Politicians and Men of God The Political Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria

Prominent Christian and Muslim clerics are intruding into Nigerian politics to buy votes for their preferred candidates, with dire implications for the stability of Nigeria’s democracy.

Four years ago, as an undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University, one of the most transformative books that I read was Dr Yusufu Bala Usman’s masterpiece Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria: 1977-1987. The book is a collection of his letters, essays and lectures focusing on how religion intermingled with politics, national cohesion and socio-economic development in Nigeria between the late 70s and 80s. According to him, vested interests had used religion to deepen political sentiments, trigger violence and subjugate the masses in the aftermath of the Biafran War, which lasted from 1967 to 1970. Usman referred to popular uprisings such as Maitatsine insurgency, the assassination of Murtala Mohammed, former military head of state, and the “Islam Only” movement, among others, to justify his claims.  While the book is quite dated, its central message that religion is often manipulated for political purposes is still relevant, especially in light of recent ethno-religious clashes, the Boko Haram insurgency and the looming general elections set for February 2019.

With a population of more than 180 million people, Nigeria is divided along ethnic and religious lines. The country is majorly split between Muslims and Christians, who mostly reside in the northern and southern parts of Nigeria, respectively, although followers of both faiths are scattered across the country. Historically, politicians have exploited Nigeria’s religious make-up to serve their interests, often leading to electoral clashes. For example, in 2011, post-election violence claimed more than 800 lives and displaced 65,000 people when former President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, was declared winner of the presidential elections. Violence erupted following protests that a Muslim northerner, Muhammadu Buhari (the current President of Nigeria) was supposed to win the elections. Given that majority of Nigerians are devoutly religious, clerics have a powerful role to play in both enabling and tackling electoral crises in Nigeria.

Pastors, Imams and the Nigerian Elections

While religion has always been an important factor in Nigerian politics, the scale and forms in which religious leaders are brazenly intruding into politics recently is alarming. Ideally, Nigerian religious leaders, like traditional rulers, are supposed to be detached from partisan politics by virtue of their positions as members of an honourable and pious class whose political responsibility, if anything, is to advocate for peaceful elections and encourage politicians to deliver good governance and sustainable development for citizens. Clerics are also expected to promote justice and social rights while avoiding partisan politics as partisanship could, potentially, lead to conflicts of interest. When clerics choose politics over preaching, or choose something in-between, they should shun using religion to support their political interests.

In what is a bizarre foray into politics, prominent Muslim and Christian clerics have publicly announced their chosen candidates for the next elections. When justifying their public support for a politician, they often quote religious texts or claim prophecy from God. For instance, the Presiding Bishop of Divine Seed of God Chapel Ministries, Ibadan, Pastor Wale Olaganju, reported a prophecy in October 2018 in which God told him that President Buhari would lose to Atiku. This could be interpreted as a sacred message from God, except Pastor Olaganju also proceeded to condemn President Buhari, who is seeking re-election under the All Progressive Congress (APC), in favour of the opposing People’s Democratic Party (PDP)’s Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. Olaganju claimed that “the Yoruba will not vote for Buhari, but for Atiku… [and] only a mature son of the devil will support Buhari”. It is obvious that the Pastor has diluted his prophecy with political manoeuvrings.

Several days ago, the national chairman of Jama’atu Izatul Bid’ah Wa Iqamatus Sunnah (Society for the Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of Sunnah, aka JIBWIS), Sheikh Abdullahi Bala Lau, endorsed President Buhari as the preferred candidate of the Islamic sect and directed all followers of the sect to vote him in the next elections. Similarly, in a viral video circulating on social media, Sheikh Kabiru Gombe, a senior cleric in the sect, quoted a Qur’anic verse (4:58), which he claimed justified President Buhari as the most deserving for national leadership due to his integrity and sublime character—unlike other politicians. The verse was taken out of context as it was not referring to any matters of leadership qualities but commanded Prophet Mohammed and Muslims to return Kaabah keys to its keepers after the conquest of Makkah. Indeed, it would be odd to interpret it in the way Sheikh Gombe did.

However, the proclamation by JIBWIS leaders has not been well-received by some Islamic scholars. Sheikh Sambo Rigachuku broke ranks with the JIBWIS central body to show his support for Atiku, who the cleric claimed to be the best presidential candidate due to his ‘support for Islam and the society’. Rigachuku also mentioned that Atiku has built not less than 100 mosques. On his part, Professor Ibrahim Makari, an Imam at the Nigeria Central Mosque, said that it is inappropriate for religious scholars to publicly show their support for a politician in order to influence their followers. According to him, clerics should enlighten their followers as to the good qualities of a leader and leave them to vote a candidate of their own choice.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Muslim Community, led by Chief Imam of the Calabar Central Mosques, endorsed the incumbent Governor of Cross Rivers State, Ben Ayade, as their chosen candidate in the state’s next gubernatorial election, citing his achievements in infrastructure, textile and agriculture. Moreover, these religious bodies donated N1.2 million to Ayade to support his campaign activities. This appears to be a mismanagement of religious funds as such amount could be better utilised by helping the poor and the needy, as both Islam and Christianity would suggest, rather than gifting them to political elites.

Potential Implications of Clerics’ Intrusion into Politics

Although it is impossible to fully analyse the implications of clerics’ foray into politics, even casual observation points to what catastrophic outcomes can emerge from the political manipulation of religion. One implication of an ‘unholy alliance’ between powerful politicians and religious leaders would be the restriction of individual freedom and democratic rights. Majority of Nigerians are not only devout followers of religion but also dogmatic devotees of clerics. As clerics wield significant power over their followers, they can easily force citizens to vote a candidate even against their wish—especially since deviating from cleric’s verdict is usually regarded as heresy, attracting condemnation from relatives and friends. This would inevitably constrain people’s rights to vote a candidate of their own choice.

In addition, clerics’ involvement in politics could have far-reaching consequences in terms of causing vicious cycles of impunity, corruption and the misuse of religion. By publicly participating in political manoeuvrings, religious leaders could undermine their ability to speak truth to power, preach against corrupt practices by politicians, and earn the respect of the populace who trust them as ‘men of God’. Clerics could find themselves preaching partisan politics in favour of politicians whose preoccupation is worldly power and wealth rather than promises of the hereafter.

On the other hand, politicians could also be used by clerics to promote their version of religion and victimize followers of other sects or religion. For example, Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, a prominent Islamic scholar and leader of the Tijjaniya sect, one of West Africa’s largest Islamic sects, had accused President Muhammadu Buhari and Governor Nasir El-rufai of ‘romancing’ with the leaders of the SunniJIBWIS sect to persecuteShiite Muslims, whose hundreds of members had been killed following a confrontation with the Nigerian army in Zaria on the 12th of December, 2015. Shiite leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-zakzaky, has been in custody since then, despite a court order to release him. Although it is unclear whether the allegations made by Sheikh Bauchi are true, they cannot be ruled out, given that top JIBWIS clerics enjoy close ties to the Federal government and have publicly expressed their support for persecution of the Shiite Muslims and continued detention of Shiite leader, El-zakzaky.

Moreover, using religion to support politicians has the potential to worsen religious intolerance and erode social capital among citizens at a time when Nigerians need to be more tolerant and united. While the fear of nationwide post-election violence is low given that the major presidential candidates are Muslims from northern Nigeria, there is still the pertinent risk of deteriorating social cohesion and religious tolerance at lower levels of the society. Differences in political choices of religious leaders could worsen inter- and intra-religious tensions, endangering peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding in the country. For example, Shiite Muslims could interpret JIBWIS’s public endorsement of President Buhari as a direct support for his hostile approach towards them, which could further deepen animosity between followers of the two Islamic sects.  It would, therefore, be in the interest of national security if clerics do not get caught up in partisan politics.

Arm’s Length Relationship between Politicians and Clerics

That religion has always been part and parcel of politics and governance in Nigeria is neither new nor necessarily worrisome. What is alarming is the spate of efforts by clerics to enforce candidates on their followers, which has implications for democratic rights and stability in Nigeria. So, how can religious scholars support democracy in an impartial way?

I would suggest an arm’s length relationship between religious leaders and politicians. In other words, the former should to strive to promote peaceful elections by enabling freedom of choice among their followers. In addition, religious leaders should encourage politicians to deliver good governance and avoid corruption, while avoiding partisan politics. This would not only help in consolidating secularism in the country’s governance structure but would also allow citizens to exercise their democratic rights in a free and fair atmosphere. Clerics should remember that their duty is to ensure there is order in politics, while being aware that words of God will be better preached when not manipulated to serve the interests of politicians

Editor’s note: We are currently accepting submissions for our April/May 2019 issue, in which authors will critically discuss “democracies in the modern world”. For more information, please read our call for submissions here.