It is a truism that the wheels of Justice grind exceeding slow. This is certainly the case in Nigeria where our affiliate, The Atheist Society of Nigeria (ASN), is suing the governor of Akwa Ibom state, Emmanuel Udom.
The governor, an outspoken Christian, has played a leading role in promoting and supporting the building of an 8,500 seat ultra-modern worship center. We believe the state donated land for the project and has provided other resources to support it. Problem is, Nigeria’s Federal Constitution mandates a secular state, so the government is not permitted to engage in religious activities.
So, on October 25, 2018, lawyers for ASN served a summons on the Akwa Ibom government. The summons asked the High Court to declare the government’s actions unconstitutional and unlawful and to order the government to cease construction work and convert the land and building for “any non-religious, educational, cultural or scientific purposes…”
What has happened so far
There is a clear process in Nigeria for litigation such as this. The plaintiff lodges the summons with the High Court and a Bailiff serves it on the defendant. At that point, the defendant has 21 days to file his defense. This is how the case has panned out:
Oct 05, 2018: Summons lodged with High Court.
Oct 25, 2018: Summons served on the government (the defendant).
Nov 20, 2018: Date set for preliminary appearance to agree how the case will proceed and to receive the defendant’s defense. Date abandoned as it was a bank holiday.
Dec 19, 2018: Revised date for preliminary appearance. Date abandoned due to a court labor dispute.
Jan 28, 2019: Revised date for preliminary appearance. The government filed an application to extend the time allowed to file their defense (it was already 74 days overdue). The Judge granted their request. An observer noted a banner on the wall behind the Chief Justice’s chair. It read “Fear God, the ultimate judge”.
Feb 25, 2019: Second preliminary appearance. The Government again requested additional time to file their defense (which was by then 102 days overdue). The request was granted.
Mar 18, 2019: Third preliminary appearance. Again the Government failed to file a defense (by then 123 days late). The judge indicated if the government failed to file a defense at the next appearance, he would issue a judgment based on the ASN summons only.
Apr 24, 2019: Government lawyers did not attend court but their defense was filed and issued to ASN lawyers by court officials.
The governor’s defense
So finally, 160 days late, we have the government’s defense. It is an interesting read. We can think of it in two parts.
Firstly, the government denies that ASN has legal standing to bring the case. This was an inevitable response—lack of standing to sue forces the judge to abandon the case without hearing any arguments or reviewing any evidence. ASN lawyers anticipated this and have taken care to ensure the grounds for ASN’s standing are secure and supported by legal precedent.
Secondly, the government denies almost every statement of fact in ASN’s 21-paragraph summons. Oddly, they bring no evidence to refute ASN’s statements of fact, they simply flatly deny them. For example, they deny having received two letters from ASN, despite the fact that the letters were signed for and we have proofs of delivery.
As another example, they deny the government posted an article on their official website which claimed the governor “is also the Spiritual Leader of the state” and “He [the governor] said Akwa Ibom State is a Christian State that will continue to look up to God for his guidance and blessings”. I know this article was posted because I personally read it and made copies.
ASN’s lawyers are now preparing their response to the government’s defense. They will assemble evidence to support all their statements of fact and show that ASN has standing to bring this case. Really, this case should not be contentious on the facts, and it is mischievous of the government to try to make it so.
The real issue is how should the secular-nation clauses in the Federal Constitution be interpreted and what constraints does it impose on a government’s freedom to act? This is what the government’s lawyers should have focused on, not on denying facts that are demonstrably true.
Nigeria is changing
Nigeria is a famously religious country but it is changing. There are now half a dozen openly atheist organizations around the country and a huge number of atheist individuals posting daily on social media. These pioneering folks will gradually bring change rather like a snowball growing as it rolls down a hill. But legal cases like this one do more—they are akin to an earthquake that shakes up the entire landscape by challenging the hegemony of churches and religiously motivated governments.
ASN is not challenging people’s right to practice their religions in peace, it is challenging the state to recognize that freedom for religious and non-religious people demands strict government neutrality. Let the people build churches and let the government build schools, hospitals and roads. If this case succeeds, it will have long-term repercussions for the Federal Government and all State Governments throughout the country.
Atheist Alliance International is supporting ASN in this lawsuit and funding the bulk of the costs of the case. If you can help, please click the button below to make a donation. Every little helps. Thank you!