Here is a trustworthy axiom of Nigerian politics: When Nigerian elites “do God”, political intrigue is afoot. In the buildup to the 2011 elections, a photograph of President Goodluck Jonathan kneeling before Pastor Enoch Adeboye, one of Nigeria’s most influential preachers, was widely circulated. Ahead of a keenly contested election, the president’s posture of prayerful humility projected him as a devout Christian armed with a highly respected cleric’s blessing.
Jonathan’s uncertain if nondescript pedigree should have faced greater scrutiny, but the pentecostalization of the Nigerian mind aborted any serious interrogation of his credentials. His meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency within a decade, abetted by outrageous fortune, was the quintessential overnight miracle rags to riches story that is the stuff of Sunday morning church testimonies. To millions of voters, Jonathan’s presidency was a validation of their own secret fantasies of miraculous success and could only have been God’s doing.
Many Christians and Muslims share this fatalistic worldview. It is the product of an environment in which meritocratic paths to power and success in public life are exceedingly rare. In April 2011, the Emir of Gwandu described candidate Jonathan as a God-ordained leader and assured him of God’s support saying, “God has made you all you are and he will give you all you want.” Nigerian popular theology, whether in its Christian or Islamic manifestations, retroactively designates all power and privilege, no matter how illicitly or serendipitously acquired, as divinely ordained.
Now seeking re-election, the president has reactivated a trusted stratagem. This time, it meant embarking on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem accompanied by some of Nigeria’s most influential pastors including Ayo Oritsejafor, the scandal-prone President of the Christian Association of Nigeria. The pilgrimage was a reconnection with divine anointment in the holy land as the president prepares to seek a second term.
Oritsejafor has been instrumental in promoting a narrative of Jonathan as a southern Christian president embattled by a dark conspiracy intent on “Islamizing” Nigeria particularly with the ongoing terrorist insurgency. In the process, he has become the arch-promoter of a highly polarizing presidency. The administration and its ecclesiastical allies have tried to use the tired bogey of “Islamization” to immunize Jonathan against charges of ineptitude and graft while smearing the opposition as a proxy for the terrorists. CAN itself has become little more than a department of the presidency. As electioneering commences, we can expect even more divisive rhetoric and more attempts to slander the opposition from the administration and its retained prophets.
The ecumenical diversity of Boko Haram’s casualties would have enabled a more sensitive leadership to rally the country across its sectarian fault lines but Jonathan, already entrapped by his own narrative of personal victimhood, has been unable to hit those unifying notes. The same moral paralysis has prevented Oritsejafor and fellow conspiracy theorists from castigating the “Christian” president for his epic ineptitude at protecting his supposed brethren.
Obviously, Jonathan is not the first Nigerian politician to exploit religious sensibilities for political gain. Ahmadu Bello’s Northern Peoples’ Congress smeared Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union as unislamic and apostate for collaborating with southern-led parties which were deemed conclaves of infidels. The NPC used both the bogey of southern (Christian) domination and the banner of Islamic solidarity to justify its repression of the opposition.
Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria subtly campaigned as an Islamic party in Northern Nigeria and tarred the opposition People’s Redemption Party as unislamic. Olusegun Obasanjo played his up his born-again Christian credentials to counter the hostility of southwest Awoist elites who saw him as a lackey of northern Muslims and then later to offset his rejection by his erstwhile (mostly northern Muslim) backers.
In 1999, Zamfara State Governor, Ahmed Sani Yerima expanded the jurisdiction of Sharia law to include criminal justice matters. It was actually a ploy to mobilize plebeian piety as a counterweight to the far better resourced Peoples’ Democratic Party. This gave the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party the powerful weapon of Islamo-populism with even northern PDP governors forced to similarly enact Sharia law to avoid being tarred as “unislamic” and evicted from office. Such was the revivalist fervour cynically unleashed by Yerima. However, given its fraudulent provenance, what emerged was a legal code that targeted the weak and the deprived – cattle thieves and teen mothers – even as its promoters continued to indulge in atheistic levels of vote-rigging, public theft and hedonism.
Muhammadu Buhari’s fulsome support of the Sharia gambit and his presidential candidacy in the ANPP, which marketed itself as an Islamic party in the north, made him a political megastar in the far north but anathema in the Middle Belt and in the south. Buhari is not the religious extremist alleged by his traducers but his past links with the ANPP’s Islamo-populism and his recurrent bouts of Freudian logorrhea have continued to haunt him. However, for all the accusations of religious bigotry leveled against Buhari, it is actually the Jonathan administration and the PDP that have perpetrated the more egregious manipulation of religious sensibilities in recent years.
In a sense, Oritsejafor’s heedless support of Jonathan symbolizes the radicalization of CAN in response to Islamo-populism. The Jonathan presidency is seen as an opportunity for Christian elites to benefit from power in the very same way that Muslims have supposedly done historically. This is a “Christo-populist” spin on the argument that Jonathan’s presidency is the turn of the longsuffering people of the Niger Delta to enjoy the national cake.
This argument depicts Jonathan as the victim of a powerful northern Muslim clique – a view reinforced by the inflammatory utterances of some northern politicians in the build-up to the 2011 polls. Although there is no evidence linking the impotent vituperations of these politicians to the insurgency, Jonathan supporters have seized upon them to argue that the insurgency is designed to unseat the president. This sidesteps the fact that Boko Haram emerged under Jonathan’s Muslim predecessor and that the last comparable insurrection in the north, the Maitatsine uprising, occurred under Shagari, another Muslim.
True, by their utterances, some northern politicians project a sense of ethno-religious primacy and entitlement. But this is an expired populism, the blame for which cannot be fairly imposed on all northerners. Such rhetoric is now simulated by some Niger Delta elites who insist intemperately that in 2015, it will be “Jonathan or nothing”. This is the verbal jousting of rent seekers portraying their self-serving pursuits as being in the service of their faiths and regions. In reality, bigots and extremists on both sides of our fault lines are merely reinforcing each other.
In our prebendal rentier political economy, the terms “Christian” and “Muslim” are often less about confessional commitments than political allegiances. Groups like CAN and the Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI) are relevant only because of the Nigerian state’s failure to act as a guarantor of the common good. They are less doctrinal organizations than para-political movements that thrive on the mobilization of faith groups as political constituencies to contest for rents. Pilgrims welfare boards, for example, are little more than channels of patronage for servicing the religious elite. These organizations also enable politicians to claim religious affinity with ordinary Nigerians whose aspirations are totally incompatible with elite greed.
In this zero-sum contest for “religious parity” in public life, actual governance suffers. The exploitation of confessional identities means that politicians cannot be held accountable since they posture as defenders of their respective faiths. These pseudo-religious shenanigans would be comical if not for their often lethal consequences. Despite their religiousity, politicians continue to exhibit agnostic impunity. Tens of thousands of lives have been consumed in suburban sectarian wars. Boko Haram is the Frankenstein monster spawned by the cynical manipulation of Sharia in the early 2000s. The toll in terms of broken trust and depleted social capital is inestimable.
We must now articulate the necessity of a secular state as a neutral mediator of sectarian passions, underwriter of religious freedom and pluralism, and protector of various shades of belief, unbelief and disbelief. Such a state would outlaw the public funding of pilgrimages and other personal religious diversions. It would enact robust hate speech legislation that aggressively penalizes preachers of hate. Above all, it must be a guarantor of human security that prioritizes education, healthcare and other developmental deliverables, the absence of which have enabled the rise of charlatans.
The mysteries of inequity and social justice that make religious dog-whistling so potent have to be decisively addressed. Ultimately, we must restructure the political economy and restrict access to the unearned oil rents which constitute the primary incentive for crude sectarian politicking. In truth, the ruling class is an ecumenical league of plutocrats and kleptocrats; their victims need to unite and take back their nation.
(All images sourced online in the order of appearance from premiumtimesng.com, ekekee.com, assets.vice.com, channelstv.com and risenetworks.org)