In a multi-religious society like Nigeria where matters of faith are often contentious, we should at least agree on one cardinal principle: Politics should not be used for religious ends while religion should not be used for political goals. This maxim is prone to flagrant violation, more so in an election year. President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign has been most guilty of this infraction. In one of his campaign ads sponsored by the United Nigeria Group, a voice intones at the beginning, “Let God’s will be done,” and goes on to exhort listeners to vote for the Jonathan/Sambo ticket because it is “God’s will” for the country. In another ad featuring some home video stars, the Jonathan/Sambo ticket is described as “God’s choice.” The Jonathan campaign has generally cast the president as some sort of divine elect or anointed king. This trend of religious politicking is worrisome.
In a society as religious as ours, faith will always be an ingredient of politics which at the best of times is an unstable alchemy of the empirical and the irrational. However, there is a difference between the incandescent political morality of Aminu Kano, whose religious scholarship sharpened his advocacy of democratic humanism and the opportunistic charlatanry of former Zamfara Governor, Ahmed Sani, the erstwhile proponent of Sharia, now an anonymous presence in the senate and last seen battling charges of child-trafficking and pedophilia. There is a clear difference between the thoughtful Spartan Christian faith of Obafemi Awolowo and the hypocritical self-righteous sanctimony of former President Olusegun Obasanjo whose presidency became a pulpit of bull.
Some will argue that the tenor of Jonathan’s faith-based campaign is simply political brand marketing, a scheme of communication that acceptably deploys religious idioms. Certainly, there is a clear effort to construct a usable myth around Jonathan as a man of providence and to dramatize his political trajectory as the stuff of the Nigerian dream. But Jonathan is in danger of becoming a candidate whose claims to leadership rest solely on the fortuitous manner of his ascendance to the presidency. His rise from anonymity to the highest office in the land within a decade, marked by serendipity rather than apparent competence, is being sold as a portent of divine favour and good tidings for the nation at large. There is a place for fairytales in politics, but to hinge our beleaguered country’s hopes on the good fortune of a candidate is, to say the least, imprudent. To advertize that fortune as a supernatural imprimatur upon his candidacy which we must accept for our own good is deception.
Nigerians have previously trusted in usable political myths to their grief. Even General Abacha was hailed by some as a messianic soldier ordained by God to cleanse the rot of the Babangida years although he had himself been an essential part of that rot. Obasanjo’s spectacular sojourn from prison to presidency evoked all kinds of pseudo-mystical interpretations and earned him the toga of the anointed – a concept which he took far too seriously. The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua emerged as a dark horse in 2007 to clinch the presidency; an office for which his more famous elder brother had strived and ultimately died in vain. Again, some people saw providence at work in Yar’Adua’s emergence and sold him as a divine choice. Indeed, after his victory in the fraud-riddled 2007 polls, Yar’Adua urged his opponents to accept his election as the will of God. These are the results of the bastardization of politics in a religious society.
Religious politicking signals the crisis of legitimacy and stature ailing Nigerian politics. As the state has degenerated over the past two decades, its captors and operatives have increasingly sought to import legitimacy from the religious domain to deodorize their political pursuits. At the opening of the Lagos Central Mosque in 1988, General Ibrahim Babangida declared that the economic recession – which was exacerbated to no small extent by his structural adjustment programme – was “the will of Allah.” Such dissembling has become more pronounced since the inception of the Fourth Republic. Obasanjo constantly declared that his presidency was God-ordained. Ahmed Sani’s declaration of Sharia law in Zamfara effectively made him an Ayatollah – a defender of the faithful – without manifestly improving his performance or enhancing the lives of the people. In 2002, his deputy, Mahmud Shinkafi (now governor of Zamfara) issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Isioma Daniel, a Thisday fashion writer for an innocuous reference to the Prophet Mohammed in an article that some Muslims deemed offensive.
The danger is that ideologically bankrupt and amoral politicians will increasingly seek to legitimize their misrule by draping their failed politics in theological garments, thus casting themselves as prophets. The culture of impunity that already denominates public life can only be deepened by delusions of spiritual infallibility. Politicians typically seek transcendent authenticity by pressing flesh with clerics and getting photo ops with the country’s most respected “men of God.” But many are now defining their politics in religious terms, thereby altering the dynamics of democratic engagement and paving a highway to theocratic fascism. In this setting, failed politicians can always blame the electorate for being of little faith. Politics is conducted as holy war and governance becomes a personality cult. Dissent is criminalized as Luciferian insurgence against divine order. Social criticism becomes blasphemy and lawful oppositional activism becomes apostasy. Can terminal excommunications and inquisitions be far off? We should also fear that these ersatz theocrats will provoke an extremist backlash from zealots who believe themselves ordained to cleanse the society of elite hypocrisy. It is no accident, after all, that Boko Haram and allied groups have flourished in the Sharia states where politicians have cynically played the religious card.
It is in this context that we must critique the Jonathan campaign and the general political field. The president’s recent appearance at the Redemption Camp where he was prayed over by Pastor Enoch Adeboye raises questions about the propriety of mixing politics with faith. Adeboye is one of Nigeria’s most respected clerics but is increasingly vulnerable to criticism as a leading luminary of a religious establishment whose choice of secular friends has been unscrupulous and whose deficit in social conscience and activism has become a moral millstone around its neck. Indeed, these religious elites are seen as collaborators with corrupt corporate oligarchs and rogue politicians in an infrastructure of kleptocracy.
The 2011 election must not become a referendum on candidates’ piety. The ads’ implicit and explicit appeals to superstition, emotionalism and irrationality are fraudulent at a time when we need to dispassionately invigilate the political options on parade. Their sectarian overtones are unwise in a country where religion is often a polarizing theme. Above all, it devalues what should be a serious contest of ideas for the right to direct Nigeria’s course in the 21st century. Bala Usman, the late radical historian, argued that religion in the public square is largely an instrument of social control deployed by political elites to mask the true nature of their self-serving adventures in power. He held that the manipulation of religion to mobilize political support is largely responsible for sectarian discord in Nigeria. The tenor of electioneering so far is consistent with his thesis.
As citizens, we have to exercise discernment in a dark age of false prophets. We must judge aspirants by their fruit. What is their track record on dealing with poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease and the vast range of dehumanizing plagues afflicting Nigerians? We must jettison vacuous religious rhetoric and ask concrete questions about social justice, equity and economic growth. Politicians should not contend for hearts and minds in churches and mosques but on the stomp and in debate forums where they can outline their reasons for seeking office. People of faith must insist on these ground rules so as to protect religion from profanity by political hacks. Keen students of Nigerian religiousity understand that the god invoked in these ads is a deceptive construct forged in the crucible of elite corruption and mass suffering, superstition and gullibility. Politicians must also eschew pseudo-religious buffoonery in order to renew a vocation now overrun by conmen. We should judge candidates by their competence and character not by their eligibility for Al Jannah lest we surrender our fate to charlatans.