Secularists Tai and Sheila Solarin bust in the school they founded.
Bust of agnostics, couple, Tai and Sheila Solarin in the school they founded, Mayflower, Ikenne. Photo by: Tunde Owonifari

Secularism is the belief that state, morals, education and other elements of national existence must be areligious. Aligned with this principle is humanism; the belief that human reason is the highest resource, and that morals are man-made. Originally recommended for Nigeria by the founding British Governor General, the Lord Lugard, secular humanism never became a conventional educational practice in the country. The Nigerian idiosyncrasy from its very inception was not secular and to change this, Orisadipe Obasa and J.K Randle started the People’s Union, an organization emphasized to be non-religious. This pre-nationalist era activism to foster the rights of the Lagosian was borne out of the need to graduate the politics of colonial Lagos from being a mere appurtenance of religion, and the People’s Union represented the beginning of the secularization of public affairs.

Ayandele in his 1979 book on Nigerian Historical Studies mentions the People’s Union as rejecting overtures from the Aborigines Protection Society precisely because it wants to remain a secular organization. And though they failed in sustaining people’s goodwill, they indeed inspired a system whereby a clergy, the Holy James Johnson, would accept the leadership of a secular organization- the Lagos Auxiliary of the Aborigines Protection Society. Before then, Johnson had devotedly believed that his struggle for an independent African church would be the progression through which the political independence of Africa would happen.

The Nigerian secular humanist, Tai Solarin, may have wished to push this further, but achieved very little success. Solarin believed that morals grounded on the Bible or Quran absolutes were unnecessary. Under his influence, Orimulusi College of Ijebu Igbo, which he headed from 1952 grew increasingly irreligious that students started abandoning mosques and churches in the favour of intellectual discourses espousing the ideals of humanism. Solarin himself had given up his Christian faith in 1942, during the war in military service in Canada. His decision to teach students the “philosophies of Jesus” rather than his divinity is consistent with the views of the man who invented the expression “secularism,” G.J Holyoake, the British writer who in 1851 argued for the promotion of social order without employing or dismissing religion.

As aptly put by Graeme Smith, author of the History of Secularism, the principle is an expression of Christianity. Christian ethics, when devolved from Christian doctrine in the time of the Enlightenment in Europe left an ethics that is secular but practiced in the Christian way. The Common Law for example, has its origin in Christian principles even though it wears the toga of secularism. It is on this premise that Islamic scholars in Nigeria argue for the multi-religious rather than secular designation for Nigeria’s religio-political leaning. The constitutional provision often cited as affirming Nigeria’s secularity has been explained mostly by Muslim leaders as doing no more than forbidding the adoption of a single state religion. Nigeria, to these ones, is more accurately a multi-religious state, and their position appears to be consistent with the constitutionality of the Sharia Court of Appeal. The Nigerian society is for all practical purposes religious, and secularity where professed, may be half-hearted. An attempt to push the constitutional basis for it further by an addition of a clause 11 which forbids government from giving preference to any religion was met with brick walls by the military authority of 1989.

Secularism in Nigeria, as commented by author, Felix Ikeagwuchi Agbara, is a political and constitutional paradigm without a serious cultural or religious impact. While the country remains respectful of religious ideals, its democracy and its challenges with corruption, nepotism, and other vices has of a necessity adhered the principles of secularism into its fabrics. The recent denial by state governments of sponsorship for pilgrims to Mecca or Jerusalem appears to be popular among the Nigerian people.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer