The Christian Association of Nigeria has finally dragged the Federal Government of Nigeria to court over the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) 2020, particularly as it applies to churches. General Secretary of the Christian body, Joseph Daramola, made this known in a statement which stated that “The suit between the Incorporated Trustees of Christian Association of Nigeria and Corporate Affairs Commission and Minister of Industry, Trade, and Investment was filed before the Federal High Court, Abuja. The case was mentioned at the Federal High Court, Abuja.”
The statement revealed that the plaintiff’s counsel was led by Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN) and included many other legal luminaries. It further revealed that the CAN leaders present in the court were the General Secretary, Elder Kunle Fagbemi, Senator Philip Gyunka, and other high-profile members.
According to the statement, CAN decided to take legal action when all its calls for government not to interfere with the management of the church through any of its agencies fell on deaf ears. The leadership of the Christian body sued the Federal Government for what it claimed were some unhealthy provisions of CAMA (2020) which were opposed to the tenets of the church and the Christian faith.
Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari had on August 7, 2020 signed the CAMA bill into law giving provision for religious bodies and charity organisations to be regulated by the registrar of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and a supervising minister.
In response, CAN rejected the law, tagging it as “unacceptable and ungodly”. As part of the reasons for the rejection, CAN cited ‘spiritual responsibilities and obligations’ of the churches, adding that they cannot be controlled by the government.
President Buhari made it clear that the CAMA 2020 was to improve the way of doing business in Nigeria. The CAMA document has well over 700 sections and several chapters explaining the way businesses will be done in the country. The law explains how different sectors will operate, how to form and register a company, membership of the company, share capital protection of the minority against illegal and oppressive conducts, financial disclosure, among others.
As regards religion, this includes both Christian and Muslim bodies. The main crux for the Christian body however was Section 839 (1) &(2) which empowers the Commission to suspend trustees of an association (in this case, the church) and appoint the interim managers to manage the affairs of the association for some specific reasons.
Nigeria’s religious diversity is what makes the issue even more complicated. Apart from CAN’s position that faulted how a secular and political minister can be the final authority on the affairs and management of another institution that is not political, the Christian body queried “how can the government sack the trustee of a church which it contributed no dime to establish?”
It is believed that religion and government are like fuel and water. They do not and should not mix. If allowed, it might be contaminated with politicisation and secularisation. This is why many churches have consistently opposed this kind of regulation and consider it an intrusion into the life of the church. They also believed that the government does not have what it takes to run the house of God because of the church’s spiritual nature.
In the words of a Lagos based human rights lawyer who asked to remain anonymous, “Any regulatory intervention that would encroach on the right of free associations must be justified on the basis of an overriding public interest.
“The constitutional principle established in many cases by Nigerian courts and courts in other democracies is that before the state can interfere with these rights it must establish an overriding public interest. This is an interest that would be severely undermined but for such interference.
“Section 40 of the constitution guarantees to every person in Nigeria the right to associate freely with others in pursuit of lawful personal interests.
“The guarantee of the right to freedom of association means that the government is restrained from interfering with this right except it shows that there is a threat to security, defence, or public health or other.
It is equally important to mention that CAMA does not give the commission power to suspend the trustees of any association or religious body abruptly. It is only on grounds that run counter to public interest. It therefore comes by way of government trying to protect the interest of the general public (ensuring justice, fairness, and proper conduct within the NFPOs) and CAN who query if those people who control the state have the right spiritual enlightenment to control the church?
According to a public analyst, “The CAMA, just like the Charity Commission in the UK, intends to use codes of conduct to ensure that leaders and founders of NFPOs do not become dictators in their organisations.
“One reason propounded for government involvement in regulating not-for-profit organisation is so that organisations and individuals who enjoy tax exemptions should be prevented from using their offices to attain excessive benefits for themselves and their families.”
Unfortunately, this has not been the case with many religious organisations. Only recently, a self-acclaimed man of God boasted about buying a third private jet in front of his congregation. This was in the middle of a pandemic where people were equally struggling to survive.
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It is noteworthy that most churches and mosques are registered with Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) as Incorporated Trustees in Nigeria, just like NGOs. What it therefore means is that the assets of churches are under the trust and confidence of their Trustees who are not supposed to earn profit, but expected to promote the objective of such organization. The trustees could be sued instead of the church or mosque. With this status, churches can go into businesses such as running schools and hospitals, as far as they are not for profit. But has that been the case with some of the most expensive schools in Nigeria attributed to religious institutions?
Ordinarily, religious organisations are expected to be emblems of good moral conduct, but in most cases it is the opposite. Interestingly, the government now becomes the only institution left to ensure probity. However, many believe that government could overstep its bounds when attempting to ensure equity and fairness. It is advisable that in the interest of harmony and understanding, some provisions of the CAMA Act can be reviewed to accommodate some reasonable grievances of CAN and other concerned bodies.