Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first Africa-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet.
Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica
Both the social media and many legacy media outlets were united in their report and verdict on a significant recent event. Majority of the untidy assemblage of ‘clergy’ that thronged Aso Rock Villa to grace the unveiling of Mr. Kassim Shettima as Mr. Bola Tinubu’s presidential running mate for 2023 were fake. Interestingly, the public was hardly shocked about the travesty, being so used to a political class that is endlessly resourceful in its creativity for good and for ill.
An untidy pageant of strangely clad ‘clerics’ were gathered for an entertainment tour of Aso Rock. Most of the hirelings were in such a hurry to don their costumes for the show that they dressed up in a car park nearby. Like in Restoration comedy, they wore a motley of ill fitting costumes, some rented and others hurriedly knocked together by roadside tailors. It was a festival of colours: brilliant red, screaming purple, deep ocean blue, sunflower yellow and even mourning black all, competed for prominence in the costumes of these rented bishops of darkness. They were all ‘unknown’ men of God summoned to an urgent earthly mission of playing holy men for less than a day in return for a handsome payout of political cash. In a country that has become world famous for ‘unknown gunmen’, unknown bandits as well as sundry other tribes of troublemakers, the addition of fake bishops and unknown men of God is only a comic addition to an unfolding national tragedy.
The public presentation of Mr. Tinubu’s running mate should ordinarily have gone unnoticed. Having named Mr. Shettima as his choice, the Tinubu campaign should have left the matter to rest in the hope that the anxiety over faith would burn out over time. But someone had a better idea and a business proposition. The anointed prince’ of a nebulous Muslim-Muslim ticket needed to be unveiled despite having been named to an anxious nation weeks earlier. Why ‘unveil’ a man that is already very well known? The simplistic logic was not far fetched. Flood the ‘unveiling’ event with fake Christian men of God to create the dubious impression that Mr. Shettima’s choice is acceptable to Christian’s as well.
An indiscriminate recruitment drive yielded a mixed bag of Okada riders, mechanics, jobless housewives, ladies of the night and motor park touts. Their recruiters had improvised clerical gear on the ready: choristers gowns, cheap school graduation gowns, left over Father Christmas apparel etc. Being so garishly attired, the chorus was chaperoned into the hallowed chambers of the presidential villa as ‘Christian clerics’ from across the country massed in solidarity with the APC presidential ticket. President Buhari probably needed and possibly desired this uniform faith ticket. An impressed President Buhari was moved to enter a prophetic mode. Predictably, he prophesied a landslide victory for his APC in the 2023 elections. No one can blame the president for partaking in the inspirational moment especially when surrounded by such a powerful and colourful assemblage of ‘Christian’ clerics for full effect.
Thank God for the social media and the age of ‘a camera in every hand’. The backstage footage of the scam was in full display. Soon enough, the foolish scam began to unravel. The cast of make believe priesthood had fulfilled their obligation under the contract. They had acted their roles up to the presidential dais. It was time to get paid by the political contractors who engaged them. It was also time to shed the costumes of fakery.
From the revelations of the actors, each bishop or pastor was hired at an agreed sun of N100,000. But the contractors and crowd rent merchants could only pay up N30,000-N40,000! When the fake men of God threatened earthly mayhem near the citadel of power, the political contractors evaporated! The actor shed their borrowed garbs and grumbled aloud as they dispersed. Shorn of their costumes, the carpenters, Keke operators, women of the night, Okada riders and small time gangsters and thugs melted back into the anonymous crowd of hunger and hopelessness from which they emerged in the first place.
The entire incident is just another open parade of political bad manners. In a sense, the sacrilege that just took place in Abuja is merely an opening act in what might become commonplace in the dramatic run up to the 2023 election. Professional crowd renters will get even more creative. In the past, they have been known to supply fake policemen, fake soldiers and fake electoral officials during elections. The addition of fake bishops was a cake walk in the park!
Questions and concerns have come tumbling in from across the nation. Where does political rascality stop and respect for the sensitivities of fellow citizens begin? Is there not a minimum level of civility and decorum that we should expect from those who rule us or aspire to lead us? The enlightened public can debate these troubling questions endlessly as we digest the recent abomination committed as part of the Abuja unveiling of Mr. Kassim Shettima as Mr Bola Tinubu’s running mate. Never before had bad politics brazenly strolled into the tinder zone of faith in our nation as on this occasion. To rent a motley squad of rascals under a false identity and chaperon them into the presidential villa is a reckless breach of national security. It is indeed a needless trifling with matters that touch the hearts and minds of many citizens. To deliberately clad the mixed bag of persons of doubtful livelihood as fake Christian clergy and ferry them, past all that security cordon, into the revered confines of Aso Rock is further travesty and brazen disrespect for the institution quartered in the Villa. To commit these heinous acts in the name of politics leaves the authors’ intentions open to severe doubt and entitles them to universal rebuke.
This reconstruction of the public presentation and unveiling ceremony of the APC vice presidential candidate contains nearly everything wrong with Nigeria’s constant political tinkering with religion. For a gamut of understandable reasons, Mr. Tinubu’s option for a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket was bound to generate more heat than light. The way out of that pregnant choice is not to manufacture an across board acceptability that does not exist. The way out is to quickly engineer a national elite consensus on the necessity for more effective good governance over and above religious, ethnic and other factional considerations. The easier way out for Mr. Tinubu is to go all out during the campaigns to promise a systematic walk back and dismantling of the divisive, religion driven policies of the outgoing Buhari government. A promise to review lopsided public sector appointments would be nearer the mark than the kind of silly political drama that took place in Abuja last week. Even then, the foolish act of creating a solidarity of non existent clerics needs to be addressed and roundly condemned for what it is.
First, it is a blatant disregard and disrespect for the feelings of the nation’s Christian community. Anxiety to appear politically correct on the matter of a Muslim-Muslim ticket is a normal political malady. In a nation so suffused with religion and superstition, the reactions of the public, especially the Christians, is understandable but can be allayed. But you do not stage a marionette show to convey an impression of something that does not exist. What has just happened is an open mockery of a serious matter of faith which defines a very significant section of the national population.
It is easy to dole out mounds of cash and purchase any group of political tools. But there ought to be a limit to the growing tradition of transactional politics when it comes to sensitive issues like the faith and beliefs of people. Our new tradition of transactional politics reached an industrial peak during the recent presidential nomination conventions of the two dominant parties. Politicians have been known to deploy cash to purchase favorable outcomes including votes and the support of vital constituencies. But to purchase a collection of fake Christian clerics to score a political point is to degrade the sensibilities of well meaning citizens and believers of one faith.
In an election year, all manner of political jobbers would be available for hire. More so, the desperate economic conditions of today have created a ready market for practically every conceivable undertaking. People are broke and hungry. It was therefore easy to find any number of miscreants or even some low level pastors and cash strapped citizens to be decorated as clergy for the Shettima unveiling. But why the desperation to find clergy men and women by all means? After all, Shettima was not being unveiled as a Christian ambassador or representative of the Holy See! The Christian Association of Nigerian (CAN) has justifiably castigated the antics of the APC while of course disowning the sundry miscreants who posed as clergy.
It is of course regrettably true that the calling of priesthood among Nigerian Christians has been serially bastardized and trivialized by the recklessness of a few bad eggs. It is true that nearly every street side miscreant who establishes a church in his living room quickly anoints himself pastor, bishop, general overseer or even pope!
It is true that religion cannot be regulated like banks or joint stock companies in a free society. A mushrooming of Christian factions, sects, denominations and sub denominations has come with an efflorescence of titles and hierarchies sometimes too large to to keep up with.
A travesty like the invasions of politics into religion is possible only because of the indiscriminate commercialization of religion. Faith has become a merchandise just as churches have become unregulated exploitative sole proprietorships. Denominations especially in the Pentecostal variety have become more like brands with pastors as salesmen and marketers. There is a raging competition among a new breed of faith entrepreneurs on ownership of vast real estate, private jets, retinue of expensive automobiles and cross border enterprises and chains of companies. Taken together, the blurring of the dividing line between faith and the empire of profit has conferred on Christian clerics a certain amount of financial and political clout that is hard to ignore or combat.
The corresponding implication for the traditional division between church and state has been horrendous. The state has invaded the church just as much as mosques and churches have cornered the commanding posts of the state. By the nature of their trade, politicians like to dominate every inch of space. What they cannot dominate, they try to invade, pollute or uproot. Every politician hungry for apex power seeks out the owners of the most influential Pentecostal super churches for endorsement or ‘blessings’. What they seek is of course vast demographics of voters and donors of cash.
Having taken the risk of a Muslim-Muslim ticket, Mr. Tinubu and his party need to get on with the urgent task of building first, an elite consensus on the primacy of delivering credible and impartial governance. That is the best way of submerging the emphasis on religion and ethnicity in our polity. But even then, those citizens who remain skeptical about the potential abuses of a single faith ticket are well within their right.
It is risky for Tinubu and the APC to forget that they are in a contest for power. Other contenders have chosen a different type of ticket. Only the voters will ultimately decide on the wisdom or foolishness of a Muslim-Muslim ticket in today’s Nigeria.