Do you think the regulations of the Financial Reporting Council are specifically targeted at churches?
I think nothing can be farther from the truth. Arguments or thoughts like that are very reckless, illogical and unfair. I am not a political apologist and I do not belong to any political party. This was a law that was enacted and passed during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan when a Christian, Senator David Mark, was the Senate President. At the time the law was passed nobody said anything; there was no complaint or call for public hearing. There was no apparent criticism of the regulations. It is now only when the implementation was about to start that people are now saying various things. It is satanic to read religion into the codes. Let us look at the fact of the matter; there is the need for transparency and accountability where public funds are involved. In churches and mosques – and churches to a very large extent – public funds are being expended.
It is common knowledge that some of these churches are super-rich with their total worth running into billions of naira, even billions of dollars. Some of them also have businesses. If they are involved in businesses, running universities and expensive secondary schools among other business ventures, then it is only fair for them to be taxed as other Nigerians are taxed. Religion should not be a shield and nobody should hide under the cover of religion to evade tax. Also, it is said that every Sunday there are a number of bullion vans that go to certain churches to take up offerings (money contributed by congregants) and that’s a lot of money.
It is not a bad idea at all that the government should look into this money. It is charity; even funds of charities should be scrutinised. It should be seen that people are giving freely because they are cheerful givers and the question is: is the money used for the purpose it is meant for? I don’t think that should create any problem for either the mosque or the church. It is about transparency. It is about accountability. It is about responsibility. The only area that may appear contentious (in the FRC codes) is when government wants to directly regulate the administration of religions; that will be contentious.
Do you think the government wants to do that?
We have been told that the aim of the law is to forestall the creation of a family religious financial empire – as it was happening in the banks some years ago.
Nigerians can choose to forget things selectively; it is this same law that prevented some select families from controlling banks; that banks should not be a financial empire controlled by some families, holding the public to ransom. Of course, some of these mega religious houses have higher net worth than manufacturing firms and they are usually owned and controlled by the father, wife and the children. They are the virtual owners of everything. Some of these religious houses have universities and they charge outrageous fees. They have some of the most expensive universities in Nigeria. These universities were built from public funds. Therefore, the government should be concerned about how public funds are being expended by religious organisations. I don’t see anything wrong with that. It does not appear as witch-hunt. But if it appears Christians are more affected, to me, it is because this is a matter that concerns Christianity more than Islam. There are no super-rich Muslim organisations – I am not aware of any. I am not exonerating Muslim organisations. If there is any super-rich Muslim organisation, then same rules should be applied to it.
What I think, however, is that the (leadership) succession, the internal administration of religious houses must be left to the religious organisations concerned, governed by their constitutions and by the consensus of the agreement of the people. It will be counter-productive for government to seek to manipulate the leadership of religious houses by determining the tenure (of the founder or leader). I think that’s the only part I found in the regulations to be wanting.
What do you think about the tenure limit in terms of administration rule given by the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria?
I think that is very reasonable. For example, we do not have that kind of problem in Islam and in Muslim organisations. So if you say anyone who is above 70 years or has spent 20 years – whichever comes first – should not be a member of a religious organisation’s board of trustees, that’s fine, at least you create opportunities for others. But if you say someone should not continue to be general overseer for more than 20 years, it is interference and that is bad and unnecessary. There are churches where administrative and spiritual leadership or authorities are combined. A general overseer is the spiritual leader, administrative head, financial controller, and the chief executive officer; sometimes he is the treasurer. There is one individual like that who said he received a revelation from God to increase school fees and that anybody who was opposed to that would be dealt severely by God. Of course, we cannot allow things like these to continue.
Would you say the Federal Government succumbed to some vested interests to remove the FRCN’s executive secretary and suspend the FRC regulations?
I have told you I am not a politician and I don’t speculate. I know something must have happened and you as a journalist should find out from the government why exactly they sacked the FRCN boss and suspended the council’s regulations. You should find out whether they have compromised their authority. But again, you know that religious matters are very sensitive and potentially explosive. Therefore, if the government had acted to forestall any breakdown of law and order or to compound the problems that are already bedevilling the country, then I think it is a wise decision. But if it is to please some individuals and groups, then it’s worrisome. Every law must be fair and justifiable.
Hasn’t the Federal Government set a bad precedent allowing Muslim organisations to kick against any law it is not agreeable to?
Well, the same thing will happen. But let us not be speculative. We must not incite one religious group against the other. You can imagine the kind of religious colouration that would have been given to this issue if the FRC codes had been signed and implemented by the current administration (of President Muhammadu Buhari). Even as it is now questions are being asked; Jonathan didn’t implement the regulations (affecting religious groups) why is Buhari implementing it? Our society needs to rise above this stupid narration. We must discuss matters intelligently and objectively too. The mass of the people will be emotional but those in position of authority have the responsibility to be truthful, analytical and factual.
Are you aware of the fact that before the rules of the FRC Codes were applied, all religious leaders and stakeholders were met by the agency?
I am the spiritual leader of one of the largest Muslim organisations in the West African sub-region and nobody invited me to any meeting whatsoever. I am not a signatory to the regulations. I was not aware of it. Some people could have been invited selectively. Probably, if there had been proper consultations, the government would not have found itself in this embarrassing situation.
What advice do you have for religious leaders and organisations?
I think religious leaders need to be transparent, accountable and obedient to properly constituted authority. It is important that religious groups put their houses in order, especially financially. It should not be a place where people are scammed. Religious leaders must pay attention to their lifestyles. They must be like the people they represent. Our Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was poor; Jesus Christ was poor. They were models of humility. I am not saying that religious leaders shouldn’t be comfortable but they are not expected to dip their hands into public funds kept in their trust. If they do so, it will not only be bad for the economy, it will be bad for religion and for humanity.
But at least one of the religious leaders said he is only answerable to God. Isn’t that correct?
That is rubbish. We are all answerable to God. But then we are dealing with human beings, so we are answerable to them (too). We are also answerable to the government. If the government is not there to provide a conducive environment for religious groups to operate things may not work out well. If religions have become houses of scammers, the government has a responsibility to ensure proper accountability. Religious leaders should not have unlimited and unfettered access to funds that belong to the public.