Nigerian politics and the cynical manipulation of religion

4 mins read

IT was Shehu Usman Dan Fodiyo who once warned that a political society can endure with unbelief, but it will sooner, rather than later, crumble with injustice. Of course, Shehu Fodiyo was a religious and political leader, who led one of the most extensive and remarkable state building projects in pre-colonial Africa. Rooted in a deep religious consciousness, he nevertheless understood that the right religious bona fide alone, cannot be the basis for state survival, where the state itself is built upon an enduring project of injustice.

I have thought very hard on that famous observation in recent days, because of developments in Nigerian society, especially in the lead to the 2015 elections on the one hand, and the general pattern of elite behaviour in Nigeria, since the 1999 transition to civilian regime on the other. The political and economic choices foisted upon Nigeria have seen the entrenchment of deep-seated inequalities and injustice in the land. The state has increasingly withdrawn from positively imp
acting upon the lives of the majority of the Nigerian people and became ‘privatised’ as an instrument of the protection of the privileges of the rich.

So an ordinarily religious society has retreated further into religion since lived existence has become tortuous and unbearable. Religion has an economic dimension in Nigeria, with religious bodies similarly preying on the insecurities of the Nigerian people. It is double whammy for the Nigerian people because the political elite has been at its most cynical exploiting religion in all its ramifications.


The Jonathan presidency has cynically made several efforts to manipulate and exploit the fault lines of Nigerian society in a very frightening manner. Leading to 2011, the election was pursued as a “Christian” agenda with Christian religious bodies and leaders brought into the vote-harvest project for Jonathan. One of the iconic moments was when Jonathan knelt in front of Pastor Adeboye; it was a defining exemplar of exploitation of religion to enhance electoral fortunes.

In the past one year especially, with new elections looming in early 2015, and with a not-too-impressive record in power, the religious card has returned to the top of the agenda.  President Jonathan has turned receptions of CAN leaders or visits to churches as occasions to make far-reaching political statements. On Christmas Day last year, he worshipped at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Anglican Communion, Gwarimpa, Abuja. He took the opportunity to warn his political opponents not to heat up the polity.

On the first Sunday of 2014, he was at the COCIN church, where he lashed out at some Nigerians he described as “evil”, then ‘prophesying’ that Nigeria ‘must be liberated’ from such people. And just last Sunday, he was at the Winners’ Chapel, Goshen City, on Keffi Road, Nasarawa state, where he said he was going to account to God for his actions as Nigerian president.

The well-orchestrated appearances from one church to the other, without prejudice to doctrinal differences, are part of a project to repeat the manipulations from 2011. Jonathan is drumming into the consciousness of the country, a subtle message that he remains the candidate for and of the Christian community. And given the deep religious divisions in the country and the blind often, irrational emotions, which these religious divides can trigger, Jonathan’s cynical manipulation of religion must not be underrated.

Tragic scenario

It is clear that this will be one of the points on which the 2015 election will be lost and won. The tragedy of this scenario, is that the irresponsibility in the governance process; the mind-boggling heists since Jonathan’s 2011 election and the worsening indices of development in the country, are pushed to the back burner as people then retreat into religious laagers to the detriment of even their own best interests.

A “they versus us” religious approach plays into the political agenda of elite groups but has never been in the interest of national harmony and it has never enhanced the tendency towards ruling class accountability and a sense of responsibility. We have lived with this situation for most of our lives as a country. When Jonathan said he will account to God, it probably sounded very pious and must obviously appear very appropriate to the religious mind. But in truth, whatever account he gives to God will be between him and the Almighty.

None of the Nigerian people whose lives he has impacted upon as president, for good or evil, will be witness on his day of reckoning with God. Besides, we did not elect him to account to God! His basic responsibility ought to and should be accountability to and respect for the Nigerian people first and foremost! The second part of this problem of manipulative use of religion is the constant prayer to God to give us “God fearing” leaders.

We make that demand on God so much, we forget to ask for or actively nurture leaders who will respect us as a people, through upholding the social contract with the Nigerian people. There is so much posturing by groups of the Nigerian ruling class, Muslim and Christian, to be seen to be pious and religious; they make a show of pilgrimages, elaborate rituals, hobnobbing with equally complicit clergymen, yet preside over the under development that is responsible for the despair that most of our people face today.

Nigerian politics today, in the hands of the nation’s political elite, under-develops the country. On all indices of democratic development, governance and accountability, the Nigerian people are victims of an elaborate robbery and disrespect. Socio-economic existence has been dire. In consequence, the retreat to more religious attitudes only reflects the soul of a soulless world, to paraphrase Karl Marx. It is this religious fervour that has become such a potent weapon of political warfare in our land in the hands of contending groups of the elite. But central to the society’s foundation is the injustice that Shehu Usman Dan Fodiyo pointed out, can lead to the fall of society. Nigeria lives dangerously at the edge of the precipice!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.