Let’s Leave Religion Out Of Politics – Tolu Ogunlesi

Nigeria’s leaders have long perfected the art of using religion to play politics. And we all know why. Religion is arguably Nigeria’s biggest industry, and the second biggest export industry after oil, ahead even of Nollywood. Almost everyone in the country will openly and fervently identify with either of Christianity or Islam (a good number will expertly combine this with a traditional belief system).

Right there at the seat of power in Abuja, the power of religion can be clearly seen. Now my only contact with the Presidential Villa has been the banqueting hall, but I have been reliably informed that conspicuously positioned near the Presidential residences are a Chapel and a Mosque. I believe the mosque was built by President Babangida, while President Obasanjo, the first Christian to rule Nigeria in 20 years, on assumption of office promptly built a Chapel right next to it, ostensibly to balance things out. That’s how seriously we take our religion in this country. A columnist once argued that the Aso Rock Chapel and Mosque both ought to be relocated, but we all know that insisting on that would be like asking for a Civil War.

In April 2010, weeks after an ailing President Yar’Adua was smuggled back into Nigeria, the ‘cabal’ running Nigeria in his name arranged an excursion to the Presidential Villa for two groups of people: Christian and Islamic clerics. Their assignment was to come and bear witness to the resurrection of a man whom we had all presumed permanently incapacitated. They went in and came out, but we could tell from their muted enthusiasm that all was not well. But it was a brilliant move on the part of the then First Lady and her clique. They knew that if anyone was going to help convince Nigerians that the President was doing well, it would be religious leaders. They knew that Nigerians don’t query their religious leaders.

Nigeria must also be one of the few secular countries that devote substantial amounts of state funds to sponsoring religious pilgrimages. Every year the federal and state governments allocate tens of millions of naira to their Christian and Muslim Pilgrimage Commissions. It really doesn’t make sense to me, but I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. As far as I know, travelling to Mecca or Jerusalem on pilgrimage is a personal demonstration of faith. I therefore believe it should be funded by the individual seeking to fulfill that responsibility. The government has no business subsidising religious enterprise. But then again I’m making an argument that has no chance of succeeding in a country like ours; a country where employers see nothing wrong in insisting that all their staff take part in ‘morning devotion’, and where shopkeepers see nothing wrong in keeping customers locked out on account of the same (Christian employers are especially guilty of this). We haven’t quite learnt how to keep religion in its proper place. The ongoing National Conference in Abuja had barely kicked off when a religious controversy arose.

In December 2010, during the Presidential campaigns President Jonathan pulled off a grand move by visiting the Redemption Camp, and having himself pictured kneeling down before Pastor Enoch Adeboye, one of the world’s most influential Christian leaders. Those pictures drew some criticism, but the president’s handlers knew that the positives would no doubt outweigh the negatives. To most of Nigeria’s Christian population this was the perfect picture of humility. A president submitting himself to God, and humble enough to do it openly. (I’m guessing their calculation was aimed at putting a seal on their presumed control of the Christian vote, based on the fact that he was the front-running ‘Christian’ candidate).

Never underestimate the power of those religious images amongst Nigerians. And President Jonathan’s handlers appear to be aware of this. The international media of course likes to focus on the fact that he is a ‘Christian President’ sitting in office at a time when, according to the terms of an informal power sharing pact, a Muslim President from the North should be in office. This description is often wrongly used to try to explain the Boko Haram phenomenon; as though we were having to deal with the insurgency because we have a Christian President usurping a Muslim’s role.

Somehow it appears to me that the President has started to believe this ‘Christian President’ business. In recent months he has made it a point of duty to be photographed in churches. Every week there’s a photo of him in a church, or at a gathering of Bishops, accompanied by a news headline and story quoting him speaking religionese; thanking God for giving him wisdom or thanking the Church for their ceaseless prayers, without which Nigeria would not be what it is today. In October 2013 he travelled to Jerusalem, and his media team bombarded us with photos of him praying and being prayed for.

And then in February, the News Agency of Nigeria quoted him as saying, at the Dunamis Gospel Church in Garki, Abuja: “This year, we have decided that from now onward, until I leave the State House, every last Sunday of the month I will go to different churches. The reasons are very obvious, not because if I worship in the State House I am not worshiping God… But I feel that it is good for me to go round and continue to appreciate what our brothers and sisters have been doing.”

Each one of these actions, by itself, doesn’t mean much. But put them all together and you get the picture of a President who seems to be trying to ‘work’ religion for 2015. (When I saw the images of him meeting with the Pope a few days ago, I couldn’t help seeing it in terms of a deliberate ‘Christian President’ strategy).

Combine that with the repeated attempts by the Peoples Democratic Party  to portray the All Progressives Congress  as an ‘Islamic’ party, and things fall into place even further. Presidential aide Reno Omokri was recently ‘caught’ trying to anonymously circulate a maliciously-worded document portraying – without any evidence – suspended CBN Governor Lamido Sanusi and banker and businessman, Umaru Mutallab, as Boko Haram sponsors and sympathisers bent on Islamising Nigeria. That the government has ignored the outcry that followed the unmasking of Reno says a lot about how much they agree with his tactics and messaging.

And this is not about President Jonathan alone. Many Nigerian politicians are guilty of trying to whip up religious sentiment in a way that boosts their own image, or demonises their opponents. During the Presidential election campaign in 2002, Muhammadu Buhari was quoted in a news headline as saying that Muslims should only vote for Muslims. That expectedly drew a backlash. But Buhari denied ever saying that, and Hassan Matthew Kukah, today the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, came out staunchly in his defence.

And I guess there’s also a message to religious leaders to be careful to not allow themselves to be used by politicians seeking to court voters on the basis of religion. As the elections approach we will see intense scrambling for photo-ops in churches and mosques, by politicians who know that the quickest way to a Nigerian’s heart is through his or her religious leaders. They will invade the religious houses looking pious and saying all the right things, and asking for prayers.

But we all know the truth. This has nothing to do with piety. If they were half as pious as they pretend to be Nigeria would not be where it is today.

I’d like to remind President Jonathan of the words of his party’s national secretary, Olisa Metuh, issued in a statement earlier this year (interestingly the same statement that accused APC of “[using] religion to divide the country.”): “It is our unshakable creed that Nigeria belongs to all Nigerians irrespective of religious, tribal, ethnic or regional affiliations. This country belongs to Muslims, Christians and citizens of other religious persuasions alike and our people are free to live and work in any part of the country and aspire for any office irrespective of religious or ethnic affiliations.”

This is a loud call to all politicians and political parties, to keep the matter of religion out of politics, regardless of the temptation to wield it as a weapon. A President of Nigeria is elected to be a President of Nigerian, not of Nigerian Christians or Muslims alone. Same applies to the Governors. Anyone who wants to be seen as a Christian or Muslim “brother” should immediately exchange the soapbox for the pulpit, and squarely face that religious calling. And anyone who wants to gain political mileage out of labelling an opponent as a religious ‘Other’, should think twice and desist.

Governance is about delivering high quality leadership to all citizens regardless of what they believe or don’t believe. Presidents and Governors ought to keep their religions personal, and not drag the country into it. Christians and Muslims and traditional worshippers are all very well represented on the list of people who have brought Nigeria to ruin. If there’s one lesson Nigeria has taught us, it is that a person’s religion or lack of it has nothing to do with the quality of his or her leadership. Faith is meant to be a personal connection between man and a Supreme Being; and we should allow it to stay that way.

•Follow me on Twitter @toluogunlesi

Published with permission from the author | Views expressed are solely the author’s

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