2015 elections: What’s faith got to do with it?, by J. ’Kayode Fayemi

Posted by Nelson Dafe | 11 November 2014 | 3,630 times

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It is easy to blame religion-or more fairly, what some people do in the name of religion-for all our troubles, but that is too simple. Religion is a powerful force, but its impact depends entirely on what it inspires people to do. The challenge for policy-makers is to harness the unifying potential of faith, while containing its capacity to divide.” —Madeleine Albright

I am pleased to share my thoughts with this distinguished audience on a subject that has gained primacy in public discourse in recent times and which by all means deserves serious interrogation by leaders of thought in our country as the 2015 General Elections approaches.

Before I go ahead, I must commend the organizers of this series for the patriotic instincts that has birthed this splendid idea of facilitating discussions on some of the most crucial issues pertaining to the 2015 elections. I salute your courage and pray that the Almighty God blesses your noble exertions which are in line with the role of Civil Society to continually advance the cause of equity, justice and progress in the society.

As a product of Civil Society myself, I share your burden and ever abiding restlessness to birth a new Nigeria. As actors in this space, our methodologies may vary over time and space – in my own case as like many others, I have in recent years extended my activism to the realms of politics and public governance and have only recently transitioned out – we are however bound by an endless struggle and must never make the mistake at any point in time to assume that our work is done.

Sociological change in any society is slow, painful and never ends. Sometimes it features false starts that can mislead us into resting on our oars, just like we collectively realized after much damage had been done, that the return of Civilian Rule in Nigeria in 1999 did not necessarily mean the inculcation of democratic ethos by our politicians. We are today reminded by very desperate elements in our yet democratizing country that the fact that we are holding our fifth cycle of elections in the fourth republic does not essentially mean we have fully emplaced a culture of free, fair and peaceful elections.

Bringing it closer home, we are a paradox of a nation and very difficult to comprehend. Ours is a very religious society. This is a reality that we can all affirm anecdotally but which is absolutely empirically verifiable. Consider some facts and figures. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than there are in England, the denomination’s mother country, or anywhere else in the world. The Anglican Church in Nigeria boasts some 18 million members and is the world’s largest Anglican congregation. The largest Roman Catholic seminary in the world is the Bigard Memorial in Enugu which has about one thousand students – five times the number enrolled in the largest U.S. Catholic seminary. No other seminary matches this prodigious intake. Vast cathedrals and mega-churches with tens of thousands of attendees and hundreds of thousands in membership dot our major urban centres. The Living Faith Church (also known as Winners’ Chapel) possesses the largest church auditorium in the world, the 50,400-seat Faith Tabernacle in Lagos. The Deeper Life Bible Church’s headquarters congregation in Lagos had 150,000 members as at 2004 and had planted more than 6,000 branches across Nigeria. In Nigeria alone, the Redeemed Christian Church of God claims 14,000 branches with 5 million members.

But these figures are just a prelude. Nigeria is at the centre of one of the most fascinating role reversals in history. She has become a missionary-exporting nation and now sends hundreds of pastors to the West, carrying with them a unique brand of spirituality. Some of these pastors lead the largest churches in Europe and Africa. Christianity as we know it on our shores is no longer the bequest of foreign missionaries but has become a genuinely Nigerian brand of religion. Indeed, some scholars now argue that the epicenter of global Christianity is no longer in the West, but has moved to the southern hemisphere, and that Nigeria is its new hub. To back up this assertion, they cite the proliferation of churches and professing Christians at a time that western Christianity is in steep decline.

Christianity has become one of Nigeria’s main cultural exports. Huge church conventions held at the end of every year draw pilgrims, academics, reporters and tourists from the world over who want to observe and participate in the festivals of spiritual rejuvenation. At first glance, Nigeria is enjoying a glorious springtime of the Christian faith. There are, however, other aspects of our social, economic and political realities that provide a sobering portrait against the backdrop of this spiritual boom. Even as we exult in our country’s potential emergence as global Christianity’s centre of gravity, we must also acknowledge other less salutary facts. We are beset by a host of plagues: hunger, chronic conflict, terrorism, disease, corruption and various portents of weak statehood. Official graft is particularly endemic. Conservative estimates indicate that between $4 billion and $8 billion is stolen from public coffers annually. 70 percent of our population lives in poverty.

The landscape of our country is pockmarked by institutional dysfunction and infrastructural dilapidation. All of us here bear the burdens of working and producing without basic infrastructure such as power supply or of securing our families given the weakness of the formal security apparatus. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 32.5 million Nigerians are unemployed. The economy is growing but not fast enough to absorb the jobseekers emerging from our schools each year. The axiom that an “idle mind is the Devil’s workshop” goes back to the 14th century and it shows that societies have always recognized a link between unemployment and social chaos. In our case, that link is certainly obvious, considering the now chronic incidents of conflict, insecurity and terrorism.  

However dreary the statistics are, we find the more worrisome omens in the intangible socio-psychological trends that cannot be readily measured. Almost every day, the news headlines scream with reports of some terrorist outrage or yet more news of fraud or theft in the government, deepening a rampant collective pessimism about our society’s prospects. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty, anxiety and near-hopelessness about our common future. Most dangerously, a lot of people no longer see a clear, scrupulous path to a decent and fulfilling life. Many of our young people are entranced by the possibilities of upward mobility inherent in fraud and a variety of get-rich-quick schemes that reflect our societal bias for instant gratification. Others have been initiated into terrorism and political violence.

It is not just high-level graft that ails us. We must reckon with the various instances of low-level corruption that are everyday experiences. From the almost customary example of uniformed men soliciting bribes to other episodes ranging from genial requests for “help” or “assistance” to outright extortion that characterize our contacts with bureaucracy and with each other, oddly enough with people who are avowedly religious. These instances in which we are often compelled to negotiate compromises with our consciences are so frequent that it is no understatement to say that corruption is assuming cultural proportions in our society. Just from commuting on our roads, there is evidence that our society is contemptuous of rules and order, and that as a people we no longer have any regard for the norms of civility and mutual respect. All that matters seems to be the individual’s quest to get ahead at any cost.

All these suggest that the defining contradiction of Nigerian life at present is the coincidence of increasing religiosity and declining public morality. We are witnessing a universalization of religious syntax and symbolism across various domains of society, ranging from politics to the popular culture, at a time when our ethical capital is being depleted. Churches are proliferating in the midst of social and moral squalor. Nigerian Christians live in a bipolar reality.

The same can be said of Islam and its phenomenal growth in the country over the years. As Nigerians we share in a common social experience marked by decadence, while we also function as people of faith in the controlled environments provided in our churches. In effect, the values and virtues imparted by our faith are hermetically sealed off from social reality. Consequently, the society persists in its ethical freefall despite what appears to be an ongoing religious revival.

However, regardless of whether we choose to confront our reality or not, the truth is that we are today on one hand faced with an insurgency that has claimed the lives of over 13,000 Nigerians with close to a million others internally displaced. Only yesterday, it was reported that at least 32 people who were internally displaced due to ethno-religious violence in Nassarawa state were killed while returning home on the assurances of the authorities that their homeland was safe. Similarly, it was also reported yesterday that a government secondary school in Yobe state was attacked by a suicide-bomber killing about 47 people and injuring about 80. A young Nigerian helplessly reacted to the sad news, lamenting on social media and I quote:

“My heart is breaking at the thought of a mum saying "bye Son, have a good day at school, make sure you pay attention... and no fighting" and with a smile sends her little boy off to school only to hear he was torn apart in a most violent death a few hours later.”

While some have sadly become inured to these recurring sad news with ready media statement templates of ‘expressions of shock’ and endless promises to ‘bring the perpetrators to book’, the truth is that 79 souls who shared this world with us as fellow human beings and this country with us as fellow citizens up till a few days ago, are no more, due to the inability of our government to effectively address increasing ethno-religious violence.

The feeble response of the government of the day to the escalation of the insurgency in terms of sophistication of operations, causalities count and geographical spread is a cause for concern for discerning Nigerians, more so since the Federal Government seems to achieve more success in the deployment of our troops to militarise the polity and gain partisan advantage during elections and also in selectively deploying our security agencies to intimidate perceived enemies; than in enforcing our territorial integrity and making our country safe.

On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly clear that one of the do-or-die strategies of the ruling party to retain power in 2015 is to compensate for poor performance in office by stoking ethno-religious sentiments and pushing the country to the brink of crisis. This can be deciphered from the ethnic jingoists who brazenly threaten fire and brimstone if President Jonathan is not returned in 2015, as well as the predilection of our President to stage manage visits to influential spiritual leaders and exploit their goodwill to masquerade as the anointed candidate of people of a particular faith.

There is no gainsaying that we are going into the 2015 elections a deeply divided people, with the elections itself being a potential source of further polarization. It is for this reason, there has been increased advocacy particularly by renowned civil society actors to force ‘Peace and National Cohesion’ to the top of the agenda as the single most important factor in determining who the next President of Nigeria should be. That is to say, the candidate and by extension the political party with the most convincing manifesto for achieving sustainable peace and national cohesion should be elected President.

The argument has its merit when you consider the fact that though there are several priority areas needing urgent intervention in the country, the issue of ‘Peace and National Cohesion’ is the greatest threat to our country and at the same time also offers the greatest opportunity for us to achieve accelerated development and take our rightful place in the comity of nations.

In some quarters, the issue of faith as it concerns the 2015 elections is being reduced to discussions about the viability of a ticket that features the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates of the same faith, or how it is an absolute necessity for all parties in serious contention to ensure both the Muslim and Christian faiths are represented as either Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidates. This in my view unfortunately skirts around the main issue and does not address the substance of how we want to get out of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Indeed, the fact that we can be having such conversations 21 years after June 12, 1993, calls to question how much progress has been made in unifying the country after 15 years of Civilian rule under the PDP. We must remember that in 1993, the presidential election was contested by Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention and Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party. Tofa picked as a running mate from the South-East, an Igbo Christian in compliance with the unspoken rules of religious and ethno-regional balancing that formed the conventional wisdom of Nigerian politics. This wisdom held that for a party’s ticket to be electable it must offer an equilibrium of ethnic, regional and confessional identities that bridges our historic fault lines and offers an all-inclusive sense of belonging to all.

Hence, in the most simplistic rendering of this ethno-religious equation, Tofa as a Northern Muslim had expectedly picked a southern Christian. Abiola as a Southern Muslim was largely expected to pick a northern Christian. Indeed there was no shortage of groups offering counsel on who Abiola should pick as a running mate. In the end, he boldly violated this supposedly sacred rule of Nigerian politics and chose the running mate that he felt would bring the most to his political campaign. He picked Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, a Northern Muslim. Pundits weighed the chances of an all-Muslim ticket in a climate of politicized sectarianism and concluded that Abiola had erred. But he gamely argued that his choice represented the most logical and rational option. Refusing to be swayed by sectarian and provincial sentiments, it was a statement of intent and a demonstration of faith in the sort of Nigeria he believed was possible – a country where the best could lead regardless of their creed or ethnicity. It was a statement of faith in the Nigerian voter that with all of the facts before him, he would be able to scrutinize both tickets and make an intelligent choice. It was a daring, even radical gambit but it paid off.

On June 12, 1993, Nigerians voted in defiance of ethnic and religious dog-whistling and elected the two men they believed the most capable, disregarding the coincidence of their religious beliefs and other sectarian notions of equilibrium. They made a choice that was informed, intelligent and supremely rational. This is a point worth stressing because it is generally believed that electoral choices in 2015 would be so distorted by the politics of identity as to be an exercise in tribal selection or in-group solidarity affirmation. It is believed that ethnic and religious sentiments would overwhelm all other instincts and calculations leading up to the polls and render political contest and discourse a bitter competition for primacy along lines of primordial identity rather than ideology.

For the avoidance of doubt, no ethnically and religiously diverse nation can escape the dynamics of identity and provincial sympathies at the polls. Heterogeneous countries far older than our republic and far ahead of us in their practice of democracy continue to grapple with themes of diversity, tolerance and pluralism. It is fair to say that Nigeria’s challenges in the political management of diversity and plurality are not uniquely Nigerian. Our history affirms that ethnicity and religion are political and electoral factors, and while I am not saying political parties should not pursue inclusion in ensuring a national spread of their key political operatives that takes into account our ethno-religious heterogeneity, it is far from accurate to depict Nigerians as being so bound by provincialism that they cannot but vote along ethnic and confessional lines. This is simply false.

Our challenge as Civil Society and enlightened citizens as we approach the 2015 elections is to shape political discourse around ideology rather than identity, so that candidates will be judged much more by how they intend to address our challenges not by where they hail from or what faith they practice. Politicians will have to run on the platform of practicalities not the theatrics or sentiments of feigning identification with the electorate at a primordial level. At that point, one’s tribal marks or facility in a local language will prove less important than a proven track record of performance and integrity.

In the words of my brother and friend Dr. Chidi Odinkalu in his recent op-ed:

“Ahead of the 2015 elections, therefore, we have to find a way to return safety and security to the top of the political agenda: to politicize it while taking partisanship out of it. We need a non-partisan manifesto on public safety and security that can be taken to the country.

“All elective offices in our system are time-bound to tenure of not more than four years. The plans we need must, therefore, be credible with specific and measurable outcomes that can be attained within this period. We are part of the problem as long as we tolerate politicians who want us to believe that we’re in a clash of identities or between hemispheres, north and south. 2015 is about whether or not there will indeed be a Nigeria for anyone to rule. The contest will be defined by safety and security of the country and all who live in it. As citizens, we must find ways to ensure that politicians who don’t want to engage with these issues find other vocations.”

As the frenzy of politicking gathers momentum with its attendant razzmatazz, Civil Society and the Media have the crucial role of ensuring ‘Peace and National Cohesion’ remains on the front burner – we cannot afford to be bamboozled with empty promises again.

Another issue Civil Society and the Media have to take note of is the need to moderate the rhetoric of our political operatives towards the 2015 elections. We have a duty to ensure the contents of the political communications of the various candidates and their parties are within the confines of civility. We must call out politicians who would seek to appeal to sectarian intolerance and tribal prejudice. Our political debates must not be poisoned with incitement. Most conflicts begin from the realm of political communication, from how political elites mobilize their supporters and along what line they seek to obtain support. Once we elevate political discourse leading up to the 2015 Elections to the level of ideological contestations for hearts and minds, we stand a better chance at achieving a peaceful electioneering/post-election season ahead of us.

I believe very much in a New Nigeria, a country where our diversity is harnessed into a strength and competitive advantage. I believe that the challenge ahead of us in 2015 is to, just as Madeleine Albright rightly prescribed, elect leaders who have the capacity to utilise the unifying potential of faith, while containing its capacity to divide. Both Islam and Christianity are strong forces for good in our society.

It is significant that the contributions of the Christian faith to Nigeria was acknowledged on the very first day of our journey as an independent nation. In his Independence Day speech in 1960, Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa acknowledged that the history of Nigeria would be incomplete without the endeavours of missionaries and affirmed them as being among “those who made Nigeria.” This was by no means an overstatement. Many Nigerians even today are direct and indirect beneficiaries of the missionaries’ legacy. Through their schools, the first generation elites of this nation were raised. Through missionary education, many of our parents acquired the tools with which they embarked on their quest for upward mobility. As an alumnus of a mission school myself, I can certainly testify to the quality of the training we received that sharpened us both morally and intellectually. I suspect that many of us here would say the same.

Even so, the Christian contribution to Nigeria went beyond mission schools. The story of faith communities is entwined with the evolution of the nationalist struggle. According to the historian Emmanuel Ayandele, from the late 19th century onward, “the church became the cradle of Nigerian nationalism, the only forum of nationalistic expression until the beginnings of the indigenous press after 1879, and the main focus of nationalist energies until after 1914.”

Influenced by the British Labour Party (which in turn bore the intellectual stamp of the Christian socialists), Obafemi Awolowo propounded a political ethic rooted in moral tradition, arguing that religion and politics were complementary and that “the most beneficial political system derives its strengths from the tenets and practices of great religions.” He saw a natural congruence between Christianity and socialism and appropriated the biblical phrase ‘Life More Abundant’ to encapsulate the ideals of his political party, the Action Group, and defined it as freedom from British rule, freedom from ignorance, freedom from disease and freedom from want. “In the process of bringing out the best that is in man, and of enabling him to live a healthy and happy life, the agencies of Politics and Religion must work in close and harmonious co-operation. The eradication of ignorance, disease and want is a matter of the utmost concern to Politics as well as to Religion.”

For Awolowo, the Golden Rule, empathy, loving our neighbour as ourselves, which summarize the Law and the Prophets and indeed, the great moral traditions, constitute the cornerstone of a sustainable society. Any system based on greed and naked self-interest is bound to generate social disequilibrium, progressively degenerating until it suffers extinction and yields place to a system which either approaches or approximates the ideal of love. In the public domain, this love takes the form of social justice – fairness and a commitment to equity. From the foregoing it is clear that the Christian faith had an investment in the very foundations of our nation that was far more than tangential.

Similarly, the Muslim Ummah in Nigeria has historically been at the forefront of national development. I am certain that some of the other speakers would be able to shed more light on the significant role that the Islamic faith has played in the development of our great country and the great potential the religion and the true adherents have to contribute to the birthing of a greater Nigeria.

Accordingly, the 2015 elections is a great opportunity to redefine Nigeria as a peaceful and prosperous secular state with functional citizens of different tribes and tongues, working together to make Nigeria the greatest country in the world.

Being text of a paper on ‘Faith and 2015 election’ presented today by former Governor of Ekiti State, J. ’Kayode Fayemi, PhD (shown in photo), at a GLEED Foundation lecture in Lagos.

Source: News Express

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