Religion and Politics in Africa

Toying With the Fire of Religion


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c.Don Adinuba                                               guest columnist


While retiring as the Chief of Army Staff in 1979, Lt Gen Theophilus Danjuma expressed profound fears about Nigeria’s future. “I am not aware of any nation”, the Daily Times reported him as saying, “which has survived both a civil war and a religious war”. Religious bigotry and manipulation had by this time not become an issue in Nigeria. That was why Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a devout Muslim, who was to become Nigeria’s first executive president on October 1, 1979, appointed only Christians to head the military and the police force.  Lt Gen Gibson Jallo was made the Chief of Army Staff, Admiral Akin Aduwo the Chief of Naval Staff, Air Marshall Dominic Bello the Chief of Air Staff and Mr. Sunday Adewusi the Inspector General of Police. The succeeding government was going to be headed by two Fulani Muslims from the Northern part of Nigeria, namely, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, who was the Head of State, and Major General Tunde Idiagbon, who was the  Chief of Staff at the Supreme Headquarters. There were no protests or even murmurs anywhere. We all thought that a true nation had all but emerged, a nation where tongue and faith “may differ, but in brotherhood we stand”.

Nigeria is today, however, at a crossroads. Our future seems not as certain as most citizens would have wished. The cause of the perplexing uncertainty is religious politics all right, but it is not the type represented by the Boko Haram menace. After all, Boko Haram terrorists do not appear to want Nigeria’s dissolution, but the country’s full islamisation through the most primitive kind of violence which borders on sheer savagery. The real threat to Nigeria’s future is the religious politics promoted, amazingly, by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) with gusto. Determined to return to power after the 2015 general election, the PDP has sought to cast the main opposition party, All Progressives Congress (APC), as Nigeria’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood and Nigeria’s answer to the Janjaweed of the Sudan, despite the huge contradictions. Even though the APC has yet to choose its presidential candidate, the PDP has been accusing it of promoting a “Muslim-Muslim ticket”.

This must be the first time in Nigeria’s history that a ruling party and its government have gone out of their way to promote religious acrimony in a nation already almost paralysed by all manner of fault lines. Despite being a devout Muslim, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, our first prime minister, recognized the State of Israel and established diplomatic relations with it. The diplomatic relations were broken in 1973 by General Yakubu Gowon, a devout Christian, in the wake of the six-day Ramadan or Yom Kippur War which saw Israel annex the Sinai Peninsula,  a part of the African territory. The relations were to be restored by General Ibrahim Babangida, a Muslim.

Every Nigerian must be worried by the current mindless promotion of religious bigotry. Faith is founded on the most powerful sentiments in human beings, and not reason or rationality. Divisive politics based on religion have proved to be most destructive in human history. Religious politics manipulation by the late Jafar el Nimiery from 1973 destroyed the Sudan, eventually leading to its breakup in 2011. Religious politics was responsible for the Balkan War which broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s into three different countries. Religious politics led to the carving out of East Timor from Indonesia in 2002. Religious politics held Northern Ireland down for decades until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 promoted by United States President Bill Clinton led to the enthronement of reason. Religious politics between Christians and Muslims is responsible for the ongoing carnage in the Central African Republic.

Can Nigerian politicians ever learn from history? The whole world has been marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda in which about 8,000 people were butchered, including bishops slaughtered in churches by their own church members. I was expecting all Africans, especially Nigerians who like to see themselves as leaders of the continent, to use the anniversary to reflect on this colossal tragedy and sincerely resolve “Never Again!”. But the anniversary has gone on unnoticed in these shores. We have rather been treated to a ceaseless frenzy of unprecedented and unimaginable intolerance and hatred spewed by our own citizens manipulated by our so-called leaders in the name of politics. No society can survive on an ideology of mind poisoning. How could anyone in good conscience call General Buhari, for example, a religious bigot when, as military Head of State from 1983 to 1985, he had absolute power, and yet no adherents of any religious tradition suffered injuries as a result of their faith? Is this not the same man who dealt with Maitastine religious terrorist decisively in the 1980s when he was a general officer commanding?

There must be boundaries in all human endeavours. There must be a limit to politics. Those who play religious politics in heterogeneous societies must be the worst enemies of their people. Is it sectarian politics that took Brazil or Dubai or Indonesia or Malaysia or India to the dizzying heights of development? When will the Blackman get it right? When will the Nigerian politician begin to work to make the world respect Africans?

As the leadership of the ruling party in Nigeria presses ahead with the extremely dangerous politics of religion, I wonder if this is not the country where the Social Democratic Party (SDP) presidential candidate in the June 12, 1993, election, Chief Moshood Abiola, chose a fellow Muslim, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, as his running mate, and the whole country voted for them like one man? Is this not the country where Alhaji Lateef Jakande, while running for the office of governor of Lagos, a religiously diverse state, selected a fellow Muslim, Alhaji Ganiyu Dawodu, as his running mate, and he was given a resounding mandate? Is this not the country where Chief Bola Ige, while running to become the governor of religiously diverse Oyo State, picked a fellow Christian, Chief Sunday Afolabi, as his running mate, and won overwhelmingly? Is this not the country where Professor Jerry Gana, a well known Christian evangelist, won an election in 1993 as a senator in a district in Niger State with 90% Muslim? Is this not the same nation where a Fulani Muslim, Alhaji Umaru Altine, was elected mayor of Enugu, capital of Eastern Nigeria which could well be called Nigeria’s Ireland? Come to think of it: are we making progress or regressing as a people? Frankly, if there is any group which can afford religious politics in Nigeria, it should not be the PDP.
Its top leaders like General Ibrahim Babangida took Nigeria into the Organisation of Islamic Conference and its leaders like the late President Umaru Yar’Adua took the country back to OIC. Almost all the top officials suspected of starting and sustaining Boko Haram over the years like Senator Nduma and ex Governor Modu Sheriff are its top members. Interestingly, no APC member has been accused of strong links with Boko Haram.

The present generation of Nigerians should not capitulate to the religious politics being stoked by opportunistic politicians. Religious politics is, for all practical purposes, a contradiction in terms. Take my great friend, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State, who was born into a Muslim family, attended a Christian school, married a Christian who is a Lady Auxiliary (or knight) of the church; he is at home in the mosque as he is in the church. For several years he has personally been driving his wife and children to the church and back every Sunday. There are millions of people like him all over Southwest Nigeria, in northern Edo State, in Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal and even Palestine, among others. 
We must reject outright the campaign that the forthcoming general election is a mortal fight between the Muslim North and the Christian South because it is false. There are states in the North that are mostly Christian; even in so-called northern Muslim states like Bornu and Kebbi as  well as Sokoto there are sizeable numbers of Christians like and Benjamin Dikki, the Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises, in addition the Generals Bamayis of this world. The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, is from Kaduna State.

I would like to refer those who play religious politics and by so doing threaten our collective destiny to the words of the great African American writer, James Baldwin, : “The fire next time will consume even the air”. May this apocalypse not be Nigeria’s lot. We have no other country.
*Mr. Adinuba is Head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.

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