Plans to introduce Islamic banking as one of the models of non-interest financial services has touched off intense controversy in religiously divided Nigeria.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) two weeks ago published a final set of regulations on non-interest banking, which includes Islamic banking, and cleared in principle two banks to offer the product.
The CBN says the introduction of Islamic banking is part of its drive to propel Nigeria's economy and promote financial inclusion by introducing alternative products.
"The non-interest regime offers veritable incentives and attractive options for investors," central bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi said Monday at a conference to promote Islamic banking held in Abuja.
The bank has also unveiled plans to issue sovereign sukuk or Islamic bonds in under two years.
"Rapid development and increasing wealth in the Middle East is driving the appetite for assets in the region and other parts of the world. Given the positive market environment and latent opportunity in Nigeria, we anticipate that Nigeria will be seen as an investment destination," Lamido Sanusi said.
Although plans for setting up Islamic banking have been on the books for years, Christian religious leaders suspect that Lamido Sanusi, himself a Muslim and who took the helm of the bank two years ago, has a hidden agenda.
The Catholic Archibishop of Lagos, Nigeria's economic hub, said efforts to "ensure a speedy take off of the scheme... was part of the grand plan to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state."
"We are against the operation of Islamic banking in Nigeria because we see it as another deliberate move to subjugate Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a secular state. We must be very sensitive to the religious beliefs of others," Olubunmi Okogie said.
"Introducing Islamic banking in Nigeria will further aggravate the culpable religious tension in the country already being hoisted by the radical sect Boko Haram," the archibishop said in a statement.
But the bank's deputy governor Kingsley Moghalu was quoted in ThisDay as saying "There is no agenda; it is simply finance, not about religion."
Nigeria's population of 150 million is roughly divided in half between Muslims and Christians.
The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs says criticisms "are uninformed and unobjective and smack of religious intolerance."
"There is a misunderstanding. Muslims have no hidden agenda. Nigeria cannot be an Islamic state and nobody can declare Nigeria a Christian state," said the council's secretary general Abdul Lateef Adegbite.
With Islamic banking found in more than 75 countries, including predominantly Christian countries such as the US, Britain, Germany and France, as well as African countries like South Africa and Kenya, Nigeria, according to Adegbite, could not afford to be left behind in the multi-billion-dollar business.
"Why should Nigeria, the sixth largest Muslim population in the world, not partake in the benefits of a global financial product," he asked.
He said the facility would throw up new opportunities for ordinary Nigerians to enjoy access to a "less intimidating banking system that is ethical in its operations, and guaranteed attractive returns on their investments."
Rights activist Shehu Sani said the controversy over Islamic banking "has to do with the religious polarisation of the country... every issue is interpreted on religion."
Authorities were forced to set up a panel to aid Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem because there was a tradition to do so for Muslims going to Mecca. When Nigeria joined the Organisation of Islamic Conference in the 1980s, similar controversy was stirred.
Muslims, according to Sani, also complained that if Sunday is a public holiday, Friday should also be declared a holiday and now Friday afternoon has become de-facto work-free.
"All these things are issues that have to do with balancing the religious divide in the country," said Sani.
"I don't know why the furore. We have to live above this and grow out of it," said Adegbite.
A Lagos-based lawyer Femi Agunbiade said "Islamic banking does not preclude a Christian from benefiting from its non-interest products."
"However CBN should not be seen to sponsor such a bank with religious connotations but to only concern itself with issuing licences to a bank to offer non-interest products."
The two banks cleared so far are Jaiz International and Stanbic IBTC, a subsidiary of South Africa's Standard Bank.© ANP/AFP