Wanted: Legislation To Prohibit Extremist Religious Leaders

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By Israel Abiodun

After the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence passed on Rev. Chukwuemeka Ezeugo (aka Rev King), the General Overseer of Christian Praying Assembly, the Ndigbo Cultural Society of Nigeria (NCSN) was quick to call on the Federal of Nigeria not to carry out the death sentence. NCSN leader, Chief Udo Udeogaranya defended this call with the logic that “This plea is premised on the ground that many Nigerians still hold Rev. Ezeugo as their spiritual even in various prisons”.

It doesn’t matter that Rev. Ezeugo on January 11, 2007 murdered one of his church members, Ann Uzoh when he doused her with petrol alongside five others and them ablaze. What is important to those who want to see him escape the hangman’s noose is that he has a fanatical following that must not be allowed to die.

There is no ethnic undertone intended in using this example, it just happens to be the most recent case of pleading for people who had the benefit of thinking through their fanatical extremism before acting but still went ahead to take the law into their own hands. People have pleaded for terrorists to be treated humanely, Ombatse cult members garnered some sympathy when they unleashed their murderous rage and even other groups that practically rose up against the state always have some interest appealing on their behalf as if no laws have been broken or that their victims are of a lesser caste.

In the Cross River – Akwa Ibom axis, to our national shame, there are extreme preachers that claim to be pastors who regularly subject minors to traumatic abuses in the name of ridding them of witchcraft. In extreme cases these phonies have successfully incited parents to kill their own offsprings.

The foregoing is a prelude to the major trust of this write up. There is need to work on a legislation to prohibit the activities of radical and extremist religious leaders. Not quite unlike Rev King, of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) or Shiite Sect, Mr Ibrahim El-Zakzaky drove adherents of his sect to death when he facilitated the build-up to a face-off with the Nigerian Army. The result was the incident in Zaria, Kaduna State in December 2015 when the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf was reportedly the target of an assassination bid and the resulting military operation led to regrettable loss of life and property.

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El-Zakkzaky might not have physically doused his followers with petrol or strike the match like Reverend King but his teachings and indoctrination primed their psyche to be willing fodders for his canon. Save for the differences in inscriptions on flags and choice of uniforms, videos depicting drills by IMN members is highly reminiscent of propaganda clips as far as inferred belligerence goes. So how does a sect brainwash his followers to that level of aggressiveness and not expect a catastrophic outcome in any resulting faceoff with the authorities in a secular state?

The legislation should also have provisions to keep the finances of preachers and organisation to which they are affiliated under watch. This is because some of these people preaching extremist views are merely puppets of greater interests that could sometimes be a rival nation or a country that has ulterior aims in Nigeria.

Apologists and beneficiaries of sectarian and religious extremism will be quick to point out that legislation to curb propagation or preaching of extreme views will stifle the freedom to worship, association, and expression.  But these apologists must ask themselves if it was also right that the Shiites, Reverend King and others deprive fellow Nigerians of their right in the course of living their extreme views.

In Germany, the Holocaust Denial Legislation is in place because they have decided that the right to free speech must be balanced against the right not to be subjected to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and a potential revival of Nazism. Austria, Hungary, and Romania have their own versions of the law.

In France, the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM) has suggested that the country’s imams should be given a certificate – “like a driving licence” – that ensured they promoted a “tolerant and Islam”. This of course tallies with what Kaduna State governor, Mallam has in the works – only that the Kaduna State’s “A bill for a law to substitute the Kaduna State religious preaching law, 1984” will encompass all faiths. That the Council in France came up with this suggestion is a testimony to the dire need to be decisive in caging extremism and propagation of hate speech under the cover of religion.

This is why we must stand up to the time bomb called Shiite or IMN, those that kill children on the pretext of witchcraft or any other sect and faith that threaten the corporate future of Nigeria by seeking a law at the national level to ban the activities of questionable organisations.

Perchance, if we had such legislation in place, Reverend Ezeugo might not have had the followership that emboldened him to a congregant ablaze and might just not be on the condemned list. But we still have that chance to set out a federal legislation to criminalise extremism now. We need to ensure that Mr El-Zakkzaky and IMN lose the capacity to continue using the pretext of preaching to incite hatred against the state of state officials.

For those who think this is an extreme suggestion for dealing with extremism they should ask themselves what role hate preaching extremists played in recruiting the army of murderers that became the killing machine called Boko Haram.