By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“It is not the liberties we have but the liberties we take that cause all the trouble.”– Anon
AS he is wont to do, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi triggered another quarrel when he called for the banning of ethnic and religious organisations on the grounds that they inhibit the growth of an all-inclusive political process, threaten national unity and heighten the state of insecurity in the nation.
He said organisations such as the Jamaatu Nasril Islam (JNI), and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) which claim to represent Nigerian Muslims and Christians, as well as others such as the Aferifere, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Ohaneze Ndi’Igbo are patently political, contrary to their claims.
He said their existence offends the constitution which demands that government must promote associations that cut across ethno-religious divisions. Leaders who exploit ethno-religious differences fuel insecurity, such as the insurgency ravaging the north, he insists.
Even as he spoke, Sanusi must have known that government has neither the legal right nor the political will to move against these groups. They do not offend the constitution, and they are central building blocks of much of the powers of the ruling elite.
They are creations of a political process which has fed on poison that has stunted its growth. It cannot wean itself of the addiction, and it cannot destroy it.
It could turn it into a non-poisonous and nourishing asset, but leaders who rode to power on its back do not have the will or the capacity to do so.
Sanusi got what he apparently wanted, which was to trigger a national discourse on these monstrosities which have taken centre stage in our political system.
Virtually all of them repudiated his claims that they do more harm than good. They insist that they are informed by the need to protect special interests, they are protected by constitutional guarantees for freedom of association, and many say they are victims of violence and insecurity, and not its causes or champions.
No one would have expected anything less from all these organisations. But then no one would be impressed by their professions of innocence either. The recent image of President Jonathan kneeling before Pastor Adeboye of the RCCG, a repeat of an earlier pilgrimage he made in the build-up to the 2011 elections is still fresh in memory.
The President himself said prayers gave him victory, and his penchant for making major policy statements from pulpits have radically improved the standing of the church in the political terrain. The Sultan’s recent salvo against politicians who are either unwilling or unable to act on advise on the insurgency ravaging the north is still vibrating.
This is the symbolic head of Nigerian Muslims speaking, the head criticised by many Muslims as being too friendly to a government hostile or indifferent to Muslim interests on the one hand, and repudiated by the JASLIWAJ (a.k.a Boko Haram) on the other. He heads the JNI which insists that it is the vanguard of Nigerian muslims.
He sits with the President of CAN and with other clerics and traditional rulers in the government-funded Nigeria Inter-Religions Council (NIREC) to put out joint statements, which are promptly negated by members when they leave the comfortable surroundings of meeting chambers.
The JNI and CAN are actually harmless creatures. The real action lies with individual clerics, which they cannot control. Pastor Oritsejafor alone brings the roof down when he thunders in defence of President Goodluck Jonathan; or when he threatens revenge and retribution when churches are attacked.
Bishop Kukah’s homily at late Governor Yakowa funeral stands out as evidence that every inch of our political system is nurtured by religious sentiments. The reaction of Shiekh Ahmad Gummi and other Muslims to that homily merely confirms the central position of faith-based politics in the land.
This, perhaps, is where the real value of Sanusi’s provocation lies. It does no good condemning him or defending organisations which respond to massive stimulus, or create their own, owing to weaknesses in the political system.
The most fundamental of those weaknesses is the failure to acknowledge that the Nigerian nation is made of citizens who are Muslims or Christians, and a few who think being either is a problem.
Faith is a very important issue in the lives of the vast majority of Nigerians, yet our constitution merely acknowledges that we are a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state which must operate by involving all faiths and ethnic groups in its institutions and operation. Tensions exist between religious values such as personal integrity, honesty, justice, service, humility and sacrifice which are found in all the major religions, and nebulous provisions in the constitution which ape them.
A political system which demands expenditure of hundreds of millions of Naira and massive use of violence to secure an elective office, and encourages virtual looting of the public treasury in the end will stand condemned by all the basic values of Islam and Christianity. Impunity exist because there is neither the fear of man-made laws, nor those of God and the hereafter. The disconnect between core religious values and the political system is complete: You cannot win an election, or run a successful business in Nigeria if you insist on remaining strictly within the bounds of your faith.
So leaders who have risen to power on the back of un-belief turn around and create their own belief systems. They invest heavily in faith-based activities; they patronise clerics who in turn create political followership for them. They create falsehoods that the fortunes of Christians or Muslims will be better or worse depending on the faith of the leader. If this does not happen instantly, it is because the “other” side is frustrating the leader’s divine calling to deliver.
The problem is that the people are no fools. They remain resolutely Muslim or Christian, and most can see the caricature which is made of their faith by leaders. Many ask for forgiveness as they chase crumbs. Others take up arms, denouncing the entire edifice. Majority leave matters to God, in whose name their resources are plundered, and they watch as leaders are blessed and anointed by clerics who fly their own planes.
Faith-based organisations will continue to wax stronger because they exploit a major vacuum in our political system. In a multi-religious society where political leaders exploit faith and run a winner-takes-all system, religion provides the fuel which takes leaders to power; and alienates many citizens who feel that their faith is a liability in the estimation of leaders. Religious leaders have huge powers and little responsibility. Those are the powers Sanusi wants to see taken away from then. It won’t happen. Even if you can ban them, faith will continue to play a major role in Nigerian politics.
Limitations of political system
The limitations of the political system which allows ethno-religious bodies to play important roles are to be found in the failure of a leadership to emerge which will lead with vision, justice and competence, whether the leader is Muslim or Christian, Gbagi or Urhobo.
The political system needs to expand and subordinate these particularistic tendencies, and gradually establish a threshold where citizenry is distinctly a value equally shared, even though faith and ethnicity differ.
It is important that leaders recognise that Islam and Christianity are offended by corruption and impunity, and if they can be fair and just to all citizens irrespective of faith or tongue, the damaging tendency to think we have to have one of our own in office will be curtailed. Corruption is at the heart of why fringe groups are taking central positions in our politics.
Religious leaders and ethnic champions corrupt the political process by giving it false legitimacy; and are in turn corrupted by a political system which makes them its vehicles. What the nation needs are more intimate linkages between our religious and cultural values which define leadership and responsibility, and the operations of our governance structures and institutions.