by Reuben Abati
It is difficult to imagine that the Church in Nigeria and its leaders would not be interested in politics as Nigeria begins preparations for the general elections in 2023. A heated and emotional controversy was stirred last weekend when it became public knowledge that the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) had set up The Directorate of Politics and Governance. Many raised an eyebrow. Why would the Church create a Department of Politics and Governance? Publisher, veteran journalist, newspaper columnist and Presidential aspirant Aare Dele Momodu described the development as “an invitation to Armageddon” in an essay titled “My Kobo Advice to Redeemed Christian Church of God” (ThisDay newspaper, back page, March 12, 2022). His main concern was what he described as “the general conspiracy theory that our church was setting up an extensive network for the obvious Presidential ambition of the current Vice President, President Yemi Osinbajo”, whereas there are other members of the RCCG, including his good self who are interested in the Presidential race. Why should the Church favour one person over and above other members?
In a notable response, Kolade Segun Oke-Owo, Deputy Director, Directorate of Politics and Governance, PFN, Ogun State, and National President, Believers in Politics writes as follows: “…The RCCG did not actually create the Directorate of Politics and governance. The creation of the Directorate is a brain child of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria under His Eminence, Bishop Wale Oke, its National President. The RCCG only became the first among other Pentecostal Churches in Nigeria under the leadership of PFN to kowtow and subscribe to the vision of the Directorate of Politics and Governance. It may also interest Uncle Dele Momodu that the National Directorate of Politics and Governance of the PFN is not headed by a member of the RCCG but a General Overseer from another denomination in the person of Rt. Hon. Pastor Femi Emmanuel.”
The fact that only a few days after the Dele Momodu essay, the Daily Trust newspaper and others published a story indicating that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has now notified President Muhammadu Buhari of his interest in the 2023 Presidential race, before that was refuted, lent greater currency to the Dele Momodu protest. The truth indeed is that over the past few months, a group of hidden and open persuaders have been threatening to sue Vice President Osinbajo if he did not throw his hat into the 2023 ring. Members of the RCCG have also not helped matters. They have often said that the General Overseer of the Church, Pastor Enoch Adeboye once predicted that a day would come when a member of the Church would become President of Nigeria. When Professor Osinbajo emerged as Vice President of Nigeria in 2015, the members were excited. They talked openly about a prophecy that was about to be fulfilled. Professor Yemi Osinbajo is not just a member of the RCCG Congregation; he is a Pastor and one of the most visible leaders of the Church. Dele Momodu’s essay is a statement of caution: that the church cannot turn itself into a political machinery and a partisan campaign platform for one individual enjoying a special advantage. He is also a member of the Church. The wife of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, also a Presidential aspirant, is equally a member and a Pastor of the Church. He wants the church to be neutral. Equality before God should translate into equality of aspirations under the umbrella of the Church. Dele Momodu’s supporters have suggested in accompanying reactions that the Church should stay out of partisan politics. In 1961, the Sage, Obafemi Awolowo had put up the same argument as Momodu’s. He said: “It follows that in order that it may discharge its functions, a religious organization must be independent of Government and its patronage and must never be subordinated to its dictates or whims… A religious organization should never allow itself to be regarded as the mouth piece and instrument of the powers-that-be…”. This may be a difficult argument to sustain.
The Church has been enmeshed in politics from time immemorial, from the Roman Empire, to the Medieval Era and to the present day. In the New Testament, the word “ekklesia” which is used to refer to the Church actually means a political assembly, a political association, a gathering. The separation of the State and the Church, or the separation of secular and religious power, has not always been so clear-cut. During the Crusades (circa, 1095 – 1291), Christians fought wars to acquire or regain territory. The Holy Book itself is full of this intersection between the Church, power struggles and secular politics. The clergy are not just spiritual leaders, they fight political battles worse than what is found in the secular community. The argument that the state and religion should be separated is largely theoretical. In 1534, King Henry VIII of England established the Church of England, away from the Catholic Church following disagreements with Pope Clement VII on the scope of papal authority over marital choices. The politics of it is well captured in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. The Anglican Church continues to play a dominant role in British politics. Back home here in Nigeria, the kind of politics that church leaders play, including litigations and open quarrels, is far more vicious than what is found in the regular political arena. To give a case in point would be the acrimonious conflicts over control and succession in the Celestial Church of Christ since the passing of the founder, Samuel Bilewu Joseph Oschoffa in September 1985. In 2015, Pope Francis advised that Catholics must participate in politics. Just as Christians won’t hands off secular and sectarian politics, being human beings and political animals, leaders of the Muslim congregation are also just as involved.
It should be recognized also that ethnicity and religion are perhaps the two most central factors in the politics of power in Nigeria, as has been proven and examined in such works as Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria by Matthew Hassan Kukah, Iheanyi Enwerem’s A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicisation of Religion in Nigeria, and Religion and Politics in Nigeria: A Study in Middle Belt Christianity by Neils Kartfelt. Nigerian politicians over the years have used both ethnicity and religion as instruments of manipulating the people for their own purposes, exploiting the people’s fears about domination by the other. Religion has featured prominently in ethnic conflicts in the Middle Belt, on the Plateau, Southern Kaduna and elsewhere, with one group persecuting the other through repeated cycles of violence, and the State, which should enforce peace and justice, is usually partial and biased, taking sides, most cynically, depending on the religious affiliation of the persons in power at the moment. It is this linkage between religious belief and how power is exercised that has resulted in the political patronage of religious groups and the rise of partisanship in places of worship. Nigerian politicians, regardless of the express provision of the Constitution that there shall be no state religion (Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution) have nonetheless turned religion into a special centre of engagement. In every Government House in the states and the State House in Abuja, there is usually a Mosque and a Church, power shifts between both locations depending on the religion of the main leader in charge, who accordingly appoints Special Advisers and Assistants on Religious matters. Christian leaders send members of their constituency on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Muslim leaders do the same for members of their religious community. Despite assurances over the years that the state shall no longer fund religious trips, the Pilgrims Welfare Boards of Nigeria continue to exist at all levels.
The assumption is that a Christian leader would defend the Christian faith and a Muslim leader would do the same for his own constituency as well. In every election at both Federal and State levels, Nigerians have adopted the convention of a Christian and Muslim ticket, in joint political races, to give the people a sense of balance, access and proximity to power. The most remarkable exception to this pattern occurred in 1993 when a Muslim-Muslim ticket of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Presidential candidates- Bashorun MKO Abiola and Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe won the Presidential election. Given the manner in which religion has further driven a wedge between Nigerians, it would be difficult to reproduce that magical moment again, either now, or in the immediate future. The Church in Nigeria believes that the time has come to do more than preaching and praying and become an active political force.
In yet another statement on the matter, titled “The New Dawn: Church Prophetic Political Delivery and Responsibility of the Church (March 11, 2022)”, Bishop Theophilus Taiwo Ajose, Ph. D declared that all church fathers and leaders are required to direct their members and followers to “register for and update their Permanent Voters Cards (PVC) and “urgently join any political party of their choice at the ward (grassroots) levels and participate actively in political activities of that party while upholding righteousness.” It is important to further understand the context of this ideological declaration. Hitherto, the Church in Nigeria acted as the moral compass without necessarily being partisan. During the struggle for democracy, 1993 -1999, Catholic Bishops, leaders of the Anglican Church and the Pentecostal Federation fought for the rights of Bashorun Abiola and Baba Gana Kingibe to be given their mandate. It didn’t matter that both men were Muslims. The Church was a modulating voice of reason. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and the Catholic Secretariat through the Justice Development and Peace Departments of the Church fought for democracy and development. The Anglican Church and the Pentecostal Federation were also in the forefront of the struggle. Many would remember the heroism of the Rt. Rev Peter Adebiyi, one of Chief Abraham Adesanya’s most trusted lieutenants, popularly known as the NADECO Bishop, Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi and his fiery sermons and the stinging interventions of John Cardinal Onaiyekan, as well as the activism of the likes of Fr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, Fr. George Ehusani, Fr. John Uba Ofei and and Fr. Iheanyi Enwerem. Catholic priests on one occasion trooped to the streets in defence of democracy! Today, Nigerian church leaders and the Congregation are more interested in fighting for their own. They want their own people in power, even at the traditional, grassroots level. But that didn’t start now.
I recall that as President Goodluck Jonathan’s spokesperson in the lead up to the 2015 general elections, in the course of the campaigns, our campaign train visited as many major churches in the country as possible. We saw crowds of potential voters. Prayers were offered. There were declarations of vision and revelations. The Church was not necessarily fighting for democracy in 2014/2015. It wanted to protect its members who had become victims of religious and ethnic conflicts. Church leaders wanted a Christian President to remain in office to address the emerging crisis. Later, when I ran on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party as a Deputy Gubernatorial candidate in Ogun State in 2018/19, it was part of my schedule as the Christian on the PDP Muslim-Christian ticket to interface with the Christian community. We had a high-ranking member of the PFN in our political camp who made the necessary arrangements, and hence, we went from one church to the other, preaching to church elders. I even participated in debates organized by churches for political party candidates. It was clear to me from the interactions that church leaders in Ogun State wanted power to shift to a Christian candidate, the outgoing Governor then, being a Muslim who had spent eight years in office. If the church leaders saw any visions, they did not tell me.
It is perhaps the same drama that is now playing out ahead of the 2023 general elections. With a Muslim as Nigerian President for eight years, and with the Nigerian Christian community convinced that a Muslim-led Nigerian Presidency persecutes Christians and pampers Muslims, the Church of Nigeria appears resolved to get into the arena of action. It seems Christian forces are now ready to sponsor candidates and mobilize the Congregation, armed with PVCs. The Church has also been drawn into the politics of zoning and rotation. It won’t be long before the various branches of the PFN begin to have chapters of political parties. No one should be surprised if some churches ask every soon that they should be designated as polling units or centres! When that happens, sermons in churches would become political manifestoes. It would be a reflection of how desperate every Nigerian constituency has become, how badly religion has divided us, and how high the stakes would be in 2023.
The truth is that churches in Nigeria today have become far more secular than they were a few years ago. The original words of the Lord Jesus Christ distinguished between the secular and the spiritual thus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12: 17). But in Nigeria today, those in charge of God’s affairs are threatening to contest with Caesar. They seek to move from a place of independence and spiritual power to the main arena. Many churches are personal estates. Many are business investments. The other day, the General Overseer of the Christ Living Hope Church with Headquarters in Anambra, Rev. Ugochuckwu Emmanuel Ekwem was caught at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport by the Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) trying to smuggle 54 sticks of drugs to Kenya. Religious faith is in decline in Nigeria. Political belief is about to dilute religious belief, far more aggressively. The church is seeking redemption through politics. How far will it or can it go?