Nigeria At 60 And The Quest For National Unity: Lessons From ‘The Charter Of Medina’

October 29, 2020
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By Shakir Akorede

Whenever Nigeria tries to whisk off its worries and slide into celebration mood on any national day, she is constantly reminded of her old perennial wounds and lingering challenges. Summarily, she is confronted with stories on why she is undeserving of celebration. This event played out again, and even more conspicuously, during the 60th Anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence on October 1, 2020. As the country was steeped in celebration, a number of citizens went as far as calling for revolution. According to them, Nigeria is not independent or rather has nothing to show for her independence. A leader of the malcontents said: “Complete overhaul of governance through revolution is necessary.”

While this essay does not aim at the veracity or not of these claims, an assessment of regular events shows clearly that Nigerians are reticently displeased and disintegrated, leaving the country in dire need of national reunion — pertinent to peace and progress. This need is well pronounced by unending ethnic and socio-political fractures as well as police-civilian clashes (if not the persistent rumble of dissenters) that seem to have dissolved the country into discord and steep decrease in patriotism.

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Perhaps Nigerians, as a matter of fact, would heed the call of ethnicity a thousand times before that of the motherland. True or not, many have argued that the heterogeneous make-up of Nigeria makes it harder to get everyone behind one flag and one national identity. This view is rationalised by pointing at the gulfs between regions and the failure of successive governments to end ethno-political resentment and divisions in the country, 106 years after amalgamation and 60 years after independence.

Nigerians are reticently displeased and disintegrated, leaving the country in dire need of national reunion — pertinent to peace and progress.

Be that as it may, Nigeria is neither the first nor the only plural, multicultural nation in the world. So how can it solve the problem of disunity, entrench national cohesion and re-earn the allegiance of all citizens? This short piece offers practical answers from an evergreen Islamic model of a pluralistic society.

The Charter of Medina

Medina in 662 AD, some 1442 years ago, was a homeland shared by diverse races, religions and tribes — majorly the tribes of Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj in addition to the Arab and non-Arab Muslims, Jews, Christians, polytheists, disbelievers and others. This ethnoreligious plurality posed an immense challenge to the urgent task of building an Islamic nation upon the glorious arrival of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in Medina. However, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) solved the diversity puzzle by, after earning both the consent and assent of all parties, drafting the historic Charter of Medina — the first written charter in human history. The Medina Charter, consisting of 47 articles, outlined the characteristics of the new state and organized the relations between all the different factions living therein, giving due recognition to all sections of citizens forming one nation and sharing one homeland as it established the state on the basis of justice, peace, cooperation and harmony. In terms of protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of citizens and that of their society, this was a turning point in history.

A perfectly tailored political and social constitution hinged on true principles of justice, the Charter firstly enshrined its constitutional principles on the basis of equality without regard to race, religion or gender thus providing the right of citizens to freely practice their religion and fulfil their obligations, as well as the right to security, freedom and the sanctity of their blood and wealth. Then, it stipulated that all citizens are duty-bound to protect the city, secure its borders of the city [i.e. sovereignty], share the common responsibility of mutual care and peaceful coexistence, and enjoin what is good for the nation and ward off whatever may threatens it, placing a strong emphasis on the values of equality.

Through this Charter, in short, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) invented a reconciliation ground among more than 100 groups, sometimes via letters and sometimes by direct verbal engagements. Arnold Joseph Toynbee, a British historian, summarised the history this way:
“Arabia that had never before obeyed one prince suddenly exhibits a political unity and swears allegiance to the will of an absolute ruler. Out of the numerous tribes, big and small, of a hundred different kinds that were incessantly at feud with one another, Muhammad’s word [peace and blessings be upon him] created a nation.”

Essentials of the Charter of Medina: A Short Dive

In this charter of human rights, the ‘constitutional nucleus of any state’, Islam recognizes non-Arabs and non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians living in Medina, as full citizens with equal rights to protection, respect and freedom. The Charter stated: “The neighbour shall be treated as themselves as long as they perpetrate no crime and commit no harm.”

In the area of unity and nationalism, it further provides in (abridged) details:

i. The Jews of Banu ‘Awf shall be considered as one political community along with the believers — for the Jews their religion, and for the Muslims theirs, be one client or patron. He, however, who is guilty of oppression or breach of the treaty, shall suffer the resultant trouble as also his family, but no one besides.
ii. And all the Jews (of Banu-an-Najjar, Banu-al-Harith, Banu Sa‘ida, Banu Jusham, Banu al-Aws, and Banu Tha‘laba) shall have the same rights as the Jews of Banu ‘Awf. And the sub-branches of the Jewish tribes shall have the same rights as the mother tribes. Of course, whoever is found guilty of oppression or violation of the treaty, shall himself suffer the consequent trouble as also his family, but no one besides.
iii. And if anyone fights against the people of this code, their mutual help (i.e. of all parties forming a whole) shall come into operation, and there shall be friendly counsel and sincere behaviour between them; and faithfulness and no breach of covenant.

Lessons from the Charter
1. The careful selection and use of the words “same” and “equal” throughout the text of the Charter echoes vital lessons. Contextually, the keywords underpinned equality and social justice — without any racial, religious or gender discrimination — while establishing the legal rights and obligations of all.

  1. The word “safe” is also a repeated generic term that covers the protection of individuals — their dignity, honour and equality. It also covers the protection of all tribes and religions.
  2. As a legal framework, the Charter is predicated upon freedom not oppression, equality not superiority, and rights and law not power.

  3. It offered each group the complete freedom of practising their own law (i.e. regionalism or federalism) not only religion.

  4. Another important lesson from the Charter is tolerance. It successfully drilled the value of tolerance into the hearts of the people.

Conclusion
Nations and national cohesion are built on the solid foundation of justice and equality. This is the overarching principle taught by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) through the Charter of Medina. Incredibly, Medina was not only the first among world nations to accomplish the objectives of today’s modern democracies, more than 14 centuries ago, as a state that officially safeguarded and recognized the rights of citizenship and gave its people a real sense of identity and belonging. It was equally made by the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) to serve as an example of a pluralistic state that respects and abides by moral values, refined ethos, a just constitution, and rights of citizenship.

Nations and national cohesion are built on the solid foundation of justice and equality.

Like the nations that have followed this model, Nigeria can no doubt overcome the challenges of ethnic disunity that is quietly threatening its sovereignty. But, as this Charter shows, it has to sink in the consciousness of governments and nation builders that justice and equality are crucial ingredients needed to turn Nigeria’s constitution into an effective instrument of national reunion, essentially as talks about integration and true federalism — without genuine constitutional transformation — have proven to be mere politics.

This essay is published by NSCIA Research and Innovation, an Islamic think tank drawing on the intersection of research, innovation and engagement to advance Islam and development initiatives in Nigeria. Contact: ri.nscia.ng@gmail.com.

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