Photo- Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, President Bola Tinubu and Mr Peter Obi
By TUNDE AKANDE
Politicians in Nigeria are still playing the denial game pretending they can manage the ugly religious politics they brought into the politics in the country, especially in the 2023 elections. But it must be said loud and clear that Nigeria will blow up if the religiously determined politics in the country is not urgently confronted. When the president, Ahmed Bola Tinubu flew his single faith ticket, he told the nation that religion was not in his heart and that he went for the best-qualified running mate out of the list given to him by his Party, APC.
That choice divided Nigeria sharply into two halves. The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, the body that sees to the concern of Christianity in the country took up arms with Tinubu. The Muslims defended the ticket. Bola Tinubu himself weathered the storm by a series of subterranean moves that allegedly included bribery of a certain section of the Church in the country. By the time Peter Obi, the newcomer to the politics at the centre in Nigeria finished his round to churches all over the country, especially in Abuja, the federal capital and Lagos, the commercial capital of the nation, it was very clear that religion has taken the centre stage of politics in Nigeria.
Obi too pretended that he was going around the churches not to campaign but to ask for prayers. But his strategy to woo his Christian constituency, Obi is a Christian, became clear in a leaked telephone conversation he had with David Oyedepo, a prominent Pentecostal pastor who is head of a sprawling church that’s spread around the nation. Obi was heard telling Oyedepo that the presidential election was a religious war to which Oyedepo replied that he understood. Obi requested Oyedepo to make a move on his behalf so that the election in the southwest may go his way.
As calculated, the churches in Abuja and Lagos together with the Igbo ethnic group from which Peter Obi originated lined behind him and he torpedoed the usual election pattern in Lagos which had been the stronghold of Tinubu since 1999; Obi won Lagos, and even convinced that he got more votes than the electoral umpire INEC announced as the votes won by the Labour Party. He also won convincingly in Abuja and denied Tinubu the 25 percent requirement at the federal capital which is a subject of litigation at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal now.
But nowhere did the negative effect of the incursion of religion into politics more than it has ever been manifesting become more pronounced than in Lagos State, the political base of Tinubu. There is an ongoing face-off between the governor, a Christian and the members of the Legislature. Out of the 39 nominees Governor Babajide Sanwoolu, presented to the Legislature as commissioners, seventeen were not approved, some of them brainiacs. They were not approved as commissioners not because they were not qualified but for a strange reason of religion.
The state branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria led by Bishop Stephen Adegbite and MURIC, a Muslim rights agitation group led by Professor Ishaq Akintola have locked horns over the religious colouration of the nomination. Akintola said the ratio of 32 to 8, Christian to Muslims is too skewed in favour of Christians and must be reversed. The significance of the imbroglio is that such never happened in Lagos since Tinubu became the political godfather of the state in 1999. He was always in firm grip and there was hardly open disagreement between the executive and the legislature. It was Professor Ishaq Akintola, recently retired as a teacher of comparative religion at Lagos State University who according to a recent revelation by Nasir El Rufai, the immediate past governor of Kaduna State mobilized the support of the North for Tinubu, a southerner from the southwest “so that Muslims in the southwest will have a sense of belonging..”
By that Ishaq Akintola implied that Muslims in the southwest states had occupied a second-class position and are inferior and therefore need to be encouraged by their religious kith and kin in the North which is dominated by Muslims. Akintola’s statement cannot stand the test of analysis as Muslims had played very significant roles in the politics of the southwest. It is only recently that the Church in the Southwest began to get interested in politics. Among the Pentecostals for example, it is seen as a thing not to be done in order not to get involved in the things of the world. Muslims, on the other hand, have no such inhibition.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian who ran and won the presidency in 1999 was not the favourite candidate of the Yoruba who constitute the Southwest, he was an imposition from the North after one of their own General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election of MKO Abiola who was acclaimed to have won the election. When the annulment threatened to set the nation on fire as a result of widespread protests in the Southwest, leaders of the North got together and picked and imposed Obasanjo. Meanwhile, MKO Abiola who won the election was a Muslim, even a fanatical one at that who was alleged at one time to have drowned a shipload of bibles that was being shipped to Nigeria. For that alleged crime, a very prominent Pentecostal Archbishop, Benson Idahosa decreed a Christian boycott of Abiola’s newspaper, the National Concord, a decree that was accepted and followed by Christians all over the nation and which consequently brought down the circulation of the newspaper for a while.
Abiola ran a same-faith ticket where he was the presidential candidate and his running mate was Babagana Kingibe, a Muslim from the Northeast. Bola Tinubu, a Muslim repeated the Abiola model when he picked another Kanuri Muslim, Kashim Shettima from the Northeast as his running mate. The Muslims in the Southwest are not inferior to their Christian counterparts, indeed, in some respects, they may even surpass them. The only reason for Ishaq Akintola’s game could, therefore, be only to ensure Muslim domination or an expression as alleged of his rabid hatred for Christians.
Nasir El Rufai bought into Ishaq Akintola’s game plan and mobilized his fellow Muslim governor brothers in the Northwest who massively gave their votes to Tinubu which substantially helped Tinubu to clinch the presidency in 2023. As the new Kaduna governor which he sponsored, Uba Sani, was being inaugurated, El Rufai announced to a bemused nation that Muslims don’t need Christians again to win elections. Tinubu and himself have demonstrated it in the presidency and Kaduna, El Rufai declared.
The fireworks between CAN and MURIC in Lagos State are the first fruit of the seed Tinubu sowed in his single faith ticket and the various religious politics he played. In the exchange of brickbats between CAN and MURIC, Lagos has now become a hotbed of religious crisis which may snowball into neighbouring Yoruba states which feature Christians and Muslims in almost equal proportion. Who becomes what in Lagos, a state where Tinubu has demonstrated an infusion of technocrats in the past and which had accomplished a measure of success will now be determined by religious non-state actors. It is a sad development for the state that needs careful attention as the commercial nerve centre of the nation.
It is doubtful if Tinubu will have much time to attend to the problem because of the difficult job he applied for at the centre and which he was given. Tinubu himself acknowledged the difficulty of his assignment which he sought and got but asked nobody to pity him. He has much to do and a more complex situation on his hands. The religious rumbling in Lagos may stretch the political skill of Governor Babajide Sanwoolu beyond the limit. Sanwoolu is not politically savvy being just a favourite who was elected as governor at the behest of his political godfather.
Sanwoolu is a Christian in a state that is projected to be Muslim-dominated and where it is most likely the Legislature is dominated by Muslims too. We have begun to see sectarian strife in Lagos and it may lead to constant friction and fights. It may lead to less attention on governance and consequent decay. If Tinubu wants to intervene in the current crisis, it may mean less attention at the federal level. Even a similar situation may play out in Abuja too. Some Muslims in the North are already saying they voted for Tinubu’s same-faith ticket because they expected his cabinet would be dominated by Muslims. Now that that is not being done they are already agitated and they are not hiding it.
Religious strife destroys and if Nigeria will not be destroyed, a new constitution is desirable which will not only restructure the country but will also in a very rigid way separate the state and religion. An unfettered way must be provided for governors and the president to choose their team without any role for religion or religious bigots. No state must fund religion and no religious meeting must be held on any government property. Nigeria is said to be a secular state but that’s not true otherwise Bishop Adegbite and Professor Ishaq Akintola will not be fighting over who gets into the cabinet of Governor Sanwoolu in Lagos State.
Religion must be restricted to the individual. We have seen the problem brewing between the traditional worshippers and the Muslims in Kwara state where the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Kolapo Sulu Gambari Dan Bawa has used the apparatus of the state, the government-owned and funded police to harass the traditional worshippers and to deny their constitutional right to freedom of worship. It ought to be in a new constitution that any leader who so denies any Nigerian his right to go to heaven or hell the way he or she chooses will lose his office if found guilty by a court and will go to jail. If we don’t do these and many more quickly, religious bigots will continue to afflict us with second-rate brains in our governance and we may not have a Nigeria again in a very short time. God forbid!
Tunde Akande is both a journalist and pastor. He earned a Master’s degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.