KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future




Nigeria: Religion as a tool of politics





Wednesday, 16 April 2003




Like many Nigerians, I have had time to read and digest Dr. Chuba Okadigbo’s spirited defense of General Muhammadu Buhari’s faux pas in asking Nigerian Muslims to vote only for their follow Muslims in the coming elections. I do not know what instructed General Buhari’s views. But I know that, coming from a former Head of State and an ANPP presidential candidate, once uttered, it was pointedly wrong and politically incorrect, to say the least. Let’s face it, Buhari is not naïve nor whimsical. So, I guess he understood fully the implications of what he was saying. His words, taken on its face value or parsed any which way, cast him in the mold of a religious authoritarian. I do not however consider General Buhari a religious zealot and, as a Christian, I do not intend to judge him, even though the Holy Book tells us, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”


The onerous task of parsing and defending what General Buhari may or may not have said has fallen on his running mate, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, (the Mayor of Oyi) and others. In his piece titled “Can Anyone Islamize Or Christianize Nigeria?” (see Okadigbo valiantly argued that Buhari is no religious bigot.  Anyone should be compelled by his percussive argument to accept that fact. However, what might be still troubling to me and perhaps others is why a savvy politician and statesman should portray himself as willing to use religion for political ends. Also, should prospective leaders in a secular state like Nigeria not show by their words and deeds that they would not religiously discriminate? In taking up this matter, my bias is in favour of the truth. Let there be no doubt, however, that I believe Buhari screwed up, since with those words he tapped deeply into one of our nation’s darkest anxiety. I believe also that those who seek to lead must be beyond reproach.


Having said this, let me post a caveat: This piece is not about General Buhari. He is a man I respect.  His patriotic bona fides are not in question. He is also, I believe, an honest and incorrupt person and, to my mind, one of the most courageous leaders we have had in Nigeria. As to his utterance, the political analyst in me tells me that were he, as a presidential candidate, to garner all the Moslem votes in Nigeria and none from the Christians and Animists, he would lose the presidential elections woefully. So, why make the point he did? It is all about politics – Nigerian style.  Given the opportunity, I believe he would take those words back since they do not become him.


Politics, they say make strange bedfellows -- and so it has been in Nigeria. I have it on good authority that when General Buhari visited Awka recently, he was in “shock and awe” over the reception accorded to him by the leadership of the Christian clergy and community in the Anambra State notwithstanding his ‘Muslims should vote only for their fellow Muslims’ position. The good general being the officer and gentleman that he is, has since explained his position. And the good Christians in Anambra, accepting his mea culpa, showed the virtue of forgiveness in welcoming him wholesomely. Added to this, the Council of Bishops of Nigeria, in stating that their thorough investigation of Buhari’s past showed that “he has not corruptly enriched himself” and that they did not consider him “a tribalist or Sharia man” gave him a clean bill of health. Indeed, they called him “an upright man.” The thrust of this piece, therefore, is not Buhari per se, but to review how Nigeria and its different shapes of prebendal politics, including the use of religion for political ends continue to impact negatively on our unity and trust


Let’s turn now to the meat of the religion as a tool of politics issue. Just as soccer is singularly the sole and most unifying factor in Nigeria, nothing is as divisive as religion -- especially when it is used as a tool of politics. Ironically, this is an entirely new phenomenon in Nigeria.  Politicians have used religion to divide the country, just as they have used ethnicity to fan the embers of our national dichotomy. But making religion a tool of politics is a very serious and scary stuff.  I recall the late Dele Giwa calling Nigerians auto-toxic --  that is unshockable. However, this new and emerging national crisis and the divide along religious lines are shocking and troubling to many Nigerians, and for good reason.


In Nigeria, weird things happen and we always seem inextricably trapped by the warped aspects of our national history. Certain things that happen in Nigeria are often stranger than fiction. How else does one explain the sea change that has taken place in our country, jerking us from the secular nation that we were to an altered state where we risk being rend apart by religious intolerance?  We are witnesses to the growing religious intolerance and carnage in Nigeria. Many have spoken out expressing deep concern, while others pay lip service to ameliorating the violence engendered by politically motivated religious vitriolic.  Religion has become so much the opiate of our politicians that we now tend to ignore warnings about the inherent dangers of mixing religion and politics. In examining the global implications of such a disposition, Anthony Lewis warned that, “religion and extreme nationalism have formed deadly combinations in these decades, impervious to reason". (“Hail and Farewell,” The New York Times, December 15, 2001, p. A 31).  For those not versed in the subterranean intricacies of Nigeria politics let us revisit some hard and incontrovertible facts pertinent to our religion-in-politics dilemma, as they are worth considering in our national and common interest.


Fact One: History is replete with religious zealots. The Christians have their Crusaders and the Muslims their Jihadists. Vestiges of both and recidivists can be found in every modern nation state where these religions co-exist and are practiced. Nigeria, therefore, is not an exception.


Fact Two: In the good old Nigeria you were allowed to practice your religion without let and hinder. Every faith was accorded its due. The Moslems respected the sanctity of the Church and the Christians respected the sanctity of the Mosque, and both faiths, respected traditional animist religions and Shrines.


Fact Three: Religion has a place in the live of every nation, Nigeria included. Irrespective of the faith or denomination, religion when truly practiced in its truest form and spirit, has been and remains sacred. It plays a vital role in purposeful leadership, community building, social justice, law and order, peacemaking, reconciliation, for­giveness and the healing of wounds, be they political, family or personal.


Fact Four: Nigerian Constitutions, past and present proclaim loudly the secularity of the Nigerian state, the separation of church and state and the freedom to practice religion of one’s choice without fear of persecution and prosecution. Provisions of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (Section 1) stipulates that the Constitution is supreme and that its provisions have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout the Federation. Section 10 of the Constitution was categorical in proclaiming, “The Government of the Federation or of any State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” Additionally, in Subsection 2, the Constitution stipulate that “the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall not be governed, nor shall any person or group of persons take control of the Government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” All said, the Constitution bars a State religion by adoption, and any attempt by anyone to foist a religion on the nation by a political fait or indeed, any form of legerdemain. In this realm, however, let it be said that the Constitution recognizes the need and application of the Sharia law – but only to those to whose faith it is applicable. [Not those to whose State it is applicable].


Fact Five: Our political leaders, on both sides -- Muslims and Christians -- have invoked the name of God in politics, and sought to use religion freely in influencing the polity, decisions and swaying national political and eco­nomic policies and to that end governance.


Fact Six: In Nigeria religion has become a tool of politics not the other way round. We are, evidently, no longer able to maintain the fundamental principles of a secular state. The sanction and enforcement of Sharia laws in and by some State Governments have also compounded our problems.


In considering these incontrovertible facts, the knowledge that they are realities and their possible implication for Nigeria, is for me prescient and troubling. The question is, how did we get to this warped juncture? We did because our leaders have been mostly ambivalent. To paraphrase an old cliché: Nigeria, we have a problem! But some still don’t see religion-in-politics as a problem so long as it serves their petty personal or sectional interests. Those who are genuinely concerned about this problem have spoken out. I suspect many more would like to, but fear about how their reactions might be publicly perceived and interpreted. I believe the greater danger for Nigeria lies in not speaking up and challenging the erosion of our secularity, especially by those elected to protect it.


As constitutional law expert Prof. Ben Nwabueze noted, “We must be honest with ourselves and accept the plain truth that State enforcement of Sharia in all the plenitude of its injunctions, cannot, in the multi-religious society of Nigeria, co-exist with a truly federal form of political association. If, therefore, any of the federating units now feel that they can no longer abide by the condition of our association as enshrined in Section 10, then, all the constituent units should come together and re-negotiate another form for our continued association, whatever that other form may be.” I recall also, that the late Joe Garba’s addressed this troubling question in his speech of February 15, 2002 to a Nigerian leadership forum, titled “The National Institute In The Realm Of Policy Making.” He observed that:


“The inability to maintain the principles of a secular nation and separate the state from religion has added another dimension to existing national tension. Consequently, with the introduction of Sharia laws by several state governments, national politics has all of a sudden become suffused with the deep-seated fear of Islam as a political force. This was never the case in the early years of our independence.”


And if I might add, this was not even the case in the post-civil war period. I recall vividly, that in the early 1970s, in my deeply religious Catholic high school, one the most popular students, was a classmate, named Aliyu Usman.  His father was the leader of the Hausa Community and the Chief Imam in the City of Onitsha. But Alhaji Usman, a wealthy merchant, valued good education and so sent his son Aliyu to the best boarding school that there was in the town, notwithstanding that the school was in its entire value system -- doctrinaire, faith, outlook and curriculum -- rabidly Christian. Aliyu Usman was the school’s flag bearer during the National Day parades and during sports competition. On Fridays, he got several hours to go off into town to pray at the Mosque. On weekdays and Sundays, when the rest of the school went to the mandatory Mass, he caught an additional hour of snooze before joining the rest of us for breakfast. Those were the days.  We felt comfortable with him in our midst and I believe, Aliyu never for once felt threatened by being a Moslem in a Christian bastion. Now everything has changed. A parenthetical thought: I strongly suspect that wherever Aliyu is, that both he and I still look at our school’s secular past with great fondness.


The question that arises is this: Has Nigeria become such a tribally focused, congenitally and religiously divided country that only dictators and those who exploit religious divisive differences can aspire rule it?  I do not believe so, not in so far as we are willing to uphold the sanctity and supremacy of our Constitution.


The exacerbation of a religious dichotomy in Nigeria is a mischievous sub-plot by those who seek political ends by any means. However, it has its antecedence in the policy shift that transformed Nigeria’s observer status in the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) to a full membership in the mid 1980s. In the event that anyone has forgotten, it was under General Babangida (IBB) that Nigeria became a full member of OIC to the chagrin of his deputy, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, who publicly said that the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) never took a decision on such an issue. Indeed, that was the first crack in his relationship with IBB. 


For those not versed in the subterranean intricacies of Nigerian politics, let us revisit some other hard facts. As for long and as much as General Babangida stayed in power, Nigerians would tell you that the Muhammed-Obasanjo regime was and remained the best government Nigeria ever had. They will tell you also that Buhari-Idiagbon regime was, despite Decree 4 and 20 (Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation Decree No. 4 and the Miscellaneous Offences Decree No. 20 of 1984), the government that imposed the most discipline and patriotic fervor on Nigerians. With their War Against Indiscipline (WAI) program that promoted work ethics, nationalism, patriotism, anti-corruption and economic sabotage, and environmental sanitation, Buhari and Idiagbon were able to impose some sense of orderliness on most aspects of public life in Nigeria. Babangida’s regime introduced far-reaching economic reforms and democratization of the political process, along with a “settlement” culture that undermined the value of the public service. However, it is also acknowledged that, unlike the Muhammed-Obasanjo regime, both the Babangida and Buhari-Idiagbon regimes failed when it came to good governance and civil liberties.  Ditto Abacha’s regime. The paradox is this: Neither Buhari, Babangida nor Abacha, all staunch Muslims, allowed the Sharia law to be imposed by any State in Nigeria during their tenure. Nor was it imposed under the democratically elected Shagari-Ekwueme administration. It mischievously happened on Obasanjo’s watch. How did this come about?


The introduction of state-enforced Sharia was primarily to counterbalance the power shift to the South. Secondly, it was aimed at discrediting Obasanjo who, after being sponsored by the North as a southern “safe hand” to whichAn outsider to the transition process, it was common knowledge that he won PDP nomination and the presidency with the solid backing of the Hausa-Fulani from the mainly Muslim north. So, why discredit him? First, he had allegedly marginalized his sponsors. Second, he had developed an inscrutable Messianic complex with his know-it-all attitude. In response, his detractors resolved to make Nigeria ungovernable on his watch. The attempt was also aimed at curbing his ITK (I too know) syndrome. Impeachment was also tried.


The emergence of Sharia in Zamfara and eight other northern States was, therefore, not an accident. It should also be seen as a subtext to Obasanjo’s wresting of the control of the military political power from the North’s predominantly Hausa-Fulani officers and single-handedly shifting the northern military power balance to the predominantly Christian Middle-Belt through top military service and command appointments. The end result, which was slow to manifest, was that if the Hausa-Fulani cried marginalization, they would in effect be saying that the Middle-Belters were not part of the core North.  If they screamed marginalization of Muslims from the military hierarchy and governance, they would be unwittingly confirming the now best-kept secret that the North was not after all monolithic, thus exacerbating the festering Muslim-Christian dichotomy and the ongoing political realignment. As it were, the Christian minorities in the North had emerged a strong, coherent power bloc against the Sharia, their tribal affinity to their Muslim brothers notwithstanding. Many analysts also adduced that shifting the military power-base to northern Christians was Obasanjo’s checkmate against future coups. 


It is clear to me that the dangers posed by mixing religion and politics in Nigeria are manifest, except that our leaders are ambivalent about addressing them. To them, the wielding of political power is the most lucrative occupation in Nigeria, and its attainment by any means far outweighs the risks posed to the national interest by that means. Additionally, either because our leaders are unschooled, (of all those who have ruled Nigeria, only Zik and Shonekan were university graduates), or clever by half, they did not seem to understand the sanctity of the Constitution when it came to the separation of Church and State. They also failed to grasp the dangers inherent in subverting the Constitution.  If not, how does one explain the existence of a mosque and chapel inside the Presidency at Aso Rock.  Despite the equity, such acts violate the Constitution and the separation of Church and State.  President Obasanjo in convoking prayer meetings in Aso Rock flouts the Nigerian Constitution he is meant to protect. He is just as guilty as Generals Babangida and Abacha were when they held jumat prayers inside Aso Rock during their respective tenure in office. What will the next president do?


Our present state of play is that efforts by Nigerian politicians to gain ascendancy and power has led to situations in which, politics has swept away any of the sacred precepts of religion, and in the process contaminated the hearts of people with bitterness and enmity for the religion of others. Thus, we are witnessing the hitherto unthinkable. That Northerners, once believed to be politically monolithic, now fight and kill each other on grounds of religious differences.  Since, May 1992 over 10,000 have died from communal-religious conflicts. Plateau, Benue, and Taraba States have paid the highest price in this regard.


Lest I am misunderstood, there is nothing wrong in being politically outspoken.  Political candor is exhilarating. We therefore cherish the gusto of Bala Usman, Balarabe Musa, Wada Nas, Uche Chkwumerije, Ojo Maduekwe, Femi Falana, and Gani Fawehinmi especially when such political frankness is emblematic of the changes in our political landscape. Indeed, these are dividends of democracy that were not possible under military rule. But we can hardly support or pretend that we do no have in our midst those who hide behind political frankness to peddle religious incitement, hate, or demagoguery. While our political leaders may see the admix of religion and politics through their own narratives (read precepts), they are not above the law, when their preaching and postulations become fighting words that incite violence, insurrection, and threaten national interest.  They onus is on them to redress the challenges we face. To quote Joe Garba again:


“In addressing both the constitutionally guaranteed rights of those who feel the need to introduce Sharia laws and those who, not being Moslems see its introduction as an affront, we should perhaps look at Turkey’s brand of secularism where for instance it is against the law, to wear a head scarf in government buildings or a public university. Similarly, a provision of the penal code makes it a crime to use ethnic or religious symbols for political purposes. This is a rule that ought not apply to Islam and Moslems alone but to all faiths as a guarantee of equity. An appropriate analogy would be the ban on smoking in publicly owned buildings – an enforcement that is already being voluntarily observed in all places of worship irrespective of faith and denomination.”


I agree that we should look closely at Nigeria’s fast eroding secularity and as Garba suggested, take a closer look at Turkey’s secular democracy, especially since Nigeria, like Turkey, has a large Muslim population.  Why Turkey?  Current Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was imprisoned in 1999 and barred from holding public office for publicly reading a Muslim poem that was allegedly capable of inciting religious hatred. Had Erdogan been a Christian the same law would have applied. The point is that in Turkey, the constitutionally guaranteed secularity is non-negotiable. Imagine that happening in secular Nigeria. But there is another issue crying out for attention. We must look inwardly also. We need to reshape the contours of our national political debate so that religious bigotry and fanaticism is no longer an issue. To do this, we must strive to elect into office those who are or who pledge to be staunch secularists. Also the public utterances by our leaders must be with utmost circumspection. If anyone needs a lesson, they should look at the ennui and disaffection that General Buhari’s hubristic remarks have caused. All said, no one should be above the law in this regard, the President included.


Finally, the use of religion for political gains, or to incite violence must be denounced in unspeakable terms. Our future leaders need to build on our successes rather than create divisiveness.  I therefore agree wholeheartedly, with Chuba Okadigbo, when he argues that “Religion being a matter of individual choice and faith, must be left where it is, such that our clerics can take care of our souls and religious persuasions, while elected civilians take care of the businesses of governance.”  The issue is: Will he and his fellow politicos adhere to that policy, when faced with difficult political choices? Ironically, neither the executive, legislative nor judiciary leadership have sought to legally address this polarizing issue in hope of strengthening the rule of law against the banditry and anarchy that are thrown up by religious intolerance. Such leadership somnambulism and docility is benumbing.


And here is the bottom line and the question we need to ask ourselves: Can Moslems and Christians live together in Nigeria? My answer is yes. Commentaries by others point also to the same answer.  Any nation where people lack religion is bound also to lack conscience, compassion, and progress. We need and must support unreservedly the free practice of religion by Nigerian Christians, Muslims, and Animists. That is the way it used to be, and that is what we must strive for henceforth. No religion in Nigeria should be deemed superior or subordinate to the other, and none should be State sanctioned or enforced. Finally, we must be willing to overcome the temptation to mix religion and politics or make religion a tool of our national partisan politics. We must continue to coexist despite our preferred faith and, in this context, while thinking of faith and religion, let us not forget the injunction of the Holy Koran to the believers about non-believers and atheists, in the closing verse of Surah 109. “To you be your Way, and to me mine.”


A final footnote, I am one of the disenfranchised Nigerians who can’t vote since I am resident aboard. Let that record show that my vote for the April 19 presidential election would have gone to the Buhari-Okadigbo ticket.


Until next week, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.



*Hank Eso writes from Woodbridge, NJ. Since 1982 his political commentaries on Nigerian politics and global issues have appeared in The New Times (Lagos), African Profile International (New York) and The Nigerian And Africa Abroad. (New York).   

 © Hank Eso, Wednesday 16 April 2003.  Email:

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