some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity, despite its fervent affirmations of peace.”
But Osun belongs to the South-West geopolitical zone where harmony among the various ethnic, sub-ethnic and religious groups is legendary. Religion has never been known to divide South-Westerners, whose historical prowess in forging metropolitan centres, early contact with and love for western education have given it a cosmopolitan and accommodating worldview. A state that has been exposed to mass education made free at various levels since 1954 is ill-served by a government embroiling itself in religion in 2012. It should be emphasised that citizens of Osun, in line with Yoruba’s historically moderate and secular values, prefer to live as law-abiding citizens in a free, open and enlightened society.
The abusive manipulation of religious causes has to stop. Osun State should not be turned into a new centre of full-scale religious extremism in the country. Neither Aregbesola nor his party, the Action Congress of Nigeria, is known to have campaigned for office in order to promote religion. The 1999 Constitution clearly discourages promotion of sectarian and discriminatory interests by state or federal governments. There are many urgent areas of development that should engage any of our 36 state governors, such as agriculture, industry, education, job creation, roads, water supply and effective health care facilities.
Religion should be driven completely from the public square into the exclusively private realm. Our state governments should leave religion to individuals and concentrate on their core mandate.