“It would be wrong to stand at the pulpit to make any political statement. There is a document issued by the Bishops’ Conference to that effect.”
Olakunle Olafioye, Onyedika Agbedo and Agatha Emeadi
When elections get this close, Nigerian politicians need no reminder that no gathering is too negligible for electoral success, not even religious gatherings with their massive record of attendance.
READ ALSO: Ennobling religious harmony in Anambra
Since the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, officially announced the commencement of campaigns last month, religious faithful in the country have witnessed more visits by vote-seeking politicians to their various gatherings.
Worshippers at Church of Divine Mercy, Lekki, Lagos, were treated to an unexpected spectacle in the penultimate Friday as politicians and their supporters stormed the church in what has become the trend during electioneering in Nigeria.
Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi; the Peoples Democratic Party Vice Presidential candidate and former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi; Lagos State governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Babajide Sanwo-Olu and his PDP counterpart, Jimi Agbaje, took worshippers at the church by surprise as they stormed the venue of their worship in what many believe was an attempt to sell their candidatures and their candidates to the adherents at the church programme.
Sources at the programme told Sunday Sun that the event almost became a political ground as party supporters resorted to hailing their own candidates and booing the candidates of the opposition parties when the names of the VIPs were called for recognition. The incident was said to have precipitated a major controversy on the following day when the PDP accused the ruling APC in the state of being responsible for the destruction of posters and billboards of its governorship candidate, Agbaje. But the Lagos State Signage and Advertisement Agency, LASAA, said it removed some billboards and posters from some roads over failure of parties concerned to obtain permission.
The General Manager of the agency, Mobolaji Sanusi, who gave the clarification during a security/stakeholders meeting with INEC, candidates and political parties meeting with the Commissioner of Police in Lagos, CP Imohimi Edgal, said that the ruling APC sought the permission of the agency before mounting its billboards.
“The All Progressives Congress, APC, obtained permission from the agency before mounting the billboards and pasting the poster, especially on the Lagos Island. There are rules and regulations guiding the pasting of bills and posters in Lagos State which must be strictly adhered to.”
As this was not to die down, Sanwo-Olu was again sighted at the headquarters of Lords’ Chosen Church, Ijesha, Lagos, last Sunday. The visit coincided with the grand finale of the church’s annual two-day international crusade, tagged “Hope for the Needy”. The APC candidate left no one in doubt over his mission at the church.
“Some of us have been watching the General Overseer, Pastor Lazarus Muoka from a distance and we know all the miracles that have been happening here. We need to hold onto our God because we can see people witnessing miracles today. Miracle is real. I am a living testimony of miracle. It is not by man’s power. This is why I’m here. God has started the work, and He is going to perfect it come 2019. I implore all of you, let’s pray. Let’s hold onto Jesus, and God will continue to be with you in Jesus name,” he said.
In response to his request for prayer, the General Overseer of the church, Pastor Lazarus Muoka urged the congregation to intercede on the behalf of the governorship candidate, asking God to grant his heart desires.
But none of these political visits has raised much dust and attracted attention than the recent visit by former Governor Obi, the PDP vice presidential candidate to Adoration Ministry, Enugu during the church’s thanksgiving service and bazaar held last weekend.
Mr Obi who attended the programme for what many believe to be political reason, received perhaps more than he had bargained for when he refused to openly declare his financial contribution to the church during the programme despite sustained pressure from the spiritual director of the ministry, Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka.
When it was obvious that Obi would not budge to Fr. Mbaka’s pressure, the cleric was quoted to have resorted to condemning him together with his party, describing Obi’s action as stinginess, saying “God hates stinginess. I am not telling you this, to make you happy. This is what will save your life. Otherwise you and Atiku will fail.
“If there is a place they will coat words for you, it is not at Mbaka’s altar. You can save your political destiny or in 2019, you people will not even know how they did the election. What will make my brother to come for bazaar and he won’t even break kola? The way you and Atiku are moving will end in shame. Let us continue our bazaar. You know since he is not supporting us, the ministry has been moving. If people start arguing like this, their downfall begins.”
Not a few Nigerians have, however, reacted to the development, with many bemoaning the cleric’s outburst. The Catholic Church in a reaction through the Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Enugu, Rev. Fr. Benjamin Achi, condemned Mbaka’s action, maintaining that the church remains apolitical.
“The diocese is not in support of any priest making political statements. The church is supposed to be apolitical and the Bishops’ Conference has said that repeatedly.
“We are not supposed to make any political statement from the pulpit within the context of Mass, that is, church service. So, it would be wrong to stand at the pulpit to make any political statement. There is a document issued by the Bishops’ Conference to that effect.
“So, he (Mbaka) just spoke on his own, not representing the diocese. We are not expected to come out openly to support a particular candidate for any reason. The church law does not accept such a thing. So, it would be wrong for anybody (priest) to come out and give an endorsement to a particular candidate,” he said.
Taking political campaigns to religious gatherings is not a recent development in Nigeria. The trend, however, assumed a more worrisome dimension in the build to the 2015 general elections when former President Goodluck Jonathan was quoted to have admonished church leaders during his visits to The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) camp along Lagos-Ibadan expressway and the Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Movement Ijesha, Lagos, against surrendering their pulpit to politicians for political campaigns.
“I would not say much because this is not a good period for those of us who are contesting for election to talk so much in church. I do not want to be accused of coming to campaign in churches because I believe that we should not campaign in churches. We may discuss with people, but not to use the platform of the church to campaign,” he was quoted to have said then.
Although political campaigns at religious gatherings is more pronounced among Christian congregations, National Missioner, Ansar-Ud-Deen Society of Nigeria, Sheik Abdulrahman Ahmad, told Sunday Sun that Islamic faithful in Nigeria also have their own share of this disturbing trend.
He, however, noted that many Islamic leaders were becoming more circumspect with politicians who take campaigns to religious grounds.
He opined that politicians consider political gathering as veritable platform to reaching the electorate owing to the massive turn out of adherents at religious centres.
“In Nigeria, we have large congregations, which will naturally attract politicians; politicians will go anywhere there is crowd. There have been attempts (to turn gathering of Muslim faithful to political rally), but I think so many of us are much more circumspect and that is why you don’t read about high flying endorsements that smack pecuniary interest (at Muslim setting),” he noted.
Sheik Ahmad said that although allowing politicians to interact with religious faithful about their programmes and policies might not be out of place, adding, however, that Nigeria’s peculiar nature called for caution. “Ordinarily, I don’t see it as an issue, but in our situation it takes on added things because we are in a society that is already being polarized by so many forces – religion, ethnicity and enlightened self interest.
“It is not healthy whether within the church or the mosque, because there are people who support different political parties and if it should be so, people should be free to express themselves and make their choice to associate, whoever they think will serve their interest best,” he said.
The national missioner of Ansar Ud-Deen Society of Nigeria also condemned the practice where religious leaders openly declare their support for candidates or political parties, declaring that such practice is capable of polarizing the country further.
“I don’t think religious leaders should endorse any candidate. I think rather than that, they should create a platform for flag bearers of political parties to interact with their congregations so that people will be able to ask questions on what difference they intend to make and then the people should be left to decide. People who go to mosques and churches are Nigerians; they have the rights to choose their leaders. They should not be excluded. The issue is that religion should not be at the service of politicians and religious leaders must be wary of being openly partisan.
“What is happening today in our country shows that some people who claim to be men of God are not truly men of God. Some people claim to hear from God, but they only hear from the devil and we should be wary of them because people who claimed to be men of God have predicted elections which have gone the other way. So, people can become disenchanted and lose faith, not only in these religious leaders, but also even in the religion itself. That is why people must be very careful and anything that will further divide and polarize us, religious leaders must avoid it,” the Muslim leader admonished.
Speaking in the same vein, the General Overseer, Firstlove Assembly, Rumuokwuta, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Pastor Simeon Afolabi, deplored the practice where politicians only find time to interact with religious faithful during electioneering.
He called on them to cultivate the habit of having personal relationship with God and not only resort to Him when seeking political offices. “I think seeking prayers in churches should not be restricted to when people are seeking political positions. God is not ‘jinnee’ that you expect to do your will. I would expect politicians who do not know God, not to crash into God’s programmes. There is need to have a personal relationship with God before now,” he admonished.
On his part, the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of the Enugu and Bishop of the Diocese of Enugu, Anglican Communion, His Grace, Most Reverend Emmanuel Chukwuma, warned church leaders against encouraging politicians to use the church as campaign grounds, saying it is dangerous and causes ill feeling among members of the congregation who have different political affiliations.
His words: “It is not to be encouraged because there are different people with different political interests in the church. So, we must not give room for any political aspirant to come to the church to campaign. All we need to do is to pray for them and to ask them be honest as they go about their campaigns. The church is not a place for political campaigns, so anybody who encourages that is partisan. And church leaders are not supposed to be partisan.
“But you can have a personal interest and you can discuss anything about that outside the church, but not in the church really. The way things are going, one can have interest in a political party, but that does not mean that you should give room for anybody to take the microphone and begin to campaign in the church. That is partisanship.
And that was what led to what happened in the Adoration Ministry, Enugu, where Mbaka lost his head. If not so, I don’t see why he should give people the microphone and start forcing them to give something to his church. Church leaders must be very careful so they will not be lured by monetary gifts to pray for politicians.
“We are not prayer contractors. If anybody wants to help the church it is voluntary; you give towards the projects of the church and go away, not to say that the church should pray for you because you gave. Prayers cannot be bought and people should desist from that. And no pastor or church leader should be seeing unnecessary prophecy or visions for these politicians. It is dangerous and deceitful. Let’s just pray for our people and ask God for good governance.
“We should pray that people who want to serve the country will come with sacrificial spirits. Our concern should not be about political parties; it should be about the preparedness of the people who are coming to serve the people and take Nigeria to greater glory. That should be our message. So, nobody should turn the church into a ground for political campaigns. It is dangerous, it is divisive and it can also cause ill feelings among members who belong to different political parties.”
Archbishop Chukwuma, however, stressed that while churches should encourage their members to join politics, they should not allow them to come to the church to campaign.
He said: “Politics is not bad, but the way it is played in our country. So, Christians should not desist from doing politics because if they are sincere in their politics, they will transform the atmosphere of politics. But when they are not there, the unrighteous will take up the throne and continue to rule the righteous. So, we enjoin our members to join political parties and vie for political positions and we will be praying to God to grant them those positions.
“But you should not come to the church to canvass for support. You can only come there to ask us to be praying for you, for God’s will to be done in your life. That’s all. You can’t use the church as a campaign ground; that is not accepted. If anybody tries it in my church, I will seize the microphone and stop the person.”
Also Bishop Ransome Bello, the presiding Bishop of Calvary Life Assembly Kano, on his own part, said that although there was nothing wrong with politicians going to religious settings for prayers, religious leaders should be cautioned against giving politicians the freedom to turn their meetings into campaign ground.
“The church is a segment of the Nigerian population, so it’s not strange if politicians take their campaigns to religious gatherings. Depending on the type or nature of gatherings, nevertheless, I don’t think it is the best for a minister or a church to allow his meeting turned into a campaign ground for political parties. I pray for all the politicians who come to me, but that doesn’t translate into any form of endorsement. It is a disservice to the church as religious leaders desire financial gains in exchange for endorsement,” he said.
In his reaction, Rev. George Shoboyede, founder and presiding pastor, Path to Righteousness Evangelical Mission, Ota, Ogun State, argued that since no leadership is enthroned without God’s consent, men of God should not be condemned for giving politicians the privilege of reaching out to their congregations to canvass for support.
He maintained that such platform is of mutual benefit to both parties as the congregations are given the opportunity to express their expectations and disappointments, as the case may be to their leaders.
On the practice where men of God openly declare support for politicians, Rev Shoboyede said, “Do men of God have the right to vote? If they have the right to vote during elections, then they should be free to express their support for candidate of their choice whether in the open or within the confines of their room or church.
What I will not support is a situation where a religious leader mandates his members to support a particular candidate or political party.”
Pastor Nkwocha Okwuchi John, a historian and Founding Pastor, Days of Favour Bible Church in his reaction said politicians seek endorsement from men of God with the mindset that they (religious leaders) have some level of influence on their followers.
“Ninety-nine per cent of Nigerians are religious either as Christians or Muslims, so the religious leaders have ways of influencing them. These politicians go to them to seek endorsement so they can influence their members to vote for them, but that is not the right thing. The second reason is that in Nigeria now, everybody is becoming conscious of God and for that, even if you are an idol worshipper, you will like to pretend to either be a Christian or a Muslim, if not you will be seen as an occultic person canvassing for votes.”