2023, religion and the flight of reason


By Festus Eriye


The clerics stoking the fires with their fiery sermons need to reflect on the likely outcome of their adventure, especially when the obedience (apologies to Peter Obi supporters) of their followers isn’t guaranteed.”

If the 2023 presidential election were to be held tomorrow these are the issues that would determine the outcome: religion, ethnicity, hate speech, fake news, among others. They would most likely still be casting a long shadow in six months when actual polling would happen.

Of the lot, religion stands out at this moment for the heat it has generated. Many had hoped the election would be about critical issues confronting the country, how well the government has handled them, and what the candidates are offering to improve the situation.

It is fascinating watching how even those who argue that the contest should be a referendum on the performance of Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) administration, are orchestrating the politics of piety hoping it becomes a winning formula.

The ruling party stirred controversy with the Muslim-Muslim ticket that it has consistently argued is only a strategy to win votes, rather than an assault on the Christian faith and its interests. But if it hoped it’s action would be viewed in the same light as the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) picking another Northerner to succeed one who would have served eight years in office, it was mistaken.

Those who think APC made error are not content to wait till February 2023 to punish it for its miscalculation. Rather, they have whipped up this huge brouhaha to discredit the Bola Tinubu-Kashim Shettima ticket.

Especially shocking is the very frontal intervention of certain Christian leaders in the debate. Even before the selection was made, they had started making ominous threats. Others have since followed up with ecclesiastical edicts to their followers on who to vote for and who not to support.

If, indeed, APC has made a historical error that supposedly hurts one religion’s interests, the way some of these leaders have gone about their opposition may well turn out to be a grievous mistake on the same level. To put it delicately, many haven’t acted with wisdom.

They have carried on as though the voting population are entirely Christians who will be mobilised to defeat those who have defied them. But one of the unintended consequences of their hysteria is to create a them versus us atmosphere.

Just as they can mobilise their followers, Muslims across the divide can do the same – creating a dangerous contest for religious supremacy in an already unstable polity. Who needs that given the history of sectarian conflict in parts of the country?

The clerics stoking the fires with their fiery sermons need to reflect on the likely outcome of their adventure, especially when the obedience (apologies to Peter Obi supporters) of their followers isn’t guaranteed.

Familiarity with the Scriptures shows that human beings don’t even obey God all the time. In fact, the vast majority daily fall over themselves to disobey the Almighty. That’s why at every point in time there are more sinners than saints.

A little humility would help these excitable clerics realise that despite their huffing and puffing, there’s no guarantee all Christians would vote for candidates of their faith, or Muslims only for those who share their beliefs.

Indeed, if polling units were erected next to the pulpit in some worship centres, the leaders would be astonished to discover how their faithful followers have voted.

If the current raging over faith balance is about exercising influence, then we need to learn from the Americans whose presidential system of government we copied.

In the US, it’s often said that the president’s closest adviser is his spouse. She’s the one he sees last each day and first thing in the morning. After supposedly powerful courtiers might have made their case in the office, she has the ability to turn their counsel upside down on the pillow next to him.

That country’s history is replete with famous and very influential First Ladies – from Eleanor Roosevelt, to the likes of Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

Given that her husband, Franklin, lost use of his legs due to paralytic illness, Eleanor began giving public speeches and appearing at campaign events on his behalf. Mrs. Carter was just as controversial as she sat in on Cabinet meetings and also served as an envoy abroad.

When Bill Clinton wanted to launch a tenure-defining healthcare initiative in his first term, it was his wife Hillary he asked to head the committee to push its passage through Congress. She was also actively involved in vetting candidates for political appointments.

This isn’t to advocate an intrusive First Ladyship in Nigeria given the constitutional ambiguity over the role. However, if the current hyperventilation over the fact that the APC’s presidential running mate is a Muslim like his principal is about exercising influence and power, we must not dismiss as irrelevant the fact that Tinubu’s wife, is a pastor. What could be more powerful for Christians than having one of their own in the bedroom of the president?

Under our constitution, the Vice President is powerful simply because he automatically takes over if the incumbent dies in office. Beyond that, he’s only as relevant as his boss wants him to be. In the Fourth Republic we’ve seen a couple reduced to just drinking tea and opening conferences after falling out with the president.

Playing on fear and ignorance, some have argued that the same-faith ticket is a vehicle for Islamisation of the country. But those who seek comfort in the Muslim-Christian ticket should explain how it furthers their religion’s interest when the presidential candidate is from a different faith.

If this is truly about contending for one’s faith, then we should ask how balancing a political ticket enhances the cause of the gospel. In all the parties you won’t find anything beyond hazy commitments to upholding the right of citizens to freedom of worship.

In reality, three of the most notable presidential candidates are Muslim. Their antecedents should provide comfort or discomfiture for those who are worried about any sort of religious conspiracy. Some have pointed out that Tinubu who some now wish to ascribe some sort of evil agenda to hasn’t forced his wife to abandon her faith. The same cannot be said of his rival Atiku, two of whose wives converted to Islam and took new names.

In the long run, fanning the fires of religious hysteria doesn’t help those doing so. They stand in grave danger of getting burnt by the fallout.

What is really tragic is how this electoral cycle is being wasted on identity politics when it should be about discussing inflation, unemployment, a ballooning population and its implications, healthcare, infrastructure, insecurity and so much more.

Another thing to watch for is how fake news and hate speech are becoming factors as election day draws nearer. More and more, I am reminded of how former US President Donald Trump rose to power. At the onset the outlandish reality star and wheeler-dealer was viewed as something of a joke by Republican Party grandees.

But he and his campaign showed that there was no truth they could not twist. As they casually deployed alternative facts they found a large pool of ignorant Americans ready to lap up anything spewed out by the charismatic politician. Many who ended up voting for him did so after gobbling up the falsehood he circulated, especially when it connected with their prejudices.

In today’s Nigeria, social media has become a cesspool of lies which the ignorant lap up as fact. Videos are doctored, images are photoshopped to project victims in unflattering light. Quotes are attributed to individuals who never made such statements.

Those who share these things are not concerned about consequences when the truth eventually comes to light. They are solely driven by hate, not a need to engage in reasonable discussion. You only need to venture into the comment sections to understand how deep the vein of ethnic and religious hatred is.

Unfortunately, many pushing these things are young people who don’t want their notions and assumptions challenged. It’s their way or the highway. It is the mindset of the bully and dictator that has taken hold of those you would describe as Nigeria’s future. What a scary cocktail we’re toying with: intolerance and misbegotten religious zeal.


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