By Professor Tunji Olaopa
I grew up in a cultural context that founded Ali Mazrui’s triple heritage thesis: that Africa has reached a stage where three fundamental cultural influences – Euro-Christian, Islamic and traditional African are locked in mutual relations . This context allowed for the mutually beneficial and respectful relationship between my Christian great-grandfather and my Muslim great-grandmother. It was a mutually reinforcing reciprocity that saw husband and wife assist each other in each other’s belief system and combine the core moral ideas of their religions with the moral upbringing of their children.
What I have just recounted is an example of a small corner of wider Nigerian society being replicated in other village or town contexts everywhere. Nigerian politics displays something different, as evidenced by the current unrest and outcry over the religious affiliations of presidential and gubernatorial candidates.
As 2023 approaches, the political space is already on fire because of the religious affiliations of the three presidential candidates and their appointed vice presidents. For the APC, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu chose Senator Kashim Shettima, another Muslim. In the PDP, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, a Muslim, chose Ifeanyi Okowa, a Christian from Delta State. Peter Obi, alone, chose a Muslim from the north as his running mate. That leaves Tinubu with the most troubling Muslim-Muslim ticket. For those concerned, especially the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and others, a Muslim-Muslim ticket is a slap in the face to Nigeria’s religious dynamics. This dynamic is represented across all six geopolitical zones of Nigeria, South East with all-Christian tickets in all states, North West with all-Muslim tickets, and all other areas with a mixed configuration.
The fundamental question is how religion has become a substantive issue that determines electoral success. This question is all the more so within the vaunted secularism of the Nigerian state. Secular belief not only distinguishes between state and religion, but also designates religious beliefs and faith as personal and private. The implication of this is that religious belief should not be seen as having a critical role to play in the public sphere where people’s credentials transcend their faith. My credentials as a neurosurgeon, for example, should have absolutely nothing to do with my faith. Being a Muslim or a Christian adds nothing to the skill I possess in dealing with the human brain. But of course we know that Nigeria is not really a secular state. Like ethnicity, successive governments have discovered religion as a divisive weapon of mobilization. Once the federal government started subsidizing pilgrimages for Christians and Muslims, religion moved out of the private space into public space for Nigerian politicians, fueled by those who take religion very seriously.
The emphasis on religion runs counter to the most fundamental issue of party politics: electoral victory. Politicians enter electoral competition to win elections and acquire political power. And in doing so, their most important calculation concerns the possible political iterations that could allow them to obtain the positions they covet. Religion is just another variable in the mix that doesn’t always matter. So if Shettima, for example, were to be a strong Christian who can deliver the North, Tinubu would still have made that choice. The main problem is the figure of Shettima and his ability to provide a large number of votes to Tinubu and the APC. The Muslim-Muslim ticket chosen by Tinubu, or the “balanced” ticket of the other two aspirants, is a matter of pure political expediency. Politicians want to win elections at all costs. And Tinubu is no less a politician in this regard; he is in the race to win.
With 2023 looming, and with all the shouting, we really have an opportunity to get our electoral sensibility and the future of Nigeria right. And that means deep reflections on several issues, starting with the constitutional provision for active secularism in the Nigerian constitution. Similar to so many of its provisions, the constitution is contradictory on the issue of religion in public life. While Article 10 categorically states that “The Federation or State Government shall not adopt any religion as the State Religion”, there are also several provisions, under the “Basic Guidelines”, which direct the government to facilitate the enjoyment of religious benefits. . Thus, the Nigerian state is not secular enough to maintain a strict distance between religion and state. Of course, secularism itself is under siege even in societies that have secular credentials. This is not to say that Nigeria cannot determine its own secular construct in a way that respects its realities.
The second issue is a serious national reorientation on the idea of religion as care for the soul, rather than as a political position. And this requires the attention of the clerics of the great religions. It should be noted that CAN is not innocent in emphasizing religion as a national issue in Nigerian politics, and that is very regrettable.
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Professor Olaopa teaches at NIPSS, Kuru, Jos