Before the arrival of Missionary Religions (Christianity and Islam), Nigerians were strict adherents of the African Traditional Religion, which formed an integral base of our civilisation and a significant denominator of our coexistence. However, over the years, we have embraced with zeal these missionary Religions, which have been exploited as a divisive tool for consolidating power. And religious leaders have been instrumental in perpetuating this political hoax, making it a huge success.
What exact roles should Nigeria’s religious leaders play in politics? This article discusses this in detail.
One might often hear the phrase “politics is a dirty game” thrown about. And that’s why many believe religious leaders should stay clear of political theatrics.
However, many religious leaders have been seen making political prophecies. In contrast, others have made their sanctuaries a platform for politicians, raising questions about what roles religious leaders should play.
Who are religious leaders?
These people have a following due to their positions of authority within their respective religious groups. As a result, they have earned great acclaim and respect as leaders in the religious framework.
According to a 2018 estimate in the CIA’s The World Factbook, around 53.5% of the population identifies as Muslim, 45.9% as Christian (10.6% as Roman Catholic, 35.3% as other Christian), and 0.6% as other religions. Therefore, bishops, imams, pastors, shepherds, or other titles may be used to describe the religious leaders of these groups.
The country’s religious landscape heavily influences politics in Nigeria. In the past, under the African Traditional Religion, spiritual leaders acted as impartial arbiters of who gets power. However, this has changed as many religious leaders have become increasingly inflexible in their views on national politics.
While many have justified their increased interest in politics, others have questioned their roles. Some people believe that religious leaders should exclusively advise on matters of faith. They’re expected to make no dictates as to who becomes what.
Others have refuted this view, arguing that religious leaders should use their influence to persuade the public to vote for “supposedly credible” politicians. That is why they’re called shepherds.
This raises the question: shouldn’t there be a gulf between religion and politics?
This is quite debatable, and it’s imperative to explore the substance of both arguments. While it’s contentious to propose that religious leaders stay away from politics, the bone of contention over the years has been the extent to which they should participate in politics.
Despite the common perception that Nigeria is a secular nation, it is characterised by spiritual punctuations that significantly impact its political direction. For example, in Nigeria, religious and ethnic affiliations have been key influences in determining who has held political power since the country’s independence in 1960.
While this is being done as a mark of equity, the complexities of the issues involved are nonetheless unsettling. For instance, in the northern part of Nigeria, religious leaders are influential and hold sway over the actions of their followers.
Often, their followers dance to their tunes regarding political issues. Hence, politicians do everything possible to curry favour in preparation for public office.
Over the years, religious leaders involved in politics have seen their integrity questioned. Except when they take a stance aligned with the majority’s wishes, they are considered biased, complicating their roles.
Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Sokoto Anglican Diocese is one of Nigeria’s best-known clergymen. Still, his outspoken criticism of each of Nigeria’s subsequent administrations has earned him a less-than-stellar reputation among the country’s political elite.
To one political party, he is a friend; to others, he is an opponent, depending on the ideology he espouses. Islamic leaders in Nigeria, such as Sheik Gumi, have been criticised for taking a hard stance on political issues, with many even labelling him a terrorist and propagandist. This is the dire state of Nigerian politics.
With the reactions that have trailed the activities of religious leaders in the past, there seems to be no compromise on what is expected of religious leaders.
Are religious leaders’ roles in politics needful?
The country’s religious leaders have come under fire for allegedly being mute on pressing social issues. However, many think they should speak out more strongly on political issues and take on more visible positions.
In more recent times, religious leaders are now diplomatically rooting for candidates they consider suitable for the nation. In addition, many politicians now frequently make covert campaign stops at places of worship for subtle endorsements. The general belief is that religious houses are safe havens for many people, and worshippers have a bias when politicians identify with their faith community.
As a result, if religious leaders allow politicians to use their platforms, going the extra mile to make endorsements isn’t a bad idea. Many religious leaders now give political prophecies on who will become what. Besides, a shepherd is expected to guide his flock. So, teaching your followers to support a candidate or party is no crime.
As it stands, the country is deeply split along religious lines. Can we afford to polarise the political system with meaningless endorsements further? Instead, every eligible Nigerian citizen should have the right to cast a ballot for the candidate they believe is best suited to guide their country to prosperity.
It seems like a religious con for a spiritual leader to influence their congregation to vote for a specific candidate. But unfortunately, we have seen religious figures in the past end up endorsing politicians who are frauds.
To continue down that route would be a religious gamble. Religious leaders should be known for their inclusiveness and efforts to establish peace in their communities. However, encouraging their followers to vote for any specific candidate contradicts these ideals.
What, then, should be their role?
Leaders in the religious community should be aware of the diversity of their congregation. Backing one political party or candidate over another would only exacerbate existing political system divisions.
Therefore, it is crucial for religious leaders to consistently stress to their adherents the importance of living up to the standards set out by their respective religions.
Educating and rehabilitating the mentality of their followers consistently would go a long way toward influencing the kind of social shifts and, by implication. These voting patterns would bring about the necessary political reforms.