Almost exactly nine years ago this month I wrote the article with the title above on these pages (precisely on March 16, 2005) in reaction to the composition by President Olusegun Obasanjo of his national conference. With President Goodluck Jonathan’s version, history – the manipulation of religion for power – seems, except for the change in personnel, to have merely repeated itself. Indeed only worse; the in-your-face brazenness of the student, compared to his now estranged master, in defending the indefensible margin of Christians (309 out of 497, i.e. about 62%) to Muslims (184, i.e. about 37%) in the composition of his conference in a country where, according to the 2014 usually reliable CIA Factbook, the ratio of Muslims to Christians to others is 50:40:10, truly boggles the mind.
The controversial issue of the religious composition of this country is a subject matter for probably another day. For today the following is an abridged version of what I wrote nine years ago for its relevance to President Jonathan’s national conference:-
The controversy surrounding the composition of the leadership and membership of the National Political Reform Conference has once again brought to the fore the importance of the mass media in shaping public opinion and in policy making and implementation. When President Olusegun Obasanjo decided to make virtually the entire leadership of the NPRC Christian and also decided to give them a nearly two thirds majority edge over Muslims in its membership in a country he himself says is 50:50 Muslim/Christian, he knew he could count on the conspiratorial silence, if not the support, of most of the Nigerian mass media in his flagrant breach of the same Nigerian Constitution he has sworn to defend. Clearly the president has not been disappointed. Three weeks into the Conference, there has been a deafening silence from most of the Nigerian mass media over the president’s blatant act of injustice.
Worse still, those of us who have dared to complain about this injustice are being portrayed as unreasonable. The Secretary of the Conference, my good friend Reverend Father Mathew Hassan Kukah, himself an object of the protest, albeit not over his person, has even dismissed the protesters as “irresponsible”. To which another friend, but this time a scion of the Hausa-Fulani ruling family in Kano, Lamido Sanusi Lamido, has in effect said, Amen. “Kukah”, he said in his trenchant defence of the reverend father in the Daily Trust of last Monday, “is absolutely correct. It is irresponsible”.
Sanusi said his intervention was to stop the debate over the composition of the NPRC from degenerating into a purely religious affair. “An urgent Muslim intervention,” he said, “is required before the debate becomes one between Muslims and Christians.”
Sam Ndah-Isaiah, the editor-in-chief of Leadership, was correct in his argument in his article last Monday, titled Seeing through the president’s mischief, that the president did what he did to divide and rule Nigeria, the North in particular. Like Sanusi, Sam was, however, wrong to conclude that the proper response to the president’s mischief was to have kept quiet, lest he achieved his objective. “Many of those talking today,” said Sam, “have made the president’s day. They have helped him achieve his objective. The people are now divided, helped by the legitimate anger of those protesting.”
Both Sanusi and Sam seem to assume that national unity is an end in itself and so no amount of injustice can justify any act that undermines it. The huge irony of this assumption, at least on Sanusi’s part as Father Kukah’s defence attorney, is that Kukah himself does not share it. On the contrary he seems to detest it with a passion. “God,” he said the other day in a paper he presented last year at the Conference on Peace organized by the Northern Governors’ Forum, “is a God of justice and therefore cannot let injustice into His Sanctuary. We are under no obligation to promote peace, if that peace is not founded on justice…”
Father Kukah went on in that paper to say whereas the duty of religious leaders is to point out the right way, that of politicians is to provide the vehicles to take us to our destination. And if politicians provide rickety vehicles, religious leaders, he said, have a duty to raise hell against such a contraption. No fair-minded person, not even Sanusi in spite of the passion of his intervention, can say that the architecture and structure of the vehicle Obasanjo has provided for the National Conference are sound.
Sanusi questions the assumption that “there is something like a ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’ position in a national Conference…” He questions the assumption on the grounds that there are divisions within the religions themselves. Surely, however, Sanusi knows that divisions within people of the same faith, tribe or region, has never stopped them from having common positions on issues that are basic to their identities. For example, no Muslim, whether he is Maliki, Shafi’i, Hannafi or Hambali, or whatever, will reject Sharia or subscribe to the doctrine of secularity.
In case Sanusi is not aware, one of the hidden agenda of the convener of the conference is to finally banish so-called political Sharia from the Constitution, through some sleigh-of-hand. For, among the amendments a committee under Professor Jerry Gana, the president’s political adviser, is proposing there is one which says “If any other law, customary or religious practice is inconsistent with the previsions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void”. This amendment is meant to replace section 1 (3) of the existing constitution. The difference is the seemingly innocuous phrase “customary or religion practice”, a phrase that has been smuggled into the provision behind the back of the constitutional reform committee chaired by Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu.
Even though a Muslim cannot reject Sharia as long as he believes in Islam, such a Muslim member of the Conference may or may not stand up for so-called political Sharia. But any Muslim member would be foolish to think that a non-Muslim member of the Conference will go out of his way to defend a Muslim’s cardinal belief in Sharia.
“Many Muslim Northerners, the present writer included,” says Sanusi, “do not care about the religious identity of competent Nigerians appointed to an office whatsoever, SO LONG AS THEY CONSIDER THEIR CONSTITUENCY TO BE THE WHOLE NATION IN THE CONDUCT OF THEIR OFFICIAL FUNCTIONS” (Emphasis mine).
Sanusi is right that religion, or for that matter, region or tribe, ideally should not matter in such things. But he himself has entered a sensible caveat about the behaviour of public officials. He has also admitted that there is no such thing as an objective person. Invariably we are objective only to the extent that we know we cannot get away with our prejudices. The way the National Conference was composed, the majority can easily get away with their prejudices.
This is why our Constitutions since 1979 have emphasized the importance of government reflecting the federal character of the nation in its conduct and composition. The relevant section in all those constitutions obligates government to “(ensure) that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in the government or any of its agencies.”
It bears repeating that Obasanjo blatantly violated this provision as far as the religious character of this country is concerned and it amounts to adding insult to injury for anyone to say those who have complained about this injustice are being unreasonable or even irresponsible.
Before now when the Christian leadership, specifically the then Archbishop, now Cardinal, Olubunmi Okogie and Primate Sunday Mbang, as former national presidents of the Christian Association of Nigeria, used to complain – sometimes justifiably, sometimes not, as we shall see next week when, God willing, I write on the issue of our next census – that Christians were being discriminated against, no one ever called them irresponsible.
When The Guardian wrote an editorial on October 7, 1992, saying that the presidential primaries that year under General Ibrahim Babangida’s transition were unacceptable because “the two presidential candidates that will emerge at the end of the day are from the same part of the country – the Far North… This is disturbing given the national composition of the country,” no one said the newspaper was irresponsible.
Last but by no means the least, when Father Kukah himself said the actions of Obasanjo in the wake of the Kaduna religions riots of 2000 and the Plateau crisis of last year were prejudicial to Christians in his article Plateau: State of Emergency as a metaphor in The Guardian of May 30, 2004, no one said he was irresponsible. Needless to say he himself could not have seen his protest as irresponsible or even unreasonable.
Similarly when he said in the same article that Obasanjo was wrong to mix religion with politics – something which I have said elsewhere is not necessarily true depending on how you mix the two – no one said he was irresponsible. “Had General Obasanjo declared himself a born-again Christian and gone back to the farm,” said Kukah, “that would have been no problem. But to do so and then proceed to seek political power was bound to create a problem for religion and the country, especially within the Muslim population.”
In the last six years Obasanjo has mixed religion and politics in the most cynical and self-serving way, culminating in his blatantly lopsided composition of the leadership and membership of the National Conference. In the last few days he has tried to redress one but has done nothing about the other. It is unreasonable to blame those who feel aggrieved by such an insensitive act for complaining, simply because the unity and peace of the country must be maintained.
But then as Malcolm X once said, “If you are not careful the media will have you hating the people who are oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”