Where Are The Secular Lawyers?

Leo Igwe

 

By Leo Igwe

This question has agitated me over the years, and it persists. At a recent event in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, a participant introduced herself as a member of the Christian Lawyers Association of Nigeria. Christian Lawyers Association? I wondered, Why Christian lawyers? Why should lawyers associate based on faith? Do we have a traditional religious lawyers association? Jehovah Witness Lawyers Association? Bahai Faith lawyers? Hindu Lawyers? I mean, why the religionization of everything in this country?

In northern Nigeria, the Muslim Lawyers Association exists. This organization is active. It features prominently in cases, especially those that concern religion, Sharia, or Islam. I guess there would be Sunni and Shiite Muslim lawyers associations. In 2022, over 30 Muslim lawyers came forward to defend those suspected of murdering Deborah Samuel in Sokoto. Meanwhile, no member helped prosecute the suspects. Muslim lawyers have strongly supported the execution and imprisonment of suspected blasphemers. They constitute the legal wing of Islamic separatism in Nigeria. This religious slant in practice, profession, and association of lawyers is disturbing and needs to be critically examined.

Look, a lawyer is a person trained to offer legal services. A lawyer is trained to represent an individual or organization in legal matters. S/he applies the law to specific cases, religious or nonreligious. The legal profession should be carried out without religious bias or favor. The law should be practiced to further justice, equity, and fairness, not in defense of a particular faith or belief. In practice, the law should be faith/belief blind. Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case in Nigeria. The tendency of lawyers to associate along religious lines is entrenched. As in other sectors of the society, religion has hijacked the legal profession and association. Lawyers practice and are pressured to practice law along religious lines. That is the raison d’etre of the religious (Christian/Muslim) lawyers association. And it is worrisome.
It has become pertinent to ask, where are secular lawyers? Put differently, where are lawyers beyond belief? By secular lawyers, I mean lawyers who are not religious, that is, lawyers who are atheists or agnostics; lawyers who do not take religion seriously. Secular lawyers include those who think that religious and spiritual matters are strictly private affairs and should not be the basis for legal practice, profession, and association.

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Nigeria needs secular lawyers for the following reasons. First, based on section 10 of the constitution, Nigeria is a secular state, although not explicitly stated. Nigeria has no state religion. But theocrats often contest Nigeria’s secularity and openly propose that sharia and their religious books are superior to the constitution. The country needs lawyers to defend and uphold its secular character and help prevent the slow undoing of the secular gains and progress that Nigeria has made. Nigeria needs lawyers who can champion secularism. And secular lawyers can fulfill this need.

Second, Nigeria needs secular lawyers to professionally and constitutionally handle cases linked to faith or belief, such as witchcraft, blasphemy, and apostasy allegations. Lawyers who practice or associate on grounds of faith cannot be trusted to handle these cases because they are likely to compromise. They are likely to sacrifice their profession on the altar of their faith. For instance, it is a challenge to find lawyers to defend victims of witchcraft accusations because most lawyers, as people of faith, believe in the reality of witches and demons. Even though witchcraft accusations are against the law. Religious lawyers cannot be trusted to render professional services to victims of witchcraft branding. The same thing applies to cases of blasphemy and apostasy accusations. These accusations are linked to religious beliefs. Many lawyers do not want to profess law in ways that violate their faith. So, faith is a factor in hiring an attorney or getting a reliable solicitor.

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In cases where Christians are accused of blaspheming Islam or insulting the prophet of Islam, Christian lawyers volunteer. They offer to help. Religious (Christian or Muslim) lawyers consider it a duty to defend their members. Christian lawyers defended Rhoda in Bauchi or the Christian barber, Elijah, in Kano. Muslim lawyers defended the suspected murderers of Deborah Samuel. But it is more challenging when the accused is a nonbeliever, an atheist, or a nonreligious person. Religious lawyers are reluctant to take up the cases. Religious lawyers cannot be trusted or entrusted with these cases because of concerns over religious bias. Christian lawyers are guided by their christian faith and muslim lawyers are guided by their Islamic faith in their legal practice and representation.

So secular lawyers are needed. They can be trusted to represent in these cases because, in principle, they are free from the faith baggage that encumber legal representations by christian/muslim lawyers. Nigeria needs secular lawyers to keep church, mosque and state separate, and to ensure state neutrality on religious matters. It needs secular lawyers to tackle religious oppression, persecution and tyranny. Nigeria needs secular lawyers to uphold the rule of law and defend the freedom of religion or belief of all.

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Leo Igwe is a board member of the Humanist Association of Nigeria


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