How 2019 elections are becoming ‘religious’
With the main gladiators of the 2018 elections clearly President Muhammadu Buhari (APC) and ex-vice president Atiku Abubakar (PDP), the political games have already commenced. However, going by the landscape recently, religious angles are being introduced, to varying degrees. Daily Trust Saturday sheds some light on the trend.
Many prominent religious leaders have taken positions by their outright alignments to political candidates, not necessarily at the national level, but in many states. In the past couple of months, mosques and churches have turned into campaign grounds were politicians besiege in search of “blessing”, and clerics openly giving directives to faithful to cast their votes for certain candidates. Some clerics have even gone to the extent of invoking the wrath of God on followers who fail to heed to their directive.
Just on Thursday, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) banned Catholic priests and faithful of consecrated life from engaging in partisan politics, including becoming a member of any political party. The Secretary General, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN), Rev. Fr. Ralph Madu, who gave the order in Abuja on behalf of the Catholic Bishops, frowned at the public altercation between Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka and a former Anambra State governor and the vice presidential candidate of the PDP, Mr. Peter Obi.
The incident occurred on Dec. 2 at Fr. Mbaka’s adoration ground in Enugu, on the issue of patronage in respect of the forthcoming 2019 general elections.
Mbaka had predicted failure for the Atiku/Obi joint ticket. In a viral video, he rebuked Peter Obi for not executing a project for his church, warning him of the consequences. Nigerians who reacted to the viral video were quick to share divergent opinions concerning Mbaka’s statement. Some commended Obi for standing his ground and not making fake promises at the altar of God despite pressure from the priest.
That was what prompted the Thursday reprimand by the Catholic Bishops. According to Rev. Fr. Madu, the Bishops condemn, “the shameful scenario on an adoration ground,” saying the incident does not have the support of the Bishops Conference of Nigeria.
“As has always been our stand, the Catholic church in Nigeria as clearly stated in their August 7, 2018 directives, remains apolitical and does not support or subscribe to any political party. Our concern is for a peaceful election process seen to be free, fair, credible and just, and a democratic governance that guarantees peace, justice, equity, among others,” he said.
In the run up to the 2015 general elections, the fiery Fr. Mbaka had blazed the trail by endorsing thencandidate Muhammadu Buhari of APC, a Muslim, and even canvassed support for him against the then incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. In a scorching New Year’s Eve service, Mbaka had told Jonathan to “resign or be voted out over Nigeria’s alarming insecurity and corruption.” Earlier, the same Mbaka had lauded Jonathan for “doing well.” He also lambasted those blaming the president for not rescuing more than 200 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in April 2014 by Boko Haram militants.
Aside Mbaka, popular Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, has said he had no regrets playing a role to reconcile former President Olusegun Obasanjo, and his former deputy Atiku.
Despite what other clerics said, Gumi acknowledged his right to endorse any candidate for the 2019 elections, while describing Obasanjo as “a leader worthy of emulation.”
“First of all, the negative reactions that greeted our visit to the Presidential Library, Abeokuta, came mostly from social media that is infested with agents of government where an individual can employ numerous identities based on ethnicity, region, religion, etc. It is a natural instinct in us to make peace as humans,” he said.
Daily Trust Saturday recalls that some religious and political heavyweights in the country had all met with Obasanjo on the “altar” of reconciliation. These included the General Overseer of the Living Faith Church, Bishop David Oyedepo, Catholic Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, and PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar.
Recall further that these men had at one time or another spoken of their reservations about the APC leadership at the centre, hence their claim that they were only playing conciliatory role was not convincing to many, including those sympathetic to the APC.
On his part, Bishop Oyedepo denied endorsing Atiku. “I was only invited to make peace. I have never belonged to any political party and will never belong to one. Our goal is to secure the glorious destiny of our nation by paying whatever price it requires,” he was quoted as saying. Like Oyedepo, Bishop Kukah “worked to reconcile, not endorse.”
“My focus all along had been with Obasanjo as I had never brought Atiku into what I was doing. Quite fortuitously, a chance meeting changed the tide in favour of reconciliation,” he said.
Analysts believe that in developed, western democracies, elections provide a platform for
engaging on meaningful, issuesbased arguments, in clear variance to what obtains in developing democracies such Nigeria’s, where elections most times stimulate ethnic and religious fervour. According to them, most political parties and politicians lack ideologies to campaign on, hence their desperation in “conscripting” religious leaders as campaign tools.
A lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Bayero University, Kano, Dr Sa’id Ahmad Dukawa opined that the issue of merging religion with politics is not healthy for democracy in Nigeria, or anywhere else. “The trend is meant to promote hatred among adherents of the two major religions of Islam and Christianity, which can disturb peace and in the end affects the unity among followers of the religions. And of course without unity, no country could develop. It is also meant to divert the attention of the electorates from issues-based politics, which in reality is the best practice anywhere in the world, to attend to problems of the people irrespective of their religion or ethnic background,” he said.
Dukawa therefore charged religious leaders to focus on interrogating politicians and identifying who among them is serious, so that they could tell their followers to vote for such candidate. “Our religious leaders should understand that all the prophets sent by God, the Almighty from Adam to Muhammad (SAW) lived in multi-cultural societies and they brought goodies to their subjects including those that follow them and those that have not. After all, the Nigerian Constitution is clear about the issue of Muslim/Christian ticket. So, by preaching against followers of other religion, you have violated the teachings of your religion, and constitution.”
Sheikh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, a renowned Islamic scholar in Kano and Commander General of Kano Hisbah, said religious leaders need to consider certain things in handling this kind of situation. “They need to hide their choice in respect of candidates and political party. Religious leaders should not show their followers which political party they like, or which among the candidates is their choice. This can cause division not only between Muslims and Christians, but even among his followers because they too have their choices,” he said.
Daurawa said religious leaders should instead enlighten their followers about politicians in terms of qualities and qualifications, to help them choose the best among all the candidates contesting.
The PDP National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan told our correspondent in a telephone chat yesterday, that what is happening is part of the electioneering process, saying clergymen are also Nigerians. “I read the statement credited to Cardinal Onaiyekan that Nigerians have not gotten a reliable presidential candidate yet. And after making that remark, he also said Nigerians must not give up despite the reservation he expressed. I am also saying that Nigerians should not give up. Our own candidate is best suited for the task ahead. I believe so because he understands the nuances and problems of the nation and he had got the experience having been vice president for eight years. I have not seen religious leaders who have come out to campaign, but there are some who are making their views and opinions public. So, as they have not come out openly to campaign, I can’t be judgemental,” he said.
On its part, the ruling APC expressed opposition to any form of campaign that focuses on religious beliefs to the detriment of competence of candidates. The party’s National Publicity Secretary, Malam Lanre Issa-Onilu, in a phone interview with Daily Trust Saturday, said the ruling party would anchor its 2019 election campaigns on the character of candidates and its stewardship in three and a half years.
Issa-Onilu said: “As the ruling party, we completely object to any attempt by PDP or any party for that matter to throw up issues that do not unite this country. We are very certain that Nigerians are not also prepared to be taken through that route again. We agree to ensure that in our campaigns, the issues of religion and tribes are de-emphasised completely because Nigerians are interested in issues that matter to their life. From what we have seen in recent times, the PDP campaign is about throwing up just anything they could lay their hands on because they don’t want to discuss issues. Each time we mention a road that we have done, we are reminding Nigerians of the 16 years of waste under PDP. So, the issue of religion will not feature in our campaigns.”
In 2015, when the presidential contest was between a southern Christian president, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim candidate from the north, the role of religion in the election was much more predictable, and many feared that the country’s unity might be stretched to its limits. It was keenly contested with palpable tensions but a winner emerged at last. However, shortly after President Buhari and ex-VP Atiku emerged as the presidential candidates of APC and PDP, respectively, pundits assumed religion will play little or no role in the run up to the 2019 general election since both candidates are Muslims.
The situation is the same with political leaders who believed those looking for fault lines to cause disaffection would fail this time around.
At a recent function in Abuja, National Chairman of the APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, said: “Ethnic and religious sentiments that characterised the 2015 election wouldn’t be factors in 2019. The two candidates are from the North and they are both Muslims. People are now going to look at character.”
However, that prediction might likely turn out to be a huge miscalculation, as from all indications, there is no gainsaying that the voting pattern of Nigerians in 2019 will once again reflect religious undertones, even if in a different manner.
In Nigeria, the role of religion in elections is a mixed bag. Ahead of the 2019 general elections, religious leaders have played both constructive and destructive roles. Some Muslim and Christian clerics have been on the forefront for a peaceful election. Some have even urged their followers to vote irrespective of religious affiliations. Others, however, have done the opposite.
In some states, such as Kaduna, the decision of Governor Nasir el-Rufai to pick Dr. Hadiza Balarabe, a fellow Muslim and a female as his running mate generated a lot of furore, following the decision of a section of the elite, religious leaders, and politicians in the Southern part of the state to pass a verdict that their people should not vote for the APC and its candidates.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state has asked all their members not to vote for el-Rufai, saying the governor no longer deserves their votes.
The same “Kaduna action” had caused a stir in Ekiti State where gubernatorial election was held recently. Hammering on the decision of Governor Kayode Fayemi to pick a fellow Christian as running mate, many clerics from the other side of the divide are calling him “a fanatic,” saying there are enough Muslims in Ekiti to deserve the deputy governorship slot.
Similar narratives have reared their heads in Plateau and Benue states, where some clerics believe the issue of Muslim-Muslim ticket should be a factor in determining who gets what in 2019.
The Chief Imam of University of Benin Muslim Community, Prof Bunyamin Ayinde, said in an ideal setting, being a Christian or Muslim is not an issue, but advocating for good governance.
The PRO, Ibadan Anglican diocese, Venerable Dr. Wole Ogunseyinde, said he didn’t believe in such development, adding that it is time for Nigerians to work together regardless of their religious background.
Speaking on the issue, the Convener of Good Governance Team (GGT), Tunde Salman, said while religious leaders, like other citizens, may have personal preferences and opinions on politics, they should be more circumspective in their expression. “Open partisanship given that they occupy spaces that must always be protected as neutral is not good for the polity,” Salman said.
Senior Pastor of the Omega Fire Ministries Worldwide (OFM), Apostle Johnson Suleman, has prophesied that unless Nigerians pray for the country, the 2019 election will not hold. In a chat at his church, the cleric had said: “Tell Nigerians who wish to see democracy sustained, to pray for our leaders and work for peace; tell the leaders too to pray and be honest with the people they are serving. Otherwise, elections may not hold in Nigeria in 2019. That is what God has shown me.”
If the tempo of politics in Nigeria ahead of the 2019 elections is any indication of what’s to come, then Nigerians may have not heard the last of a mixture of religion and politics.
Alhaji Atiku Abuakar
President Muhammadu Buhari
From left: Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah; former President Olusegun Obasanjo; Presidential candidate of PDP, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and Sheikh Ahmed Gumi, during the end of a meeting between Obasanjo and Atiku at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, Ogun State on October 11