The trouble with ethno-religious politics is that citizens who identify with a religious faith are forced to live in fear. It does not matter where they are in this country. Anyone can be killed because they profess to be Christian, Muslim, and traditional religion worshipper. It is a sobering thought. Recently, this reality dawned on family members who survived the Owo Catholic Church massacre. The parents of Deborah Samuel know this. The husband of a Muslim woman and her four children recently killed somewhere in the Southeast can attest to it. So do relations of commercial motorcyclists who were killed, and their bodies set on fire at roadsides in Abuja and Lagos. The fear and anxiety are real and palpable.
Nigerians are gradually acclimatizing to two types of fear that demonstrate our growing loss of religious freedom. One is the fear of violence perpetrated inside faith groups, Christian-on-Christian and Muslim- on-Muslim violence. The other is fear of using faith group ideology to visit violence on the wider community or society of multi-faith people. This can be inter-faith conflicts or associated violence. They could also be violence from fanatics struggling to stamp ethno-religious character on Nigerian politics. I see its features at the national and village or community levels in my country.
Here is a local community example. I returned to my hometown the other day to discover that our landmark forest grove was decimated. This ancient grove hid the altar and shrine of Ani, the earth god, behind the town’s Eke Market Square. As kids, we variously identified this forest as Ofia Eke (Eke Forest) or Ofia Ani (Ani Forest). Being predominantly farmers, the Igbo understandably reserve a certain reverence for Ani, the earth. Ani provides them a platform to work and play, grows the food they eat, hosts the water they drink, and welcomes their remains when they leave the earth. Like Jews, Ani is not God. It is rather an altar that our ancestors erected to offer sacrifice to God wherever they chose to settle. Every such altar is housed in a shrine and protected by sacred forest groves where the spirits inhabit. Or so my father told me.
My father should know. He was a traditional religion worshipper. He explained to me at length why, among the Igbo, every shrine must have a forest grove. What our forefathers probably didn’t know was that they serendipitously understood how nature works. Today, science teaches us that trees (and forests) give humans oxygen, store carbon, stabilize the soil, and shelter wildlife. Without forests and trees, life on earth will literally cease. Like land, our fathers valued forests as well. Forests reared wild animals they hunted for food, discharged nutrients to regenerate the soil, and provided materials to fashion tools and make shelter. Both in their farming systems and their religious practices, our forefathers understood nature, even when they were not scientists. For us, science assisted to appreciate things like my hometown’s forest grove, the reason for my alarm and disgust at its stripping.
No one owned up to felling the trees or setting the Ani Forest grove on fire during the harmattan. But this is not the point of this story. As I boiled with anger over the damage, I noticed that the more fervent Christians in my small group were “eyeing me one-kind.” This made me remember that Christian violence against traditional religious worshippers is yet to abate. Although the grove in question is not an “evil forest,” overzealous Christians appeared happy with the denudation. The assault against forest
groves in my hometown was complete; ofia eke was the last bastion of Christian angst. Ironically, white missionaries who converted African Christians were more restrained. They interrogated indigenous religious practices and targeted for elimination only those that debased the dignity of the human person. In contrast, today’s overzealous pastors organize crusades and use them to destroy religious and cultural artefacts in our communities.
Christian violence against traditional religion, and our culture, is preponderant in the eastern parts of the country where I come from. I have yet to study how traditional religious worshippers are treated outside the Igbo areas in southeast and south-south. What happens today is an example of inter-faith politics. A few Christian leaders and their overzealous followers refuse to follow the examples of those who brought the religion to us. Instead, they set about uprooting and throwing away relics of alternative religious beliefs. It does not matter if these babies are the people’s invaluable culture and heritage.
Within the Christian churches themselves, another set of violence is visited on poor and struggling members. Growing up as a Catholic, the only “forced” contribution we were required to make was the Annual Missionary Contribution (AMC). Each parishioner was given a card where annual token contributions for church evangelization were recorded. That was all. You showed up in church on Sunday to offer another token that will be collected to help the pastor feed and clothe himself. The only serious Church contribution was done during the annual harvests. The harvests were however not the pastors’ affair. Parishioners themselves organize the contributions, usually for a development project in the Church. The parish priest may encourage and pray for harvest participants but otherwise looks on from afar. These are community projects since the priests must eventually leave the parish after serving for a while.
These days, Christian pastors either own or behave like owners of the church and its harvest offerings. They take active part in the annual harvest. Those not confident of their persuasive powers invite powerful orators to assist them unlock the wallets of their flock. The joke is always on the poor, some of whom are sweet-talked or cajoled to make pledges. The poor are also encouraged to use their pledges to “challenge God.” Some orators claim that without this challenge, God will ignore them to bless only those with “more faith.” I used to be a pledge victim. Sadly, my expectations of God’s Naira rain were always dashed each time I made a pledge. I have since learnt my lesson; these days, I only give from what I have, thank you. And the numbing fear that I will suffer for failing to fulfill a “pledge to God” is no longer there.
This type of religious politics targets the poor in the Christian Church. In playing this politics, more than one pastor has railed against those who do not give tithes, suggesting that hellfire awaited them. Consequently, many churches end the harvest year with more pledges than cash donations. Pledgers whose expectations of a Naira rain are dashed will forever be made to live in fear of their “promise to God.” Their aggravation does not end there. As soon as the harvest is over, pastors return to regular tithes, seed offerings, and other tactics of exploitation. This is the politics of better life in the Church. It feeds on the fear of eternal damnation in the hereafter and on divine promises of abundance in the here and now. This type of religious politics exploits the fear of life in the two worlds and uses it to prey on the poor.
Religion is a realization that there is life after life and how the faithful must live on earth to enjoy both worlds. For every religion, this fear (or realization) can be weaponized to install oppression and injustice in the polity. It occurs each time adherents are encouraged to violently fulfil what they are taught as a faith duty or calling. Once this happens, we are presented with an inter-faith conflict. Society however survives the onslaught because the State exists to moderate extreme religious tendencies. We turn to the State to arrest, frustrate, and contain criminal elements who hide behind religion to sponsor or visit violence on others. This presupposes that the State must stay above the (religious) fray to be able to act out its role as impartial defender of society’s weak and oppressed.
The state is however not an amorphous, undefined entity or being. The biggest symbol of the State is the leader – the local government chairman, the state governor, or the president of the country. In our political setting where inter-faith violence has now been consolidated through our series of luckless leadership, the least we expect is that those who seek to rule must stay away from being associated with anything that will raise even the slightest of doubt about religion being a factor in their ascendency. Trouble erupts when politicians, acting alone in selfish interests or egged on by their faith congregation and its leadership, promote a faith doctrine in their public engagements. There are examples that make those who care about this country to forcibly reject any such tendency exhibited by power-seeking politicians.
At the grassroots level, we see examples of overzealous Christian pastors who destroy traditional worshippers’ groves. Within the same faith, we see Sunni Muslims who will not share a prayer mat with Shi’a converts. At the state level, we see leaders deploy religious politics to promote nepotism and discrimination as features of their rule. We also see ordinary citizens turn into terrorists, insurgents, bandits, and kidnappers to visit violence on the innocent. These days, they also profess to act in the name of God. Religious fanatics who bombed churches and massacred Christians and Muslims claim that they acted in God’s name. Therefore, religion has become an issue in today’s politics of Nigeria.
I argued elsewhere that religion was not an issue with our founding fathers. It may have been with the parochial among them, but they never brought it into the public sphere. Religious politics is therefore a recent phenomenon. Its root may be found in President Muhammadu Buhari’s 12-year power struggle. He recognized all along that his faith activism would be an issue if he embraced a same-faith ticket. Unfortunately, this was as far as his good faith and honest appraisal carried him. He certainly did not water the grounds for religious tolerance to return and thrive, even when he did not overtly promote the opposite. The heightened brutal religious killings in homes, churches, highways, schools, and military barracks during his tenure speak to how intolerant of one another we became as a nation.
Under the Buhari Presidency, powermongers exploited ethno-religious politics and looked away as nepotism, corruption, violence, and discrimination overwhelmed Nigeria. It is fear of the identity politics they played that promotes the current national anxiety. Nowhere else is this anxiety more acute than in the presentation of a same-faith leadership ticket for the nation. Good people are saying, Never Again. Like those more fervent Christians of my hometown, we shall continue to “eye dem one-kind.”