Credit: Thisday

Simon Kolawole: Religion And Politics In Nigeria

If you want to scare me about Nigeria, throw religion into politics. Nothing frightens me more than that. I find it hard to live with ethnically coloured politics, but I am even more frightened when religion is added to the equation. I shiver. Religion, in my experience, whips up the highest emotion in most Nigerians. There are people whose perspectives are based entirely on religion. They either accept or reject you because of your religion. This wouldn’t matter too much, however, if not that politicians are exploiting this fault line for political gains. They do not worry that once the fire starts, it is very difficult to quench. They do not worry that innocent people end up losing their lives because of religion.Nigeria can burn to ashes, for all they care. I cannot but shiver.
In recent times, religion has been a topic of discussion on the lips of politicians. As the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) continue their desperate media war ahead of 2015 elections, religion has taken the driver’s seat. The APC has consistently been accused of having a Muslim bias.

It has been “positioned” by the PDP as the Nigerian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, APC chieftains have also described the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) as a wing of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). CAN President, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, has been openly supportive of President Goodluck Jonathan. Also, the fact that Jonathan openly knelt down before Pastor Enoch Adeboye some years ago has also been highlighted as a promotion of the Christian agenda.
How did religion come to mix with politics so much in Nigeria? I ask because when Gen. Yakubu Gowon was Head of State, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, as the finance minister, was effectively Gowon’s No. 2 man. Both were Christians. Religion was not an issue for anybody. When Maj. General Muhammadu Buhari was Head of State between 1983 and 1985, his second-in-command was Maj. Gen. Babatunde Idiagbon. Both were Muslims. Religion was never an issue. In Western Nigeria in 1979, the governor of Lagos State was Alhaji Lateef Jakande and his deputy was Alhaji Rafiu Jafojo. Both were Muslims. In Oyo State, Chief Bola Ige and Chief SM Afolabi ─ both Christians ─ were governor and deputy. In Ogun, Chief Bisi Onabanjo and Chief Olusesan Soluade ─ both Christians ─ were governor and deputy.
I keep asking myself: when did religion become the key issue in our politics? When was the turning point? I have been thinking about this issue for a long time in an attempt to build a narrative. I think religion was always a sensitive issue, but it did not become highly inflammable until 1986. That year, Nigeria became a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Our world changed forever. The Babangida government said it took the decision for economic reasons: to be able to access the favourable loans available to OIC member countries at a time we were direly in need of finance. Christians, however, viewed this as an attempt to Islamise Nigeria. In my opinion, this was the beginning of Christian vs Muslim open confrontation in Nigeria.
In my records, the first major religious riot that pitched Muslims and Christians against each other was in Kafanchan, old Kaduna State, in March 1987. The following month, the usually peaceful Ilorin, Kwara State, also witnessed a skirmish when some exuberant Christian youths held an Easter procession in a thickly Muslim neighbourhood, pointing at houses and singing: “Jesus dey here!” The tension went on and on, with Zaria, Tafawa Balewa, Zango Kataf, Kano and several other areas in the North catching fire one after the other. When the OIC controversy broke out, little did we know that we had entered a journey of no return that would go on to consume thousands of lives (and still counting) while destroying property worth billions.

CAN engaged Babangida in an endless showdown. Many Muslims felt obliged to defend him. In October 1987, Sheikh Abubakar Mohammad Gumi, a well-respected Islamic cleric, spoke with Quality magazine in an interview that worsened an already combustible situation. He said: “The two-party system of government will not be South against North but Islam against Christianity. Once you are a Moslem, you cannot accept to choose a non-Moslem to be your leader. If Christians do not accept Moslems as their leader, then we have to divide the country. Nigerian unity is to try to convert Christians and non-Moslems (to Islam) until the other religions become minority and they will not affect our society.” There was an uproar over the interview. It was too late. We had lost our innocence, never to be regained.
But life could be ironic. Gumi died before the June 12 election of 1993, and he would have been surprised, even if pleased, that the battle was actually between two Muslims ─ Chief MKO Abiola and Alhaji Bashir Tofa ─ contrary to his prediction that it was going to be Islam vs Christianity. Nigerians gave their mandate to Abiola, who fielded a fellow Muslim as his running mate. Religion was not even the central issue, even though many Christians protested when Abiola picked Alhaji Babagana Kingibe. The election was annulled. But the ultimate irony was that the election that eventually produced a civilian president was between two Christians ─ Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief Olu Falae. And it was Northern Muslims that masterminded it!
From this little historical background, we can all see that Nigerians ─ Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners ─ have demonstrated over time that even though religion has the capacity to divide us and hurt our union, we can handle it. Check the facts. In the past, Muslims have overwhelmingly supported Christians ─ and vice versa. This is cause for optimism. While I agree that we cannot discount religion as a factor in our politicking, we have the duty to shut up those who deliberately go out to whip up the sentiment for selfish purposes. Nigerians must rise in unison to condemn and reject the disgraceful play on religion by the parties ahead of the 2015 elections. PDP has been openly aggressive with this religion factor, while APC has been discreet and effective.
There is something I want to keep hammering on: Nigeria is bigger than PDP and APC. Do you know how many parties we have seen in this country? NPC, AG, NCNC, UPN, NPN, NPP, SDP, NRC, just name them. Where are they now? They are gone with history, but Nigeria remains. Do you know how many politicians we have seen? Do you know how many ethnic jingoists and religious bigots we have seen? Where are they now? Many have become history. Nigeria remains. Nigeria is bigger all of them. We who love Nigeria, who detest the politicisation of religion, who believe that political discourse should centre on the economic and human development agenda, must continue to voice out our disgust at the conduct of these politicians. Let’s rise up and embarrass them into silence.

And Four Other Things…
The discovery of a kidnappers’ den in Soka, Oyo State, is yet another indictment of our security agencies. A key indicator of security failure is the ability of citizens to create “a state within a state”. The kidnappers operated a den where decomposed bodies and dying victims were only recently discovered. We are yet to know how long this has been there, but it is very clear that the state has again failed its citizens. That is how Boko Haram insurgents and Niger Delta militants were able to establish and operate camps on the Nigerian territory without security detection. Shame.


A police officer goes gun-crazy, killing his wife, landlady, a two-year-old girl and three others before finally taking his own life. Now, this is not a story from America. It happened in Abeokuta, Ogun State. Apparently, he had mental health issues. In Nigeria, we’re still in denial. People are battling all kinds of mental ailments, some of which are treatable medically, but we would love to mystify these things rather than confront them. I won’t be surprised if this incident is dismissed as a “demonic” attack or a “spell” cast on him by his father’s second or third wife. Unhelpful.


A respected Northern traditional ruler, Alhaji Muhammadu Barkindo Mustapha (the Lamido of Adamawa), ignited some frenzy last week at the National Conference. Consistently denied an opportunity to have the floor, he burst out in anger, warning those canvassing Nigeria’s break-up that he has a place to go to. “My kingdom extends into parts of Cameroon. In fact, there is a state there known as Adamawa. If anything happens here, I will go there and I will easily assimilate,” he said. No, Your Majesty, you won’t have to move to Cameroon if Nigeria breaks up. Just remain where you are. Easy.

I have two words for those who think break-up is the cure-all solution to a nation’s political crisis: South Sudan. They broke away from Sudan in 2011, full of hope and fantasies. Today, South Sudan is on a negative spiral. More than one million people have been displaced since violence broke out last year between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers backing Riek Machar, his former vice-president. Kiir is a member of South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, while Machar is from the second-largest Nuer. Interestingly, they forgot these ethnic differences when they were fighting Sudan. Perspective.
Article written by Simon Kolawole


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