Is Nigeria’s new business reform law a threat to religious freedom?

A Nigerian family visits Holy Rosary Church in Abuja, Nigeria, in this 2014 file photo. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters) A Nigerian family visits Holy Rosary Church in Abuja, Nigeria, in this 2014 file photo. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters) 

When Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari signed a new business reform policy into law on Aug. 7, it seemed harmless enough.

Business and law experts hailed the move, calling it the most important business reform in the country in decades. The policy relaxes financial requirements for small businesses and makes it easier for companies to become registered for business, promoting a friendlier business climate in a country with a loosely regulated and at-times archaic business landscape. The new law is expected to encourage much-needed foreign investment that could lead to an economic turnaround, economists say.

But the good will and praise hit a major bump just days later, when top Nigerian pastors started to kick back against its extended reach. It dawned on many that under the new law religious institutions are subject to audits, and their boards of trustees could be dissolved by the Nigerian government. It is an unprecedented interference that has angered religious leaders, but the law was meant to address fraudulent acts by some imams and ministers and hold them accountable to their congregations.

The Christian Association of Nigeria quickly demanded the policy’s suspension, calling it “satanic.”

“The law does not conform with what we believe we need as Nigerian churches,” said the Rev. Thomas Olabode Amoo, the founding pastor of Dominion Life Bible Church, a Pentecostal institution, berating the Nigerian government for a law he says is unnecessary. The government should not be poking its nose into religious affairs, Mr. Amoo said. “For you to take over means that you are imposing yourself in our business, and our rights to freedom of association are being tampered with.”

The Christian Association of Nigeria quickly demanded the policy’s suspension, calling it “satanic.”

The Catholic Church, which is affected by the law in the same manner as other Christian denominations, has voiced its displeasure too. The Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, the archbishop of Abuja, told local media that the 604-page law did not have the right motives behind it and its impact was not well-studied before it passed.

Other Catholic establishments potentially affected by the law include Catholic Relief Services, which offers development and relief assistance to vulnerable communities like displaced people in Nigeria, though its administrative lead in Nigeria, Olugbenro Ogundipe, saw no immediate risks for C.R.S. posed by the new regulations.

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The backlash over the Company and Allied Matters Act Amended 2020 has been directed at particular clauses in the act’s fourth chapter. The offensive provisions, according to clerics, allow a government-appointed administrator to take over religious institutions in the event of a criminal probe or when the institution is in financial distress. Religious leaders and Nigerian pastors accuse Mr. Buhari of not consulting them before the bill passed. They claim the act is trying to “legislate against God.”

The furor over the law, an update of a 1990 law originally adopted from British colonial rule, is so intense that the Corporate Affairs Corporation of Nigeria, the agency charged with implementing the act, has scrambled to defend itself. The C.A.C., where all religious bodies must register, has been holding townhalls defending CAMA as an attempt to regulate businesses and “making our laws to be of global standards.”

Wole Obayomi, a specialist in West African tax law at KPMG Nigeria, acknowledges the anger over the law, but argues that the regulations are not out of the ordinary. “The law is not much different from what obtains in other countries,” he said. “It’s only that we are not used to this type of regulation in Nigeria.”

Religion is a highly sensitive topic in the West African country that is both the continent’s most important economy and most populous nation but where many struggle to survive on a dollar a day. Almost half of Nigeria’s 200 million people live in poverty. The poor themselves are divided equally between the nation’s Christian and Muslim communities. Seeking answers to the persistent problem of poverty, many turn to religious bodies and leaders who are seen as sacred.

“The law is not much different from what obtains in other countries. It’s only that we are not used to this type of regulation in Nigeria.”

But allegations of fraud by imams and ministers are common, one thing that the law seeks to address, according to the Rev. John Bakeni of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, who says he believes the law is necessary to reduce exploitation of congregations but faults the government for not holding wider consultations with religious leaders and the general public before its passing. “We in the Catholic Church should not be afraid of such a document because we have a structure that establishes and defines the church, and in terms of accountability all dioceses have to be registered. We open our books. All this is to help us be transparent, especially in our financial dealings,” he said.

Although religious divides have historically led to violence in parts of the country, nearly 100 percent of Nigerians believe religion plays an important role in their lives, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. That attitude has meant that Nigerian politicians tend to leave religious institutions alone when it comes to regulation or taxation.

Alongside charities and public education institutions, Nigerian religious bodies largely enjoy tax-exempt status, but there have long been debates over whether religious institutions should be taxed—particularly mega-churches and popular Islamic societies that rake in millions yearly from profitable private businesses such as expensive private schools and housing estates. Religious bodies maintain some of the best-ranked and most expensive universities in Nigeria, including the top-ranked Covenant University, owned by the Living Faith Church, a large Nigerian church with branches in the United Kingdom and the United States.

According to Nigeria’s Company Income Tax Act, religious institutions are only taxed if they operate profitable trades or businesses. Many churches in Nigeria do operate businesses, but Mr. Obayomi said most do not pay taxes on these businesses because they do not understand the law.

Other commentators argue that religious institutions should not be taxed because of the social welfare gaps they fill. Government-sponsored social interventions are few or ineffective. For millions of Nigerians, churches and mosques are resources for survival.

“We’re doing more than paying tax,” Mr. Amoo said. “We help people not just in terms of praying for them, which you can’t quantify, but in terms of social activities. In my church, we run a sick bay that gives people free medical attention, and we also have schools where we only take a token [tuition payment]. The church is not for profit; anything we do is for the people.”

Human rights advocates have also denounced the CAMA policy, arguing that it gives too much power to the C.A.C. to not only suspend the board of trustees of a company in distress, but also to take over the accounts of the company, act as a judge in internal disputes and forcibly merge two companies if it sees fit to do so.

Human rights organizations and democracy advocates say they stand to be seriously affected if the government, which has been accused of human rights violations, turns the new policy on them as a means of suppressing dissent. The Socio-Economic Rights & Accountability Project, an economic rights organization and a vocal critic of the government, vows to sue if C.A.C. goes on to implement parts of the law now under scrutiny. The only way to avoid that confrontation, said Oluwadare Kolawole, the organization’s deputy lead, is to safeguard the autonomy of organizations like Serap by repealing “the patently unconstitutional provisions of the act.”

Even religious leaders like Father Bakeni who support CAMA warn strongly that religious and ethnic divides in the country will make it difficult to implement the reform without bias.

“In the Muslim-majority north, will they send a Muslim to head a church when there are problems?” Reverend Bakeni asked.

Mr. Amoo says Mr. Buhari, who is Muslim, is witch-hunting Christian leaders who have frequently called him out on his failure to secure the country from terror groups including Boko Haram. Some say Mr. Buhari, a former military leader in the 1980s, is drifting toward dictatorship. Last December, thousands spoke up against a bill that granted the government powers to cut off the internet and block social media platforms. That law is still tabled in the National Assembly.

The impasse over CAMA, religious leaders and rights groups say, should be solved through wider consultations and dialogue with the government.

“Accountability is important and we need to check excesses under religious banners, both in the Islamic and Christian folds, but when it comes to leadership, the government has to respect the divine because religions are divinely instituted,” Father Bakeni said. “We should see ourselves as collaborating rather than working as [competing authorities] because we are working towards the same goal.”

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