On Saturday, when Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of Christ, others affectionately called Daddy GO, asked his church members to become active members of political parties, participate at local levels, and come 2019, the church would use its population to influence the political tide, he was doing two things: One, winding the national Christian public against their leaders; two, sending a message to the political class that he would no longer play coy in the political game.
Nigerian Christians are already actively involved in politics and one of Pastor Adeboye’s own, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, is the Vice-President. His Redemption Camp is a Mecca of sorts and politicians seeking his validation throng there monthly. The last administration not only granted the RCCG import waivers, Pastor Adeboye also enjoyed a number of privileges. How much more influential can Christians be?
Some weeks ago, Pastor Adeboye was in Ekiti State and he praised the governor, Ayodele Fayose, for protecting his people from rampaging herdsmen. Such a commentary -in the context of Fayose’s oppositional politics, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration failure to display any urgency on the problem, and other governors’ inability to at least promote any visible policy on securing their state against herdsmen attack- was not an innocent commendation or mere admiration for an astute politician, it was a sly rhetorical strategy. The import could not have been lost on the political class.
When Adeboye announced on Saturday that he would have to step aside from his leadership role due to a Not For Profit Organisations code that compels him to do so, he made sure he informed the audience that the government was meddling in church business and the result has been unhelpful. Predictably enough, there was an outrage. The pastor was suddenly posited as a helpless victim of an Islamist president who wants to reduce the influence of Christianity. Never mind that the controversial NFPO code was not written last night, yet a number of commentators seized the airwaves, whipped up sentiments all night, and cried that they were being persecuted like the early Christians who were thrown to lions.
Within 48 hours, the Federal Government had fired the FRC boss, Jim Obazee. The government could not even summon the decency to pretend that this was about something else, it simply kicked him out without an explanation. It left the public to weave strands of information that trickled down to them and arrive at a self-evident truth: power does not come from God; it is a commodity bartered by those who have the means.
In this case, Adeboye sold a threat, President Buhari purchased moral cowardice, but the currency of exchange was power.
Adeboye’s reluctance at relinquishing power is not particularly surprising. African leaders hold on to power because they fear becoming irrelevant; waking up and realising the world does not revolve around you can be a scary prospect. It explains why Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe refuses to live out the rest of his days in dignity of senescence; the late President Umaru Yar’Adua had to be propped up on his sick bed while hired ventriloquists voiced his thoughts; Nigerian governors leave office and hop straight into the Senate.
Some years ago, Pastor Adeboye himself was asked about his retirement and he responded that his successor was still in a “beer parlour.” Considering that the “beer parlour” is a place supposedly patronised by unredeemed sinners, his answer implied that whoever would take over from him had not even been converted, let alone started the long road towards leadership. By the way, now that the law has forced him to choose a successor, is Pastor Joseph Obayemi, who will succeed him, the one in the “beer parlour” or shall we look out for another?
What I find it hard to wrap my head around is how Buhari sacrificed whatever semblance of toga of dignity our bureaucratic institutions currently don on the altar of his 2019 re-election ambitions. We cannot disaggregate the politics of religion and its impact on election outcomes from what went down. While government officials can argue that they had to fire Obazee so as to stem religion-based rancour, the coincidence does not make it any less disgraceful. They have not only demoralised civil servants who still take their jobs seriously, they have also empowered the non-Christian public who may also want to test out the strength of their standing with Buhari.
To leave no one in doubt that the whole business was about the triumph of the church over the state, the Christian Association of Nigeria publicly thanked the President for getting rid of Obazee saying that they had warned him in private but he would not listen. The National Assembly itself is quivering with embarrassment and they are debating the issue. Even more troubling is the report in the media that Obazee was acting unilaterally, spurning the good sense to carry along his minister and other key figures. What could have spurred a public servant to want to take such a controversial decision without recourse to administration? A personal vendetta against his former pastor or he was driven to “activism” for a chance in the limelight? If Obazee had acted unilaterally in picking on the likes of Adeboye and the big men of God, would he have also unilaterally enforced the law if those pastors had refused to vacate office? Would he not have needed other agencies outside his immediate sphere of authority to act? How could he have disregarded the minister and still hope for institutional support?
Obazee himself claimed that only 89 out of more than 23,216 registered churches have complied with the provisions of the law. To ensure compliance across board with such a number would have been unwieldy. So, did Obazee imagine that if he started with the big pastors, the smaller ones would fall into place?
There should come a time when public servants should know how to deal with potentially explosive situations by resisting the temptation to spectacularise things. An example is the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an agency that lacks subtlety and takes causing a media daze as active corruption fighting. Obazee should have known the code would require cooperation and compromise on the part of the churches to be enforceable. This is because the code as it is applicable to churches, especially Pentecostal ones whose organisational character is different from the orthodox ones, is problematic. There is no way to enforce that law without raking up the sordid side of church politics. Obazee’s resorting to taking a more strident path on behalf of the law gave the man of God a leeway to claim to be a victim of an Islamising order and then turn the tables on him.
While I believe churches need regulations and oversight of their operations especially since they have a tax-exempt status, and I think the code in its entirety has many useful aspects which can guarantee financial accountability in non-profit organisations, I also think imposing a blanket law would upset a number of precarious balances that hold churches together. Like Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State, found out that when government tries to regulate religious activities, they end up muddling a number of issues; untangling them then requires they wade into issues that are not part of their secular mandate.
Finally, I think those who are expressing fear that if the big pastors are taken out of the picture, it would diminish Nigeria Christianity are wrong. They should stop blackmailing everyone in order to resist the change the law will necessarily precipitate. They should learn that the affability of power and aura these pastors exude are not limited to them singularly. With or without these pastors, the Church will thrive. Over the centuries, the Church survived Roman persecution, Islamic attacks, Enlightenment philosophy, and God-is-Dead era in Europe. The Church will survive Nigeria and Nigerians themselves, that is the truth. As the Bible puts it, most succinctly, even the gate of Hell shall not prevail.
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